'The right place at the right time'
Robert Engle, founder of NWT Air, is a Canadian aviation pioneer
Northern News Services
Yellowknife (May 24/00) - Scheduled airline service in the North was only a dream when
Robert Engle made his first tour of the Arctic in 1955.
He did it and in April was named a pioneer in Canadian aviation by the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg for changing the face of the North with the establishment of Northwest Territorial Airways (NWT Air).
"I'm aware of one (change) that is recently becoming more identifiable and that is Canadian sovereignty," Engle said from the home he keeps in Yellowknife. Engle also spends his time at homes in Palm Springs and RC.
"If you look at Canadian sovereignty, the opening up of the Arctic and the Canadian Northern peoples – those were my priorities. A more personal one was financial independence which goes along with business enterprise."
A serious aviator
The history of aviation in the North can be told in part through Engle's experiences and business decisions. It can also be shown on a larger scale through the evolution of Northern development and what Northerners have become accustomed to today regarding air transportation.
One fellow aviator and long-time Yellowknifer describes Engle as a serious aviator, a fair man and a skilled pilot -- but more frequently, an excellent businessman.
"In all the years I sub-contracted my planes and did contract work for NWT Air, Robert P. (as we called him) was always very honourable in his dealings," explained Joe McBryan, owner of Buffalo Airways.
"When a job was over you always had a fair deal, but never a free lunch. "
McBryan went on to explain how Engle has always surrounded himself with "winning players."
"He's a very forward-looking, positive man," he added. "He supported other business people who believed in the North like he believed in it. "
A love affair with the North
During his first scouting trip North Engle flew from British Columbia to Yellowknife and down the Mackenzie River to the Beaufort Sea, through the Yukon and up to Alaska.
"The thrust of that trip was really a survey to find out what was going on in aviation in the North," he said "I came back in 1958 with a Beaver, this time under contract with Max Ward." Under that contract Engle flew a McGill Arctic Expedition to Shepherd's Bay, on the Boothia Peninsula. Ward flew the Bristol Freighter that is perched near Yellowknife Airport, while Engle flew a Beaver on floats along the Arctic coast.
He said that was the beginning of his love affair with Yellowknife -- after returning from seven weeks of Arctic flying. Yellowknife then was home to 2,500 people, there were no roads and communication consisted of hand-cranked telephones.
"From that time on Yellowknife became my home," Engle said. "There were two groups of pilots who made their way North to find a career in Northern aviation, and from the early days of bush flying Canada was seen as very romantic in that it was daring and rather risky. I did my best to remove the risk and reduce the daring to make a business out of flying and established Northwest Territorial Airways in 1961"
Shorty Brown, a long-time Yellowknife businessman, described Engle' as an excellent pilot. "I've known him from day one and helped him get his start," Brown explained. "I can tell one story about one time when we were taking off and it was about -35 degrees (Celsius) outside. We were going to Discovery mines in a single-otter. We were at the end of the runway and gave the plane full power and took off. The oil breather was froze up on take-off so we were up a couple-hundred feet, made a steep- turn in a dead engine and dropped it aback on the runway. They call it dead-sticking her in -- it was unbelievable. He's a very good pilot."
Brown said he logged in many hours flying with Engle and, like most other people who have anything to say about him, his skill was most prominent in how he operated his business.
"He ran a very good, safe operation," Brown said.
The first NWT Air float base is now the Prospector Restaurant. Nearby was Wardair and CP Air, Engle said, adding there was no airport then. Planes operated on skis in the winter and floats in the summer, using the lake as a runway.
Engle built up his fleet with a deHavilland Otter in 1962, twin-engine Beech 18s the following year and a DC-3 the year after. This plane made NWT Air's first scheduled flight service possible in 1968.
"Everything happened in the '50s around the rock, which is, of course, Old Town," Engle reminisced. "New Town was being built after the war -- that's Yellowknife today. We flew float planes around the clock in the long days of summer and spent more time warming up the planes in the winter than we did flying them because the trips were usually pretty short in the winter time.
"In those early days there was a lot of camaraderie because of the risk and dependency on the other air crews. Search and rescue was a military role but your best bet was your fellow bush pilots if you were down."
In 1968 the first hangar was built at the Yellowknife Airport. NWT Air's hangar was large enough to service multi-engine transport planes and broke new ground in Northern aviation. Prior to that all large carriers had to be routed through Edmonton.
Engle said the company soon became a scheduled airline. In 1975, NWT Air began flying Lockheed Electras, a large turbo-prop airplane. This acquisition enabled the company to carry passengers as well as freight. In 1978 NWT Air bought a Hercules to accommodate the budding oil and gas industry.
Robert (Bob) Engle, has recently received the 2012 Queens' Jubilee Medal from Canada's Governor General, David Johnston. In granting this honor, The Governor General expressed appreciation for Bob's dedicated service to his peers, community and Canada. He then stressed that the contribution was most commendable and deserves praise and admiration.
Bob founded Northwest Territorial Airways, later to become NWT Air /Air Canada Connector when purchased by Air Canada. He also founded NWI Jet, a business corporate Jet service through out western Canada
Among Bob's other many accomplishments are:
-Founding Chairman, First President, and Honorary Life member (inducted 1986) of the Northern Air Transport Association.
-Governor General award of the 125th Canada's Confederation Medal -1992 celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada
-In 1989, with the approval of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11, Sovereign of the Order of Canada, Bob was appointed a member of the Order of Canada by the Governor General of Canada
-Awarded the Pioneer in Canadian Aviation Award, in 2000, by the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Bob, 50 year resident of Yellowknife, NT, recently relocated to BC, with his wife Roxy.
(1923 - 1991)
“His vision of the needs of the people in a large, remote and challenging area of Canada, along with his persistence, ability, courage and dedication to carry out his dream contributed immensely to the betterment of life at isolated communities in the Mackenzie Delta, and resulted in the advancement of aviation in Canada.“
- Induction citation, 2003
Michael Zubko was born in Pinsk, Poland on August 7, 1923. He immigrated to Canada with his family in 1931 and settled in Edmonton, Alberta, where he was an honour student. While in high school, he took an electronics course and obtained his Amateur Radio Operator’s Licence.
He showed an early interest in aviation, and after accepting Canadian Pacific Airlines’ offer for its Air Engineer’s Course, he spent the next few years learning aircraft maintenance and overhaul.
CP Air posted him to the North in 1944, and he spent time at Fort Smith, Norman Wells and Yellowknife, NWT as crewman/flight engineer on various ‘bush’ aircraft. During this time he got his first look at the Mackenzie Delta and Aklavik.
Zubko received his Aircraft Maintenance Engineer’s Licence in 1946, and returned to Edmonton to earn his Private Pilot’s Licence (May, 1946) and Commercial Pilot’s Licence (February, 1947).
Early in 1947 he left CP Air. While in the North, he had seen the need for flying services in the Aklavik area and applied to the Air Transport Board for a Charter Licence, which was granted in April, 1947. He purchased an Aeronca Champ, a two-place tandem aircraft powered at 85 hp and headed for Aklavik, a distance of over 1400 miles (2250 km), a long haul at 85 mph or 136 kph. He then established Aklavik Flying Service Ltd., the first Class IV charter service north of the Arctic Circle.
To appreciate the enormity of the task, the northwest corner of the North West Territories, which includes Aklavik, is an area of roughly 150,000 square miles (388,500 sq. km). It extends from Norman Wells in the southeast, Banks Island in the north, Herschel Island to the west, and Dawson City in the south. There were few radio facilities for communication or navigation.
Aklavik was the centre of economic and social activity for the Mackenzie Delta, so it was a natural place to set up business. A great deal of Zubko’s early flying was transporting local people to their trap lines, fish camps, etc.
At that time, there were no roads - all travel was by dog team, canoe or boat. The air service Zubko provided soon became a vital link between isolated communities such as Tuktoyaktuk, Kittigazuit, Letty Harbour, Paulatuk, Reindeer Station, Arctic Red River, Fort McPherson, Old Crow and Herschel Island.
Zubko purchased two more aircraft in the next two years, a three-place Piper Supercruiser and a Standard Waco, and hired two pilots. Business gradually expanded and was increasingly utilized by Federal Government departments, such as the RCMP, Forest and Wildlife, Indian Affairs, Department of Health, as well as traders, fur buyers and prospectors.
Zubko’s mechanical skills were also in demand. A small workshop was built on skids so it could be moved onto the river ice in winter and up onto the bank in summer. The harsh climate is tough on mechanical equipment. Working outdoors under severe winter conditions was unbelievably difficult, frostbitten hands and faces were frequent occurrences. He proved to be a great innovator, and whether it was a broken undercarriage strut, a bent propeller, torn fabric, or a balky engine, he usually had the solution.
Zubko’s own resourcefulness was fully tested on more than one occasion. Forced down in December, 1948 by engine failure on a flight from Fort Good Hope to Aklavik with Dr. John Callaghan and patient Vital Barnaby, Zubko’s courage and determination came to the fore until help arrived some three days later.
In the spring of 1950, about the time Zubko was planning to ferry an aircraft south for its annual check and changeover to floats, a measles epidemic broke out among the native population. Both Aklavik hospitals were soon full and there were numerous deaths. He and his company flew day and night - there is little darkness in May - with Dr. Ken Ward in tow, tending to the sick in their camps and flying the worst cases to the hospitals in Aklavik. This was accomplished under very difficult conditions, as the snow was melting and the ice was getting treacherous for ski operations. The flights were completed without incident. Zubko had a reputation for never refusing help to anyone, even though he knew there might be no payment at the end of a mercy flight.
It was during this period that the Federal Government decided to relocate the townsite of Aklavik. The town, built on river silt and permafrost, was deemed impractical for the construction of an airport. A new site was chosen 30 miles (48 km) to the east on higher ground, to be known as Inuvik. Zubko had visions of improved facilities and advocated for upgrading navigational aids, aviation weather services and aviation facilities. He was very busy flying surveyors, carpenters, etc., to this new site, and his opinions were sought because of his local knowledge. In 1959 he moved his air operations to Inuvik and built a home there.
The North changed dramatically in the mid-1950’s when the Distant Early Warning System (DEW Line) was constructed. Airports, communications and navigation facilities were established from Alaska to the Eastern Arctic. Aklavik Flying Service played an active role during this construction period, 1955-1957, flying goods and personnel to various sites on the Western Arctic coast.
There were some setbacks in the 1960’s, such as damaged aircraft and fluctuating fur prices. It was also difficult to keep experienced pilots, as once they gained some experience they could get higher paying jobs in the south.
There was a brief interruption in service in the late 1960’s, but Zubko returned in 1970 with a Cessna 180 and a Cessna 185. A year later he added another Cessna 185 and a leased de Havilland Beaver. In 1973 two new Cessna 185 Skymasters and a de Havilland Twin Otter were added to the fleet. He then completed a heavy maintenance course on Pratt & Whitney PT6 turbine engines at Longueil, Quebec and obtained a turbine endorsement on his AME licence to cater to the new aircraft. He also completed a Business Law course and a Business Management course. In 1975 a customized Aerostar was purchased and used a great deal for medical evacuations.
Over 200 medivacs were carried out during the earlier years, many under adverse weather conditions. It is without a doubt that due to Zubko’s contribution that many lives were saved over the years, the first one in August, 1947 when he flew the resident doctor to Tuktoyaktuk to aid an Inuvialuit woman who was encountering trouble during childbirth.
Zubko was very active in the aviation community. He was a founding member of the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA) in 1976 and served on the Board until his death in 1991. He was appointed to the Worker’s Compensation Board of the NWT in 1982 and served on various committees of that Board until 1989.
In July, 1985 he was appointed Chairman of the Industrial Adjustment Committee of Inuvik, sponsored by Canada Employment and Immigration, to study and report on the effect to Inuvik of the closing of the Canadian Forces Station. He was appointed to the Civil Aviation Tribunal in 1987 and served until his death.
Zubko was nominated for the Order of Canada but did not live long enough to receive it. It is not bestowed posthumously.
In 1995, when the Inuvik Airport was officially transferred from the federal to the territorial government, it was renamed Inuvik Mike Zubko Airport in his honour. His son Tom officiated in his capacity as Mayor of Inuvik.
He remained active in aviation until his death on October 28, 1991.
Michael Zubko was inducted as a Member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003.
December 20, 1950 - October 2, 2013
After a brief, but devastating illness, we let Steve slip the surly bonds of Earth to fly high in cloudless skies. He will be remembered for his intelligence, quick wit, dry humour, unwavering support, endless generosity and big heart. Steve loved a good argument, especially if he won. His early years were filled with scouting and adventures beside his father whom he greatly admired and respected. On his father's advice he earned his AME licence along with his pilot's licence. His aviation career was nothing short of legendary, taking him around the world. He became the "go-to" person for anything Twin Otter related. Steve took a great deal of pride in being the General Manager of Kenn Borek Air Ltd., and dedicated much of his life to realizing the company's motto "Anytime....Anywhere". Steve was a fixture in northern aviation and served for many years as a NATA board member.
Paul Laserich, General Manager of Adlair Aviation, died suddenly on November 19th, 2011 in Yellowknife at the young age of 52. Son of Willy Laserich, a Northern aviation legend, Paul was also a colourful fixture of Northern aviation and a long serving member of the NATA Board of Directors. We will miss him greatly.
Northern flying legend Willy Lasercich sadly left us on November 12, 2007. For his many achievments over the years Willy was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame on June 10, 2010.
His son, Paul Lasercih, is shown receiving the honour in Willy's name above.
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