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The Last Pioneer

The Last Pioneer

Max Ward took on the world with his airline, but it’s his time navigating the Northern wilderness he reveres most
By Daniel Campbell
Aug 24
2016
From the August/September 2016 Issue

In the Northwest Territories, you can separate the aviation industry into two distinct eras—pre-Max Ward and post-Max Ward.

Ward earned his wings in WWII, where he trained pilots for combat overseas. As the war was ending, Ward set his sights north to become a bush pilot. There, he introduced new, larger aircraft into the market. His competitors first scoffed at his audacity, then quickly copied him just to keep up. He fought with government regulators throughout his career to keep the industry open and honest, and to keep prices reasonable. He would go on to found Wardair, which would briefly become the third-largest airline in Canada before pressures from regulators and competitors forced Ward to sell in the late 1980s. Ward, 94, has returned to his camp at Red Rock Lake, north of Yellowknife, annually since leaving. He’s staying at home in Edmonton this summer, but often thinks back on his time flying in the Northern bush.

What interested you in the North?  Well, if you were born in Edmonton, which I was, the only thing that was very exciting was the bush pilots—the generation of bush pilots that came from the First World War. And to everybody that was interested at all in flying or something like that, [the North] was exciting!

The airplane was extremely primitive at that time. But when you were in that time you thought they were pretty modern. These fellas flew those very primitive machines—you know engine failures were quite common—and did a hell of a good job. They were the real pioneers of the North. They did a wonderful job. They had marvellous records of accomplishments. They stayed alive—shall we say, most of them—and they were really a great bunch of real pioneers. 

I think you would be seen as a pioneer of aviation in the North too. Well, in fact I was Johnny-come-lately, because the Second World War was a long way away from the First World War. By that time there were still no maps up there, but they had accomplished a lot. That was the point. They flew by the ocean, they flew by watersheds. And they had to have their heads screwed on right. 

They must have laid a lot of the groundwork for you guys. They did, really, because you knew someone had flown up there even if you didn’t have a map. But it was a little frightening at first going up. On dead reckoning it’s like flying over the ocean, until you learn the country a bit. 

[Ed. Dead reckoning is navigating by estimating distance travelled and direction. One example, from Bush Pilot With A Briefcase: The Incredible Story of Aviation Pioneer Grant McConachie, shows how McConachie knows he’ll be at his destination while flying over cloud cover with just a cigar and a compass: “This compass here keeps me headed in the right direction and my cigar does the rest…You remember I lit this cigar just as we reached cruising altitude up above the muck. Well, as soon as I’ve smoked it down to a butt I’ll know we’re over Grand Prairie, and we’ll let down through the clouds.”]

I can’t imagine there’s many landmarks to go off of?  No there weren’t. But you could find some. 

Even in the winter? Oh, that was even tougher. But we sort of flew dead reckoning. You know, you’d be going up to Bathurst Inlet and there’d be two hills that you recognize en route, and you’d be looking for those and breathe a sigh of relief when you saw them. You might be to the right or to the left of them, but you saw them. And you could tell by the haze from the ocean, when you got up towards the coast, where you were. And there were a lot of hills up there so you had to be careful. 

Max Ward sits in his Yellowknife office in the early 1950s. NWT Archives/Henry Busse Fonds/N-1979-052:3789

Considering all those old bush pilot legends you’d heard, what were your first impressions when you landed in Yellowknife? It was very exciting. Yellowknife was a frontier town by far, with such a small population. It was extremely exciting and pleasant. With the war nicely over, I got in there in ‘45, and a chap called Jack Moar was going to start an airline. So that’s what drew me up. And we had a wartime airplane and we started flying that around. 

How did you land that gig? It wasn’t easy. But I got out of the service as soon as I could. And that gave me a leg up, you might say, in going North. And Jack Moar needed pilots. So I went up, waited a long time—about six months for them to get going—and after that it didn’t look very promising. So I decided that I’ll put some money together if I can beg, borrow or steal it, and buy an airplane and go in there myself. So I bought a Fox Moth from de Havilland, and away I went.

I take it you didn’t really know what to expect once you got up there? Oh yeah, that helped.

Was it around this time that you were approached by someone in the government about not having a licence? Exactly. The Air Transport Board arrived in Yellowknife one day, and came up and said, ‘You don’t have a licence.’ And I said, ‘Well, how do you get a licence?’ And they said ‘Well, it’s not that easy.’ And so it went from there. They said ‘Well, there’s another chap that’s got a licence in here, why don’t you join up with him?’ So I did. His name was Georges Pigeon. I went with him because he had a licence and that’s the only reason really. 

So did you not know that you needed a licence to fly commercially up there? Or was it just that you didn’t expect the government to come way up there and check? Both, I guess. I was surprised to see them up there. That was a problem for everybody. Air Canada [then Trans-Canada Air Lines] had the edge on everybody and nobody else was allowed to do anything really. It’s a long story—I don’t want to get into that one. 

I suppose that’s part of the business nowadays, lots of paperwork. Well there was a lot of politics, let’s look at it that way. A tremendous amount of politics in it. And there still is I guess, to a degree. But I wasn’t alone. Grant McConachie at CP [Canadian Pacific Airlines] was hammered, it’s a long story, but he had a hard time too because they didn’t want anyone competing with Air Canada. Then as I started to grow, they did everything they could to stop me. But it was too late, I kept going despite it.

You introduced the first Otter to Yellowknife, after officially launching Wardair in 1953. What do you think would have happened if you didn’t bring the Otter up here? It was the fifth Otter built. The last one of the hand-built Otters, the first five were hand-built.

The single engine Otter was quite a revolutionary airplane as far as the North was concerned. It was a huge step forward for bush airplanes, in that it had a high volume, and it had big doors, a good sized fuselage—and I’m talking in relative terms—and it could carry a heck of a load and it was a STOL [short take-off and landing] airplane so it could get in and out of small lakes. 

So it had everything that the prospector and the mining companies and camps wanted. And when I first brought it in they looked at it and nobody would use it, it was just too big. But once they started to use it, and found the economics were as good as they were, then it went like gangbusters. 

Did other pilots start buying the plane too? Well, it was a very expensive airplane. Norsemen were selling for $30-35,000, but this first Otter cost $100,000. So that was quite a shock. It was years before anybody else attempted to get one. 

It sounds like it was a bit of a risk on your part. Yeah, well I knew the North by then. With my experiences, I knew it would work out well.

I can see the big Bristol Freighter monument on the hill every time I drive past the Yellowknife airport. It seems you took another chance a few years later when you brought that plane up, too? Yes, it was a wonderful airplane for the North. We hauled the fire engine into Yellowknife, and all the cows and you name it. When the road was closed due to the Mackenzie River before the bridge, well we moved a lot of stuff from Hay River at the end of the truck road into Yellowknife to keep all the farms going and the farmers and the rest of them. And then we used it throughout the North because it had a good range. We used to carry 45 drums of fuel in it. And we could go right up to the Beaufort Sea with it.

What was your favourite airplane to fly while you were here? Well I don’t know. Each airplane was better [than the last]. The Twin Otter was a better airplane than the single Otter from the standpoint of what it would accomplish, but the single Otter was a revolutionary airplane when it came in, and the Twin Otter was not as revolutionary because the fuselage was just a little bit larger—it carried a bigger load, but not a lot. I guess the first one that really fit the North was the single Otter.

Max Ward with his new single-engine Otter in 1953. NWT Archives/Ward, Max, 1921-N-1988-001:0001

Was it fun to fly? Yup, it was. Short take-off. The other airplanes, sometimes when you took off, particularly with a load, you had to plan your take-off. [On a lake] you’d go to this area, and go around these rocks and swing over that way. You had to think of your take-off in different terms entirely. With the Otter you opened it up and away you went.

Did you have much experience with the de Havilland Beaver as well? Yes, we had Beavers. They were a good airplane, but they weren’t the workhorses that the North needed. But they were great for a lot of other operations with smaller loads, like the prospector going out with a small load. It was perfect for that. 

What are your impressions on the airline industry up North nowadays? Well, the business in Yellowknife came and went. Some years there were dry spells up there, with maybe two or three airplanes operating in the winter. And other times it’d be busy and you had a lot of work. The diamond development and the gold development and the uranium development—all those things opened up the North a lot, and then they started to stabilize, so a lot of that traffic is gone. It’s up and down. I don’t know what it’s like now, but I don’t think it’s booming exactly. The mining industry isn’t doing so well now.

[But in my day] it was a lot of fun. My best years. The North is still my favourite part of the world. I like to go up there every year and we spend the best part of two months up at our camp normally. It’s just great. I like to show it off to people, because the North is such a spectacular place—now, mind you, I can only show them a little bit of the North because the North is so huge. And I wish I was able to show them a lot more, but I can’t. The North is a wonderful country, and people haven’t got a clue about it as yet—most Canadians. And it’s too bad.

Are you still able to fly? No, I quit when I was 80.

That’s still pretty good! Well I should have quit when I was 75. You don’t want to give it up, but you should.       

There’s a lot of incidents in your book, The Max Ward Story: A Bush Pilot in the Bureaucratic Jungle, that seem like pretty close calls—crash landings, that sort of thing—during your time up here. Are there any that you still think about? You know, airplanes were our thing up there. And if you beat up an airplane you really felt bad. Because they weren’t easy to come by, and usually it was pilot error that did it so you could only blame one person. No way of passing the buck, unfortunately. That’s the way it goes. There was a few times… we lost a lot of pilots in the early days, right after the war. Up in the North, not just in the Yellowknife area but also in other areas where people that had been in Yellowknife went to and so on. I guess I was lucky, because I wasn’t any better pilot than they were.”

Are you coming up North next year? Absolutely. My whole family as a matter of fact are not very happy that we’re not going up there this year. My sons and daughters [will be there], and all their friends and their friends’ friends and you name it. We usually have about one hundred guests, sometimes 110 through the summer. 

How does it feel to be remembered as one of the trailblazers of aviation in the North? I enjoyed it. The pioneering was great. The accomplishments were kind of satisfying in some way. Except when you bent an airplane, or something—that isn’t very good. But the rest of it was good. And it was hard work. Everybody used to think a bush pilot is a glamorous thing, and it’s anything but. It’s just plain hard work. At first, we learned the country, and we learned where the highlights were and how to get around, even though we were lost most of the time. But it was exciting and challenging.

Nowadays there’s all kinds of technology to help you out. Oh, the GPS to me, even to this day, is just wonderful. It’s just amazing to me.

I think a lot of people would expect an old bush pilot to have the opposite opinion—that pilots should have to learn the hard way like you did. Oh no. No, absolutely not. You use everything you can get when you’re flying in the North. 

I suppose you would know that from experience. You betcha.

Edited and condensed