Going back to CP Air’s days

A letter from Les Watmough detailing an interesting aspect of Terrace's airline history

Dear Sir:

WestJet is coming, the sky is not falling. The runway was lengthened at some cost for the advent of WestJet.

WestJet is the modern version of CP Air or Queen Charlotte Air 50  years ago.

You don’t know about that? Jim Spilsbury wrote an excellent book on that called The Accidental Airline. He detailed the contest between him and Grant McConagie of CP Air for the exclusive right to fly the Vancouver-Terrace-Prince Rupert route.

At that time and place all routes were designated routes. You flew them, no one else could, you could rip off the passengers, no one else could. Prime Minister Mulroney changed that, not for the better.

McConagie of CP wanted that route, so did Spilsbury of QCI.

My connection with this – I was writing my ground school exam in the old Riverside school. Enter a lot of gentlemen in downtown Vancouver suits. One of them walked down my isle and proceeded to help with some questions on the exam. “You see Sonny, the answer is ‘c’.” I looked at him and said, “I won’t mark that just because you say so.” I later learned that this was the Grant, World War air vet, king of  Canada’s pioneers of the air.

Oh yes, I passed the exam. He won the right for CP to overcharge passengers on the Terrace-Vancouver route.

The route proposed by him was to be serviced by a DC 3 twin engine air craft with seating for 20 passengers. For the small volume of traffic  at that time the plane was more than adequate.

When the pulp mill in Prince Rupert was being built  the need for more seats became necessary and in about 1951 some DC4s and North Stars were brought in.

DC 4s were built by Douglas company, the first in that line after the DC 3. The North Stars were  a conversion of the DC 4 using Rolls Royce Merlin engines a V 2 inline water-cooled motor. These configurations worked well, and increased the seating and the passenger counts.

A new, sleek, fast comfortable plane was brought in, the Convair. It was twin engine, big radials that produced big horsepower and a speedy flight. They were comfortable and a popular air craft. The flight pattern than was from Vancouver to Terrace, then across to Rupert, pick up more passengers and return to Vancouver

Now came the jet age. In BC all were Boeing 727s or 737s. In most opinions the finest passenger planes built, and a one-hour flight time to Vancouver. The jets worked well, they could carry payloads, they were comfortable and fast and they still used the triangle route for servicing us.

When things are going well get politics involved and that will all stop. City councils made the decision that the cities needed direct flights from their cities to Vancouver, never mind going to Rupert first.

They made the case that the Terrace-Rupert leg never made money. It was not supposed to. The aircraft was up north anyway – slide over to Rupert, fill the seats, go back to Vancouver with a full load, utilized what the aircraft could do.

The air companies bought into this idea, then knew that the jets were to efficient to do direct flights and big aircraft just did not do it.

So they all went to small planes, none much bigger than DC3s, Quieter, but no much bigger. More comfy but not much faster.

And that has become the norm. WestJet, with its addiction to jet aircraft, will not be using jets here. They will conform to the accepted standard, smaller turbo prop machines.

In all this time machine there were, at our airport, two flying schools, one in 1955 run by Jerry Spiney where I trained, along with Ray Sande, the Hulls, Joe Schutzic, John Sarich, Lloyd Johnston. And some forgotten names.

There was a second school in 2000 run by Al Larson, that trained Trevor Reynolds. Both of these revered gentleman now fly the big jets for WestJet, travelling the world, doing very well. Ray Sande of my class ran his very successful charter business out of Watson Lake.

Les Watmough,

Terrace, B.C.


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