Early in 1969, Viking Helicopters Ltd. was born in “the old schoolhouse” just west of Orleans, Ontario using the licence that formerly belonged to Spartan Air Services. Larry Camphaug, Ray Coursol, John Juke and Gerry O’Neil, together with the indomitable Wulf doing transmission overhauls, were already hard at work as part of Mercury Aviation Limited’s employees.
Larry had started Mercury Aviation as a helicopter overhaul company a few years earlier. Component overhauls were the bread and butter of the business in those early days. His “hanger” was an old barn just a short drive away to the west where the airframe overhauls were done.
Larry hired me as a pilot, but early service put me in the position of apprentice engineer, so off I went to buy the basic tools I needed based on the advice of Gerry O’Neil and others.
I worked in the schoolhouse, supervised by the full-time engineers. The schoolhouse was next to an apple orchard. Later on, I’d occasionally climb the fence and steal apples. I was told that there were dogs guarding the orchard, but I never saw any.
The barn, just down the road, was where the former Bell 47D, CF-ODM, now converted to a Bell 47G-2, was being overhauled. As a young apprentice engineer, I helped Gerry O’Neil and John Kowalski in the overhaul process. I don’t know if they wanted to get me out of the schoolhouse due to my incompetence or whether I had “graduated”. In any case, I learned a lot in that barn, well-taught by Gerry and John.
From time to time, the bunch of us would drive over to the Orleans Hotel for a beer, beans and bread lunch. Sometimes, on Friday’s extended lunch, we would shut the place down, thanks to the fine looking French-Canadian girls who slung beer in the joint. It was all their fault.
Or, quite possibly not.
Beans, beer & bank robbers
During one of these expeditions to the hotel, we noticed a car parked in the middle of the road. We later found out that the vehicle had been used in a bank robbery that day. Little did we know. We were all too concentrated on our drive to lunch to notice.
Once the overhaul was completed, I did the test flights and subsequent ferry flight east to Sydney, Nova Scotia, where I landed on the fantail of the M.V. William Carson for the crossing to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland. The helicopter had been wet-leased to Universal Helicopters for the summer.
I had an amazing time traversing the entire province in the three months and 170-odd hours I flew her. Not noted for many warm, sunny days, Newfoundland had one of the brightest and warmest summers on record. For a young aviator in the second year of his career, that eventful summer was an adventure not to be forgotten.
In all, my flying career was extremely successful, thanks not only to Larry, but to the many others I encountered over the life of my flying career. The engineers and apprentice engineers who kept our equipment airworthy and safe did a marvelous job under difficult circumstances, in isolated places, all around the world.
Thank you to each and every one of you.