yukon wings takes off from transportation museum

Canada's astounding aviation history is well documented, except for the Yukon - until now. That has all changed with the launch of Yukon Wings, the new book written by local pilot Bob Cameron. Cameron grew up in the Yukon in an aviation family.

Canada’s astounding aviation history is well documented, except for the Yukon – until now. That has all changed with the launch of Yukon Wings, the new book written by local pilot Bob Cameron.

Cameron grew up in the Yukon in an aviation family. His father, grandfather and three uncles were all employed in the Yukon aviation industry, and he grew up surrounded by aircraft.

Cameron had his pilot’s licence by age 17. He went to university and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. After working at Canada Pratt and Whitney in Montreal, he returned to the Yukon where he was a commercial pilot, then flight operations manager for Trans North until he retired in 2001.

The launch was appropriately hosted at the Yukon Transportation Museum last Saturday, with a capacity crowd in attendance. In fact, the parking lot was so full, I thought I was going to need a shuttle bus to take me to the entrance of the museum.

People formed a long line to pick up one, two, even three copies of Cameron’s new release, then lined up again in the Bush Pilot Room to have him autograph their new purchases. Many of the faces in the crowd were familiar personalities in Yukon’s aviation community, and I was introduced to many others whom I had not met before.

Cameron took a few moments to thank everyone for attending, and acknowledge those who pioneered flying in the North.

One person singled out for special recognition was Tom Clark, a long-time aviation mechanic, now 91 years old. It was he who, back in the 1940s, introduced Gordon Cameron to Bonnie Hunter. The couple were married, and a year later, Bob Cameron arrived. “If it wasn’t for Tom,” he said, “I wouldn’t have been here to write this book.”

The book was a long time in the making. He started collecting the photographs that became part of Yukon Wings when he was still a young boy, but it was only seven years ago, after retiring from Trans North, that he started to put pen to paper. The last two years were an intense collaboration with Frontenac Publishing House of Calgary, whose co-founder, David Scollard, attended the launch.

Also singled out for special recognition was another Yukon aviation pioneer, Joe Sparling, who has brought the world to our doorstep by establishing regular jet service to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. Air North is owned by Yukoners and headquartered here in Whitehorse.

Yukon aviation began August 16, 1920 when four DeHavilland DH-4s, part of the U.S. Army Black Wolf Squadron, arrived in Whitehorse on their way to Alaska. They then flew north to Dawson City, arriving there in time to celebrate Discovery Day before flying across Alaska to Nome. Remarkably, they completed their 97-day, 15,000-kilometre journey without mishap. That wasn’t always the case in the development of the aviation industry in the North.

Unlike Alaska, the Yukon didn’t take to commercial air travel immediately. It wasn’t until 1927 that Clyde Wann and pioneer pilot Andy Cruickshank convinced a number of investors to establish Yukon Airways and Exploration Company in 1927. Cameron recaps this story, which has been given extensive treatment in books like June Lunney’s Spirit of the Yukon.

The main focus of Yukon Wings is the period spanning the 1930s to the 1960s, during which the territory’s fledgling industry took to the air. British Yukon Navigation air service, a subsidiary of the White Pass and Yukon Route, battled for market share with a couple of upstart competitors, most notable of which was Northern Airways Ltd., started by George Simmons in Carcross.

The Second World War created an aviation boom in the territory that eventually led to the evolution of two of Canada’s air giants: Canadian Pacific Airlines, and Pacific Western Airlines.

Yukon Wings tells the story of the legendary bush pilots who served the North, several of whom have been immortalized in the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame. Names from the early days include pilots like Andrew Cruickshank, Jess Rice, Everett Wasson, Lionel Vines, Pat Callison, Herman Peterson, Bud Harbottle and Lloyd Ryder, as well as entrepreneurs, including Bill Gordon, Cliff Rogers, George Simmons and Clyde Wann.

Yukon Wings is also a detailed story of the aircraft that crisscrossed the Yukon, their best features and their worst. Fairchild, Lockheed, Fokker, Ford (trimotor), Curtiss, and Douglas all flew the northern airways.

During his introduction, Cameron said that he did not choose to showcase the disastrous crashes that took place over the years – and there were plenty of them – but at the same time, they were an integral part of the story. Crashes, especially those that involved loss of life, often precipitated important business decisions, and no doubt they were all well documented in the historical record.

I counted, and more than 100 of the 600 photographs included in this book illustrate plane crashes and other aeronautical accidents, including nose dives, breaking through spring ice, or floating into unexpected guy wires. Some were caused by bad weather or bad judgement, others by bad maintenance.

The photographs are worthy of note. In its 354 pages, Yukon Wings contains nearly 600 of them, both colour and black-and-white, most of them full-page width in the sharpest, clearest photos that I can recall seeing in any history book. The photos alone are worth the $60 price tag.

There are also three clear and well-designed maps within the covers of this book. At the back are several useful compilations, one of airlines, air services and associated companies, another of major characters from the text, as well as an index of aircraft, and a general index. There are notes on various quotations from the text, but if you are looking for the bibliography and references, though listed, they weren’t to be found.

Never mind that tiny omission. This is a significant compilation of Yukon aviation history that fills in a major gap in Canada’s air legacy. This is a fine reference work that you will find yourself returning to over and over again.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net