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From The Trapline To The Skies

From The Trapline To The Skies

How the North's first aboriginal pilot got his wings
By Daniel Campbell
Sep 12
2016
From the August/September 2016 Issue

Fred Carmichael’s route to aviation is uncommon: He grew up in the bush 10 miles outside of Aklavik, NWT, on his parents’ trapline. As a child, while visiting Aklavik, he saw a plane land to bring in supplies, and he was hooked. Carmichael, the North’s first aboriginal pilot, was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame this summer. 

Around 1950, he met an ex-air force pilot and evangelist with a small Stinson plane. “He was working on his airplane one day, so I gave him a little hand. After he got done, he said ‘I gotta take this thing up for a test flight. Would you like to come for a ride?’ Well I jumped at that. He let me take the controls, and that was it.”

The pilot agreed to connect Carmichael with some flying instructors in Edmonton if he’d attend Bible College. From there, he bought a Stinson 108-2 for $2,650, and flew it back North to get more hours for his commercial licence. “I had it for about 15 years, then I sold it for $45,000. Good return. Should have bought a whole slew of them.”

Local reindeer herders needed a pilot to do aerial patrols of the herds. After some battles getting a licence with the Air Transport Board, in 1959 Reindeer Air Service was born. Carmichael was renowned for finding lost or injured people in the bush. Just don’t expect him to brag about it.

“I really don’t like telling the stories, because I’ve heard too many BS stories going around by pilots and people in the business. I don’t want to be in that bracket, standing there and talking about all this stuff. You know, there’s people out there that did as much as I did, so I’ll just leave it at that.”

Carmichael’s influence in the Mackenzie Delta is still felt today. Many young Gwich’in and Inuvialuit were inspired into careers in aviation because of him. He mentions long-time pilots like Cecil Hansen and Tom Gordon, to name a few.

“A lot of the float flying and ski flying is just good common sense. These guys grew up on the land, and on boats, and it just comes natural. We had a couple of boys from my hometown of Aklavik that took up flying, and another one from here in Inuvik. I watched them start from scratch like I did. Right after they left me they became airline captains, right up to the jumbo jet. There’s a real satisfaction in that.” 

He’s forever grateful to the people in the Mackenzie Delta, Beaufort Sea and Sahtu for supporting his flying career. And at 81 years old, he’s still flying. 

“I have my airplane sitting here in front of my house at the lake on the dock. And I go now whenever I feel like flying. It feels good to go when you want to go. I always loved flying, and I practically lived in the air.”