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Gordon McGregor page 5

Story by Ross smyth

Under McGregor’s leadership Trans-Canada Airlines became the first Canadian carrier with large jet-powered aircraft. On April 1, 1960, exactly 21 years after the first transcontinental passenger service in 10-passenger Lockheeds, the Douglas DC‑8, double the size and speed of its immediate predecessors, linked East and West. On board, J.A.D. McCurdy, first man to fly an aircraft in Canada, reminisced about the Silver Dart’s historic half-mile flight in 1909 over the ice at Baddeck, Cape Breton Island.

Many years before this first DC-8 transcontinental flight, McGregor and McCurdy, then Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, had visited the summer homestead in Baddeck of telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell, whose company had built the Silver Dart. McCurdy pointed down into the clear water of a small pond to the motor of Canada’s first airplane. The airline president urged McCurdy that he “must do something about that” to help preserve Canada’s flying heritage. A couple of years later, the Bell Museum opened at Baddeck as an historic landmark and tourist attraction.

A Scot by descent, McGregor had a preference for British products. He enjoyed great rapport with Sir George Edwards, brilliant designer of the Viscount. However, he did not permit such loyalty to affect business decisions. In 1963, when his technical team, after an exhaustive study, recommended the short-range Douglas DC-9 over the British BAC-111 and other competitors, he accepted their choice. In explaining this decision to a House of Commons committee, McGregor whispered an aside that the earlier French-built Caravelle was “no great shakes”, a remark amplified by the microphone into press headlines. Nationalist Quebec students marched on the airline’s head office in Montreal, bringing out the police on horseback. Never faint-hearted, McGregor quickly arranged to meet a student delegation and tactfully defused a delicate situation.

His frankness did not endear him to advocates of the new supersonic transport, which he dismissed as a white elephant. As early as 1961, he believed that someone would say many years later, “Never in the history of human endeavour has so much money and effort been spent in producing something that the purchaser didn’t want.” Air Canada and most airlines dropped their delivery positions for the Anglo-French Concorde on economic grounds; the U.S. government also withdrew support for the American supersonic transport project. The Concorde production line was stopped at 16 aircraft. Time proved McGregor right.

He strongly supported the right of the public to criticize “their” airline and, with his almost unmatched knowledge of the industry, he himself replied frankly in detail to many customer complaints. According to a former department head, he would nevertheless “back his staff to hell and back” once convinced they were right, a tremendous morale booster. The selection of good deputies with ample authority contributed to McGregor’s successful 20-year reign as president of the national airline. When necessary, he fully investigated matters personally and more than once unnerved a deputy by checking his request for a bigger budget with a slide rule.

His mechanical aptitude once deserted him. A huge coal truck blocked his car, so he climbed up into the cab of the truck to inch the vehicle forward. Then he pulled the wrong lever, and a load of coal was dumped over the hood of his new car!

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