Article: 1939–HBC Establishes Air Transport Division with Beech 18

  • Image of Beech 18, CF-BMI

    The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was one of the earliest customers of air travel in the Canadian north. It was, therefore, a natural progression that the “Company of Adventurers” should establish an Air Transport Division in 1939. Paul Davoud, an ambitious young Canadian Airways Limited pilot, was hired in 1938 to establish the weather reporting systems and refuelling stations necessary to undertake an unprecedented air mission: a study of health and nutrition across the Mackenzie River valley.

    Davoud had graduated from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario in 1932, having earned the Sword of Honour, as the best pilot of his class, before joining the Royal Air Force in England. Hungry for adventure, Davoud rejected the regimentation and routine of military life, resigning his commission in 1935 to fly freight north of Edmonton with Canadian Airways Limited. With nearly four years of flying experience in the Mackenzie River valley, Davoud was the right man in the right place to establish a new service in the area.


    To inspire confidence in HBC staff, who were used to traveling the north by canoe and dog-sled, Davoud ordered a new, float-equipped, twin-engine, Beech 18. In a magazine announcement, Davoud explains that the plane will, “provide the highest degree of comfort and security and is equipped with all modern navigation and safety aids, as well as two-way radio.” In need of an equally inspiring crew, Davoud recruited two friends from CAL, pilot Harry Winny and air engineer Duncan McLaren.

    Winny, a former Royal Canadian Air Force survey pilot and photographer had joined CAL in 1936 due to government cutbacks. He made fast friends with Davoud and McLaren while living in the same apartment complex as them in Edmonton. Davoud attracted Winney to the HBC with the prospect of trading the wood and cloth constructed bush planes of CAL for the modern all-metal, twin–engine Beechcraft.

    Duncan McLaren, known to friends as Dunc, had joined Canadian Airways Limited’s Vancouver maintenance crew as an apprentice when he was just 16 years old, and rose through the ranks to become an air engineer. McLaren had always hoped to earn his wings, and joined Davoud’s team with the promise of training for his commercial licence on the brand new Beechcraft, and becoming the Company’s next pilot.

    The new plane was picked up from the factory in Wichita, Kansas, in April, 1939 and registered as CF-BMI. The health and nutrition tour was ready to launch in August. Accompanying the crew were Assistant Manager of the Fur Trade, Robert Cheshire, Conrad Riley of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, and Company Medical Advisor, Dr. J. Harry Ebbs. In addition to offering immediate medical treatment to local people, Dr. Ebbs’ report showed that nutrition was significantly better in communities living near the coast, where fish were plentiful. Based on his recommendations, the HBC redistributed rations more effectively and implemented a new gardening program.

    Paul Davoud’s skill as a manager and leader had not gone unnoticed and, in 1940, the Royal Canadian Air Force called him up to command the newly formed 410 Tactical Fighter Squadron. With Harry Winny also called into service, Dunc MacLaren was left to head up the Air Division, and fly CF-BMI.

    Davoud went on to glory in the liberation of Europe, personally leading a dive bombing attack which destroyed 90 enemy tanks during the landing at Normandy Beach on D-Day. He would earn six medals from three separate nations. Davoud later went on to executive positions with Trans-Canada Air Lines, Orenda Engines, and de Havilland Canada. The HBC Air Division would grow to eight planes under the direction of Dunc MacLaren. By the 1960s, the HBC Air Division was no longer necessary, thanks to the ease of travel in the region which was provided by new air services as well as the infrastructure pioneered by the Company’s first air crew.


    The photo of CF-BMI above was taken at The Pas, Manitoba (Grace Lake) in 1940. The photo above is of Hudson Bay Company employees and (we are presuming) their families taken standing in front of a Manitoba Government Air Services plane in July 1949. The photo was taken at Southend; unfortunately there is no additional information about it in our library. All photos are from our archives.


4 Responses and Counting...

  • Les Oystryk 07.03.2015

    Thank you for this very interesting article. It is important to re-trace the history of these northern air operations. I do have a comment about the MGAS plane photo from 1949. From personal experience the view in this photo from both a water distance and topographical view, does not match the local view at Southend, Saskatchewan. I would be very interested in learning more about that photograph in particular, but I don’t think it was taken at Southend. Is there any way to find out more about this photo or from which collection it comes from?

  • Karen

    This photo of the HBC staff and (we presume) their families is from our archives, but unfortunately we have very little additional information about it. The only reference we have is a note about it having been taken at Southend in July ’49. A quick Google maps search showed a Southend in Saskatchewan, but you don’t think it was taken there? We would also like to know more about this photo. In the meantime, we’ve removing the reference to Saskatchewan.

  • Al Nelson

    I am in agreement with Les, it does not look like Soutend at all. Also, it would be unlikely that a MGAS aircraft would be in Saskatchewan. I would think that the low land in the background would more likely be in area around The Pas, possibly Cormorant Lake or Moose lake.

  • Karen

    We are always hopeful that we can fill in missing information by sharing these pictures and stories on our website, so we thank you for adding to this conversation.

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