Article: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes–The Wives of Bush Pilots

  • 94-25-012-640x250
    March, 1970, Canadian Aviation
    By Peter Brannan

    Every year when the call comes for nominations for the award of the McKee Trophy–for names of those people who have contributed greatly to aviation in Canada–I think of Weldy Phipps, president of Atlas Aviation Ltd., at Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut).

    Not that I think Weldy should win the award every year (in fact he did win the McKee Trophy in 1958). No, the reason I am reminded of Weldy is that I feel the award should go to his wife Frances–a woman who is representative of aviation’s real unsung heroes, the wives of our bush pilots.

    I think of “Fran” Phipps particularly because I know of no other woman who has endured hardship and inconvenience so cheerfully, so that she can be with her bush pilot husband, and help him in his work. When Weldy first established his base at Resolute, Fran and the children used to join him for the summer and then retreat to the comparatively civilized climate of Ottawa for the winter. But some years ago, the family dug in their heels and took their place alongside the Inuit families of the region. The three younger children of the Phipps family of eight attend school there, but once they attain grade 6 level, they have to be sent south to school.

    Resolute is the northernmost point served by any scheduled air service, about as far north again from Frobisher Bay as Frobisher is north of Montreal. Their first accommodations were spartan in the extreme. Space was at a premium and every drop of water had to be carried to their hut from the nearby Forces base supply compound. Mrs. Phipps not only had the family to care for, she also cooked for the pilots and other help–anything up to 12 men in the summer months and six in the winter. Not to mention the laundry and the odd button that needed sewing on.

    Things are a lot better now, the Phipps have several large trailers joined together. They have movies, with a different show every night, and a pleasant lounge for a social drink. The children have no difficulty passing the time; they even got used to the two-and-a-half months of winter without sun. The summers with “midnight sun” cause more problems. The kids want to join the Inuit children playing baseball at 3:30 am, which isn’t so good when school time comes around.

    94-25-010-640pixels

    Like any other northern community, the people of Resolute look forward to the arrival of the periodic flights from Frobisher and Montreal. These used to be DC-3s or DC-4s and an occasional Curtiss C-46, but these days the local population thrills to the arrival of “the jet”–Nordair’s Boeing 737–every Wednesday. This brings the mail and any commodity that has been ordered in, and is always given an enthusiastic reception. Much of the activity is in support of the various scientific and exploration groups working in the general area.

    Much of Weld’s flying is performed under contract to government agencies and involves flying in all weather. He has two DHC Twin Otters, an Otter, a Beaver, a Beech D-18, and a Piper Super Cub, most of them equipped with skis or oversize tires. It was Weldy’s idea of fitting the large balloon tires to a Super Cub–so that it could land successfully on the spongy ground during the spring thaws–that earned him the McKee Trophy. One of Weldy’s ambitions is to acquire a DHC Buffalo, when and if it becomes certified for commercial operation, so that he can carry bigger freight loads in and out of the limited Arctic strips.

    The only radio navigational aide in the area is at the airport itself, and there are precious few visual aides–particularly during the periods of the aviator’s dreaded “white out.” Weldy and his fellow pilots frequently buck adverse weather to make mercy flights.

    There was one occasion a couple years ago when Weldy was asked to fly his specially equipped aircraft in an attempt to rescue some men trapped on drifting ice. His reputation in overcoming such adversities is nation-wide and the trouble is the risk of the rescue is sometimes greater than the danger faced by those awaiting rescue. And the waiting wives also serve.

    If this story does nothing else it will indicate to aspiring young pilots that the aviation business is not all it is sometimes made out to be in those alluring advertisements! And if you are wondering how Fran got mixed up in all this, the answer could provide food for thought for any young ladies who are thinking about taking up the flying game. She enrolled in pilot’s course at a flying school in Ottawa some years ago–and Weldy was her instructor. She hasn’t learned to fly yet, but she sure makes a competent company operations manager–and housewife.

    This article originally appeared in the March, 1970 edition of Canadian Aviation magazine.

Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required