The first plane Bob Engle brought north was the Cessna 180 on floats that he flew in himself, in 1956, on his first trip to Yellowknife. It was a small start for a man who’d soon enough bring in the biggest airplanes that have ever called the North home.
Engle started out working for Wardair, but by 1961 he’d left and started his own flying service, Northwest Territorial Airlines. He brought in the territory’s first ski-equipped DC-3 in 1967 and, the next year, started the territory’s first scheduled flight service, all the while staying on as the airline’s chief pilot.
NWT Air, as the company came to be known, would bring in Hercules aircraft, a gargantuan four-engine turboprop. Primarily a military aircraft, this would be one of the first privately-owned Hercules in Canada. It would go on to service remote camps and the diamond mines, and even be chartered to the International Red Cross during the Angolan Civil War.
Though Engle was renowned as a pilot, his greatest successes were as a businessman, operating NWT Air and a number of other specialty air services. His commitment to the North and his industry was often on display: He was the founding president and chair of the Northern Air Transport Association, a founding director of the Yellowknife Rotary Club, and was member for the NWT of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. His Yellowknife estate, decorated with exquisite carvings, prints and art from across the North, was a regular stop for visiting dignitaries—the Engles hosted the Queen, prime ministers and multinational CEOs.
It wasn’t long until people took notice of his achievements. In 1990, Engle was made a member of the Order of Canada. Among his recognitions, he’s been given the Pioneer in Aviation award from Winnipeg’s Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, appointed as an honorary colonel to 440 Transport Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and finally, in May 2014, he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.
In November of that year, he died peacefully with his wife Roxy by his side, in his West Vancouver home, at the age of 91. “He really was the first one to do the east to west [flights] and north to south, and the connections to the south,” says Roxy. “I’d say that his legacy would be opening aviation to the North.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that NWT Air was the first to operate a civilian Hercules aircraft in Canada; Pacific Western Airlines, in fact, bears that distinction. Additionally, the story previously stated NWT Air's Herc was contracted by United Nations during the Angolan Civil War.