"Bush Pilot With A Briefcase"

or How Grant McConachie , Saved Us Bush
by Becoming President of CPAir.

I had read Grant McConachie's biography many years ago and remembered it as intriguing if not frustrating. The intriguing part was that the book was nicely written to show the balance between Grant McConachie's flying shenanigans and his business exploits. The frustrating part was that the book also tried to find a balance between his flying exploits and his business shenanigans. Most of the time, however, there was little difference between the two.
     McConachie's career was meant to happen. I don't believe in fate or destiny, or even dumb luck, but some things in history just work out better one way than the immediate alternative. In the development of Canadian Pacific Airlines and the success of deHavilland of Canada, and the progress of bush flying in general, McConachie played the key role. Anyone that knows the history of all the above will cringe when they read this proclamation, but if not for McConachie we as bush pilots would have been worse off.
     You would never have guessed by giving a critical reading of McConachie's biography. His story is a frustrating case history of how incompetence and failure can lead to one success after another. To most pilots crashing a plane would mean a loss of job or livelihood, but to Grant it meant insurance money or new opportunities. To most airline owners running a route with no passengers meant poor business, but to Grant it meant future prospects by opening new territory.
     He was to me the worse kind of airline owner or bush pilot. He pushed himself beyond all reasonable limits and expected the same out of his employees. With his impatient determination against all reasonable odds, he directly caused more crashes and hardships than anyone could justify. Through sheer dumb luck, which I don't believe in, he struggled through a decade without killing himself or taking anyone with him, to become the prime candidate for running the second largest airline in Canada.
     That, however, in the great scheme of things was where he was heading all along. It was clear from his complete incompetence with finances and his complete disregard for the safety of his employees or passengers or even his wife, who he made to sit on a pile of freight with no seat or seatbelt during a night time rough water landing, that he should have gone nowhere, except perhaps to jail. What was not so clear was that all this took him to or groomed him for where he ended up, as the President of CPA.
     McConachie was a dreamer, a futurist, a prophet of progress. He impatience was drawn from the deep well of discontent with the way things were, and his drive was geared by the need to speed up the slow wheels of change. He wanted results to show he was making progress. He wanted change to say he was being effective. He wanted to prove he was alive by proving he could make a difference. He was constantly attempting the impossible with the too little available to him; specifically with his severely limited finances and with a flotilla of outdated and inadequate aircraft. Grant McConachie was simply way ahead of his time. He wanted too much from the too little he had.
     And along came Canadian Pacific Railway. CPR had felt the pressure to move into air transportation. That was a good thing. They started by buying out all the half decent bush flying operations in Canada. Smart move. They get all the licences, along with some equipment and experienced employees, and suddenly they have an airline. Now the next move is predictable. Pick out the smartest manager from the best run, best organized, and most well off financially airline of the bunch. Name the crème of the crop to run CP Airlines, and have him sell off the worst of the bush planes with their VFR charter rights, and keep all the IFR licences, with the highest passenger per mile traffic routes, the busiest airports, and the heaviest freight hauls. Figuratively, separate the wheat from the chaff to end up with a premier operation.
     Luckily for CPA, or maybe unluckily for CPR, there was a staunchly conservative CPR manager who thought different. Or at least he was persuaded to do different. W.M. Neal became a believer in McConachie's dreams to build a world spanning airline and despite all economic logic to the contrary he ended up naming as President the manager of the worst run, least profitable, least likely to succeed airline in Canada. The title of this pretender to the throne's biography should have read; "Grant McConachie; Dreamer With a Brief Case and a Pilot Licence to Boot" or "How to Turn Your Financially Unviable Dreams into Reality."

     With Neal's managerial background it was difficult to believe that he was fooled for so many years by the artful persuasion that was McConachie's legacy. He must have understood that CPA, and CPR, needed a dreamer like McConachie. Without him the budding airline would have been lost. It was obvious, after only a few years in operation, that Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister, and C.D. Howe, the Transportation Minister, had intended for Trans Canada Airlines to monopolize the airways of Canada and abroad as the national carrier. End of story. CPA should have folded their hanger doors at an early stage in Canadian airline history and admitted defeat. How could you compete against a rival that was given a monopoly on all the high density traffic routes?
     Monopolies don't work, to the same degree that Communism doesn't work. Except for one individual's drive and imagination, the Canadian travelling public would have been allowed to wallow in the quagmire of political and economic dictatorship for the unseeable future. Grant McConachie saved us from all that, by doing what he had been doing all along. He dreamt of an impossible route to the Orient like he dreamt of an impossible route to the Yukon. Except now he had the financial backing to make it all happen with first rate aircraft and first class service.
     No more risking lives and aircraft by trying to leap frog into the future with inadequate resources and underpowered tube and fabric open cockpit aircraft. By sheer determination, the same determination that almost killed him innumerable times before on stormy black nights over the mountains, during blizzards in the prairies, while hanging his Fokker on the prop behind the power curve with a load of ice, while grossly overloading his floatplane hauling fish, during night landings on rough water, or even while barnstorming for cash to buy fuel and parts to continue his quest, Grant McConachie was able to literally pick Canadian Pacific Airlines up by their boot straps and continue to fly.
     They did it by picking up routes considered unprofitable by TCA, and by not abandoning the north. Where TransCanada paralleled traditional ground routes between densely populated cities, CPA served the rest of Canada. The rest of us. CPA even built their own airports in remote communities that continue to be used by bush flying outfits to this day. Yellowknife, Red Lake, Pickle Lake, Fort Smith, and Fort McMurray owe their beginnings to CPA. Moreover, they continued to honour their bush flying heritage. Although most pilots looking for a steady career wanted to get hired by Air Canada, the truth was that CPA was known to hire and respect bush pilots, while Air Canada went for military pilots. It's a mute point which training would have yielded the best airline pilot, but CPA believed pilots working their way up from the grass roots of aviation would have a better respect for their customers than those who never had customers.
     I remember hating having to fly on Air Canada in the days of government ownership. Unless you were in business class in a suit coming from Ottawa or Montreal, the pilots and flight attendants were downright rude and inconsiderate. On the other hand, the CPA pilots would invite you to the cockpit and the flight attendant would sit and have a chat when they were less busy. You felt at home on CPA. You felt like you belonged. I will never forget my flights to Vancouver, Hawaii, Fiji, and Australia with Canadian Pacific. One of those flights was an adventure that would have make Grant McConachie proud. I was going to fly a float plane for a small airline own by a struggling business man who needed a good old-fashion hard working Canadian bush pilot willing to work for coconuts to keep his dream of a complete air and sea passenger service afloat.
     So how did Grant McConachie help deHavilland and bush pilots in particular you ask? By becoming President of CPA and allowing "Punch" Dickins to move on to a better future for all of us bush pilots. Dickins was a brilliant pilot and sharp administrator who had as much or more experience for the job than anyone else in Canada. He had developed his own trademark personality that included self designed bush flying clothing made out of deerskin in the summer, and Eskimo furs in the winter to insure his survival if he ever went down. Moreover, "to the mechanics he was a martinet, extremely fussy about the planes he flew, a quirk that perhaps had aided his survival…"
     That "quirk" was, simply put, what the rest of the damn bush pilots of his day should have demanded. Mechanically sound aircraft. The north would have still opened up. The flights would still have gotten accomplished, a lot less aircraft would have needlessly crashed, and a whole lot more "pioneers" would have survived.
     The problem for us bush pilots was that if Dickins had been made president his tight fiscal management and straight forward thinking would have dragged CPA down even before it had began. The CPR board of directors would have seen the folly of trying to run an expensive airline on marginally low passenger per mile routes and would have had to pull the economic plug. It was only McConachie's inspired vision for the polar routes to China and Europe, and his untiring attempts to link the north with the south that induced the mesmerized CPR board to continue to pour money into such high flying and far fetched ideas.
     Dickins, to all our benefit, was relegated to a lesser position in the company and subsequently quit. During an inspiring period in history, Dickins went to work with deHavilland to help develop the greatest line of bush planes ever assembled. The Beaver, the Otter, and the Twin Otter. Thank you McConachie for leading Dickins into his true calling and, at the same time, keeping our bush flying heritage alive within the tumultuous structure of the great Canadian Pacific Airlines.
     Only now, with the purchase of Canadian Airlines by Air Canada, that has all changed. As bush pilots, past and present, we will all mourn the passing of a great airline. Least we forget Wardair succumbed first.

Article and Book Review by John S Goulet

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Bush Pilot With A Brief Case. By Edwin Morel.  

Note from the Editor. One of the great bush flying stories taken out of Grant McConachie’s biography Bush Pilot With A Briefcase epitomizes, to the extreme, an example of what it is like to be the bush pilot with a responsibility to his trusting customers left in some remote wilderness. Hopefully we will never get to experience what it feels like to be the stranded fool waiting faithfully on the pilot to return. For that story see The High Granite Wilderness starting with the Editor's Introduction.

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John S Goulet Editor


Last modified March 05, 2006 .
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