The airline that goes almost anywhere and does practically everything

April 17 1965

The airline that goes almost anywhere and does practically everything

April 17 1965

The airline that goes almost anywhere and does practically everything

IT WAS GETTING monotonous. We had flown more than two hundred miles out over the North Atlantic from the Newfoundland coast and seen only grey sky and greyer water. I was in the cockpit of the DC3. Captain Vince Keyes had lent me his seat. Copilot Syd Greeley was beside me at the controls. He caught me yawning and grinned. "It may seem quiet now," he said through the earphones, "but wait till we come to some ships."

"Do you always see ships?”

"Always."

We droned on. Then, suddenly. Greeley pointed. “Look at the ships now — there must be a dozen. You'll have to go back and let Keyes in. It takes both of us for the bombing.”

Keyes was waiting. He transferred the earphones to his head as I slid from his seat. The plane swooped low and Keyes opened a little side window and thrust out a bundle of leaflets. They fluttered down like snowflakes on an East German trawler. The DC3 climbed, then swooped again while Keyes aimed a camera and photographed it. Two more climbs, two more swoops to take pictures — one instant. I seemed to weigh five hundred pounds and be sinking through the fuselage, and next instant to be floating — then we leveled off and headed upwind to another trawler, a Pole. We kept repeating it until we had scattered every deck in the covey of fishing vessels with sheets that said in Portuguese. Spanish. French. German. Russian and English: “Caution please, captain — you are dangerously close to important / continued on page 5/

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telephone and telegraph cables, please refer to charts showing cable positions and avoid trawling near cables.”

By the time we were through, and landward bound, I sat miserably still, swallowing excess saliva. “How did you like it?” Keyes asked. 1 gulped. “We're on cable patrol four days a week,” he said. “The trawlers and draggers used to fish off the Grand Banks, but now they are dragging close to four transAtlantic cables. If one of them snagged and broke a cable, repairs and interruptions could cost a million dollars, so we warn them off and photograph them for identification. If the next patrol finds them in the same area, it reports them to the coastguard.

Policing transAtlantic cables for the companies that own them is one of the innumerable offbeat tasks undertaken by Eastern Provincial Airways, which, although relatively unknown west of the Atlantic Provinces, is Canada’s third-largest airline — after Air Canada and Canadian Pacific Airlines — and by long odds its most versatile. It is also about the only link thousands of people in remote places have with the rest of the world. It is so important to Newfoundland and Labrador that Newfoundland’s premier, Joseph Smallwood, once said, “If EPA didn't exist, our government would have to create it.” It is equally important to Greenland, where it operates under an arrangement with the Danish government.

EPA’s main preoccupation is its scheduled service — a web of thousands of miles of routes over Quebec, New Brunswick. Nova Scotia. Prince Edward Island, Labrador, Newfoundland and Greenland. But it also delivers mail to communities frozen in by winter, runs air ambulances, patrols timberland and fights forest fires, drops hunters, anglers, prospectors and surveyors into the bush, spots seals for Newfoundland's sealing fleet, searches for humans lost in the barrens or adrift in crippled fishing boats.

Recently, I spent fifteen days and logged seven thousand miles getting a close look at what EPA does and what it means to those who would have no transportation without it. I flew in most of its nine types of aircraft, from tiny to hig, over ocean, rocky hills, unbroken stands of evergreen, bog, windswept islands, rivers, lakes, stopping at cities, bleak outports. new mining communities.

It was at Moncton. N.B., at 6.30 a.m., that 1 boarded a forty-six-passenger turbo-prop Handley Page Dart Herald for EPA’s “milk run” to Gander, via Charlottetown. New Glasgow, Sydney and Deer Lake. No hop took more than twenty-five minutes until we left Sydney, Cape Breton, for Deer Lake, on the western side of Newfoundland.

At Gander, once the famous crossroads of transAtlantic air travel — before long-range jets most trans-

Atlantic planes had to refuel there — I expected a ghost town, for the thousands of travelers who used to pass through there daily have shrunk to hundreds. Yet Gander seems to he booming. Its shabby wartime buildings are being torn down, a two-million-dollar hospital, a shiny vocational school and a new apartment building have been put up, the hotel and motel are usually filled, and there is a housing shortage. Because long-range jets still land there when weather closes in elsewhere and a lot of chartered and economy flights still call there, the airport’s luxurious lounge is as well cared for as ever, its uniformed attendants as neat and alert. If its Big Dipper bar and elegant dining room are often empty, its coffee shop does a brisk trade, much of it with employees of EPA, which has its head offices on the second floor of the passenger terminal. I talked there with many of its executives and pilots, most

of them enthusiastic Newfoundlanders by birth or adoption who were overseas with the RCAF during the war. Even those now desk-bound find their jobs exciting and like to boast a bit about EPA.

They told me, for instance, that during dry spells when forest - fire hazards are high, their entire fleet of bush aircraft stands by to speed firefighting crews and equipment and to evacuate the inhabitants of villages that may be threatened. In such periods four Cansos owned by Newfoundland, and each equipped with an eight-hundred-gallon water tank, can be airborne on ten minutes’ notice. EPA pilots fly them over a fire and, with a flick of a switch, spray the flames with water. “We have a sort of racetrack route, round and round from fire to lake for more water to fire — no more than a few minutes for the whole circuit,” a pilot explained. “Every fire we had in Newfound-

land last summer we put out within twenty-four hours. It was different in Labrador: we flew eleven hours a day for weeks, dousing a fire that raged over an immense area. But we had great success around Halifax last spring: saved quite a few houses that would have been burned by flames licking toward them through brush and grass. I think people were lighting fires there to see us in action.” Flying mail may sound routine but, for EPA. it can be pretty dramatic. Small mail planes range as far north as Nain, Labrador, landing where and when they can, radioing ahead so a postman will meet them with horse, snowmobile or dogteam. It’s a dangerous chore in a region where gale, freezing rain, fog or blizzard may set in without warning, so that to return to Gander a pilot must depend on what EPA men call their “homing-pigeon instinct.” When the weather is too bad they may stay for a day or a week

with fishermen or trappers who have never seen a car or train but accept the little red EPA planes as commonplace.

EPA’s air-ambulance service operates under a contract with the Newfoundland department of health and the International Grenfell Association. I flew in an ambulance plane to St. Anthony at the tip of Newfoundland’s great northern peninsula. The takeoff was delayed a day by snow; I had to be at the airport early the next morning. There were five other passengers waiting there: two commercial travelers, a male TB patient returning from Gander hospital to his home on Spotted Island, a pretty English nurse, Jean Kerr, who said it was lucky we were only held up a day — last time she’d been held up nine days — and a solemn young man who had just arrived from England to do volunteer orderly work at a lonely Grenfell nursing station on the Labrador coast.

Below us as we headed north were dark evergreen islands with the sea breaking white all around them. There was a patch of houses on the edge of a bay. “Have you ever landed there for a patient?” I asked Len Byle, the pilot.

“Yes,” he said, “a case of botulism — the worst food poisoning; Eskimos often get it in the spring from seal meat. The weather was down but I had to pick up the patient or he’d die. I lost a pound or two on that trip.”

We were flying low. Watching the scenery unfold, I wrote in my notebook. “This Newfoundland — this great, harsh, rocky, beautiful, lonely land.” I turned to see how it was affecting the English boy. He was looking through his window, his face expressionless.

“John,” I said, “I’d give anything to know what you’re thinking right now.” He looked at me and said, in his crisp cultured accent, “It’s not at all like England.”

We had to stop at Roddickton — square houses and three white-steepled churches on a hill overlooking a cove. As we taxied to the wharf, people ran down to watch, the first there a toothless old woman with the look of an eager young girl. She was a TB suspect, the one we’d stopped for, and

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Flying out hunters is easy —it’s 900-pound moose that take some work

she seemed pleased and important as she climbed spryly up the plane's ladder.

St. Anthony, snuggled around a harbor, was quite large — maybe three thousand residents. The Grenfell hospital was the dominant building. A green panel truck, with the Grenfell white cross, was waiting for us on the wharf; from it emerged two smiling young mothers with bundled new babies, three Eskimo children, an old man and two young men, all eager for the plane ride to their Labrador homes in Seal Bight, Mary’s Harbor, Black Tickle and Batteau.

I left the ambulance plane at St. Anthony; I had a chance to fly back to Gander in another plane with Marshall Jones, EPA’s vice-president. At the ramshackle old Grenfell hospital, which has a staff of forty, one hundred and twenty beds, and one hundred and fifty patients (nobody explained where they put them), I was shown plans for a six-million-dollar building that will be started this year by the Newfoundland government and operated by the Grenfell Association. At the hospital, I sat with the radio operator and plane dispatcher, a volunteer Mennonite boy from Pennsylvania, as he listened to and answered messages from three nursing stations on the Labrador coast. He told me that in a year an EPA pilot at St. Anthony makes up to three hundred trips with fifteen hundred landings, sometimes flying nine hours a day. While we talked a message came over radio that a pregnant woman in Englee needed a mercy flight, if her baby was not to be born dead. An hour and a half later she was at St. Anthony. Then Marsh Jones and I headed back for Gander.

Patients come through the roof

From Gander. I flew to St. John’s, where an EPA man. Curtis Le Grow, took me on a sight-seeing tour. He showed me a new fourteen-story nurses’ residence, the roof of which will be a heliport for emergency patients. Then we drove to Octagon Pond, an EPA base on the outskirts of the Newfoundland capital. Bush pilot Ted Piercey was standing by for a message to bring in four hunters and four moose: “We take two trips in a Beaver. Moose^weigh up to nine hundred pounds. The guides skin and quarter them and we fly them to Gander where they are frozen before being sent on to the homes of the hunters.”

Mike Byrne, a mechanic at Octagon Pond, contributed the information that it was Piercey who flew the survey party “along the route of the power line Joey Smallwood wants so bad to open up Labrador and make Newfoundland rich.”

It was at Gander, while 1 was fogbound, that Marshall Jones and Bill Harris, another EPA vice-president, filled me in on the history of their airline.

It started with a war-surplus Piper Cub that Eric Blackwood, an RCAF veteran, bought in 1949. Jones and Harris joined him and bought an old

Stinson and hired a girl to run an office at St. John's. Jones and Blackwood flew: Harris was the engineer. EPA now has twenty stations scattered around and its pilots must radio all plane positions each half hour, but at first its only ground depots were drums of gasoline cached in underbrush or buried in snow —

gasoline a pilot would strain through an old hat when he had to refuel—and there was no radio. With bush operations. ambulance flights and mail contracts. EPA soon had five aircraft. Blackwood pulled out. leaving Harris and Jones in charge. Meanwhile another regional airline. Maritime Central, had come into being — a real

competitor. Both companies got big contracts shuttling men and materials for the DEW and Pine Tree radar lines and the iron-ore developments in northeastern Quebec and Labrador. The company brought in A. J. Lewington as general manager. He is now president.

By 1963 EPA had overtaken its

rival. Maritime Central, and bought it out with an assist from the Newfoundland government, which guaranteed the loans from the bank it needed for the deal. The purchase gave EPA a total of forty aircraft, seventy pilots, four hundred and twenty-five employees and an annual payroll of more than two million dollars.

F.PA’s heaviest traffic, currently, is to Wabush Lake, near Labrador’s southwestern border, eight hundred

miles from St. John’s, and revolves around the new iron mines. Joe Smallwood insisted that sixty percent of the workers there be Newfoundlanders. There are no highways to Wabush: the railway — to Sept Iles, Que. — is for ore alone, so the only access to Wabush from Newfoundland is by plane. EPA has flown thousands of Newfoundlanders to Wabush — sometimes families with as many as a dozen children.

I flew from Gander to Wabush over

the icy Labrador wilds, which look as though the glacial migration had passed over them lately, and we landed on a gravel airstrip midway between Wabush and Labrador City, three miles apart on the curving shore of Wabush Lake. Labrador City, which didn’t exist five years ago, now has five thousand people. Bunkhouses, a trailer-camp area, and square housing units made of asbestos shingle give it the look of a suddenly risen frontier town, but it also has streets

of nice houses, a tall apartment building, a growing shopping centre, a hockey arena, dance clubs, a theatre, a hospital, modern schools. Father Ronselle, the Roman Catholic missionary at Labrador City, was dissatisfied with the flimsy shack provided for his masses, so he installed a battery of slot machines — “one-armed bandits” — to raise funds for a better church. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police accused him of running a gambling joint, but he persuaded them not to press charges. The profits of the slot machines paid for the new stone church on the main street, where six masses a day are celebrated now.

The iron-mining operation of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, Labrador City’s reason for being, has been producing for more than a year. The mine of Wabush Mines, at Wabush, is not in production yet, but since 1962 $305 million has been invested there on mining and processing facilities, maintenance shops and a complete town with well-lighted, paved streets, water system, sewagedisposal plant, apartments, dormitory residences, brick and frame houses, playgrounds, a cafeteria that serves two thousand men, a two-million-dollar school, a theatre, a gymnasium, a bowling alley, and the Sir Wilfred Grenfell Hotel, not unlike a Swiss Alpine inn, where I sipped excellent dry martinis and dined on snails Burgoigne, filet mignon with fresh mushrooms, washed down with a good Beaujolaise, and tarte pêche.

From Wabush, I flew to Goose Bay. King Forde, EPA's sales manager, was on the plane. “We will carry anything that will go in an aircraft.” he told me. “We’ve flown cars up to Goose, machinery, booths and displays for an industrial fair, flowers for parties, for women having babies. Once we flew a horse. Last week the officers’ wives at the United States Air Force base were having a raffle and

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wanted me to get them prizes. I got them a live pig from New Brunswick, a live turkey from Prince Edward Island and a live duck from St. John’s.”

As we circled over Goose Bay I could see four communities connected by asphalt strips running through scrubby wasteland. One is Happy Valley, a town of five thousand civilians that is desperately trying to get piped water and sewers before it gets typhoid. Its people are Labrador whites, Indians, Eskimos and breeds of all three. A family there pays forty dollars a month for electricity, a dollar for a cabbage, sixty-nine cents for a head of lettuce.' Another community is the RCAF base, with perhaps two thousand residents. A third is the USAF base, where the official count of personnel is supposed to be sixtyseven hundred and there is a $400million investment in barracks, hangars and other buildings. The last and loneliest is a department of transport base, where the employees, as civil servants, feel superior to the “natives” of Happy Valley, but are not recognized by the lofty military hierarchy.

The lovely, wind-blown Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were the last port of call on my tour of the EPA’s web of scheduled routes. They have infinite charm, these islands, where gaily painted houses are scattered over green hills like colored hankies, long white beaches,

sandstone cliffs almost the color of autumn leaves, clusters of fishing craft around little wharves.

While I waited at the airport at Grindstone, the chief town of the Magdalens, for a plane that was five hours late because of a fog over Prince Edward Island, a fisherman told me the isolated but lovely archipelago would be lost without EPA to link it to the mainland. “We can go fast,” he said, “and in winter when no ships are coming, it brings our mail, and in springtime, how nice! The seats on one side of the plane, they can turn down and carry for us fluffy baby chicks in cardboard boxes, beep beep.”

After the Magdalens, back to Moncton, for an Air Canada plane to Toronto. There, an EPA stewardess. Bliss Fitz Randolph, an extraordinarily pretty girl who had just flown in from St. John’s, said to me excitedly, “Guess what? Joey Smallwood was one of my passengers. And on my last trip a millionaire from England asked me to marry him.” She laughed merrily. “Can you imagine selling shoes or face cream or working in an office when you can have a life like this?”

Her question seemed to me to sum up how practically everybody feels who has a job with the curiously exciting, adventurous, friendly and incredibly versatile airline that means so much to so many people in the Atlantic region. ★