General Articles

Bush Angel

Prospectors, wolves, expectant mothers, they’re all in a day’s flying to Vi Milstead, queen of the northern air

BRUCE McLEOD March 1 1948
General Articles

Bush Angel

Prospectors, wolves, expectant mothers, they’re all in a day’s flying to Vi Milstead, queen of the northern air

BRUCE McLEOD March 1 1948

Bush Angel

Prospectors, wolves, expectant mothers, they’re all in a day’s flying to Vi Milstead, queen of the northern air


SOMEBODY had hit it rich at Groundhog River. Like fire exploding in the September bush, word of the new staking rush swept through the north. Leather-skinned prospectors smeared themselves with fly oil and began packing into the new gold country.

At a seaplane base operated by Nickel Belt Airlines on Lake Ramsey, near Sudbury, Ont., a small group of prospectors watched eagerly as their equipment was stowed in the belly of a Husky aircraft, A big man with a red face and slouch hat shouted toward the flight office “Tell the pilot of this crate to get the load out of his pants. We got gold to find.”

From somewhere just behind him a clipped feminine voice said—-“I’m your pilot. Just what were you saying about lead in the pants, mister?” The big man sw-ung around to face a little woman who barely came up to his shoulder. She wore high leather flight boots, navy slacks, a bright plaid shirt and a grin that split the thinness of her lips, crinkled the tanned skin around her hazel eyes. Her feather-cut hair was brown and wind-blown as she stood there, feet planted wide apart, thumbs hooked into the pockets of her shirt. He couldn’t tell whether she was laughing at him or with him.

A good many hard-boiled, bush-toughened northerners—lumbermen, hunters, prospectors and miners—have known that feeling when they caught their first startled glimpse of 28-year-old Violet Milstead, Canada’s only woman bush pilot and one of the few females in this country to make a peacetime living jockeying aircraft for pay.

The prospector dropped his bullfit bag onto the dock. “You mean . . . that is . . . are w’e supposed to fly with . . . well, I’ll be—”

“La Milstead,” as this petite fly girl is sometimes known to her buddies, stepped spryly off the planking onto an aluminum float and pulled herself into the pilot’s compartment, “Stop faffing around,” she called over a shoulder. “Let’s go, mister.”

A mechanic nudged one of the party. “Quit worrying,” he said. “Vi’s got more hours in her logbook than you’ve had fly bites on your neck.” And over by a pile of duffle bags, a little Frenchman with yellow teeth and an accent thicker than corn syrup shrugged. “By gar,” he said, “today de woman she’s heverywhere; do heveryt’ing. Hits get so de honly place you not find woman is in men’s washroom.”

But, if those hardy males were dubious when they climbed into the plane, their scepticism had melted away by the time its floats touched down on the white-capped waters of a small lake near their destination. Violet Milstead had won their respect in the same way she has won a place in bush flying against heavy male competition. They liked the crisp way she gave orders, her superb calm in the air and, best of all, the tidy way she swooshed the big ship down through scudding rain clouds onto the churned-up waters of the snakelike slit of lake in the wilderness.

A mining executive who has flown with Violet Milstead told me, “She’s a natural. She flies a plane like she was part of it. I figure it’s safer sitting up there with Vi Milstead and the birds than it is walking across a Sudbury intersection.”

Jimmy Bell of Nickel Belt Airlines, a flier with 15 years of hush piloting in his logbook, says, “Vi’s a regular guy. She’s a good pilot and so doggone careful it makes a lot of us guys who learned to fly by the seat of our pants blush a little.”

Warm praise like this embarrasses La Milstead. But she admits that for a long time she had a chip on her shoulder about men, “who seemed to think they had a monopoly on all the air between earth and heaven ... I soon learned that when a woman invades a man’s field she must do the job better than a man if she is to be successful.”

Today few men who have watched her fly will dispute the fact that Vi Milstead has done just that. Since she first soloed in Toronto in 1938, she has piled up an impressive 3,000 hours in the air— much of it during the two years she spent overseas as a ferry pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary, delivering planes from factories in England to airfields in the U. K. and on the continent. She has flown more than 50 types of aircraft, including heavy bombers and sleek, supersensitive fighters. She is a licensed instructor, has taught more than 100 men how to fly, and is the only girl in the world to instruct at a school for hush pilots.

Vi was bom on Oct. 17, 1919, in Toronto. Her first real urge to play tag with the clouds cam© at a high-school football game when a senior * student who had just completed a flying course buzzed the field so low that players and spectators started digging foxholes. “I was goose-pimples all over,” Vi recalls.

She decided right then she wanted fo fly one of those things herself and once in the air she was sold for life. “I’d rather he 2,000 feet upstairs,” she’ll tell you still, “than eat, sleep or get married.”

No Time For Dates

When she left school to work in her mother’s wool shop, she saved every penny for flying lessons. She passed up dates to attend night classes at a technical school where they taught theory of flight, navigation, meteorology, etc. It was three years before she was ready to present herself at the Patferson-Hill Fflying School for her first flip. She was then 18. After that, lessons were crowded into the daily grind between dawn and nine o’clock, when the wool shop opened for business.

She soloed after nine hours dual instruction.

When the day came Continued from page 22

Continued on page 38

Bush Angel

the boys at the field planned a super razzing. Vi heard about it and doublecrossed them. She soloed from a nearby pasture where not even the moo of a cow was raised to rattle her.

By the spring of 1939, Vi had logged 100 hours, took her commercial license and began to fly passengers at $2 a flip for a bird’s-eye peek at Toronto. But flying was still a hobby. She hadn’t yet decided to make it a career.

The war helped make up her mind. When instructors at the flying school began vanishing like fog on a sunny morning, the late Pat Patterson intimated that he might have a job for her if she had an instructor’s ticket. She didn’t need much coaxing, though the rigid tests—including a series of toughiee by the RCA F—would have been enough to discourage most females. Shortly before this, Vi had opened a wool shop of her own on Yonge Street near Lawrence Park.

“1 was bored stiff,” she recalls, “listening to women chatter about their knitting. I needed an outlet. Flying was it.”

By 1940 she was out $2,000 for flying lessons and in an instructor’s license. After battling some of that male prejudice about woman’s place being on the ground, she got a job instructing. It was about this time that La Milstead experienced her first, and so far only crash.

It happened while a jittery student was practicing landings. Vi was riding up front in the trainer, when the young man suddenly froze at the controls. The plane hit the field once, bounced and went screaming into the tree tops. When Vi opened her eyes she found the entire left side of the aircraft had been sheared off. Both she and the student walked away from it without a scratch. An hour later she was in the air again with another student.

In the fall of 1942 Vi Milstead found a new boss. After a visit to Ferry Command headquarters at Dorval, she was signed on as a pilot with the British Air Transport Auxiliary—one of four Canadian girls who made the grade. After sparring with selective service, Vi left for England. There, working out of an all-girl pool, she spent two and a half years, flying just about everything with wings. Few men can claim flying time in as many types of aircraft as this petite woman. She says little about her wartime experiences, but she admits that new combat pilots would sometimes do mock faints when they saw all five-foot-two of her climb out of the cockpit of an expertly landed Typhoon or Wellington, fresh delivered from factory or repair depot.

Back to Flying

When she arrived back in Toronto shortly after V-J Day, Vi gave up flying for clerking in an office, but she couldn’t stand it long. So she went to work instructing again. In the summer of 1916 she was picked to air-taxi Miss Canada Toronto’s Marion Saver —on publicity flights to Ottawa, New York and Washington. Vi proved to be a problem child for the publicity agents. With the exception of once when she was bullied into a radio appearance on the Jinx Falkenberg program, she turned all propositions down cold.

In June, 1947, she headed north and went to work for Nickel Belt, where, on sidary plus flying pay totalling about $3,000 a year, she acts as a combination instructor-bush pilot.

As an instructor, she rates with the best. In the air, she fairly bristles with competence. Pitching her sharp voice over the thunder of the engine she makes her directions crisp. She frequently gets a point across to a student by comparing air manoeuvres to banked highways and automobiles climbing a hill. And she doesn’t believe in wasting time.

“Flying costs money,” she says. “Instructors who faff around should get the boot.”

June Callwood, a former Toronto newspaperwoman,whom Vi taught to fly, says, “When you get into trouble 2,000 feet upstairs and your plane starts plummeting earthward, believe me, there is no music this side of Lombardo sweeter than Vi Milstead’s cool, reassuring, ‘I have control!’ ”

But even La Milstead pulls a boner now and then. Once, while flying with another instructor, she tried to roll a Tiger Moth. It wouldn’t roll. Instead, it fell into a spin. During a 1,500-foot drop, while she fought for control, a shower of nuts, bolts and dust cut loose inside the cabin. Back on the ground, her only comment was —“It ruined my new hair-do!”

Her most embarrassing moment happened during an air show at Brantford, Ont.. Arnold Warren, a fellow instructor, was taking off for a demonstration of aerobatics when, through a program error, the public-address system suddenly blared that Miss Violet Milstead was flying the plane. “But I got even,” chuckles Warren. “I made the sloppiest take-off of my life. I wallowed all over the sky and, when I landed the ship, I bounced it like a rookie. Everybody thought it was Vi. Her face was so red you could’ve used it for a stop light.”

One of La Milstead’s favorite tricks while flying with a student is to suddenly announce—“Whoops! Our engine’s conked. Got to make a forced landing. What do we do now?”

This technique backfired on her one day, however, while flying a Sea-Bee from Haliburton to Toronto. It was the first Sea-Bee to come into Canada from the United States and it was equipped with a fuel dip stick, marked off in American gallons. As a result, Vi thought she was carrying more gas than she was and when the tanks went dry a few miles from Lake Simeoe, she was left hanging on a cloud.

Just Dropped In

It was then that she did what many fliers had always claimed was impossible. She force-landed a Sea-Bee with a “packed-up” engine. Coming down on Black River, a narrow, shallow stream flowing into Lake Simeoe, she splashed wildly around two sharp bends and finally grounded on the muddy bottom.

While she and her two passengers, both ex-RCAFers, sat mopping their brows, a farmer rowed alongside in a skiff. “You people visitin’ somebody?” he asked casually.

“Well,” Vi replied, “not exactly.” Which her companions considered a masterpiece of understatement.

Though she has been flying in the north country only since June, 1947, Miss Milstead has learned that bush piloting is no occupation for the fainthearted. Treacherous electrical storms, fog, sleet, snow squalls and temperatures that slide to 40 below often plague the bush pilot. Maps often prove inaccurate and flying conditions can change with finger-snapping rapidity. And when word of a desperately sick missionary or trapper trickles out of the wilderness, there is no radio beam to guide a plane and doctor to the shack or isolated outpost.

The hours are strictly nonunion— dawn to dusk, seven days a week. And bush pilots Eire not just glorified chauffeurs sitting behind the controls of their great, gleaming ships. They do plenty of hard slugging—packsacks, canoes, bundles of pelts, deer carcasses, gasoline drums and all kinds of freight. Occasionally, they must fly pregnant women and sick babies in need of quick medical care or hospitalization. Miss Milstead has never been a “flying midwife” but she harbors a growing uneasiness that some day she may he called upon to race the stork and lose out.

Another thing she discovered soon after arriving in the north was that all the wolves aren’t in the woods. The two-legged variety sometimes charter planes for trips to hunting camps or mining developments. One day she found herself alone in the plane with a dapper gent who fancied himself to be quite a killer with the ladies. Sliding an arm around her shoulder he said, “You know, I’ve never been kissed in an airplane.”

Vi looked at him like he had just crawled out from under a stone. “Well, 1 have!” she informed him coolly. “It’s no different from being kissed in a car or a boat.”

His hopes of an air-borne romance crumbled around him, the flying Romeo confined himself to remarking how beautiful, the autumn woods looked from the air.

“La Milstead” doesn’t pretend to be a flying beauty. Glamour and Vi aren’t on speaking terms. “In fact, we never even got to be friends,” she chuckles. She jokes about “my big nose and double chin,” and there is a slight frown crease between her narrow arching eyebrows. But nobody could sell Vi Milstead short on personality. She effervesces like sparkle water in a Seltzer bottle.

She’s feminine enough to comb her hair before having her picture taken. And she worries about her weight, though the 120 pounds she currently carries around are nicely distributed with dips and curves in all the right places. But when winter came to the north this year, grounding all float aircraft until lake ice was thick enough for skis, the boys began chiding Vi about “freeze-up bulges.”

“We all get ’em,” laughs Charlie Butehart, another bush pilot. “We can’t work so we just sit around the stove in the flight office and put on the beef. First thing Vi knows, she’ll be bustin’ out all over.”

When it comes to appetite, she says she’s just an ordinary gal who likes to eat. If you prod her a little, she’ll admit a weakness for thick steaks and frogs’ legs. And she chews gum. She likes a cocktail or glass of beer but never mixes either with flying.

She smokes heavily, sometimes lighting one cigarette off another and often while waiting for a flight call, she knils with nimble fingers, cheeks puffed out in a whistle as the needles click. She’s an avid amateur photographer, likes to read (but hates detective stories) and says she can’t cook beyond “maybe boiling a kettle of water.”

Her male competitors like to think of Violet Milstead as one of them; as a “regular guy.” But Vi is feminine enough to wonder sometimes if the boys don’t carry this regular-guy business too far.

Like the first time one of lier flying mates saw her all lovelied up. She had shed her slacks, plaid shirt and parka for a smartly tailored brown suit (her favorite color). A natty hat with veil was perched on her head and the large watch that hangs on her wrist by daytime had given way to a slender ladies’ type.

“My gosh!” commented the surprised gent, looking her up and down. “What do you know? She’s got legs— and nice ones, too!”