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The people behind the planes

 

BY CLAIRE CUDAHY

The familiar whirring sound of vintage floatplanes taking off and alighting in Howey Bay is a connection between the past and present for Red Lake area residents.

Since the discovery of gold in 1925, floatplanes have played a significant role in the development of the region, and by 1936, Howey Bay was the busiest airport in the world, with more flights landing and taking off per hour than any other.

Though the days of commercial fishing and delivering supplies to northern communities by floatplanes are in the past, bush pilots in the region continue to support the tourism industry and the unique lifestyle that comes with it.

Hugh Carlson, floatplane pilot of over 45 years and owner of Viking Outpost, says some of his earliest memories revolve around floatplanes and meeting guests who came to stay at his family’s camp.

“Back in those days there was no television or internet. As a tourist family we got to realize that the world was a whole lot bigger than Red Lake. We met doctors and lawyers and people from every walk of life,” recalls Carlson, whose parents opened Viking Island in 1947.

Though the times may have changed for floatplanes with the addition of roads and runways up north, the planes have remained the same.

“The airplanes that are here today, except for the turbines, are all 1930s technology,” says Carlson of the water fleet that has come to symbolize tourism in the Red Lake area.

But not every pilot is cut out for flying these crafts.

“It definitely takes a certain type of person that loves doing this. Our staff turnover is pretty high,” says Ian Partridge, who has been flying for Chimo Air Service since 2007. “I like the lifestyle—being out in the bush and by yourself. I love the work. It’s hard, but I like it a lot. There’s a sense of adventure—going into lakes that nobody’s at, flying boats and canoes in and fishing.”

Dave Robertson, a retired pilot of over 30 years, would agree.

“It’s not the romantic kind of job that is probably portrayed,” explains Robertson. “It tends to not be a very well-paid job and there are long hours, but there would be days when there was the sheer joy of being out by yourself.”

One of those moments for Robertson (who also had the opportunity to fly a Norseman as a stunt pilot in the 2003 film The Snow Walker) was flying over the Labrador coast.

“I remember thinking, wow, this is incredibly scenic and I’m getting paid to fly here along this fjord with the icebergs and the whales sounding. It was an absolutely spectacular vision.”

For Herb Neufeld, a Vermilion Bay-based pilot of 40 years, his fondest memories of flying took place in the Canadian arctic over the Northwest Territories.

“There was all kinds of wildlife that you don’t see anywhere else. Muskox, wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, caribou—and miles and miles and miles of no civilization,” says Neufeld.

“I was in the arctic heading back by myself in the airplane, and I was flying quite low because it’s fun to fly low when there is no reason not to, and I spotted something way ahead of me. I came up on a mother grizzly with two cubs,” recalls Neufeld. “Another time I watched a herd of 10,000 caribou walking single file across the tundra.”

Norm Wright, probably best known for his successful landing of a floatplane in McNeely Bay that caught fire with six passengers aboard in 1996, looks back fondly on the camaraderie of the floatplane community.

“It’s a good community, the pilots and the companies. There is competition, yes, but there wasn’t between the pilots,” notes Wright, who flew for 42 years in Red Lake. “If you’re wanting to bush fly while you’re waiting for the airlines to call you, then I don’t think you get the enjoyment out of it. That’s an entirely different type of flying.”

Though some days the hum of the floatplanes may be background noise to our daily lives, it’s always good to remember the individuals who play their role in preserving a piece of our community’s unique history.

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