Tag Archives: Midwest

Thanks for the memories

I’m saddened to learn that Jim Hawes passed away. When I met him in 1971, Jim was an engineer with Midwest. At the time, I was a lowly apprentice. Jim later went on to own Custom Helicopters.

Occasionally, when I rode east, I’d stop in for a visit at the hangar and we’d share some laughs and tall tales while reminiscing over the experiences we had and the people we knew from “back in the old days”. Both he and I always spoke kindly of them all, and we did so with huge grins on our faces.

Thanks for the memories, Jim. It was great to have known you.

Conawapa spring 1975

In early April, 1975, I returned to the birthplace of my Hughes 369 endorsement in Kenora a year earlier. I was taking my check ride with Bruce Dennison. Bruce and I had been students at Niagara Helicopters in 1968. He and his powder-blue Volkswagon had transported four of us to Toronto to do the written part of the flight exam.

We did our autorotations onto the ice-free waters of the Winnipeg River, north of Darlington Bay, and then returned to the Helair hanger on Villeneuve Road. By then I had accumulated slightly over 800 hours of turbine time.

I don’t remember who I replaced when, two days later, I picked up C-FAHG in Gillam for a Manitoba Hydro survey contract. The proposed  Conawapa generating station on the Nelson River was located approximately 18 miles downstream from the Limestone station. Midwest Helicopters was there with a Bell 206.

As always in those huge bush camps, food was plentiful and good. For the most part, the cooks and cookies were happy to have us coming and going during the day, since it gave them someone to talk to on their long shifts. As long as we kept our distance during meal and cleanup times, all of the flight and maintenance crews continued to be welcome in the cook tent. We had the run of the kitchen setup where we could have our fill of of coffee and desserts whenever we wanted.

Wayne Johnson was flying Midwest’s 206. For those of you who don’t know Wayne, he has a routine of hilarious, never-ending stories, some of which he even tells about himself. On one occasion, I was sitting in the kitchen with the party chief when Wayne walked in and sat down with us. Wayne was never one to be shy about trying to get a discussion going, and that day was no exception. Before long, he was ragging me about the lift capacity of the 500s in general, and more specifically about the red and white 500 I was flying.

Being the person that I am, I sat and listened patiently to his tales of misfortune and woe directed at Hughes Aircraft and more specifically at the aircraft I was flying. I took my time finishing my coffee and then told the party chief that I’d be heading to the fuel cache to bring back a couple of drums for the nearby helipad. Twenty or thirty minutes later I walked into the cook shack. Wayne asked why I had made only one trip.

I informed him that I needed only one trip to haul two barrels of fuel. Then I sat down across from the party chief and watched as Wayne got up and walked out of the tent and across to the helipad. When he got there, he started tipping drums to try and determine whether I had actually slung two drums, and if so, whether they were both full.

I had, and they were.

When Wayne walked back into the cook tent he was in a pretty subdued mood, since I had, in the presence of the party chief, just refuted every one of his claims he had made against the 500. Wayne never had anything to say about the relative merits of the 206 versus the Hughes 500 in my presence again.

I learned that Wayne had an incident while slinging and had rolled a 206 onto its side on liftoff. I don’t recall the year. I wanted to find out more about what happened, so I gave him a call. After explaining it to me, he mentioned that he had been wearing a helmet. The helmet had come away with a huge gouge in its side but his head had remained undamaged and intact.

After hearing that, I bought a flight helmet and wore it until I retired from active flying. Although I never needed it, it was attached to me in the event I did, and it certainly reduced the noise contamination that I had previously been subjected to.

Thanks, Wayne.

*     *     *

Wayne Johnson is no longer with us.

Midwest Helicopters

Those of you who worked for Midwest Helicopters–especially you old-timers out there (I won’t mention any names, but I know some of you)–know about its colourful past. I was aware of some of it, of course, having worked there very briefly in the early ’70s, but I had no idea how far back the company went in aviation history–both fixed-wing and helicopter.

I had an email from Al Nelson, former GM of Midwest. He was offering some of his images from back in the day. Since I have some great memories of my all-too-brief time spent at Midwest, I thought I’d put them up. You can see some of Al’s photos here at the bottom of the page.

Thanks to Al Nelson, former General Manager of Midwest Helicopters:

Midwest Aviation was originally started by Jim McBride in the late fifties. He started with one Super Cub and worked up from there. Jim bought his first helicopter, a Hughes 269, about 1964. Al went to work for him in 1966 when he bought his first twin Otter and DC-3. He had several Bell 47s by then and acquired a couple of new Jet Rangers at about the same time. In the early seventies, Jim merged Midwest with Transair and Al became general manager of the Midwest Helicopter division. He left there in 1979. Jim later acquired Turbo-West helicopters and Al Nelson worked for him as operations manager from 1996 to 1999.

Al Nelson designed the yellow, brown and gold paint design that all the Transair and Midwest aircraft were painted. The brown was a Bell Helicopter color “Tangier Gold”, originally used on the 47s and the yellow was a 1970 Chrysler color.

Midwest Helicopters

Midwest HelicoptersI flew 300 hours in 47s for Midwest Helicopters back in the dark ages. Some of it was with Manitoba Forestry, and involved ferrying around the province. I never could figure out what was going on with that contract. I never saw any fire crews. I did no safety briefings or training for anyone. I never saw a fire. But I did end up seeing a lot of the province, so it wasn’t all bad. While I didn’t fly anywhere near minimums, I remember hoping it was a moneymaker for the company.

Ken Wilson


Ken Wilson was my engineer on the forestry contract. Ken’s normal summer attire was a pair of dark glasses worn while sporting sandals. When I got tangled up with a woman at one of the provincial parks near Rennie, Ken ran interference for me so that I could make a connection with Lucille. Thanks, Ken. I don’t know what became of Ken, but I do recall he mentioned that he wanted to go on the road to drive big rigs.

In August I ended up on a Manitoba Hydro contract at Burntwood River’s First Rapids, and much later still, at Gillam/Longspruce with CF-MWH. Both Klaus Lebrandt and Bill Henderson were already there.

Klaus was a former pilot with the Luftwaffe. When he was more relaxed, he regaled me with tales of his Luftwaffe experiences in the war. I was often in stitches listening to him explain how he felt he had spent more time floating in the Mediterranean than he had spent in the air, thanks to the British.

Klaus was an excellent pilot. Once or twice on sunny days when he was heading in and I was outbound, the bugger would come at me out of the sun and startle the hell out of me. I never forgot that, but I never tried it myself. I didn’t want to tempt fate as much as some others I know. I never thought Klaus was tempting fate, though; I thought of it more as practicing his craft and keeping current.

Bill Henderson was another story. He possessed the driest sense of humour I’ve ever known anyone to have. When he wasn’t flying under the bridge, he had an ability to rub people the wrong way. If you ignored his smartass comments and attempts to aggravate you, he was all right, and I got along with him. I recall that he had just bought a Jaguar XKE before coming north. I ribbed him about that, given the predilection at the time for British vehicles to self-destruct in minus 40 Winnipeg winters. Hell, they’d self-destruct on a warm, summer day.

Bob Mogk was our engineer. We got along well and we eventually ended up sharing the rent at a place in the south end of Winnipeg for a while, until I left for greener pastures. Decades ago while riding through Carman I stopped to visit with Bob and his family on the farm. He was working for Standard Aero – unless he too has retired.

All of the people at Midwest were pretty good to work with. When I was apprenticing on the shop floor, the engineers would go out of their way to show and teach the right way to do things. Lloyd Mackenzie, the chief engineer, was pretty patient with the likes of me and my old friend Bruce and our antics. The two of us put plenty of smiles on the faces of Jim Hawes and some of the others, but we got the job done too. On looking back, I think my days spent with Midwest on their shop floor while apprenticing were pretty good days. I know I enjoyed them a great deal.

Bill Henderson left this earth in a 212 when he tried to make the airport with no transmission oil pressure. Bill was a bit of a stickler for details. The flight manual at the time suggested that a 212 could proceed for ten minutes with low/no transmission oil pressure. That turned out not to be the case.

Midwest dissolved its Canadian operation in April of 1997.

The Norway House yacht.

Admiral Fraser (in the blue cap) accompanied by two of the many Norway House nurses piped aboard the yacht in 1971.