When James A. Richardson began Western Canada Airways in 1926, float- and ski-equipped aircraft were a common sight in Winnipeg, landing and taking off from the Brandon Avenue dock. In 1939, when Nick Olekson started his float repair company, planes on floats were still the most reliable means of travel in the North. Nick Olekson was born in Lockport, Manitoba in 1910 and had the equivalent of a grade four education when he got his first job selling bait at age 14. Olekson began his career in the aviation industry in 1933 at MacDonald Brothers Aircraft Company, which was purchased by the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1954.
“I started out at $0.25 an hour building floats during the winter. In the summertime, I had to get other work,” Olekson recalled during an interview with the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada in 1991. Among his friends Olekson was the fortunate one, since jobs were scarce in the 1930s. During his fourth year with MacDonald Brothers, Olekson spent his vacation driving some unemployed friends to Chicago, Illinois in search of work. When he returned, Olekson’s manager suspected him of travelling abroad to look for other employment and Olekson lost his job.
In 1939, after a year of unemployment, Nick Olekson started Winnipeg’s first airplane float repair company. “I used to go to Sioux Lookout, Lac du Bonnet – wherever I was needed. When that was over, I got a job with CP Airlines doing float work at Brandon Avenue.” During World War II, Canadian Pacific Railway Company amalgamated many small bush-flying companies with Canadian Pacific Airlines. Canadian Pacific Airlines offered reliable work during the war, when commercial contracts were scarce. In 1944, Canadian Pacific asked Olekson to move to Vancouver and he was off on his own again.
In the 1950s, the Federal Government started to introduce aircraft repair regulations, which required someone from out east to come and sign off on the work. Olekson’s only option if he wanted to stay in business was to get certified himself. But, he was concerned that his education would not be enough to pass the test. Olekson told the inspector “… if you tell me what the words mean, I’ll answer you and you write it down. We left it at that and they went back to Ottawa. The next thing I knew they granted me a license to sign my own work.” With his own licence, Olekson had an edge on the competition. Even the Bristol Aeroplane Company, who supplied Olekson’s parts, could not compete. “Bristol told me, ‘Nick, we can make more money selling you the parts than doing the job ourselves.’ That is the way it wound up right to the end.”
Nick Olekson passed away in 1999 at the age of 89. His son Jim Olekson took over the business in 1975 and moved it to their current home at St. Andrews Airport. Since Jim’s retirement in 1996, Olekson’s Float and Ski Repair has been owned and operated by long-time employee Russell Skrypec.
Photo is of MacDonald Bros. Float Shop, Winnipeg, Manitoba.