Category Archives: Niagara Helicopters

Site information

In August of 2009 when Helicopter Highlights – Hurry up and wait went online, I was expecting to put up six or eight posts about Viking Helicopters and some pictures from a few jobs that I had been on and call it a day. Then the search engines locked on and began providing the site with hits, and that encouraged the addition of more material. Little did I imagine that this site would be filling a huge void concerning Viking Helicopters Ltd., Mercury Aviation Ltd. and Helair Ltd.

From the very beginning, the response has been tremendous:

  • hits are coming from around the world;
  • the site has tens of thousands of hits, not including bots and crawlers;
  • some are reading the entire site from start to finish;
  • some are subscribing to the RSS feed to get updates as they are posted;
  • the return rate is very high;
  • the most popular days for viewing appear to be Monday and Friday. It looks like boredom strikes on those two days.

Four visitors, Brian Camphaug, Bill McKeever, Rick Tyefisher and Al Nelson (formerly of Midwest Helicopters), have submitted many of the images in the photo gallery, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their efforts at contributing to the site’s success. If the number of image downloads is any indication, the gallery has made the site extremely popular.

When I learned that Pete Peterson had written a book about his experiences in the helicopter industry, I approached him about writing a review and posting a link to his story and he agreed. Many of you who have downloaded and read the book have no doubt been amazed at the amount of information Pete has made available, not only about the early days of helicopter aviation in Canada, but also about Spartan Air Services, the start of Viking Helicopters Ltd., Helair Ltd., Helitac and much more.

A request for information

I’m looking for information on VikingAmerica Helicopters. At least one 500C in 1979/80 was registered to that company south of the border. The aircraft returned to Canada and was flown by Bill McKeever in B.C. See the sidebar for more information.

Looking for contributors

I’d like to widen the scope of the site. Should any of you be interested in submitting articles or photographs, many visitors would be enthusiastic readers and viewers. I’m sure there must be more of you out there with a good yarn to tell. How about it?

The downside? None!

A very few keep returning on a daily basis to download the same images over and over and over again, thus consuming valuable bandwidth. However, that’s a small price to pay for the popularity of the site to date. Even my images from Niagara Helicopters are being copied. I’m still scratching my head over that one.

The reality: there really is no downside to operating this site. I’m extremely happy that the information is getting out for all to see and enjoy. I hope I’ve been able to provide a few laughs too.

A huge thanks to everyone

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to once again thank all of you who have contributed to Helicopter Highlights and the many who come to view it. You’re all helping to make Helicopter Highlights – Hurry up and wait an extremely popular and well-read site on the Viking Helicopters that we all knew and enjoyed working for. I hope that all of you will continue to return and enjoy the contributions on a regular basis as they are posted.

Thanks for contributing, and thanks for coming by.

Meanwhile, back in Moosonee…

Moosonee in the fall of 1968 was quite a busy place for helicopters heading south. We crossed paths with Okanagan, MidWest Helicopters and Skyrotors, respectively. Bruce McPherson (now deceased) was the engineer on the Midwest S55. Jack McCormack was piloting the Vertol.

It was an occasion, so we had some of our nurses over to join us in the festivities. Or perhaps the nurses were spending the weekend. Whatever.

Here, the Okanagan and MidWest S55s land for an overnight or two before heading home.

Here, the Okanagan and MidWest S55s land for an overnight or two before heading home.

The Skyrotors Vertol was piloted by Jack McCormack

The Skyrotors Vertol was piloted by Jack McCormack. Here, Ian Wright does a visual.

Jack McCormack greases the head on the Vertol.

Jack McCormack greases the head on the Vertol. Jack was kind enough to invite me on a flight as co-pilot. Talk about shake, rattle and roll in that baby. Much later, Jack worked for Viking Helicopters.

 

Ivan Thomas shows some Niagara hospitality to bob Fideldy with beer and roll-your-owns.

Ivan Thomas shows some Niagara hospitality to Bob Fideldy with beer and roll-your-owns.

Bob Fideldy, Bruce McPherson and Chuck (who was always on the phone) while one of our nurses looks on.

Bob Fideldy, Bruce McPherson and Chuck (who was always on the phone) while Sandie, one of our nurses, looks on.

 

The Buffalo shuffle, the piss jar and the optimism tax

I’ve paid the optimism tax more than a few times in my life, the first as a youngster when I sent home via an acquaintance and his vehicle a couple of sleeping bags, some clothes, and a ton of flight school photos. He, and they, never arrived.

Don, the flight-school acquaintance, had been just another Canadian who went down to enroll in the U.S. Army in order that he might learn to fly helicopters. He swallowed the recruiting station hook complete with its line and sinker, and ended up sitting on an airport fire truck at a domestic Army field somewhere in the southeast. Not satisfied, he jumped ship and hightailed it back to Canada where he saved his cash and subsequently ended up with some of us at the same flight school.

Ian turned us all on to B.C.'s Calona Royal Red

Ian was from northern B.C. One of the benefits of having students from across Canada was that we got an introduction to a wide variety of different and cheap alcohol. Here we're sampling some of B.C.'s finest - Calona Royal Red.

Of course, we didn’t learn any of this until one night when we piled into Sok’s Chevy and shuffled off to Buffalo, the land of cheap beer and friendly women, for a little R&R. While we were watering down a wall framing one of the more cheaply financed sections of Buffalo (there were many at the time), a cruiser pulled up and we were confronted by a couple of Buffalo’s finest who took some exception to our need for public urination.

Fortunately for all of us, a radio call ended up dispatching the officers to a more pressing matter of a break and enter, and we thankfully piled back into Sok’s car to head north where we belonged. During all of this, Don had been quietly shitting his pants at the prospect of being caught out as a draft dodger and ending up in an American jail.

It was during the ride home that Don regaled us with his tales of bitter disappointment in the U.S. Army and his subsequent jump from active duty to Canadian reservist, so to speak. It had never occurred to him that perhaps he shouldn’t have shuffled off across the line with the rest of us.

If anything, that should have told me all I needed to know about Don.

Ten years later, I ran into Don while we were both flying on large fires in northern Canada. He was still shifty-eyed. Needless to say, while we were in the fire camp we never spent any time together reminiscing about the good old days.

Occasionally, I will still pay the optimism tax when someone takes advantage of my good nature, but there’s no point in worrying about it. It’s simply not worth it, although I must admit that I still miss those photos and the accompanying negatives.

I’ve never missed Don, and the sleeping bags and the clothes were all replaced.

Sok (Marty) was a local from St. Catharines. When returning from our Buffalo missions he would never pull over to the side of the road to let us take a piss once we had crossed the border and were back in Canada. He was adamant that doing so was a red flag for the police to stop our vehicle and give whoever was driving the drunk test.

After all that beer-drinking in Buffalo, on occasion some of us needed relief. To that end Sok kept a huge pickle jar in the back seat. Those with the weaker bladders were doomed to the embarrassment of the piss jar.

From city to bush

Niagara Helicopters would hire many of the graduates of its flight training school to fly tourists over the falls to build flight time. I spent two weeks doing that, and then I was shipped off to Moosonee on James Bay in far northern Ontario, ferrying a Bell 47G4 with Ivan Thomas. We were doing a lot of mining exploration up there at the time. I ended up making quite a few trips “up north” to Moosonee, ferrying equipment back and forth.

Back and forth, back and forth.

A lot of us roamed back and forth over the falls for our entire time at Niagara Helicopters. Those fortunate enough to get to Moosonee got bush flying time in the north.

The company had a house in Moosonee that we used as a bunkhouse. It had three or four bedrooms, and aviators were constantly coming and going to man up the equipment. During freeze-up in the fall, and breakup in the spring, the helicopter was the only access to Moose Factory Island, home to a hospital and nurses’ residence.

Continental Diamond Drilling - South Bluff Creek

Continental Diamond Drilling - South Bluff Creek

Parties were a staple of life in the north, especially where nurses were plentiful–and even where they weren’t. Some of those we attended were on the radar base (it was closed in 1975), since it was easy for us to get to, but occasionally we’d end up on the island at parties thrown by the nurses in their huge residence. The Halloween costume party there in October was the best!

We entertained one or two of  the nurses here at the staff house in Moosonee.

We entertained one or two of the Moose Factory Island nurses at the staff house in Moosonee. Here, Ivan Thomas catches some fresh air and a little bit of sunshine after a long night.

I and some others ended up dating several of the nurses, and we would often surprise them by showing up at the residence at strange hours. We had discovered a boat that we commandeered to do the river crossing in both directions, loaded with nurses, beer and pilots. As long as the boat was back in its rightful place first thing in the morning, no one was the wiser–although we often wondered whose gas it was that we were burning on those surreptitious, dark-of-night crossings.

When the girls had to get back to work, we flew them back, two at a time, in the early morning. The hospital grounds would be abuzz with helicopters landing and taking off in the front yard, nurses deplaning and running in to get changed for work. The doctors and the rest of the staff must have been shaking their heads over that.

Why those sensible young women would spend any time with the crazies in the bunkhouse is beyond me, but they seemed to enjoy our company. Perhaps they were just a little crazy too.

Ivan was Australian. Before he started flying he was a radio operator who had worked in the Antarctic and Macquarie Island before going to Contwoyto Lake in the Territories. How he got to Niagara Helicopters as a student with the rest of us, I have no idea. Being the outgoing person that he was, Ivan got to know everybody. We had some of the liveliest parties in our house thanks to the nurses on the island at the time–and thanks to Ivan too. Ivan retired from flying due to a medical condition. He bought a business that he turned into a very successful operation and then sold it.

Ivan Thomas is no longer with us, having passed away six or seven years ago.

Why this site now?

In the spring of 1968 I was fresh out of Niagara Helicopters Ltd. and its flight training school. I had graduated to flying tourists over the falls – a great first job for a couple of weeks at least. Fortunately, I ended up ferrying equipment back and forth to Moosonee. Eventually, I spent a couple of hundred hours there doing mining camp supply. In November, after freeze-up, I was out of a job. That wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the nature of Niagara’s business. I was happy to have accumulated the flight time in that northern environment.

My first “real” flying job

A boring winter spent doing nothing encouraged me to hop into a car with Mike Hogan, a fellow graduate of Niagara, and we both headed to Ottawa. We had picked up a lead from Pete Peterson of Helair Ltd. in Kenora about a new company just beginning – much like both Mike and myself. I ended up getting hired by Larry Camphaug and Viking Helicopters Ltd. in Orleans, just east of Ottawa. Mike went with J. J. Cossette, in Quebec, flying his private Bell 47.

During my career with Viking Helicopters and its owner Larry Camphaug I had the time of my life. I have many happy memories of the pilots and engineers that I worked with over the years. Thanks to the untiring efforts of the engineers, our equipment was top-notch. In the field, we received support above and beyond the call of duty from head office. If the parts didn’t get to us in a reasonable amount of time, we were really out in the boondocks, past the edge of the earth.

As a part of the benefits package, I received free travel and living expenses to experience parts of Canada and the world that most people only get to see in front of a television or movie screen, or read about in a book. When passing through somewhere new, time permitting, I always took in the local colour because I knew that I wouldn’t be back to that part of the world again, especially on my own dime.

After Viking, what?

For the most part, outside of some freelance winter flying, I stayed with Viking Helicopters until 1981, when I retired from active flying. Although I stayed involved in aviation, actual flying was replaced with flying a desk for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in Thunder Bay. I ended up being responsible for the Regional Fire Centre’s helicopter program in its entirety, from training fire crews in helicopter safety, training loadmasters, writing operations manuals, budgeting, flight crew requirements, flight and duty time limits, acquiring aircraft during fire emergencies, etc. Upon leaving that position, Ontario’s Provincial Fire Centre took over the task on a province-wide basis.

From Thunder Bay, I went to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, Inc. (CIFFC) in Winnipeg. I got to experience a whole new-to-me world of fixed-wing air tankers, bird dog aircraft, and Air Attack Officers.

One of the difficulties of working on a national level with the various forest fire control agencies was the differing standards and requirements in existence within each of the agencies. One of my responsibilities was to effect an exchange standard that would ensure that when fire control agencies or companies move fire fighting aircraft around the country – be they air tankers or helicopters – the requirements were to be similar in order that the flight crews could more easily integrate their equipment into the area in a safe and efficient manner. Getting all of the provinces to come on board for that lightbulb moment was a job in itself.

In 2000 I retired from CIFFC and moved to southern California for six years where I did something that I really wanted to do all year long: I rode motorcycles. And worked in a bike shop.

Why this site now?

Over the years I became nostalgic for the old company that I knew as Viking Helicopters. I couldn’t find anything on the web that said anything about the company in a substantive manner, other than some .pdf files in newspaper archives. They were pretty bland and flat, not really interesting in themselves, other than from a historical point of view.

Thus, this site.

Obviously, it’s slanted to what I saw, did and experienced over the years that I worked for the company, but I hope that won’t take away from your own experiences. My hope is that if you were a former Viking employee you’ll come by for a look and spend some time reading and perhaps talking about your own memories right here or in the comments on the blog articles.

To that end, should you have something you wish to say, a story you’d like to tell, or a memory you want to share, the forums are here. If you’d like to write something on the blog, you’re more than welcome to submit your story. Or stories. You’ll get your own byline if you wish. In particular, photographs are most welcome, and will get accreditation.

Anonymous submissions are also accepted. After all, if we can’t tell a good story, what’s the point of it all?