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Gordon McGregor page 3

Story by Ross smyth

McGregor combined intuition with fortitude. Still in Holland on the early morning of New Year’s Day 1945, the RCAF Group Captain, clad in flying suit over pyjamas with a parachute tugging at his shoulders, walked toward his Spitfire, swearing softly at his apparent stupidity in holding part of the fighter sector in readiness on a holiday. “Suddenly,” he recalled, “there was a hell of a din overhead. A squadron of Me 109s was beating up the strip. Then some damn fool away back in the formation opened fire on the aircraft parked on the ground. Well! That produced a whole lot of action.”

In the Luftwaffe’s last mass fighter attack of the Second World War, the famous 126 Fighter Wing tore into those desperate German pilots in what McGregor recalled as “a whale of a day.” McGregor’s preparedness was an act of intuitive judgement. Recalls G/C E.A. McNab, “By this act he practically saved the whole Canadian fighter sector.”

From his wartime base in Europe, McGregor was not aware of developments back in North America that would affect him personally. With victory on the horizon, representatives of Allied governments met in Chicago in late 1944 to plan postwar commercial air routes. The dynamic C.D. Howe, “Minister of Everything” under Prime Minister Mackenzie King, ensured that the country would play an important role. H.J. Symington, president of Trans-Canada Air Lines, worked behind the scenes to gain for Montreal the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). At the time, McGregor did not know that Symington was recruiting executives for TCA’s expanding postwar service and also a possible successor to himself from among the RCAF’s senior officer talent pool.

Asked by a journalist at the front about his postwar future, McGregor looked at him with piercing brown eyes and said, “I’ll be back to prewar standards, back to being a Sunday pilot with the home-town flying club. But I’m all set. Got a desk to fly in Montreal with the phone company.” Aware of G/C McGregor’s brilliant service record, the astute Symington invited the war ace to join TCA instead. He accepted, and the reluctant Bell Telephone Company gave him a leave of absence, described by McGregor as “six months to recover my sanity.”

The war hero found a need for his aviation skills in peacetime. After a brief administrative grooming at TCA’s Winnipeg headquarters, he took on the tough job of general traffic manager of the small airline, which had a good operational record but lacked the personnel and experience for rapid postwar development. He soon made his mark as the official representative of the expanding airline. The outspoken Canadian became renowned throughout the transportation world when, as conference chairman in Brazil in 1947, he obtained harmonious action on all traffic problems facing the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an achievement previously believed impossible. His success ensured the orderly development of air transport. H.J. Symington soon retired, and the former RCAF officer became the airline’s first full-time president, a strong and forceful leader of similar mould to the government’s C.D. Howe and Canadian National’s Donald Gordon.

His leadership encountered problems. In 1949 McGregor acquired disfavour in Winnipeg by logically transferring company headquarters to Montreal, the airline’s geographic centre. Just before the move, TCA’s public relations chief, Rod MacInnes, informally encountered Jack Pickersgill, then top staff man in the prime minister’s office. “Tell him not to move the headquarters from Winnipeg,” said Pickersgill, a native Manitoban.

“Why not tell him yourself?” MacInnes asked.

“Oh, you know, nobody can tell Gordon McGregor when he thinks he’s right,” sighed politician Pickersgill, who later became Transport Minister.

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