Visiting Lakehead Airport 1961 — 2012 *Update*

ImageEvery airport has its delights for the aviation photography or history hobbyist. Always one of my favourite airports is YQT Lakehead which serves Thunder Bay. Years ago this was the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur. Originally an important way point for Canada’s  fur traders — the voyageurs of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and Northwest Co. — the place developed into a vital railway hub and shipping centre in the 19th Century. Manufacturing and shipping forest products, storing and shipping grain, ship building, and manufacturing railway rolling stock made for a solid local economy. In the 1930s railway manufacturer Canadian Car and Foundry added aircraft to its product list. During WW2 CCF turned out the Hurricane and Helldiver in large numbers, then the Harvard in the 1950s. The story of aviation at The Lakehead is well told in Jim Lyzun’s 2006 book, Aviation in Thunder Bay.

TCA Viscount CF-TGR

TCA Viscount CF-TGR on which I flew from Toronto’s Malton Airport to Fort William on September 3, 1961. This was my first visit to this part of Canada. This was a very big deal for a 17-year-old high school kid chasing his hobby across the country. I don’t recall where I took this photo of ‘TGR with my Minolta Autocord “2 1/4” twin lens camera — this is not at Fort William. Maybe Ottawa? Sold in 1964, ‘TGR ended in France. It was scrapped at Paris-Orly 10 years later. PS All the photos in this blog item have been masterfully perfected by Andrew Yee, who is well-known for his astronomy and spaceflight reporting on the Weather Network. Click on any photo that you wish to view full size.

TCA Viscount CF-TGR - clouds

The view from my window while winging west to Fort William in TCA Viscount CF-TGR. We rarely took such a photo, every frame normally being carefully preserved for “real” photos of airplanes. I’m glad now that I occasionally “wasted” the odd frame like this one.

My first visit to The Lakehead was on September 3, 1961. This was a stopover on my TCA flight to Winnipeg. For this I had saved my pennies for a year — the 1-way fare set me back $50, a fair fortune for a high school kid. I took the morning flight (TCA F59 Viscount CF-TGR 0755 to 10:00) first to Fort William, where I got off to spend a few hours before boarding the afternoon leg (TCA F53 Viscount CF-THX 21:45 to 11:25) to Winnipeg.

Image

In the late 1950s Transair operated this speedy Lockheed L.12A along with Lockheed 14 CF-TCN on its Winnipeg-Red Lake sked. Depending on ticket sales, the smaller L.12 might be used, or the bigger L.14. These two handsome Lockheeds were known locally as the ” Red Lake Rockets”. About 1960 CF-EPF was sold to Superior Airways. Such a plane might have been useful there for hauling fish from winter ice strips,or on passenger or freight charters. Built in 1939 as NC17397, ‘EPF had served Reiss-Premier, a maker of pipes for smokers. Such other operators as the US Civil Aeronautics Administration followed, until the plane came to Canada in 1953 for Argosy Oil of Calgary. Into the 1980s we used to see it overgrown with weeds at Oshawa Airport, from where, to everyone’s surprise, it flew away one day to points unknown.

Superior Airways converted this Vultee BT-13 2-seat trainer for hauling fish. Someone told me this day that O.J. Weiben could not get the DOT to certify the plane once he had made the mods to it. Notice the “X” for “experimental” registration. Only a handful of war surplus BT-13s reached Canada after WW2 and none seems to have lasted very long. There was little interest in Canada in this type, the war surplus market then being flooded with cheap Cornells, Harvards and Tiger Moths.

The day was mainly overcast, but the airplane spotting was above average ast Fort William. At the airport I photographed such rarities as Superior Airways Lockheed L.12A CF-EPF, a BT-13 that Superior had converted for the fish hauling business, and Twin Bonanza CF-LNP. After covering the general scene, I hitchhiked to Superior’s seaplane base. Here I met Superior’s famous O.J. Weiben, who let me wander around with my camera. By this time there was a  low ceiling in rain, so I was getting a bit impatient. Then something revived me spirits — a roar in the clouds of what just had to be a WW2 fighter — the vision of a Spartan Mosquito got me going.

I hustled back to the airport to find my suspicions not far off — parked in front of the terminal was a bright orange P-38 Lightning. Hustling across the tarmac, I fired off a few frames, including with my Kodak Pony loaded with the one roll of Kodachrome I could afford for this trip. The P-38 pilot was busy organizing his kit, but friendly enough to answer a few questions. Far better, when I asked if he’d be game to fire up his engines for a photo op, he was good for that — could you imagine a scenario like that in 2012!

The aircraft was CF-JJA of Vancouver-based Aero Surveys. Modified for high level photography, ‘JJA was heading for Toronto from where Kenting Aero Surveys had a job for it in Argentina. So that made this Lakehead side trip one of my more interesting. Later in the day I pushed on to Winnipeg, then spent the next nine days hitchhiking back to Toronto, stopping at many airports and seaplane bases along the way.

On any such a trip we kids were lucky to be able to afford so much as a single role of Kodachrome. The price in the late 1950s hovered around $10 per roll, so shooting colour was a luxury. But I knew that this P-38 was well worth a few frames from my “36er” of Kodachrome. Here are how two of them turned out. Note the rural background in these views. YQT today is just on the edge of the much-expanded city slightly to the east.

Subsequently, I visited the Lakehead on and off, especially in the years when laying the groundwork  for Air Transport in Canada. In 1996, for example, I covered YQT, then was hosted from there by Bearskin Airlines for a tour across Northwestern Ontario. In 2012 I was back with the support of Porter Airlines and Bearskin, heading into the hinterland, this time doing Norseman research. Arriving on a Porter Q400 from Toronto City Centre Airport on May 30, I had a few hours while awaiting my Bearskin flight to Sioux Lookout. This was great, for the day was fine and YQT absolutely abuzz with with activity — airplanes of every sort were coming and going faster than I could keep pace. Here are a few of the photos taken during this very worthwhile stop-over:

Thunder Bay’s modern terminal — front and airside views. The airport is managed by the Thunder Bay International Airports Authority Inc. In 2011 some 719,500 passengers passed through this busy and increasingly important regional centre. The airside view shows a Westjet Boeing 737 during a typical turn-around.

Bearskin Airlines has been a partner in Northern Ontario air transportation since 1963. The company’s top-notch website includes a detailed history page, so be sure to take a look at http://www.bearskinairlines.com. CANAV’s Air Transport in Canada (presently on sale) also has a good general Bearskin history. Bearskin has about 350 staff serving  communities from Winnipeg and points north from there, across northern Ontario and down to Ottawa, from where a sked links Kitchener. Several Bearskin Metroliners carry registrations that include airport codes for company destinations. Here C-GYRL (“Red Lake”) waits at Thunder Bay for its next trip. Beyond is one of Porter Airlines’ flashy Bombardier Q400s just in from Toronto Island at noon on May 30, 2012.

The Bearskin fleet numbers 16 Metroliners. The first (C-GYWG “Winnipeg) was acquired in 1992. The most recent four came this year from Australia, being ferried to Canada all the way across “the Big Pond” — the Pacific. One of them is shown on May 30 in Bearskin’s Thunder Bay hangar, being readied to go to work. The “Metro” has proven to be a reliable and economic 19-seat, mini-airlinerall  across Bearskin’s system.

This old school bus has been modified by Bearskin to serve as an engine testbed. A Garratt TPE 331 (the standard Metro turbine engine) can be mounted on the yellow test rig, then run up to evaluate condition, performance, etc. In the foreground is one of the cut-down “beaters” that Bearskin uses at its destinations to speed ramp servicing, baggage handling, etc.

Bearskin’s Metro C-FXUS during a brief stop at YQT on May 30. Such decent photos can be taken through the terminal windows. Beyond sits one of Wasaya’s Beech 1900Ds. Also in the 19-seat category, this type mainly serves points north of the Bearskin east-west line. Seeking to expand in the 2000s, Wasaya purchased these routes from Bearskin, so there is no great direct competition between the two carriers north of Red Lake – Sioux Lookout.

In recent times Winnipeg-based Exchange Income Corporation has acquired Bearskin Airlines, Calm Air, Custom Helicopters, Keewatin Air and Perimeter Airlines. These renowned companies continue to operate under their original banners. Winnipeg-based Perimeter has been well-known at Thunder Bay for decades. On May 30 its Beech 95 Travelair C-FEQK was on the ramp. So was Dash-8-100 C-FPPW, busy transporting firefighters working on big forest fires around Timmins. Built in 1994, ‘PPW previously had served such US airlines as Allegheny Commuter and Piedmont.


In its aviation program, Confederation College of Thunder Bay has graduated hundreds of pilots, aviation technicians, managers, etc. Here is one of its Cessna Ce.172 student training planes in front of the main college facility on the north side of YQT. Find out about this famous Lakehead institution here

An airport authority vehicle on the Confederation College tarmac. The superannuated Air Canada DC-9 behind is used by the college in trades training.

Also prominent across the field from the main Thunder Bay terminal are the new Pilatus and Ornge hangars. Frank Kelner founded this major Pilatus distributorship in 1997. Earlier, he had spread the Cessna Caravan far and wide across the North and was the driving force behind what today is Wasaya Airlines.The Pilatus Canada websitenotes: “The Kelner name has been synonymous with Canadian aviation for nearly 30 years. In addition to transporting millions of pounds of freight and passengers to and from many remote or under-serviced communities, the Kelner Group was the first commercial operator in the world to fly commercial single engine IFR with passengers.” 

The private contractor Ornge provides air ambulance services across Ontario using Pilatus PC-12s and such helicopters as the Sikorsky S-76 shown in this telephoto scene taken from the passenger terminal.

The visitor to YQT in 2012 usually spots these two residents — a FedEx Cessna Caravan and a Purolator Convair 580. The well-proven Cessna Ce.208 Caravan series plays a major part with FedEx in connecting such smaller centres as Thunder Bay with hubs like Winnipeg. Here Caravan C-FEXF sits at YQT, awaiting its night time service to Winnipeg, as a Porter Q400 arrives from Toronto. Then, Kelowna Flightcraft’s Convair C-GKFG in the afternoon sun waiting its night’s work on Purolator’s east-west network. Having begun in 1952 with Continental Airlines as CV-340 N90852, this Convair later served North Central, where it became a “580”  in 1968. It later served a long list of operators, until coming to Canada with KFC in 1997. Several 60-year old Convairs still earn their keep in Canada, but gradually are fading from the courier market. Meanwhile, a few are finding new life as fire bombers (scroll back a couple of items to see a colourful blog item about the Convair series).

 

Our readers have a say … hundreds of visitors have been enjoying our Lakehead airport blog item. One who got in touch is CANAV’s longtime subscriber, Richard Rinn. Growing up in the Lakehead, he had many an enjoyable visit to the local airport. In December 2012 Richard received his copy of “Yukon Wings” which, in a round-about way, triggered some early memories of the Lakehead:

I grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario (then Fort William and Port Arthur), where there was also a fairly active bush flying scene in the 50’s and 60’s.  I often rode out on my bike with friends to what was then a fairly small and intimate airport.  We’d see the Beavers, Otters, and Expeditors of Orville Wieben’s Superior Airways take off and land. In those days we could get right up to the where they were parked on the tarmac next to the old fire-trap wooden WWII-vintage hangers.  I remember seeing a lot of other aircraft too:  the usual RCAF T-birds and Tutors on training flights, USAF transports (particularly C-119’s and the rare C-124) supporting radar line construction, and even a DH Mosquito “photo recon” variant presumably on an air-mapping contract. Other good memories from that time include:  stepping up onto the clipped-wing of John Patterson’s Spitfire IX CF-NUS to look into the cockpit; seeing the Golden Hawks perform; quite literally bumping into PM John Diefenbaker outside the terminal, where he was getting a breath of fresh air with his wife, while his MOT Viscount was being refuelled; and especially seeing a USN AEW blimp on its way up north for trials.  Yukon Wings indirectly reminds me of all these things from my youth, and is all the more valued because of it.

Here are a few more plane spotter’s photos from the Lakehead:

A nice surprise at YQT on May 30 was this Alberta government Canadair CL-215T. Crewed by Jim Olson (captain), Paul Blouin (first officer) and John de Valk (flight engineer), it was in from Manitouadge looking for fuel, following a contract on forest fires around Timmins. By this time, however, nature had largely silenced the fires and the Alberta crew was heading home.

Fire fighters’ gear stacked around Shell’s YQT FBO. Thunder Bay’s famous Mount McKay is in the background.

This handsome old (1962) Piper PA-24 Comanche is based at YQT, from where it does photography and sensing.

One of the great work horses of the Canadian North for more than 40 years has been the Hawker Siddeley/British Aerospace “748”. The 748 truly made its mark as a DC-3 replacement. Much is told about this magnificent bushplane in such books as Austin Airways and Air Transport in Canada. Now the 748 is waning — the hulk of C-GBCY lies at YQT in the Wasaya Airways compound. More recently (June 2012) Wasaya’s 748 C-FTTW burned to ashes at Sandy Lake while de-fuelling. We hope that some Canadian aviation museum soon will have the sense to preserve one of these magnificent work horses. The CAM has already passed up a chance — it turned down a 748 which FirstAir offered to fly in to Rockcliffe and “hand over the keys” — no charge. Too bad, no luck. Seems that the 748 isn’t considered by the CAM to be that great a find.

Some of the Pilatus PC-12s that I saw at YQT on the 30th. All such modern aircraft serve Northern Ontario today thanks to the 1970s provincial government “Highways in the Sky” program that put in gravel airstrips at such places from Okogi Post to Sandy Lake, places previously served only by small float or ski planes. The string of new strips triggered change, and soon the Twin Otter and 748 were regular visitors pretty well everywhere. Today such turboprops as the Beech 1900D, BAe748, Caravan, King Air, Kodiak, Metro and PC-12 carry the load. Shown are PC-12s of Nakina Air, North Star Air of Pickle Lake, Wasaya and the Ontario Provincial Police.

Thunder Airlines resides at YQT. It runs skeds and charters all over the North, using the Caravan, King Air and (shown here) MU-2 “Rice Rocket”. Beyond rises the NAV CANADA control tower.

This fine monument at Thunder Bay airport honours the young men from the area who gave their lives in the RCAF during WWII.


Porter’s Q400 C-GLQY taxies for takeoff at YQT for its return to YTZ Toronto Billy Bishop Airport. The Q400 has proven to be one of the world’s great regional airliners. Porter operates 26 of these comfortable, speedy and quiet regional airliners.

It’s always fun to have your camera handy as you takeoff and land. On a bright day the view from your Porter Q400 as you depart Toronto is stunning. This quick snapshot includes one of Toronto’s great landmarks and civic/commercial assets — what we used to call “Toronto Island Airport”, today’s Billy Bishop Airport. The city skyline is spellbinding to take in as you start or finish your trip on Porter.

Two views as our Q400 zipped into YQT from YTZ on May 30.

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