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Central Northern Airways and the Formation of Transair


In May 1947, a group of Winnipeg-based businessmen acquired the Canadian Pacific Airlines franchise for routes in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario to establish a new company – Central Northern Airways (C.N.A.). Key names within the C.N.A. ownership circle were E. Milton Ashton and F. Roy Brown, both well-known figures in Canadian flying circles each having more than 30-years experience. Upon leaving Canadian Airways in 1934, Ashton and Brown, together with Jack Moar and Ted Stull, had formed Wings Limited based in Lac du Bonnet, as well as other points in Manitoba and western Ontario. Milt Ashton was named vice-president and general manager of Central Northern Airways and Roy Brown a vice-president. Another well-known Canadian aviator, George H. Sellers, was company president.

Figure 1 A May 1947 Winnipeg newspaper notice announcing the establishment of Central Northern Airways (Winnipeg Tribune, May 14, 1947)

With its formation, Central Northern Airways became the third largest airline in Canada and made its first flight on May 12, 1947. It began with 10 airplanes from main bases at Flin Flon, Lac du Bonnet, and Sioux Lookout. From Flin Flon, regular flights were to be made to Sherridon, Island Falls, and Snow Lake. From Lac du Bonnet, regular routes would be to Bissett, Long Lake, Favourable, Lake, and Berens River. From Sioux Lookout, the company would fly to Casumit Lake and Gold Pines. Charter and other unscheduled flights would be available to the Lynn Lake region, Gods Lake, Norway House and as far north as York Factory. In Ontario, the Pickle Lake district would also be served (Winnipeg Tribune: “C.P.A. Gives Up Manitoba Airlines,” May 13, 1947; National Post: “New ‘Peg Firm Operates Manitoba, Ont. Airlines,” May 31, 1947).

Figure 1 A May 1947 Winnipeg newspaper notice announcing the establishment of Central Northern Airways (Winnipeg Tribune, May 14, 1947)

Figure 2 A newspaper notice for the opening of Central Northern Airways' first traffic office in Winnipeg's St. Regis Hotel (Winnipeg Tribune, August 28, 1947)

The company’s first traffic office was located in Winnipeg’s historic St. Regis Hotel on Smith Street. Head office was in the Osler, Hammond, Nanton Building at the corner of Main Street and McDermot Avenue (today part of Winnipeg’s Exchange District).

A special bus left the St. Regis at 8:00 AM to arrive in Lac du Bonnet for 9:30 from where passengers could board a plane to the destination. Within a year, press attention was being drawn to the important role being played by C.N.A.

Figure 2 A newspaper notice for the opening of Central Northern Airways’ first traffic office in Winnipeg’s St. Regis Hotel (Winnipeg Tribune, August 28, 1947) in northern Manitoba mining development.

Although the Noorduyn Norseman constituted the backbone of the Central Northern fleet, other airplane types would also fly for the company. These included the Waco YKC-S sesquiplane and Bellanca Aircruiser. in northern Manitoba mining development.

Bearing the colours of Central Northern Airways, the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada’s Waco sesquiplane CF-AYS, donated by the family of well-known bush pilot Wally Dzogan after his death in 1974, will be on display as part of the “Northern Connections” exhibition.

Central Northern Airways is connected to another “Northern Connections” story – that of Sydney Augustus Keighley. A long-time employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Keighley struck out on his own as an independent fur trader in 1938 operating in northern Saskatchewan where he developed close relationships with Indigenous trappers who were the cornerstone of his business. By this time, airplanes had arrived in these territories and Keighley chartered the services of companies such as M & C Aviation and Brooks Airways to become a “flying fur trader”. This meant that the trading post now came to the trapper as opposed to the trapper having to make an often long and arduous trek by dog-sled or canoe to the trading post. This form of aerial “curb-side” service gave Keighley a huge competitive advantage over both his former HBC employer and other independent traders.

In 1945, Keighley moved his fur business to the Pukatawagan district of northern Manitoba where once again his primary contacts were Indigenous trappers. The airplane remained central to Keighley’s work, with service provided by Central Northern Airways. As Keighley recalled in an autobiography: “C.N.A. was a privately-owned company, the principals being Milt Ashton and Roy Brown, with Jeff Home-Hay as chief pilot for a time. Jeff had flown in the First World War and after being shot down, spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. Hank Parsons was also with C.N.A. until he started Parsons Airlines our of Flin Flon. My old friend Tom Lamb, flew in occasionally as he had men fishing on Southern Indian Lake” (Keighley, 1989 [emphasis added]).

Keighley closed his fur-trade post at Pukatawagan in 1950. He then established a freight-hauling business in Kississing, Manitoba. To support this new undertaking, Keighley purchased his first car, a Ford station-wagon, which he used to deliver supplies to his customers. This was replaced the next year by a Ford Mercury two-ton truck. Central Northern Airways also became an integral part of the operation which continued to connect with Indigenous communities: “The business expanded to such an extent there was not too much time for sleep. Many nights I worked until one and two o’clock in the morning, putting up goods for the [Indigenous] trade which were then flown out by C. N. Air’s Norseman aircraft” (Keighley, 1989 [emphasis added]).

Sydney Keighley is an excellent example of how northern fur-trade and freight-transport businesses incorporated the airplane into their way of doing things – and were forever changed in the process. He also personifies the important relationships with Indigenous peoples into which the airplane was integrated. Companies like Central Northern Airways were key in this development.

The Formation of Transair

In December 1955, plans were announced in Ottawa to merge Central Northern Airways with Churchill-based Arctic Wings as a new company – Transair Limited. Arctic Wings had been founded in 1949 by Gunnar Ingebrigtson, the son of pioneering Norwegian-immigrant family who first settled in The Pas before moving to Churchill. Gunnar’s flying career began in 1941, when, at the age of 17, he took lessons in Winnipeg. Upon enlisting in the RCAF in 1943, Ingebrigtson wanted to become a pilot. However, the air force sent him to Ontario to train as a mechanic with the result that by the end of the war Gunnar knew a great deal about airplane engines. Still motivated by the desire to fly, he qualified for his pilot licence through a training program for former RCAF personnel at Vancouver’s Sea Island Airport in December 1945 (Vancouver Sun: “Civilian Pilots Appearing Again,” December 8, 1945). The following year, Ingebrigtson received his commercial licence, and with the help of friends raised $8,000 to purchase an airplane which was the start of Arctic Wings. Judging by one story, this was a Piper Cub (Windsor Star: “Doctor in the Arctic Saga of North Country,” July 23, 1955).

Accounts of the time noted that the company was created to “take government men on patrol, fly mail and airlifts of scientists, explorers, and missionaries” (Windsor Star: “Few Churchill Residents Grateful to Country,” October 18, 1955; Nanaimo Daily News: “Norwegian Immigrant Finds Fortune in North,” October 19, 1955). As Arctic Wings’ business grew, the Roman Catholic Oblates of Hudson Bay took an interest in the enterprising young Ingebrigtson and agreed to finance the purchase and operation of more planes (Nanaimo Daily News: “Norwegian Immigrant Finds Fortune in North,” October 19, 1955; Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: “Norseman Wreckage Spotted But No Sign of Survivors,” June 12, 1956). An example of this was Noorduyn Norseman CF-GJL which in December 1948 was registered to Bishop Marc Lacroix of Hudson Bay (Norseman History Website: “838 45-41754 NC57961 CF-GJL,” October 2020). As ambitious plans for an in-house Oblate flying service in the Hudson Bay Vicariate had not come to fruition, CF-GJL became part of the Arctic Wings fleet. Over the next few years, the company would make a name for itself as an important actor on the northern Canadian aviation scene, including mapping and geological survey work. Tragically Gunnar Ingebrigtson and his mechanic were killed when CF-GJL crashed in June 1956 (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: “Norseman Wreckage Spotted But No Sign of Survivors,” June 12, 1956, “Find Bodies Of Flyers In Wreckage,” June 13, 1956).

In a joint statement announcing the merger of their companies, Central Northern president G. H. Sellers and Arctic Wings president J. H. “Red” Lymburner said that an application for approval of the plan would be placed before the Canadian Air Board shortly. The new company would take over Central Northern routes in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario and Arctic Wings routes in northern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. This would include more than 15,000 miles of routes between Winnipeg and Sioux Lookout in the south to the mining centres in Red Lake, Flin Flon and Lynn Lake, and through Churchill to far-northern Arctic islands and DEW-line sites. The merger involved over forty different aircraft types ranging from single-engine planes operating on wheels, floats and skis, to amphibious flying boats and heavy four-engine transports. These would be supplemented by the purchase from Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA) of two Bristol freighters and one C-47 – an indication, according to press assessments, that Transair planned “to meet any and all air transport requirements in their zone of operations.” To support this integrated fleet, existing maintenance facilities in Winnipeg were to be expanded, a hangar at The Pas would be returned to use, and a new hangar would be constructed in Churchill. Head offices would be in Winnipeg with a sales office in Ottawa. Joining Sellers and Lymburner on the board of directors were R. G. B. Dickson, M. E. Ashton, J. A. Roberts, R. L. Hall, and J. E. Wells (Calgary Herald: “North Airline Merger Makes Big Operation,” December 3, 1955). Arctic Wings was initially held as a subsidiary of Transair, and, in addition to continuing to operate regular services, provided stevedoring service from rail and ship to airplanes operating out of Churchill (National Post: “Transair After Big Business With Polar, Northern Flights,” September 15, 1956).

In May 1956, R.D. Turner of Winnipeg was named the first president of Transair. Acting president, and former head of Central Northern Airways, George Sellers, remained on the board of directors. It was further announced that plans called for “luxury passenger facilities throughout the central north as soon as demand warrants. Uniformed staff, in the air and on the ground, is the goal.” Initially, most flights would remain on an unscheduled basis, but the hope was to introduce regular scheduled services soon (National Post: “North Airway Names Prexy Plans Routes,” May 12, 1956 [emphasis added]). In September 1956, Turner announced that Transair would bid for a polar air-route with landing rights in northern Europe. Such a service could provide low-cost transportation to Europe for passengers from the Canadian and American mid-west. The question of a possible polar flight had arisen due to a recent decision by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) to discontinue a technical stop at Winnipeg on its San Francisco to Stockholm run. SAS dropped the Winnipeg-connection because the company was not allowed by the Canadian government to pick or land passengers at Stevenson Field. As summarized by a press assessment: “Transair’s decision to apply for polar rights stems from a basic determination to be ready to pick up any opportunities that arise to expand air service in Western and North-central Canada.“ it also reflected the company’s confidence that Churchill had a strong future as a permanent air base and that the Canadian north would have an expanding need for air services (National Post: “Transair After Big Business With Polar, Northern Flights,” September 15, 1956).

In August 1957, the Air Transport Board, then chaired by former Canadian Airways, R.C.A.F., and Hudson’s Bay Company pilot and executive Paul Y. Davoud, approved an application by Transair to take over the Manitoba services of Canadian Pacific Airlines (CPA); a  Class 2 regularly-scheduled route serving Flin Flon and Lynn Lake; as well as a Class 1 service linking Winnipeg, Dauphin, Flin Flon, and The Pas. DC-3 equipment was to be used on all these runs. A story in the National Post presented this as partial evidence of how Canada’s smaller commercial air carriers were becoming increasingly active players, unwilling to leave the national market entirely to major carriers Trans-Canada Air Lines and Canadian Pacific Airlines (National Post: “Heftier Slice? Smaller Carriers Think Big,” November 2, 1957).

Transair would go on to become a great Canadian aviation success story – one well worth telling in its own right.

References

“838 45-41754 NC57961 CF-GJL,” Norseman History Website, Aircraft (norsemanhistory.ca) (October 2020)

“Aircraft CF-AYS Data,” Aircraft Data CF-AYS, 1935 Waco YKC-S C/N 4267 (airport-data.com) (April 2021)

“Ashton, Milton Ernest,” https://www.kenoragreatwarproject.ca/royal-air-force/ashton-milton-ernest/

“CF-AYS,” Civil Aircraft Register – Canada (airhistory.org.uk)

“Civilian Pilots Appearing Again,” Vancouver Sun, December 8, 1945, p. 30.

“C.P.A. Gives Up Manitoba Airlines,” Winnipeg Tribune, May 13, 1947, p. 1.

“Doctor in the Arctic Saga of North Country,” Windsor Star, July 23, 1955, p. 13.

“Few Churchill Residents Grateful to Country,” Windsor Star, October 18, 1955, p. 14.

“Find Bodies Of Flyers In Wreckage,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, June 13, 1956, p. 1.

“Francis Roy Brown,” https://cahf.ca/francis-roy-brown/

“Heftier Slice? Smaller Carriers Think Big,” National Post, November 2, 1957, p. 57.

Keighley, Sydney Augustus. Trader, Tripper, Trapper – The Life of a Bay Man (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer Publishing Ltd., 1989).

“Marie Julia Dzogan (Batrynchuk),” DZOGAN MARIE – Obituaries – Winnipeg Free Press Passages (September 2019)

“New ‘Peg Firm Operates Manitoba, Ont. Airlines,” National Post, May 31, 1947, p. 15

“Norseman Wreckage Spotted But No Sign of Survivors,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, June 12, 1956, p. 1.

“North Airline Merger Makes Big Operation,” Calgary Herald, December 3, 1955, p. 34.

“Norwegian Immigrant Finds Fortune in North,” Nanaimo Daily News, October 19, 1955, p. 3.

RAMWC Database

“Transair: A Look Back at Winnipeg’s Hometown Airline,” https://theviewfromseven.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/transair-a-look-back-at-winnipegs-hometown-airline/ (April 2010)

“Transair After Big Business With Polar, Northern Flights,” National Post, September 15, 1956, p. 36. “Waco YKC-6 CF-AYS,” Harold A. Skaarup web pages (silverhawkauthor.com) (May 2020)

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