In 1972, a person could get on an airplane at the local airport and fly right to Vancouver, courtesy of Harrison Air.
The company offered flights aboard a DC-3 aircraft three days a week between the area and the big city, stopping in Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and Fort St. James.
Things have changed over the years, and there are no commercial scheduled flights in and out of these small towns anymore, but aviation is still part of the north western communities.
February 23 is National Aviation Day in Canada, and in recognition of this fact, The Courier thought it might be interesting to look at some of the aviation history of the area.
Now the rugged terrain of British Columbia, especially the north, was often explored with the help of bush planes and pilots, and Fort St. James and area are no exception to this.
According to Grant Luck, long time local pilot and aviation service provider, whose father flew out of the area in the 1930s, the first plane came into the area courtesy of Tom Corless.
The plane was a Junker on floats, and it landed on Stuart Lake in rough water during a storm in 1928. The landing broke the engine mounts and the plane was a local fixture for many years.
Another Junker with the registration CF-ALX then began flying out of the area, but that plane crashed into McConnell Lake in 1932. The wreckage was sitting on shore for many years before it was slung out and shipped to Winnipeg. The plane is still being restored in Germany, but is delayed while more funds are being raised to complete the work.
Bush planes on floats or skis were the norm in those days, as there wasn’t an airport at the time, but there was also a ranch just outside of the Fort, Cassiar Ranch, where planes on wheels could land occasionally.
It was the heyday of bush planes, and while it could be dangerous, many pilots and planes helped move mining exploration crews and equipment around, before forestry roads opened up more of the remote backcountry in the area.
While there were many pilots and planes lost over the years, there were two men lost in 1956 who are still linked to The Courier.
These men were Bert Lloyd and Bert Goodridge, local prospectors and pilots. Bert Lloyd also happened to have been the great uncle of Courier reporter Ruth Lloyd.
The two men went down in a plane just east of Takla Landing in an unnamed lake, now called Two Bert Lake due to the fact that both men on board shared the name Bert.
A massive search effort at the time failed to locate the missing plane or men, and it wasn’t until 22 years later that the plane was found by Merv Hess, who said he’d never stopped looking.
The local pilot spotted the tail of the plane sticking out of the lake after a beaver dam had broken, dropping the water level enough to see the wreckage.
But over the years, the bush pilots began to be pushed out, as roads went in and helicopters became more widely used.
Eventually, an airport was built in Fort St. James in 1964, thanks to land donated by Harold Perison. It was originally a gravel strip, but over the years has been upgraded and was worked on over the last two years by the Airport Committee to be brought up to Transport Canada standards for an airport without scheduled flights.
Deb Hadwen, economic development officer for the local district and private pilot, says there is still a “strong but small” aviation community in the Fort, and with the new pilot training program in Vanderhoof and Mt. Milligan Mine, the airport might once again see an increase in use.
Hadwen says the Airport Committee is looking at possibly fencing the runaway and putting in lighting and would like to look at ideas to encourage area pilots to fly in and out of the airport.
She also says that the municipality is looking at subdividing and selling lots at the airport for aviation-related businesses.