The founding of Air North, Yukon’s Airline, “started the first ever affordable air service for modern Yukoners and all of the cultural, sport, education and business growth that occurred because affordable transportation was delivered here so we could grow this part of the North,” says Debra Ryan, Manager, Strategic Planning and Alliances, at Air North.
The history of aviation in the territory, was wrought on a myriad of adversities, from economic conundrums, to climatic, demographic and environmental difficulties, all combining to challenge the establishment of safe and reliable air transport in the Yukon. You might ask, why would anyone persevere in such a risky business?
“People who get involved with flying, back then and now, are usually smitten with meeting the challenges and savouring their successes. It is not the lure of big money – wages and profits were usually slim to none, especially in the early days. They usually found a love for flying, and an attraction to the adventure of operating aircraft in a variety of roles. It becomes a bit addictive,” says Cameron.
“You could expand this point and this story well beyond the borders of the Yukon with Grant McConachie [founder of United Air Transport, Yukon Southern Air Transport, and later CEO of Canadian Pacific Airways] being an example on a national scale, of a pilot/entrepreneur, who was on shoe-string finances for decades, but history shows that he never considered giving up on his dream of an international airline.” says Cameron. This Yukon connection is proudly displayed both in the naming of the main highway into Vancouver International Airport as Grant McConachie Way and with the World’s Largest Windvane, Canadian Pacific CF-CPY marking the entry to Whitehorse International Airport.
“He (Grant McConachie) relished the possibilities. He could see that if he could survive financially and make it grow, it would be a great thing and I’m sure that was the thinking of other pioneer airline founders, like Clyde Wann [Yukon Airways] and later George Simmons [Northern Airways].”
To understand and appreciate northern aviation also means acknowledging the role of geography and climate, especially cold winters, in shaping the conditions and constraints within which pilots laboured. Or, in the words of Cameron, conditions “necessitating the risky, laborious, asphyxiating, job of pre-heating of engines and oil with an open flame under a canvas tarp, when the luxury of a warm hangar was nonexistent.” In extreme cold, the prevailing edict is that it takes “twice as long to get half as much done,” says Cameron. The preparations to make a single flight in the depths of winter were very daunting indeed.”
Aviation often attracted people seeking both employment and adventure. Sustaining experienced and skilled personnel in the North has also been a challenge. “For every one of those who choose to stay in the North, many others use their time in the northern aviation industry as a ‘stepping stone’ to more lucrative and comfortable jobs, such as the major airlines,” says Cameron.
At a time when many travellers take flight for granted, the abrupt reduction in air travel that began in March of 2020, may also prompt some profound questioning of the way we move around the world.
“Is this seamless web of connection always good?” asks historian, David Neufeld.
“Speaking as a passenger or as a freighter and setting aside all the other important things that elevation gives you, from air photos to geology stuff, but setting it just to moving from A to B or moving stuff from A to B, that’s the part that is the crux of climate change. Is this all such a good thing? And now, we’ve got a pandemic in there,” says Neufeld.
“We look at and appreciate and exercise the advantages of this thing, but are there other things we should be thinking of — in the long term, like climate change, or short term – like pandemic. Is this a free marvel or does it come with all kinds of complications?”
For her part, Deb Ryan of Air North says, “I don’t think we’re going to take anything for granted for a while.”
As we take the time to look back and mark 100 years of Yukon flight, replete with accomplishment, adaptation and struggle, it’s impossible to ignore that 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, also brings the greatest turbulence, the highest level of uncertainty that airlines and air services both in the Yukon, and around the world, have ever faced since they took to the skies. What will you do on this remarkable anniversary year to support the continued story of Yukon aviation?