Author documents 100 years of Northern aviation

Author documents 100 years of Northern aviation
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail’s new book shares the histories of Northern aviation pioneers.

From the hot air balloons that hung in the sky over the Klondike gold mining fields, to the storied bush planes that expanded explorations and the modern day military missions into the High Arctic, a new novel sets out to capture the major moments in Northern aviation history.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail’s new release, Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North, aims to collect a historical exploration of the North with accounts from the people who lived there.

“I find a lot of what I read from people down south, it’s very much this idea of ‘piercing the Northern frontier,’ and ‘opening up the North,’” Metcalfe-Chenail said. “I realized that people on the ground and in the air in the North have a different perspective on things, often, and they wanted to create companies that supported communities and people in the North, both through sustainable economic development but also social programs.”

To complete her research on the industry, Metcalfe-Chenail spent time in communities across the territories, like Dawson City, where she stayed at Canadian author Pierre Berton’s home, gaining inspiration from her settings as she interviewed local pilots and dug through archives.

In 2011, she attended the Yellowknife Float Plane Fly-In, where she spent time examining archival documents at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre. And from Edmonton to Inuvik, she scanned library documents, looking to put the pieces of the widely spread puzzle together.

Like looking at an iceberg, Metcalfe-Chenail said her book has only just covered the surface of the industry’s history, a more representative than comprehensive historical account.

“I really tried to create an inclusive history that brought in a lot of women and indigenous peoples’ voices and visible minorities because these are some of the voices that have been largely excluded from aviation history so far,” she said.

The book is a follow-up to her 2010 release, For the Love of Flying: The Story of Laurentian Air Services, which covered Canada’s aviation history up to the 60th Parallel.

Remembering Robert Engle

Earlier this month, the Northern aviation industry lost one of their pioneers, founder of Northwest Territorial Airways, Robert Engle.

Metcalfe-Chenail said she met the industry veteran just before he passed away when he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in April.

“You’ve got a southerner, an American who’s got this real interest in the North like so many of us southerners,” she said. “He actually went up there in the 1950s to kind of check it out and see what was happening with commercial aviation and really established a niche for himself right off the bat.”

Her book only includes a brief mention of the skilled businessman – a photo of his crew and members of the territorial legislative assembly boarding a DC3 aircraft with a brief caption – but she said she would like to investigate his legacy further.

For over 50 years, Engle built up his business plane by plane, charter by charter. Over time, he flew everything from the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers to heavy freight flights for oil drilling in the Arctic Archipelago – something that, according to one former pilot with Northwest Territorial Airways, has not been done by any other Canadian aviation company.

“He opened up another pioneering front with what was called a trans-territorial scheduled service out of Yellowknife,” said now retired pilot Cpt. Robert Foote, who worked with the company from 1978 through its ownership transitions with Air Canada and First Air. “Then we would leave Yellowknife, go Rankin Inlet to Iqaluit, in those days called Frobisher Bay. It was the first route of its kind.

“His foresight, communication and business development made Engle an excellent businessman,” Foote said. “His real legacy was entrepreneurship.”

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