Article: From Bush to Boardroom–Pilot Herb Seagrim

  • Seagrim in 1935-640x250

    Seagrim traded work for air time to log hours for his commercial license; joins TCA as one of its first pilots, and flies all of its leading aircraft

    Herb Seagrim was born in Winnipeg in 1912. As a young fellow he often sat on the banks of the Red River watching the RCAF flying boats taxi along the water, leaving in their wake the never-to-be-forgotten aroma of newly doped fabric and burning castrol.

    Aircraft activity on the Red River quickly expanded to include the airplanes involved in discovering Canada’s north. Most of these aircraft were flown by former First World War pilots whose exploits were romanticized by the media. From the outset, young Seagrim’s imagination was captured by these exciting stories and his initial enthusiasm for flying never waned.

    Flying, however, was regarded as the domain of veteran pilots and the chances of a young man of limited means getting into the business was a huge challenge.

    Seagrim started flying in 1931, at age 19, when an over-eager Winnipeg Flying Club agent said a clever young man could solo after four hours of instruction, which then cost the princely sum of $60. So Seagrim enrolled, only to discover at the end of four hours of instruction from Konnie Johannesson, that he wasn’t as clever as he thought. He did, however, solo after approximately six hours of instruction.

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    After his successful solo, Seagrim was on a mission to accumulate enough flying time to qualify for a job. His determination was so great and his resources so small that he made a deal with the flying club to work a full day as a mechanic’s helper in exchange for 15 minutes flying time. He earned more flying time by borrowing a friend’s truck to haul cinders to surface the club’s parking lot – each load gave him another 10 minutes in the air. While employed by the flying club as a mechanic he also did some barnstorming in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

    By 1933 he qualified for his air engineer’s certificate and worked for the Konnie Johannesson Flying Service and other northern operators as a mechanic. In 1934, he joined Roy Brown’s Wings Limited in Winnipeg as a licensed air engineer and was promised a flying job as soon as there was a vacancy.

    Seagrim’s first flight assignment at Wings came by default when he was sent to Regina to rebuild a Cessna Parasol monoplane which had been purchased after a crash. After rebuilding the airframe and engine, he took it up on a test flight without asking for permission. And then when he told his boss of his test flight, he was instructed to fly his finished handiwork to the airline’s Lac du Bonnet base. He soon graduated to larger aircraft in the company’s fleet, which included Waco, Fokker Universal, Fairchild 71 and 82, Norseman, Bellanca, Buhl, Dragon Rapide and Cessna. Seaplanes were Seagrim’s “first love” in terms of aircraft, a preference clearly supported by his logbook where his entries record 3,000 hours on floats and skis and only 300 hours on wheels by 1937.

    Seagrim’s mechanical experience proved to be a great asset in bush operations. From 1934 to 1937, his flights covered northern Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan and saw him based in such places as Norway House, Ilford, God’s Lake, Red Lake, Kenora and Lac du Bonnet.

    In December, 1937, Seagrim embarked on a new challenge when he joined the newly created Trans-Canada Airlines as one of its original pilots. There followed a long period of training in Lockheed 10A aircraft during which, for the first year before passenger service, all flying operations were conducted “under the hood” until instrument flying became second nature.

    On March 1, 1938, Seagrim flew the first TCA airmail from Winnipeg to Regina. Later he was involved in pioneering the difficult Rocky Mountain route between Lethbridge and Vancouver where the lack of pressurization, underpowered aircraft, the dangers of icing, and poor navigation facilities hampered operations.

    In 1940, Seagrim was transferred to Vancouver where he served on routes to Seattle and Winnipeg. In addition, he was also a test pilot at the Boeing overhaul plant at Sea Island, testing military aircraft such as the Stranraer, Catalina, Bolingbroke (Canadian-built Blenheim), and Grumman Goose in support of the war effort.

    In 1943, Seagrim saw the first of a series of promotions. He was appointed chief pilot for the western region and based at Lethbridge; this job consisted mainly of flight instruction to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding airline. The following year he transferred back to Winnipeg as assistant superintendent of flight operations, functioning as the company’s chief pilot and flight instructor. That same year he was appointed superintendent of flight operations, a title subsequently changed to director of flight operations.

    While in Winnipeg Seagrim developed TCA’s basic flight and instructional procedures which earned the company an enviable reputation throughout the industry. It was also at this time that he broke the speed record for a flight from Vancouver to Montreal in the newly acquired North Star, covering the distance in just under seven hours at the unheard of altitude of 20,000 feet. The trip was historic for another reason – one of the passengers was federal cabinet minister, C.D Howe, considered the father of TCA.

    When TCA headquarters moved to Montreal in 1949, Seagrim moved there to become general manager for operations and was put in charge of all flying, maintenance, telecommunications, passenger service, engineering and station services. In 1956, he became vice-president for operations and six years later he became senior vice-president for operations.

    It was during these years that Seagrim was largely responsible for the selection of the Douglas DC-8 and the Douglas DC-9. He qualified to fly both aircraft types and flew the first DC-8 transcontinental for TCA in 1960 and the first DC-9 transcontinental in 1966, by which time TCA had become Air Canada.

    In 1966, Herb Seagrim was named executive vice-president responsible for all line departments of the airline. Also during this time he took over as acting president during the health leave of TCA’s then president Gordon McGregor. It was widely believed that McGregor was grooming Seagrim as his successor. Seagrim was, in fact, the choice of the airline’s board of directors to succeed McGregor, whose retirement was expected in 1968. Unfortunately, Air Canada was still a crown corporation and the Canadian government under Pierre Trudeau had other ideas – Seagrim was passed over in favour of a political appointment. It says volumes about the man that he did not simply fade into disappointed retirement but accepted a position as first vice-president to aid in the transition to the new and inexperienced top management. He retired early in 1970.

    Herb Seagrim was always known as a pilot’s pilot. And, his combined experience as a pilot and aviation mechanic was respected by air and ground staff alike. He was probably the only airline vice-president who was checked out to line pilot standards in large jet aircraft.

    Herb Seagrim was a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, a fellow of the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute, and a companion of the Order of Icarus. He was named to Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974 and awarded the Order of Canada in 1987 for his contribution to aviation. He died November 13, 1998.

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    This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2013 edition of Altitude.

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