Airman's World is an Unique Place"
Olson's Story: From
Bush to Boeings .
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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.
|To order your copy today click on the appropriate flag.
|Flying the Frontiers. More Hours of
By Shirlee Smith Matheson. ISBN 1550591312
Note from the Editor.
For the editor's book review of Flying the
on the Wing!
Top of this story.
Editor John S Goulet
March 05, 2006 .
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.