Yukon aviation is a personal experience.
Small companies, sole proprietors, unique characters.
This common trait connects all aspects of Yukon aviation.
inclusive of who – passengers, pilots, investors, flight attendants, photographers
inclusive of what – technology, cargo, size of enterprise
inclusive of when – any year, any time of day, any season
inclusive of where – on the Yukon land and in the Yukon sky
inclusive of why – grocery delivery, residential school, love stories, mineral exploration, adventure, rescue
100 Years of Aviation
Yukon Aviation: It’s Personal
Prepared by Kanina Holmes, Tanda Creative
With Bob Cameron, Janna Swales, David Neufeld
The capacity to transport passengers and to haul freight by air – fast and far — changed the world as most of us have come to know, see and experience it. Every country and every region has its own version of aviation history, its heroes, its mishaps, its milestones.
The first aviation milestone for the Yukon took place on Aug. 16, 1920 when four De Havilland DH-4 biplanes appeared, first as mere dots on the horizon, above Whitehorse. The Black Wolf Squadron, part of a U.S. military initiative to prove the viability of long-distance air travel, touched down on its outbound journey from Mineola, New York to Nome, Alaska.
In what was perhaps a harbinger of the trials and tribulations of flight to and over the territory, one of those De Havillands ripped a tire upon landing. And, in equal measure, a foreshadowing of the persistence and adaptation of those aviation pioneers, the White Pass & Yukon Route shop crew coiled rope around the tire and stitched it up for the squadron’s flight to Dawson the very next day.
A journalist, dispatched to cover this epic flight in Dawson, then the Yukon’s capital, described the experience
“You can imagine that people wouldn’t have seen aircraft before. What an odd and marvelous day,” says Janna Swales, executive director of the Yukon Transportation Museum, speaking about the flight anniversary on a Whitehorse radio station.
“Before this, says Swales, “the sky was the domain of the ravens and the mosquitoes.”
With August, 2020 marking the 100th anniversary of the first flight to the Yukon, and in the midst of a global pandemic that has brought most air travel to a screeching halt, it’s an apt time to take stock, to look back and peer, uncertainly, forward.
The last century features a cast of characters – intrepid investors, brave, quirky and determined bush pilots, unusual and unique aircraft, and a growing cadre of passengers who have come to depend on reliable, safe and affordable winged transportation to take them to communities and into the backcountry – lakeside cabins, mines and traplines – throughout a vast territory that is the same size as the entire country of France.
“Certainly in the early days, the benefit [of flight] could be seen in a place like the Yukon with its widespread wilderness, and with very few travel routes other than the rivers,” explains pilot, aviation historian and author of Yukon Wings, Bob Cameron. The benefit was very tantalizing. It was huge.”
In his introduction to his book and its hefty 354-pages spanning the first flight to the early 2000s, Cameron writes: “This is the true story of the human drama, the grit and the determination, the gutsiness and the passion, the triumph and the tragedy, that ultimately forged reliable scheduled and charter air service to, from and within the Yukon.”
One of the four first Dehavillands over the Whitehorse landing strip, cut specifically for this arrival and departure. The airstrip spot was well chosen apparently, this is the location of the Whitehorse International Airport today.
As with all narratives, there are multiple perspectives to take into account. The notion of expanding horizons
is a central concept when considering 100 years of flight. On an obvious level, aviation opened up the Yukon
economy, promoting a freer flow of people and goods, an urge first sparked by the frenzy of the 1898 Klondike Rush
two decades earlier. Air travel offered new access to the Yukon for business people, for tourists, and culture.
Expanding horizons also suggests a shift in the way the Yukon was seen, both physically and conceptually,
positively, negatively and nuanced. The story of Yukon aviation entwines the economic, political and social history
of the territory. It is also a story of the change that accompanies advances in technology.
“What were the consequences in the North? They were damn serious in a way,” says social historian, David Neufeld.
“Part of it is glorious stories. The other part is the larger, national creation of the North through aerial photographs,” says Neufeld. “Without those photographs there would have been a minuscule percentage of mines,” says Neufeld. An aerial view also shifted the concept of isolation and plugged the Yukon into a political and economic relationship with Canada that loomed large and long.“The creation of aerial photographs transferred knowledge from the Yukon to Ottawa and that’s really significant because the decisions were made over there.”
For the Yukon’s First Nations communities, flight brought continued change and new visitors to their traditional lands, a flow that began with the introduction of riverboats bringing prospectors and the logistical support crews that accompanied them. Archival images suggest that two First Nations men were among the first air charter passengers, hiring a pilot to take them quickly and efficiently to their traplines where they made an important part of their livelihoods.
Besides opening up much of northern Canada to economic expansion, flight also provided a mode of transportation to move Indigenous children from their home communities to residential schools or to adoptive homes in Canada’s south, dark chapters of our country’s history that are still being reckoned with in the wake of the 2015 final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Launching and running an airline is not for the faint of heart. From the beginning of Yukon aviation, the financial risks were high and the margins razor thin. Understanding the history and current reality of Yukon aviation means acknowledging the legacy of corporate price wars and the constant tension between free market forces and the role of government intervention to help balance costs and benefits to the industry and the passengers it serves.
As Bob Cameron says, “granted, competition is a cornerstone of our free-enterprise economy, but in the fragile aviation industry, particularly in the North, it creates a major challenge to viability.”
In addition to the contributions of charter companies such as Alkan, Alpine, Tintina and Trans North, Air North – originally launched as a small charter service and flight school in 1977 – rapidly opened up the skies for Yukon residents and visitors. Route expansion began with its Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s followed by Hawker Siddeley 748 turboprops. A strategic investment in the airline by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in 2000, using its land claim settlement funds, helped usher in economic sustainability, employment and a transportation lifeline for Old Crow, north of the Arctic Circle and the Yukon’s only fly-in community. The Air North-Vuntut Gwitchin partnerships also introduced new possibilities with the purchase of Boeing 737 passenger jets.
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?
A 100-year Timeline