"The Airman's World is an Unique Place"

Keith Olson's Story: From Bush to Boeings .

Keith Olson took his first flying lesson on October 7, 1954, and made his first solo flight on the 9th, after five hours of dual instruction. He was awarded his private pilot's licence on March 2, 1955.
      Following high school graduation, Olson went back to Island Falls to work at the hydro plant as a third operator. He managed to build up a "handful of hours" flying on skis with a borrowed J-3 Piper Cub owned by Jim Ripley, who ran a small outfit in Sandy Bay near Flin Flon. He had 55 hours flying time when he took Ripley's J-3 to Reindeer Lake, 80 miles north of Island Falls. On the way back, he had to fly "from lake to lake" because of heavy snow.
      "I was flying very low but I was really relaxed. I kept thinking, 'This is for me!' Little did I know that I would spend many years flying the Arctic in similar stuff. I guess it was an indicator that it and I would get along well."
      After a year at the hydro plant, he said, "I want to go flying." His father insisted, however, that he should have more education, so he took a three-year aeronautical engineering diploma course at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary.
      While there, Olson got his commercial licence through the Calgary Flying Club on April 16, 1959. Again his instructors were ex-military men, Ray Scott and Jim Tattershaw. After graduating with his engineering diploma, Olson worked as a mechanic at the airport in Calgary, while looking for a flying job. (Later, while flying in the North, he wrote exams for his mechanic's licence.) The first company he applied to was Thomas Lamb Airways Ltd. (later named Lamb Airways, then Lambair), who flew across the country he'd grown up in. They said, "Come on out."
      Olson and a friend owned a small Luscombe aircraft with a 65 horsepower engine, so they decided to fly to The Pas for the interview. When he arrived on Thanksgiving Sunday, no one was in the office. Olson phoned the manager at his home.
      "Did you bring- all your stuff?" he was asked.
      "No," Olson said. "Don't you want to interview me first?"
      "Naw. Go back and get it."
      Olson was hired for his first flying job based on the fact that he'd even come to The Pas! He was ready to begin his commercial flying career, with barely 200 hours to his credit.

      The first morning on the job, he met the crew at a local cafe. There were six Lamb sons, who all flew. The principal owner, Tom Lamb, now spent much of his time at his ranch near Moose Lake where he raised prize-winning cattle. Olson didn't meet him until he'd been with the company for several weeks.
      "Everyone was really friendly," Olson recalls. "They took me over to the hangar at the base. I did 15 minutes of dual in a Cessna 180 on skis, and then a few more minutes of solo, doing circuits and practising on the lake. That was it. I passed their' entrance exam."'
      By November, the company had him taking short trips on skis to places like Moose Lake 40 miles away, but soon he was flying to Snow Lake, Grand Rapids and Thompson. "There wasn't much work," Olson recalls. "I often wondered why they'd hired me."
      In January, 1960, the company sent him to Gods Lake to stay with the Indian Agent and try to drum up some charter work. He stayed three months, picking up whatever work he could. Every so often one of the Lamb boys would come through, and Olson would hand him a roll of cash received from flying trappers and other customers around the country. Although there weren't many trips, it was good experience for the young pilot for he was left quite on his own.
      He quickly learned that customers usually wanted to load twice as much cargo into an airplane as it should carry. Some trips involved taking the doors off the Cessna to get a sleigh in the back, loading supplies, a couple of dogs and two trappers, and then flying 12 miles! "A lot of work for almost nothing, but that's what you did," Olson says. 'We called them trapper trips' and we charged a 12-mile minimum."
      Olson soon met a variety of people who had come to the North seeking their fortunes - or hide-outs - as well as those who called the North their birthplace.
      "There were the local types like the Indian Agent, Charlie Slade, who I'd stayed with, and the Hudson's Bay managers. In those days, people in the remote settlements really put their hearts into the communities. Some were hard workers, and some weren't.
      "Sometimes I flew Indian families to their traplines. I felt a little sorry for them. The Bay would 'grubstake' them (supply their needs, on credit), and sometimes pay for the flight. They'd trap, live off the land for the winter, come back, pay off the Bay, and then have nothing left. They enjoyed themselves because they were away from the settlements, but it was sort of a dead-end thing. They could live in a tent in the summer and not feel badly done by, but as the years went by, this attitude changed. You could see problems coming. They didn't know where to fit in."
      Some of his later flying jobs entailed picking up the Native children from remote settlements to take them to boarding schools. "We'd go to the various Eskimo camps and take kids into Chesterfield Inlet, or to Churchill.

      "I don't know how Northern Affairs worked it, but we took the kids out in the fall and brought them back in the spring. They were away not quite 10 months, whatever was sort of convenient.
      "In those days, no one seemed to know just what to do with people in the North, in the Arctic," Olson says. "Should the Eskimos stay on the land, or shouldn't they? There were two schools of thought that never seemed to mesh. There still isn't any answer. But taking the kids out, I think, was the end of it, because once they'd been out they didn't mind going back but they didn't want to stay back."
      Olson observed first-hand the importance of family in the Eskimo culture. "They -had nothing else. They lived a harsh life, and death was imminent from starvation or illness. So, to take away the kids, it was really hard.
      "They were very stoic people," he adds. "One time when we brought the kids back to Aberdeen Lake west of Baker Lake, the sea ice was so rotten I had to land on a slope on the side of a hill, on skis. These people had camped across the creek, waiting for their kids. A little girl got off the airplane with her school books and her doll. Her parents greeted her, but no one showed emotion in front of the white man. What they did was shake their daughter's hand, and you could just tell that they were so happy to see her back.
      "It was heartbreaking to realize these people hadn't had their kids around for a whole winter. As soon as summer came they got to see them for a little bit, then they were off again."
      Olson acknowledges, however, that the education gained did help in some ways. "The transition was inevitable, there was no way it wasn't going to happen. It was just a matter of time."
      For Keith Olson, every day he spent in the North was a learning experience. When a group of prospectors came from Thompson to do some staking at the north end of Gods Lake, he got their flying contracts. One time he landed on a small lake in the spring when the snow was getting soft, As soon as he touched down he knew he was going to be stuck, so he cut the power and stopped. One of the passengers strapped on a pair of snowshoes and clambered out to discover that the airplane had settled so deeply into the snow that he could lean his elbow on the wing tip! It took them all evening to dig and tramp out an airstrip in the deep snow, and get the airplane turned.
      From Gods Lake, the company sent Olson to Thompson to work on a 14-month contract for Inco (International Nickel Company of Canada Limited). At that time, the mine was set up, 2 000 single men were there, and exploration was going on all around, but smoke wasn't yet coming from the stacks in Thompson. Olson mostly made short hauls of about 50 miles, supplying the drill camps. He also made the odd trip up to Kettle Rapids, or back to Gods Lake Where the company had some land staked.
      "I went in to lots of places that were supposed to be secret, not only for Inco but I also took on charter flights for others if we had the time. People would stake claims and say, 'Don't tell anyone!"'
      Olson quickly learned that it was a pilot's job to see all, know all and say nothing. "They beat that into our heads. They said, 'We're in the flying business, not in the business of nosing around about what our clients do.' It was a good philosophy, because if any of us had staked around, and word got out, that would have been the end of the airline business. People would have shied away from using our services."
      In the summer of 1961, Olson went up to Churchill on a contract for the army who were taking aerial photographs and using tellurometers to take measurements, to correct maps of the North. Olson recalls that these instruments gave amazingly accurate readings: over eight miles - the maximum reading area - they might be out two inches at the most.
      "First, we would pick a known point on the map, like a prominent rock on a lake. They'd stand the equipment up," Olson says. 'We'd fly five or six miles in each direction to another point that could be recognized on a photograph, and measure the distance from one instrument to the other. We started from Churchill and worked about 600 miles, up past Baker Lake. All that time we lived in fly-infested tents, which was an experience in itself."
      Olson also flew employees of the Geological Survey of Canada to northern sites. "Their idea was to walk over every piece of Canada. We'd park, they would do sort of a' square circle' and record what they saw, even old cabins. We'd move them a few miles and they'd do it again. They also had canoes, which we had to transport on the airplane. It would get quite warm sometimes, in July, and we'd be in the water fighting off the mosquitos, wearing hip waders, and falling around on rocks trying to tie on a canoe. The bugs just about drove us nuts. We sometimes had to wear head nets. That first summer we flew all over the North, as far as the Arctic Circle.
      "Then, because I hadn't got lost or otherwise come to grief, Lamb Airways decided I should go back to Churchill. I flew a Norseman (CF-INN) out of there for one year - that Norseman is at the bottom of a lake right now - and an Otter for three years, as far as the north end of Baffin Island."
      Olson's favorite aircraft was the Norseman, even with its faults. "It was hard to fly in some circumstances, more of a challenge, but it's a genuine bush plane," he says. "I also loved the single Otter - it would do what the Norseman would do, but do it a lot better. You could land in a lot shorter spaces.
      "The Norseman on skis in the Arctic had one major drawback: it just didn't land 'slow'. Often the snow in the North is very hard, you could walk on it and not leave a mark. To avoid damaging the aircraft, we always looked for the smoothest area to land on, such as glare ice. But on many occasions there wasn't much choice and we had to just hang on. The Norseman would land, crash! We hated that! If there was a wind it wasn't so bad, but we'd usually crash to a stop, and crash taking off. Bang! Bang!
      "The Otter could get off and land slower, and in shorter distances; on floats it was able to carry a bit more than the Norseman, and it had good range. The Norseman was also quite drafty - it had a little Janitrol heater under the seat, but as soon as you'd take off it would cool right down. So it was uncomfortable, whereas the Otter was better. I liked them both, though, totally different airplanes."
      Olson flew on floats more often than on skis, because the airline was busier in the summer. Floats demanded a different method of flying. "You can get into a lot of trouble on floats because you can't just stop the airplane. You have to pick your water, and estimate the wind and the current to know where you should be able to stop.
      "I spent my last four years with Lamb's flying out of Churchill, landing on and taking off from the ocean, so I had to really watch the swell and the weather. If I landed, was there a place to tie up? And I had to make sure I knew where I could take off from. You don't land and then say, 'I wonder where the reefs are?' because you can't see them when you're down."
      In the spring he had to contend with ice clunking around in the water. Even in August, considered the best time of year to fly, sea ice would still be floating around settlements such as Igloolik on the Melville Peninsula, nearly preventing him from getting in.
      Swells were Olson's worst problem when landing on the ocean. "You can see them when you fly over. If there was a storm on the east side, those waves would eventually work their way across. Or, there could be a wave coming from the north, and then another set of waves could roll in from the west. They would all meet at an apex."
      One time, Olson was bringing some students down from Rankin and Chesterfield inlets to attend school in Churchill. He went into Whale Cove, picking a place that was fairly smooth to land the Otter. He came in but noted the swell, and remembers thinking, 'I don't know if I should have done this!' More kids boarded at Whale Cove, so the airplane was heavily loaded. He tried twice to get off, but because of the swell he could go only one way. As the waves came in the floats started to submerge. Olson turned off the power and aborted the takeoff. He tied up to a big fishing boat and everyone got off. They waited overnight for the waves to settle down.
      "You've got to know when to quit," Olson says. "That was one of the few times - maybe the only one - that I got caught on the ocean because of the swell. You could always see it. The ocean could be perfectly calm, but in would come rollers from some previous storm."
      Sometimes the tide prevented him from anchoring the airplane safely once he was down. "The first time I anchored my Beaver on the ocean bottom off Chesterfield Inlet, the water was calm as glass. I just threw the anchor out and someone came out in a boat to bring me to shore. But all night I was nervous, knowing my airplane was anchored half-a-mile out. I couldn't wait to get up in the morning to see if it was still there!"
      At Eskimo Point (now called Arviat) he would tie up to an anchored raft. The ocean at Repulse Bay, at high tide, runs into a lake that they usually landed on, resulting in a tide of its own that rises and falls 12 inches, while the ocean outside the lake rises and falls 12 feet.
      The problem is the lake's rocky shoreline. If the aircraft is tied to the shore at high tide and the lake drops 12 inches, it could get hung up on the rocks. If it's tied up at low tide and the lake rises 12 inches, the aircraft might also be banged up on the rocks. So, Olson carried a little war surplus raft (which included a parachute in case a person was shot down over the ocean). "When I'd anchor on this lake, I'd have a helper with me," he says. "He would get into this raft, paddle to shore, then walk around to the upwind side of the lake and throw the raft into the water. It would drift back to me. I'd get in and paddle myself to shore."
      At other places the water might be so deep that if a wind came up the anchor could drag at an angle, so he had to watch that, too. "Looking after the airplane was probably more challenging than flying," Olson says. "You were always calculating the odds. Baker Lake is 60 miles long and there is a good sweep down the lake. I used to have rows with the weather office in Churchill over their unreliable forecasts. 'It's good and calm, 'they'd say, and I'd get there and it would be terrible. But in those days there weren't many recording stations and they had a tough job."
      Olson got caught at Baker Lake twice in one summer when the wind came up unexpectedly during the night. "I woke up and went to the beach, and saw the waves just rolling in. We had to get a D-6 Cat to drag the airplane out of the water, up the steep beach, and onto sand until the storm passed.
      "Down south you have trees around the lakes and you can get into the sheltered side. There is no shelter up there because there are no trees -and no spare parts if the aircraft gets damaged."
      Being both a pilot and a mechanic proved quite useful. Although Olson wasn't a: licensed mechanic when he first went north, he did what had to be done. Then Tom Lamb asked him to get his licence, because of the difficulty in finding a licensed mechanic to sign off the airplane in remote areas.
      Emergency repairs had to be made, legally or illegally, to get out of a fix. "You'd do what you had to do - change a mag or patch floats. No one else was there. With the licence I could do it legally."
      To patch a small hole in a float, he carried an epoxy plastic body-filler material similar to that used on automobiles. It served until he could get to the service base.
      "Once, I hit a drill rod in the water south of Thompson, and it cut a long rip in the float," Olson recalls. "I got the airplane back to the dock and propped the float out of the water. I put rags in this long tear and covered the whole thing with sticky heavy drill-rod grease, almost like a glue. Then I dropped the float back into the water and flew on to The Pas."
      During his years of flying in the Arctic with Lamb's, Olson never had a copilot, although he often was given a helper. "The helper was usually some chap from The Pas who wanted a job. In the winter we had to dig out our gas drums from caches here and there. We'd know they were in the snowdrift somewhere, so we'd dig and roll them out. It involved a lot of physical work, using shovels or whatever we could find."
      At Baker Lake the gas was cached on the shore, but at Rankin Inlet some drums were kept out on the sea ice because the airstrip would sometimes drift in. When that happened, they had to land out on the ocean to get to the fuel. In a storm, that could be tricky.
      But Olson's worst memories of arctic flying concern the ritual of starting the aircraft in the cold mornings. He would carry as many as four blowpots, but they didn't all work at one time.
      "Some of those days, the only time we were warm was when we'd crawl under the tents with the blowpots, As soon as we shut them off we knew we were going to be cold for the rest of the day."
      Although the flame from the blowpot was smokeless, Olson acknowledges there must have been fumes. "Maybe that's why pilots age fast," he laughs. "We tried to use ATCO, a low-grade automotive gas with less lead in it.
      'We'd sit under the tarps, with no ventilation, for up to two hours with the blowpots burning away. We didn't want a draft!"
      The Otters sat fairly high off the ice. When the wind was blowing, and it was 49 degrees below zero - a typical temperature at Chesterfield and other northern sites - and the tarps would be flapping, it was hard to keep in much heat.
      'We must have been breathing almost pure fumes, although our eyes didn't smart or anything," Olson says. "We were out of the heavy fumes because we'd lay down with our heads near the ice, leaning on one elbow. If we sat up, the fumes would be quite dense.
      "We carried brooms to brush snow off the wings, then we'd prop them up in front of the engine to hold the tarp from going right against the cowling so the heat could stay in, and put weights around the edges. If there weren't enough sleeping bags and stuff to go around and weigh down the tarp, one of us would lie on a piece of tarp to keep it from flapping, and just not move.
      "We went through that operation every day. Some days it took only 20 minutes or so to get the engines warmed up, but most times longer."
      Dressing for the climate threw mobility and fashion out the window in exchange for basic warmth. "I started off with a cheap parka, but eventually I got a good Woods parka with a fur-lined hood. I bought quilted nylon air force wind pants, really warm, and air force war surplus flying boots. I'd wear a couple pairs of socks along with leather slippers inside those things. Then I'd have on coveralls, and a down-filled jacket.
      "I made sure my helpers were similarly dressed. We might be in the middle of nowhere and crash this airplane, so we had to be prepared to survive with what was on our backs."
      Performing toilet functions when they had overnight in the middle of nowhere in winter presented major problems. "In those days you hardly ever had to go, because you never drank anything. You didn't want to go to the bathroom!" Olson laughs. "It was something you tried to avoid.
      "Specifically, you had to remove the one-piece coveralls, if you were going to do anything serious. So you'd plan your life even to that extent.
      One time they got stuck north of Baker Lake late in the day with a storm brewing. "It was contrary to what we usually did, but Barry Gunn, the Northern Affairs representative with us - who was always weather-sensible - said he just had to get to White Lake. We went out there, landed, and he went off to the campsite. Then the weather came down. By the time he got back to the plane it was approaching dusk, and I knew we were going to have fun getting back."
      Olson called Baker Lake on the HF (High Frequency) radio and was warned to not even bother coming. "Visibility is nil. You won't be able to land." Olson diluted the engine and announced, "Here we are."
      And there they stayed, for three days.
      If the situation had become desperate they knew they could have gone and lived with the Eskimos, but as they had sleeping robes, and the plane was large enough to allow the four men to lie on the floor, they camped inside the Otter. The primus stove kept them fairly warm during the day, but they shut it off at night. The weather blew and stormed and became ever colder. That's when the delicate problem presented itself of going to the toilet. "Nobody wanted to go out onto the ice and pull their drawers down to do the necessaries," Olson says, "but by the third day we had to do something. So, we each took turns, even though the wind was howling and we thought we'd freeze ourselves."
      Flying in the North throughout the year meant dealing with darkness a good portion of the time. Keith Olson describes a typical day for a northern pilot.
      "You'd get up in the dark, walk down onto the ice, and thread your way through the ice hummocks, everything black. You'd go into the airplane, get a blowpot and light it.
      "Around December there's almost no daylight. At Repulse Bay, for example, there is absolutely no daylight for one day of the year. Zero. Even on a clear day the 'viz' might be eight or nine miles, max, because of ice crystals forming from fog in the air. If there was any kind of bad weather around, navigation was a real challenge. There were few radio beacons in those days so you had to navigate by map. You didn't dare get lost - how would you find your way back? How would someone find you?"
      Olson flew without the aid of any electronic navigational units, except for an ADF directional finder, which was helpful when they were coming down to Churchill. "Chesterfield also had a beacon. Baker Lake had a pitiful thing they called a beacon which they replaced after I left, but it was so poor we couldn't get very far with it. Coral Harbour had a beacon.
      "We usually took along a nurse and an interpreter, a DNA (Department of Northern Affairs) representative, and sometimes an RCMP constable, to record who was born, who died, what was going on, the state of their health, and check all these people out, generally. The local people knew where everyone lived, and we had a map from Northern Affairs, who had advised us which families to visit. The map described where they lived, all right, but try going out in that kind of weather to find them! Away from the settlements, there were just igloos. It was hard enough to find a house, but igloos blend in with the environment so we had to really pay attention."
      Map-reading from the air was a specialized task, especially when a pilot couldn't see anything below. In the Arctic, the lakes and the land look the same. How would they know if they were over a lake, when it was frozen and snow-covered and there were no trees to mark the shoreline? The land for hundreds of miles was flat. Perhaps they might see something that looked like a shoreline, but of what lake?
      Caution was the byword. "If we flew in the pitch dark, it was to some place that had lights, like Churchill. At Baker Lake they had an airstrip on the ice that was always clear of drifts. The town lights were on the side of the lake, so I could line up with the town. I did this when landing on floats as well as skis.
      "We all used compasses. The magnetic compass actually worked better in the North than everybody said it did, unless you were in turbulence and were getting bounced around. We also had an astro-compass. If you could see the sun, you could get an accurate directional reading. Most of the time you couldn't see the stars up there, but if you could, that would get you within an approximate distance of where you wanted to go."
      One time Olson got away late out of Churchill en route to Eskimo Point. As he flew up the coast in the dusk, heavy ice crystals further reduced visibility and he flew right past the settlement. "I was looking to my left, toward the sun, so I'd be able to see shadows from buildings in the settlement, and I flew out over the sea ice. I finally called the base and asked if they'd heard me go by. 'Didn't hear you,' they said.
      "I knew I'd gone past it, but I figured once it got dark and I could see the lights of town, I could find it. I turned around and came back. By then I could see the lights, and they'd also put some flares out for me.
      If Olson had to fly north in bad weather, he would choose to fly up the coast over the sea ice. "The ice is always moving. Usually there are places several miles from shore where there are cracks in the ice, called 'leads,' and I'd follow these things. The land varies in elevation - you can hit the land before you see it - but the ocean is flat and the leads are visible."
      Olson has never become lost, but there was one time when he was "temporarily disoriented."
      "I was in the Norseman with some schoolteachers on board, making the five-hour trip to Baker Lake from Churchill. It was a stormy day, I could hardly see anything, but I knew if I got to Baker I could land alongside the town.
      "Visibility was so, bad I didn't even bother trying to map-read. I could see the ground going by in bits and pieces. When I'd flown for four hours I tried to pick up the weak Baker Lake beacon, but because of the strong wind and snow static, I couldn't pick it up. Basically, I was instrument flying at 700 feet or so, and just waiting for the beacon to show up to take me in to Baker Lake.
      "Then I thought, 'What will I do if the beacon isn't working and I miss Baker Lake? How can I land when I can't see the ground?' I couldn't just circle around looking for a place to land because it was blowing so hard it was impossible to see the ground. I would have to take a chance and land into the wind, hoping I didn't run into a rock pile or something. You just don't do that!
      "I figured I'd better go to Plan B. I cut southeast, thinking that once I got to the coast I would recognize the landscape. I came out near where I thought I should be, on the coast between Eskimo Point and Whale Cove."
      He then asked the passengers which of the two places they preferred to land. They chose Whale Cove.
      "We were getting low on fuel, but I figured we could make it to Whale Cove all right. When we got there, I said, 'How about Rankin Inlet?' I actually preferred Rankin and it was only another 45 miles. It was a nicer place to stay, we had gas stored there, and the airstrip was right beside the town. If I could find the town I could find the strip. Rankin was fine.
      "By the time we got there, we'd been flying for six hours and 55 minutes, and were just about out of gas. I doubt the Norseman would have flown many more minutes. I was used to the airplane, though, and I knew we'd make it on the gas I had left."
      Seven straight hours in a Norseman is a tough ride. By the time they arrived at Rankin Inlet, Olson and his passengers were "Just vibrating." They had taken off in the semi-darkness and were landing in the dark as well.
      Snow conditions and lack of visible landmarks dictate the types of landings a northern pilot can make on skis over the rock-hard drifts.
      "I liked to land parallel to the drifts," Olson says, "but if the wind was strong and I had to land into it, and if it was blowing across the drifts, I had to think: if I land crosswind, the airplane could skid sideways; if I land into the wind I'll be banging into the drifts. So that was always a decision."
      Although there wasn't usually much curl to the drifts, they were hard and steep enough to damage the undercarriage just by hitting them. "The Norseman suffered every time we landed. We started off with a hydraulic wheel-ski that let us lift up the skis and land on wheels, such as for takeoffs and landings from the concrete runway at Churchill. But the metal wheel-skis couldn't take the hard drifts; the control rods would break."
      "We finally had to put boards on, old-fashioned wooden skis, which stood the abuse better. But then, landing in Churchill was always a challenge because we had to land on an area of rolled smooth snow beside the long runway. It didn't matter from which direction the wind was blowing, we had to land the same way. So we'd land crosswind and skid along."
      They had all kinds of adventures, trying not to run into other parked airplanes, because there are no brakes on skis.
      One of Olson's more unusual experiences occurred while he was flying a Cessna 180 for Lamb Air. He had taken off from Moak Lake, the location of Inco's original find in the North, 17 miles from the new ore body at Thompson. Because the exploration camp remained in Moak Lake the aircraft was also based there, although most of the flying originated from Thompson.
      Just after takeoff, Olson felt a jarring vibration. He looked down to discover that the entire left wheel and ski assembly was in the process of breaking right off at the axle. Four bolts hold the axle on, and it can get cracks through that area that can cause the whole thing to sever.
      He turned and headed back to Moak Lake, listening to the loose piece whirl around, held onto the aircraft only by check cables and a brake line, and feeling the airplane shake and shudder. Finally the wheel-ski broke off and was gone. Olson breathed a sigh of relief. At least now it wouldn't wind around and do damage to the fuselage.
      He could stay airborne as long as he had gas, so his best bet was to turn again and head back to Thompson. He knew that one of the Lamb Air pilots was at home, so Olson buzzed his trailer and the man came out. It took the fellow one quick look to assess the problem. He immediately jumped into his truck, drove to the base, and got on the radio.
      "There's nothing hooked up on the back, on the tail," he informed Olson. "It's all clear."
      Olson radioed Lamb Air at The Pas, 180 miles away, told them what had happened, and outlined his plan. "Don't worry," came the reassuring response. "Find a lake, a good place to land and do what you have to."
      Back he went to Moak Lake. He figured if he could land along the sheltered shore where the ice had frozen smooth and the snow would be deep, perhaps the leg wouldn't dig in too much and he could land safely. He found a little bay indented into the bush, east of the camp, with lots of soft snow and what he suspected was good ice under the snow.
      He noticed that they'd brought out the Bombardier, with the nurse, in case he did some damage to himself. Good. Might need her. Down he came.
      The conditions were as he'd imagined. The deep snow caused the airplane to tilt a bit on landing. The lone ski sunk six inches into the snow, while the broken-off leg punctured through the snow and skidded along the ice for 150 feet. The airplane turned, and stopped - a smooth end to a dramatic morning.
      In the spring of 1962, Keith Olson announced to the boss that he was planning to marry his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Westbury, on October 6th. He had been flying out of Churchill all that winter. To accommodate his young pilot, Tom Lamb said that he could come down and fly out of The Pas for a while, to be nearer home. Then, following the wedding, the couple could go back to live in Churchill. So, that summer Olson hauled fish with the Norseman (CF-MAM) in to The Pas, and to Wabowden, 60 miles south of Thompson. This site, originally a railroad roundhouse town, had become a centre for shipping fish because of its adjacency to the rail line.
      One day, as he approached the dock in the Norseman to pick up a load of fish, Olson noticed that the Indians were all pointing at his airplane. He got out to look. The fabric had torn off the back part of the belly, likely having rotted from years of fish drippings. But there it was, everything wide open. He flew back empty to Wabowden to see what could be done.
      Connie Lamb said he would come to Wabowden as soon as he could with another airplane, but in the meantime, Olson undertook one of his many bush repairs. He went into the Hudson's Bay store and bought a cotton bed sheet, stitched it onto his airplane, slapped on some dope to hold it, and called Connie to say he'd looked after the problem. The bed-sheet patch stayed on the plane for the rest of the summer. (Norseman CF-MAM is now restored and displayed in the Petro-Canada building in Calgary).
      After Keith and Barbara were married, they made their home in Churchill. They had both grown up in Island Falls, so Barbara was familiar with northern living. At Churchill she ran the base radio, which allowed her and Keith to communicate from his far-off locations. Sometimes he was away from home for more than a month at a time.
      Although Barbara liked the North, she didn't have the opportunity to observe its vastness and beauty the way Keith did on flying trips. "She was mainly stuck in Churchill," Olson says. "She got a couple of trips, but with running the radio and the household - one of our children was born there - she was kind of stuck."
      Olson explains that with Lamb Airways, like all such companies, when the pilots weren't flying they were expected to repair things in the hangar, or pick up freight at the CN station. Some trips might take him away for days, and when he returned he looked forward to a bit of a break. But at 7:30 a.m., a telex would come from Tom Lamb. "What are you doing today?"
      Olson laughs at the recollection.
      "That was Tom's style of saying, 'It's 7:30. Why aren't you in the hangar?' He was a good guy, but he didn't seem to realize I wouldn't have minded a day to just sit around.
      "But," he adds, "that's the way it was. The philosophy was that you worked for the company 24 hours a day; it wasn't something stated, but expected. I was usually the only pilot at Churchill. In the summer, others would come up, but by and large, I was there alone. One airplane could handle all the work.
      "It was a hard life, but we liked it."
      One time Olson was flying a Single Otter (CF-MEL) from Chesterfield Inlet into Coral Harbour. It was very cold, close to 50 below. He got out of Chesterfield and went up to 8 000 feet looking for warmer air, but never found it. He knew he was over the centre of Southhampton Island but because of ice crystals in the air he could barely see the ground. Suddenly oil splattered across the windshield. The crankcase breather was freezing over and causing oil to blow out around the prop seal! He had to land.
      Immediately below was an esker, a high ridge of sand. The wind had blown the top flat and smooth so it resembled a tiny airstrip. Could he land there? If not, he would have to chance landing in the drifts.
      "I landed on the esker. We got out, chipped the ice out of the breather, heated up some oil in a five-gallon pail with the blowpot, refilled the engine oil tank, and took off for the remaining short hop to Coral Harbour."
      Olson was flying north in the Otter (CF-MEL) one day in July, 1963, when he received a message that some boaters had become marooned on an ocean reef north of Whale Cove. When he spotted their smoke signal he landed on the ocean, but couldn't get over to the rocks because of the swell. He anchored as close as possible, and tried to think how he and his passengers could complete the rescue.
      "It was a terrible place, very cold," Olson recalls. "At high tide they would have been under the waves. We had to get them off immediately."
      One of his passengers, who worked for the Fish and Game branch, had an idea. "You've got a rubber raft on board, haven't you?"
      "Yes, but it's just big enough for two people."
      "Okay. I'll paddle over to the rock, and bring back one man at a time with me on the raft."
      That is how the rescue was made. "He had the idea, and he was brave enough to carry it out," Olson said. "In this way, all were saved."
      The boaters had experienced trouble with their outboard motor and had pulled onto the reef. In the middle of the night their boat floated away, leaving them marooned. Fortunately, they had carried their gasoline high onto the rock. Their signal fire, ignited from the gas, had brought their rescuers to the tiny reef in the nick of time.
      In January, 1965, Olson was flying Lamb Airways' Otter (CF-MEL), hauling supplies from Baker Lake west to Schultz Lake. "Northern Affairs was setting up what was called an ECU (Emergency Camping Unit) that contained seal oil, food, and bagged dog food, to aid starving Eskimo families. Word was spread to the Eskimos in that area, around Aberdeen Lake, that if they were out of food they could go to this place and use it, rather than face starvation."
      Usually when he had a stopover in remote places during intensely cold weather he would leave the engine running on idle while he loaded or off-loaded. This time, when he got to Baker Lake he noticed a major oil leak. He immediately shut off the engine, and discovered the oil cooler had blown. To get another oil cooler involved radioing out, then waiting for its delivery.
      Impatient to continue his deliveries, he thought he'd try flying with the belly panels off the airplane, reasoning that the weather was so cold that the slipstream would blow up onto the belly and cool the oil enough to not need an oil cooler. He removed the old one, got some copper pipe from a nearby garage, and ran a by-pass.
      Then he put his experiment to work. It ran a bit hot, but he figured it would be okay. When he put a load in (causing the nose to go up a bit) it ran quite fine. He was thus able to finish his freight haul with no oil cooler. But he was stuck in Baker Lake for over a month because it stormed the whole time. When a replacement part finally came in, he installed it and headed back to his base at Churchill.
      After flying for Lamb Airways for six years, from 1959 to 1965, Olson began to think about making a change. He had a family to support, and, while the money he made was adequate, it was certainly not making him rich.
      "I'd had enough, basically. We'd been in Churchill four years and the Otter was Lamb's biggest airplane at the time. I asked, 'Where am I going with this outfit?' had very few pilots in those days, and there were six Lamb brothers senior to me. I could see myself getting nowhere with the company, as far as getting into new equipment or even moving south. The novelty of living up there was wearing off, and I figured it was time to look around."
      When he'd started flying to Gods Lake in the Cessna, he was making $240 a month gross, but his room and board were included. "I didn't care then if I made any money. I just wanted to fly," Olson says. "When I left Lamb's in 1965, 1 was lucky if I was making $1000 a month, and I put in some long hours. I was paid by the flying hour, about $4 an hour south of Churchill, and $5 north, plus base pay. Most airlines paid so many cents a mile, which worked out to virtually the same thing."

      In the summer of 1965, the family moved to Winnipeg when Olson got a job with Transair, flying a Beech 18 (CF-TAV). The job entailed bush-flying on floats off the Red River in Winnipeg on "skeds" (scheduled runs) up the lake to Berens River, Poplar River and Norway House; and about 300 miles from Winnipeg to Island Lake (one of the largest native settlements in central Manitoba), and to St. Theresa Point.
      In the winter months he flew on wheel-skis directly from the Winnipeg terminal. Olson would pull his twin-engine Beech 18 Expediter in among the big jet airplanes, and help his passengers board for trips to the northern settlements that lay along his sked run.
      He liked doing skeds. What he especially liked was that he was home every night, and now he didn't have to do any maintenance. When he parked the airplane at the Transair hangar, his shift was complete. Most of his flights were in the daytime hours because his Beech 18 didn't contain any navigation equipment. "That was rather strange. With all the communication equipment available, and Transair being considered a rather large airline, although I could communicate via radio there was no ADF indicator, nothing. There was no way I could navigate in that airplane except by map."
      The aircraft was kept in a hangar overnight, so it was warm when he started off in the morning, another real treat. If, however, he got caught in one of the northern settlements at night and was told it was snowing in Winnipeg, he could stay put - except then he had two engines to warm with blowpots, instead of one!
      "It was an easier job than I'd had up north, much more civilized," Olson says. "Even map-reading was easier, because there were trees. I'd flown this area earlier with Lamb's so I knew the country. I could fly in worse weather in Manitoba than in the Arctic because I could see the ground. In the Arctic you push things more, handle bad weather and sort of fly to the edge because if you don't you won't get the job done. But down south it was never like that, so it was a pretty relaxed job compared to what I'd put up with."
      His customers were trappers, Indian Affairs officials, numerous groups from government or mining outfits, and local residents coming to or leaving the city hospitals, but he mostly hauled mail and freight.
      "With that Beech 18, 1 handled virtually all the service north to Norway House and the other settlements on Lake Winnipeg, and on Island Lake. There was the odd other charter, but I handled all the traffic. People didn't fly around so much in those days. Now, you have umpteen airplanes going from Winnipeg every day. Dozens of people are flying north - and the taxpayer is paying for it, I can tell you that."
      Olson continued to enjoy his sked runs, and can hardly recall a morning he didn't go. "I think I turned back once. I was heading to Island Lake and got all iced up so I came back."
      Olson says that he sometimes heard the Beech 18 referred to as "The Widow-Maker," and admits that "you just had to watch it."
      A lot of air force people who trained on Beech 18s disliked them, saying they were hard to fly, Olson recalls. Landing was sometimes a problem because you had to wheel it on, you couldn't "stall on." That meant he had to "fly" the Beech 18 onto the runway (when there would still be sufficient airflow over the wings to be actually flying). A stall occurs when not enough air flows over the wings to keep the airplane aloft, and the whole weight of the airplane settles onto the wheels.
      "If you landed at low speed, you basically lost control - it would bounce down the runway," Olson says. "Compared to other bush airplanes, the Beech landed relatively fast. Even a Norseman would land in a shorter space.
      "You had to pick your water when you were on floats. Landings were fast so you could really abuse the airplane if you had rough water."
      Although it never happened to Olson, he knew some pilots had problems with the Beech 18 because of an "engine-out" situation (where one engine quits). "They weren't good on one engine," Olson says. "If you were on wheels they were okay, but on floats if you got a load on they wouldn't climb. You could fly a long way but you'd lose altitude."
      One time, Olson was flying Transair's Beech 18 when the retractable wheel-skis malfunctioned. He was coming down from Sandy Lake on wheels, the last stop in the spring, when he looked out and saw that one ski was down. He'd have to land on one wheel and one ski! He flew past the Control Tower in Winnipeg. They confirmed it: one ski was up and one was down.
      "I figured I could put the other ski down and land at the St. Andrew's airport which was just being constructed," Olson says. "It was springtime, and there was a lot of mud and water there. I'd get the airplane dirty, but at least we wouldn't turn over."
      The Control Tower called him back as he was heading north to take a look at St. Andrews. "There's a piece of snow along runway 31 where it hasn't quite melted away, where the snowblowers have blown it," the controller said. "It's a ridge about 20 feet wide and maybe 400 feet long. See if you can land there."
      Back he came to check it out.
      "The fire trucks and everyone were out to watch because of the possibility that I might ground-loop (flip over). Everyone, that is, except Transair whose airplane it was. They didn't bother coming out.
      "I let the other ski down and landed perfectly with the two skis on this little bit of snow. The company was happy with that. Their airplane was in Winnipeg, where it was supposed to be, with no mud on it."
      Olson had by now decided it was time to get off the Beech and onto larger aircraft. The company's DC-3 was the next step. They let him fly it for one month. "I liked the DC-3. It was like a big Norseman, very easy to fly. I wish I could have flown it more."
      Olson also was impressed by Transair's Cansos, the flying boats, but he felt the time had come for him and the company to part. He worked for Transair not quite a year, from the summer of 1965 to the spring of 1966.
      "I was promised pay raises that I never got and a few things like that, so I finally decided I'd had enough. I was complaining aloud one day in the Winnipeg Flying Club, when a friend of mine mentioned that Air Canada was hiring. I'd never even thought of them!"
      "I phoned, and presto! I had a job. So if I hadn't complained, or hadn't decided to have a coffee that day, I would have ended up with Canadian Airlines, presumably. That's not bad, but that's the way it would have gone."
      He laughingly remembers the prophesy of his airplane design birth announcement, and his birth date coinciding with Air Canada's first flight.

Note from the Editor.  For the editor's book review of Flying the Frontiers
 see Balancing on the Wing!

Top of this story.

Editor John S Goulet


Last modified January 06, 2015 .
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.