Category Archives: Midwest Helicopters

Stories need telling

I posted this on a message board and then thought I’d expand on it a bit, so here it is, modified slightly with a bit of editing for clarity. My original was in response to someone who suggested that some stories shouldn’t be told. Of course, I took exception, as evidenced by my follow-up post, edited below.

Again — Maybe some stories don’t need to be told???

Actually, the stories do need to be told.

A lot of the stories are the background and history of some great helicopter companies that operated in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that are no longer around today. They and their employees pioneered inventions, techniques, operating standards and working conditions, some of which weren’t perhaps the greatest.

Some of the engineers went on to the early DOT and helped to eliminate hazardous and dangerous working conditions. Some pilots became fantastic flight instructors who had learned the hard way what worked and what didn’t work in a bush or mountain environment. They then did their best to pass on their accumulated first-hand experience and knowledge to student pilots. Many of us were trained by those guys and we’re alive today because of them.

I know for a fact I am.

The old apprentice engineer method would never have survived for so long had not experienced, dedicated maintenance people passed on the kind of knowledge that could never be picked up by attending a classroom and reading a book. Tom Murray comes immediately to mind, as do Ray Coursol, John Juke and Lloyd Mackenzie. Those are only a few of the ones I knew, but there are many, many others all across the country. Those days are long gone now, but such people all helped to make the business what it is today.

Midwest S55 landing at Moosonee - 1968

Midwest S55 landing at Moosonee – 1968

Here’s one example of a company: Midwest Helicopters. That was a pretty good outfit during its heyday. There were some fantastic employees, great engineers, a couple of real characters (I’m reminded of Klaus Lebrandt, Bill Henderson), and a few who didn’t matter, but that’s all water under the bridge now since the company has long disappeared. I’d like to see a website dedicated to that outfit. And I don’t mean the “we were a great company and some fools ruined it all for the rest of us” kind of website. I mean one that tells the stories. Those are much more interesting than “I’d better not tell this story about Fred or Ted or Bruce. He’s gone now and can’t refute it.” The people and the stories are what made the outfit interesting.

Top floor on the barge at Norway House - 1971

More nurses. Top floor on the barge at Norway House – 1971. Ken Fraser (in the blue cap) was the Admiral of the Fleet. It was all good fun.

Another example is Skyrotors. It’s heyday was during the Mid-Canada Line construction, but it operated into the early ’70s under Tom Cannon in Arnprior. Tom was a real character all by himself, and I’m sure there are many stories to be told about him, but he and his company are long gone now, and many of the former employees are getting on too, just like the rest of us.

There are many just like Midwest and Skyrotors – small, independent, localized for the most part – who were great to work for once you got past the somewhat “unusual” characters who managed or who worked for them. Still, that too is what made those companies what they were.

That doesn’t mean that we should go out and name names, but it does mean that if the story gets told in a responsible way, those who were there will recognize and remember, and those who weren’t will scratch their heads and wonder how the hell THAT happened. The rest of us will get a good laugh and perhaps remember some of the minor characters who played a role in it all.

Remembering the good times along with the bad, combined with the loss of those we worked with and knew and liked, is part of the history of the helicopter business in Canada. It’s a tough business, and it was especially so in those early years. I don’t think that telling the odd story, whether names are used or not, is a bad thing. It’s all in the presentation, and hopefully it will lead to a laugh and another story about somebody else we all knew and liked.

On the other hand, derogatory speculation is not a good thing. If you weren’t there, shut up and listen to the stories of the people who were. If you live long enough, grasshopper, you’ll have your own stories to tell, and you can twist those any way you choose when your time comes.

A peeler with a heart of gold

Midwest HelicoptersI spent some time apprenticing for Midwest Helicopters in Winnipeg. Their hanger was an old World War II vintage building, with a thick wooden roof and huge sliding doors. It was one of those buildings such that if it ever caught fire, nothing would prevent it from burning to the ground.

Just down the tarmac and a short walk away was the Winnipeg Flying Club, where Bruce K. and I would occasionally attend the bar for lunch. Like me, Bruce was a lowly apprentice. Unlike me, he had more experience. Sometimes Ken Wilson would tag along, just for the amusement factor.

Lloyd Mackenzie was Midwest’s chief engineer. His hobby — when he wasn’t trying to keep Bruce and me out of trouble — was Samoyed dogs. When Bruce and I spent a little more time than absolutely necessary enjoying lunch at the Flying Club, Lloyd would walk out onto the tarmac in his white shop coat and pace back and forth with his hands on his hips, searching for the troublemakers. When we marched past him on our way back into the hanger, he always had a remark to make, but he never gave us hell – even though we deserved it.

The Winnipeg Curling Club on Ness wasn’t that far from the airport, and once we heard that they had strippers doing lunch-time matinees, it was like trying to chase flies away from a cesspool. The three of us – Bruce, Ken and myself – would pile into Ken’s orange Judge and head on over to spend an hour or so applauding the girls. Eventually some of the dancers came to recognize us as regulars.

There was this one rather large-breasted young thing who took a shine to us one afternoon, probably because we were flinging fives or tens her way – then an unheard of amount of money. Or, perhaps it was because of the huge, thick, dark-rimmed glasses that she didn’t wear while she was dancing. Well, on her afternoon break we talked this poor, innocent, little thing into accompanying the three of us over to the Flying Club to finish up her afternoon with a refreshing drink or two.

She regaled us with a story about working her way through school by “dancing”, which we all thought was a pretty good thing on her part. The afternoon progressed, and from the Flying Club window we could see Lloyd checking his watch and looking up and down the tarmac, but there was no way in hell that we were going to leave the little damsel in distress.

Finally I had to take a washroom break. When I returned from the swamp I caught sight of the poor girl’s huge naked breasts splayed out on the table. The silly thing had pulled up her sweater and flopped them out on a bet. After that little bit of exhibitionism, we figured that we had better get the hell out of there, so we high-tailed it with stripper in tow. Bruce and I tried to talk Ken into taking her to his place since it was the closest, but he wasn’t having any of that. His wife would have killed him if she found out.

With nowhere to go but back to work, we hustled the poor girl out the back door and across the parking lot to Ken’s Judge. The sound of her high-heels clickety-clacking on the asphalt brought smiles to our faces. When she stumbled she’d grab onto one of us, explaining that she’d never walked so far in the shoes she was wearing.

We didn’t doubt her.

Bruce was from Portage La Prairie. Later that summer Bruce and I and Bob P. got to drinking in the Portage Hotel on a fine sunny afternoon. We’d had a couple of beers each – nothing too extravagant. We were happy to be settling in to a long day of relaxing in the bar. For some reason, a fight ensued, and everyone in the bar got involved, including the women.

I never saw so many huge brown ashtrays, beer glasses and pitchers in full flight, and that was back in the day when they were all glass. In order to stay out of the line of fire we tipped over a couple of tables in a corner of the bar and hunkered down to watch the action from a safe vantage point and to dodge the flying glass. When we heard the sirens we jumped up and ran out the back door, barely making it outside before the paddy wagon rolled up. After witnessing that destruction, to this day I’ve never wanted to be in a bar when I thought a fight might break out.

Some years later the Portage Hotel burned to the ground and thus took one of my memories with it.

Bruce, then an apprentice engineer, later became an engineer, and then a flier. In 1978, while attempting to cross Knight Inlet during limited visibility, he piloted his Bell 206 into the cold deep waters. As far as I know, my old friend was never recovered.

Jim Hawes was an engineer with Midwest at the time we were all there. He’d shake his head at our crazy antics and give us all a huge grin when we cleared by Lloyd and finally got back to work. Jim would later go on to own Custom Helicopters in St. Andrews, Manitoba. Occasionally, if I’m riding east, I’ll stop in for a visit and we’ll have some laughs reminiscing over the old days.

Sadly, Jim has passed away. I will most definitely miss the laughs we used to have while reminiscing about some of our experiences with the characters we both knew so well. We always spoke kindly of them all, usually while wearing huge grins.

Courts of St. JamesDuring a lot of this, I was sharing a place with Doug McIntyre, a Transair 737 pilot who was originally from Thunder Bay. We were in the Courts of St. James where many of the Transair and Midwest staff congregated – often a party in itself. Occasionally Doug would show up at the Flying Club and hang from the log rafters during his more sober moments. Unfortunately, a few years later, the Winnipeg Flying Club burned to the ground and local airport history was the sadder for it.

Doug was himself caught up in a house fire when he went back into the burning building to check for friends who might still be inside. He didn’t come back out.