Tag Archives: pilots

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.


Comedy of errors

Further to my story about Bill McKeever’s first post-endorsement flight on the turbine-equipped 500, I have my own to tell about my first job with the 500, so I went back to my log book for another look.

Thanks for reminding me about all of this, Bill.

Jerry Ossachuk sent me off in C-FDNF with my brand-new turbine endorsement to pick up two Water Resources employees who needed to check some levels at a couple of their northern sites. It was an extremely cold January day in Northwestern Ontario when I loaded up in Red Lake for the flight to Windigo.

That night I removed the battery before putting the 500 to bed. As luck would have it, it was clear and around -40C outside and cold as hell in the cabin since the heater had gone out during the night. Pre-heating the engine had to be done with the naptha lantern because the two incompetents hadn’t bothered to bring a generator that worked.

It had gotten so cold in the cabin overnight that the battery wasn’t capable of bringing the engine up to a suitable ignition rpm. I scratched my head for a bit, and then retrieved the spare battery. This time I placed it inside the clamshell doors with the naptha lantern to heat everything up one more time. I waited an hour.

We were good to go after that, and subsequently finished the job the next day. Unfortunately, because of the extent of the flying required to shut the systems down and retrieve all of the equipment that had been spotted out at their various sites, I was low on turbine fuel for the return flight to Red Lake. It became apparent that the amount of flying to be done was under-estimated.

Before leaving Kenora, Jerry had warned me that there was a limited amount of turbo fuel remaining on-site at Windigo. Since this was to be the last trip for the winter, no additional fuel had been spotted. There was some quantity of 80/87 if it became necessary to use it to get back to Red Lake, but I had hoped that I could get along without it.

It was not to be.

I emptied the 45-gallon drum of what was left of the remaining 80/87 for the return trip to Red Lake, but I knew I didn’t have enough to get us there. Fortunately, there was a lodge about three-quarters of the way en route. I radioed Jerry in Kenora to tell him that I’d be stopping at the lodge for fuel, and he dispatched a Cessna from Red Lake to drop a couple of tens.

I was cutting it pretty close when the low fuel light illuminated during my approach to the lodge. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with that turn of events, but I had fuel waiting, so it was back to Red Lake to chalk one up to luck.

While I hadn’t run out of fuel in the air, I had cut it pretty fine to my way of thinking. Had the fuel light illuminated any earlier, the three of us would have been shut down on a frozen lake minus the turbine fuel that had been landed at the lodge.

I learned from that experience, and I never let that happen again. While circumstance had been beyond my control that time, in future I always made certain that there was sufficient fuel to do the job, whether it was a day trip or a summer-long contract.

In fact, because of that, I annoyed more than one party chief in the Arctic who would want to “do some work on the way before we go to the fuel cache to fill up”. Yeah, that’ll work all right, especially if the fuel cache isn’t where it’s supposed to be. I’ve experienced that too, but I always had the fuel remaining to find it. Others didn’t, and I vaguely recall one who ran low on fuel before finding that same mislocated cache for the first time. Fortunately, all the bugs had been worked out of the ssb radios by then and his worked well enough to make the call for assistance.

Keep in mind that this was well before the advent of the gps. While the fixed-wing pilots were pretty good at putting out the fuel caches in winter and making their locations known on the maps, it was never an exact science. Occasionally a cache wasn’t where it was marked once the snow and ice melted in the spring, when its true location became apparent.

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.

Checking my log book…

Thanks to Bill McKeever there are some new pictures here. During our email exchange he reminded me of something that I had completely forgotten over the intervening decades, so I took a look at my log book.

Back in early February of 1976 Bill was doing a job near Chapleau with CF-HEL, Helair Limited’s Bell 47 flagship. The Lycoming engine had started making metal and was declared unserviceable. Consequently Bill needed his survey crews retrieved from the bush.

GGNY in the Arctic west of Baker Lake

C-GGNY in its original C18 colours. It later became a favourite of mine in the yellow and black paint scheme. It was converted, with a beefed-up transmission and C20 engine.

After ferrying the 2:40 from Thunder Bay to Chapleau, I turned GGNY over to Bill to go out and pick up his crews. I don’t recall the circumstances now, but in the email he mentioned that he had a total of five hours of brand-new flight time on the 500 – which was coincidentally just enough required for his type endorsement.

Well, I sort of figured that Bill should fly GGNY to pick up the crews, since he knew where they were, so I generously offered to let him build up his time in the 500. Good of me, wouldn’t you say?

The weather wasn’t the greatest, but Bill was familiar with the area and knew where his crews were, so I didn’t really think anything of it at the time. He torched up and did the deed, allowing his training, experience and recent endorsement to kick in and he retrieved his crews without incident.

Two days later, after spoiling Bill by letting him fly GGNY to spot his crews, I ferried back to Thunder Bay via an overnight in Wawa. I don’t recall what aircraft replaced HEL.

I have my own story to tell about my first job following the coveted turbine endorsement.

The early days of Helair Ltd.

The Helair faciltiy, Kenora Ontario - April 1973

The Helair Ltd. hanger, Kenora - April 1973

In 1965, Helair Ltd. was located out of Pete Peterson’s home on Keewatin Beach Road, just west of Kenora. When the then Department of Transport came by to inspect his operation, they never blinked an eye, and in fact gave their approval. How times change.

Department of Lands & ForestsIn 1967 I had a job as a radio operator with the old Department of Lands & Forests. That same year, Helair had been awarded the L&F contract out of Sioux Lookout to provide services for the surrounding districts. Ron Kincaid, my boss, requested the aircraft for a trip down to Gold Rock, and he offered to take me along on the flight. If I recall, the flight was in CF-HEL, the company’s flagship Bell 47G-4a.

I was hooked from the beginning. I’m not sure if I should thank Ron or not for taking me along on that flight. Then, during the winter of 1967, Pete gave me my first flight from the lakeside base in a dual-equipped G2, CF-MEU.

From that fledgling start on the shore of Lake of the Woods, Helair Ltd.’s business eventually mushroomed to the extent that expanded facilities became a necessity.

HelairI don’t recall the year that Pete built the hanger on Villeneuve Road just off of Highway 658, but it was a pretty nice facility, nestled as it was in the trees ten minutes north of Kenora. In addition to the hanger there was a home on-site as well, complete with a swimming pool. Later, the site would be used as a residence for the students who took their flight training at the base.

Some time just after the new place was built I recall being sent to Kenora. I stayed at the Norman Hotel in Keewatin, a stately old place where I experienced the hospitality of the Norman Lord. Bruce was a real character who loved his cigars. He reminded me a great deal of Buster, the night manager at the King Edward Hotel in Niagara Falls where I stayed during my flight training.

If you’d like more about Helair Ltd. and how it all got started, Pete Peterson’s book A Flying Story is available for download. Not only does he document Helair’s beginnings, but he also spends much of the book examining the early years of helicopter development and use in eastern Canada, starting in the mid-50s.