Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 4, 2009

Flying the Bear


This industry profile of one of Canada’s most innovative and “gutsy” little airlines also explores how the airline industry evolved in Canada.

A hundred years ago the Wright brothers – visionaries and pioneers – demonstrated in a short 12-second flight on a beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, what the poet John Milton referred to as “the never-ending flight of future days.” That first power-driven, heavier-than-air flight on December 17, 1903 changed the course of human history and ultimately launched an industry that transformed the world.

What Wilbur and Orville achieved on that cold and breezy morning in December 1903 was a great metaphoric moment in human history but it was not just a flight of fancy. These were men who were indeed dreamers but they were also pragmatists, not to mention self-taught scientists. Their achievement began the fulfilment of the ideal that human beings had conceptualized from the earliest times, to challenge the force of gravity that kept them earthbound and constrained. But it is important to note that Wilbur and Orville also accomplished this through dogged hard work. In fact the brothers did it all. Always interested in mechanical things, they were essentially self-taught especially in mathematics. They even edited and printed small local newspapers. For 10 years they designed, built, and repaired bicycles. They were always a community business serving community needs.

During their quest for the means of flight the Wright brothers compiled the first tables of lift and drag, thus defining not only the parameters that govern flight and stability but also establishing new parameters for how humans would discover their world and interact with it and with each other. This interconnectedness is at the heart of the 100th anniversary celebrations of flight that will occur this year throughout North America.

The story of aviation and the air transport industry in Canada – an enormous and still thinly-populated nation – is also one of principles, practicalities, and vision. In this country of wide-ranging and widespread communities we have benefited – of necessity – from the art, science, and economics of air travel. And distance and value have been fundamental principles and challenges posed by our distinct geography and demographics. One only has to consider the legacy and importance of the Canadian bush pilots in opening up Canada’s north and other remote regions, or the romance, wonderment, and political and social impact of the first transcontinental flights; the latter linking Canadians in a way not unlike that of John A. Macdonald’s transcontinental railway.

In Canada aviation history has followed many routes, figuratively and literally. And even though in today’s beleaguered airline industry consumer confusion and frustration is often heard there are still Canadian airline success stories. Here is one of them.

Bearskin Airlines is in many ways the quintessential Canadian success story. This is the little airline that could – and did! From its roots in mainly aboriginal communities in northern Ontario where Bearskin initially flew float-equipped planes that serviced remote communities inaccessible by other means, “The Bear” has gradually and persistently become a quiet force to be reckoned with in terms of airline passenger service.

Bearskin Airlines also epitomizes entrepreneurship and community service. Named after Bearskin Lake which flows into Hudson’s Bay, the airline is a northern phenomenon. It was founded in 1963 by John Hegland, a pilot himself and general store owner, who sold and traded food and supplies with native people for furs and fish. In the early days he would fly his two-seater Tiger Moth biplane into their camps on the trap line. Later, using two Cessna 180’s and subsequently a DHC-2 Beaver, he operated Bearskin Lake Air Service.

Today the company is owned by Harvey Friesen – he worked as a pilot for the airline – his brother Cliff, Karl Friesen (no relation), Rick Baratta, and Brad Martin. The airline continues to provide a vital link with 21 northern communities that are not connected by roads, not to mention servicing the major centres of northern Ontario, and now the two capital cities of southern Ontario: Ottawa and Toronto. Braving the winds of fortune and government policy that have transformed the airline industry in Canada over the last decade in particular, The Bear has emerged as a true alternative for airline passengers. Already a key player on northern Ontario routes, in the spring of 1999 it started flying into Northern Manitoba with connecting service between Winnipeg, Flin Flon, and The Pas. However its forays into passenger service to the nation’s capital, and its inauguration of service to Toronto-Buttonville on September 10, 2001 – the airline’s 38th birthday – are proof of the no-nonsense strategic planning of this determined little airline. With operation bases in Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay, the airline has continued to grow, consolidating its presence in northern Ontario, and now in the southern part of the province. And rumour has it that The Bear is already looking to reinvent air travel to other centres in this province and beyond. And through a commercial agreement with Air Canada, passengers can even get Aeroplan points on Bearksin flights!

So, in order to take advantage of a good thing I make my way to the Toronto-Buttonville airport in Markham on a snowy February morning for a flight to Ottawa. The 20-minute drive to the airport is, of course, going against the traffic. I pull into the parking lot (where, by the way, one doesn’t pay for parking), grab my suitcase, camera, and backpack and step smartly over to the compact terminal building. At the Bearskin counter inside Theresa wishes me a cheery good morning and within a few minutes I am checked in and have my boarding pass. Out of habit I have given myself lots of time and so I am well ahead of schedule. This gives me time to chat with Theresa and First Officer Kent McLeod who along with Captain Mark Castonguay will be flying us to Ottawa today on the sleek Swiss-made nine-seater Pilatus PC12 in which according to Kent, “You never have to sit next to anyone you dislike and every seat is a window and an aisle seat.”

The regulars begin to arrive and are greeted and checked in by Theresa who seems to know most of them. She reminds them that Druxy’s is open for a coffee if they wish. One passenger, a federal MP from the Toronto area sees my press ID and engages me in conversation. He expresses the hope that Bearskin will continue to be successful on this alternative Toronto-Ottawa route because he hates “the Pearson thing.” I assume he is referring to the airport. Someone else comments that they will do anything to avoid Pearson. Another in our group who makes this trip twice a week on business tells me that it saves him 3½ to four hours per trip. “Instead of getting home at 10:00 in the evening; I’m home by six.” Several others join in the conversation enthusiastically and agree with one woman’s comment that I shouldn’t tell anybody about this “great little secret.” I think of Yogi Berra’s famous comment: “The place has got so popular, no one goes there any more.”

We make our way through the usual tight security; it may be Buttonville, but this is still a post-9/11 world. I have stupidly forgotten to take my Swiss Army knife off my key chain and so must leave it behind with the Bearskin folks. (I will retrieve it on my return to Buttonville.) In the small departure lounge, passengers have just enough time to scan the front page of the newspaper or make a quick cell call before we are invited to proceed out to the plane. Flying The Bear is like going on an outing with eight of your closest friends, and two pilots.

The aircraft is state-of-the art. Captain Castonguay tells me that he really likes flying this one and that it operates essentially the same as an Airbus. The flight deck, a metre away from me still has that delightfully confusing and thrilling high-tech look of the large jets, and I realize I will get to watch the action throughout the entire flight. First Officer Kent McLeod begins the pre-flight passenger-crew safety procedures. His head slightly inclined, as if bowing to us in the small cabin, Kent explains the procedures while making eye contact with each of us. The intimacy of this nine-passenger aircraft precludes his performing this important and required task in the rote fashion we are accustomed to. The explanations completed, he jokes about “turning on the elevator music” while taxing to the runway; “except there isn’t any.” And besides, the runway is just over there.

I check out the Pilatus PC12. It’s an attractive, compact, and practical aircraft. I’m impressed with the use of space on the aircraft. The seats are somewhat narrow but there is adequate headroom and legroom, and there are the usual amenities of reading lights, headrests that pop up, a glossy inflight magazine called Bear Country, and the standard paper bag; no lavatory however, so one does have to plan ahead. The relative nature of the space makes up for the lack of inflight videos and beverage service. Before taxiing the short distance to the runway, Mark … I mean Captain Castonguay … preps us for the 55-minute flight to Ottawa giving us the usual details of routing and altitude. To me he points out the GPS (Global Positioning System) indicator into which our flight plan has been programmed. Given the proximity of my seat, I’ll be able to keep my eye on our position, ETA, or whatever. And finally there is a bit of de-icing by the guys outside, a thumbs up, and off we go.

After a smooth and uneventful flight we land right on time in Ottawa where, if I wanted, I could now connect to North Bay, Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg, or elsewhere – perhaps even Bearskin Lake – it’s that simple.

Flying The Bear gives me a few nostalgic moments. I remember the days when airline travel seemed exciting, visionary, and innovative. I remember my first domestic flight-adventure on a TCA Viscount, that spunky little aircraft with the large oval windows. I also recall my first international flight to Bermuda on British Airways and what seemed to me very elegant service: real china, real cutlery, real people. Could the food actually have been as tasty as I remember it? But most of all, I remember feeling rather special and well taken care of. Now I’m quite aware of how selective a person’s memory can be but I’m also quite sure that in those days I didn’t feel like a commodity as I often do in the crowd control environment of most airline travel today. I’m mindful that this is now a huge and complex industry in Canada and I believe that the thousands of individuals who work in this service industry perform their duties to the best of their abilities but, as we all know, time flies and the parameters have changed over the last hundred years. I also like to think I’m a reasonable person and that like most travellers today, am willing to make compromises and adjust to changing political and economic realties. But I still want – and think I deserve – efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and a modicum of comfort.

In terms of the vision, it’s certainly still there flying The Bear. I may not have “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings” – as John Magee expressed it in his oft-quoted poem “High Flight” – but travelling on Bearskin Airlines I felt well-served and satisfied.

I hope the feeling lasts.

Epilogue: Bear to Bear

As this article was being written Bearskin Airlines was on a mission of mercy, transporting at its own costs an orphaned polar bear cub from Fort Severn on Hudson Bay to the Toronto Zoo. According to Charles Guthrie, Curatorial Assistant at the Zoo, the bear cub was one of two found near the mouth of the Severn River. It would appear that, seeing humans, the mother ran away abandoning the cubs. Later, mistaken for a male bear the lone mother was shot. When one of the cubs died, the other was rescued by Wayne Menard of the OPP/Native people Police Force and placed in a local jail cell. When the Toronto Zoo was eventually called, arrangements were quickly made for Bearskin Airlines to fly the cub to Thunder Bay through Sioux Lookout. A seat in the plane was removed to accommodate the cub who sources say was very vocal during the flight. Air Canada, a close partner of the Toronto Zoo, then transported the cub the rest of the way after a night’s rest in Thunder Bay at the home of a colleague of the Zoo’s Director of Biology and Conservation. The latest word is that the 12 kilo cub is doing well on milk and the Zoo Bear Meat Diet.

Bearskin Airline’s website is at www.bearskinairlines.com

If you want to visit where the first flight actually took place, visit The Outer Banks in North Carolina at www.outerbanks.org

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