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by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail

Canadian-aviation-history-028Softcover, perfect bound, full colour
224 pp, 220+ photos, 6.75 x 9 in., $30.95
Detailed aircraft appendices, notes, index
Robin Brass Studio, Montréal, QC, 2009 ISBN 978-1-896941-57-8

Aviation enthusiasts know that much has been written about wilderness flying but sadly, few writers have been able to successfully convey readers into the cockpits or beneath the bellies of oil-streaked bushplanes. Now, newcomer to the world of glassy water and frozen lakes, Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail documents sights and sensations rarely experienced by those who have not eased in a throttle or pumped a seaplane float. In this history of Laurentian Air Services (LAS), Metcalfe-Chenail pays tribute to the men and women involved in the growth of a company that came to life in June 1936 and lasted more than 60 years.

Entrepreneurs Barnet Maclaren and Walter Deisher discovered a little known niche later described in a 1939 issue of Canadian Aviation magazine as “air tourism.” By hauling skiers, hunters and fishers into remote lakes near Ottawa, the company prospered with fabric-covered Wacos. In September 1937, however, Deisher sold his interest but the company continued upward. During the Second World War, Laurentian did not allow gasoline and staff shortages to shut down the organization. Instead, everyone pitched in and contributed by overhauling, testing and ferrying RCAF aircraft.

During Metcalfe-Chenail’s research, she discovered a fact unrecognized by Americans as well as most Canadians. In 1939, Cessna Aircraft Company President Dwane Wallace, nephew of Clyde Cessna, had flown into Canada hoping the federal government would purchase his recently developed twin engine Cessna T-50. The depression years had dealt the manufacturer hard times, but a chance meeting with Maclaren led to a $25,000 loan from Laurentian Air Services. A trustful man, Maclaren went on to arrange meetings with the “right people.” As a result, Wallace later claimed, “If it weren’t for Barnet Maclaren, Cessna wouldn’t be here today.”

Metcalfe-Chenail, not a pilot herself, really shines when extracting anecdotes. Welcomed into the bush-flying “cult,” she makes readers laugh, shake with cold, and sometimes shed tears. At one point, she details the hazards of husky dogs and a “really chewed up” Inuit child. A few pages later, the reader swims in frigid water when pilot Eddy Lord suffers the humiliation of watching his float-equipped Otter drift away in strong winds. After a splashy pursuit, he climbed in and soaked to the skin, Lord chattered his way back to base.

For the Love of Flying deals with far more than pilots and presidents. Aircraft mechanics (AMEs), dockhands and dispatchers all come under Metcalfe-Chenail’s scope. Most admitted they were not in the vocation for the love of money. In fact, one claimed the business “ … pays a great deal in personal satisfaction .…” Base manager Wendall Hume and wife, Martine, typify those who worked far beyond their regular duties.

When the floatplanes settled in for the night at Schefferville, exhausted pilots and AMEs adjourned to sleeping bags. The Humes, however, stayed behind to check paperwork, arrange loads and fuel gas tanks. Besides keeping the fleet ready for flight each morning, they addressed the needs of tourists who overlooked fly dope, food or cool weather clothing. To encourage repeat customers, the Humes scraped vomit and washed bug-splattered windshields. Metcalfe-Chenail recognizes the behind-the-scenes efforts, which rarely attracted attention but contributed to the success of organizations such as Laurentian Air Services.

The author follows the operator into an era of large airplanes like the Douglas DC-3s brought on line in 1971. The company participated in the massive James Bay Project by moving development workers and freight from Val d’Or. Regardless of crewing the most prestigious airplanes of the 1970s, pilots and support staff existed in shacks for months. At this stage of Laurentian’s existence, 150 employees were on payroll. Hand loading lumber, poor air communication and lack of control made for hectic and colourful times. Metcalfe-Chenail portrays them well with excellent photographs culled from hundreds loaned from museum collections and former employees.

Subsidiaries such as Delay River Outfitters and Air Schefferville added to the picture. Everyone, regardless of the role they played, seemed struck with the same enthusiasm shown by the founders. Pilot and nephew of Barnet, John Bogie, who became president/owner and stayed with Laurentian for 30 years, continued the tradition until smaller air services proliferated and edged into the arena so well developed under the Laurentian logo. To make matters worse, the federal government threw money at numerous First Nations “businessmen” who took advantage of taxpayer-sponsored programs and charged much less than Laurentian Air Services could afford. In 2004, LAS closed.

Metcalfe-Chenail demonstrates with clarity how this company gave much to Canada. Many pilots developed exceptional skills that drew attention from major carriers. Bogie’s foresight and acumen brought quantities of de Havilland Beavers, Otters and Twin Otters back to the nation of their birthplace. Thanks to a young writer and her incredible interviewing, cataloguing and collecting skills, the aviation enthusiast, as well as readers who rarely glance skyward, will learn that what went on before GPS and electronics – and still does – is not mythology.

In Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail’s preface on page 7, she says, “I hope I have done it justice.”

She has.

~reviewed by Robert S. Grant