Michael Zubko

(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.

BOX: Dr. John C. Callaghan was Medical Officer for the region and Zubko flew him on his rounds of duty. He recorded “Only the Waco could take the 400 lb generator and all the portable X-Ray machine...” He wrote of Zubko’s courage and determination: “The most thrilling of all began on our trip back to Aklavik leaving Fort Good Hope at noon on Dec. 5/1948. We had X-rayed the natives present and my examination of Vital Barnaby indicated he was ill with tuberculous pneumonia. It was 55 F below freezing when we took off. As we flew 35 miles north of Fort Good Hope the oil line burst, sprayed the windshield, and the oil pressure fell to zero. We landed at once on Loon Lake. It was 62 F below zero. We were there for 72 hours. Mike taught me how to live under what I thought was the worst scenario...” He called Mike Zubko “a hero”.