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Gordon McGregorWar Hero to Airline President

Story by Ross smyth • photos individually credited – first published winter 1995

North Star CF-TFC

The beautiful lines of TCA’s first M2 North Star “Champlain”, delivered on October 22, 1947. CF-TFC served through December 1961 when it was sold to International Air Freighters who operated it between Toronto and Havana, Cuba until July 1962. (Canada Aviation and Space Museum photo)

Gordon R. McGregor faced his boss, the most powerful Cabinet minister in the immediate postwar years, “I’m cancelling air service from your constituency to Duluth.”

The Right Honourable C.D. Howe turned red in the face. “But why my constituency?” he muttered. As MP from the Thunder Bay area he was sure to get a show of protest letters.

“I must think first of the company,” McGregor said with finality. He had learned that success in aviation depended on facing facts. Aviation was always first priority with McGregor. This courageous former war hero built Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA) into one of the top 10 air carriers in the world during his 20-year reign as its chief from 1948 to 1968.

McGregor’s interest in aviation began from the ground up. In 1910, at the age of nine, he became a dawn-to-dusk spectator at the first Canadian international air meet at Pointe-Claire near Montreal. As a young lad, he “supervised the preparation of the ground, the erection of small grandstands, and the arrival and assembly of the aircraft.” He even recalled the takeoff of Jacques de Lesseps, son of the builder of the Suez Canal, for the first airplane flight over any Canadian city.

McGregor made his first takeoff as a flying student in an open-cockpit biplane in 1932 at Kingston, where Bell Telephone had located him as its youthful district manager. In the eastern Ontario city he perfected his flying skills and won the Webster Trophy–which was awarded annually to the best amateur pilot in Canada–not once but three times: in 1935, 1936 and 1938.

Back in Montreal as Bell’s district manager in 1938, McGregor faced the difficult task of collecting a huge telephone bill from Mayor Camillien Houde, who, with Montreal at its wide-open best and worst, lived in a downtown hotel. Never one to delegate an unpleasant task, McGregor personally confronted the Mayor and threatened to cut off his telephone. “I admire your courage,” said the surprised Mr. Houde. “You’ll get the money.” The next day two men marched into McGregor’s office, dumped a reported $4,000 in cash on his desk, declined a receipt and walked out.

His commanding officer in the Second World War couldn’t keep McGregor out of the air for long. As the Battle of Britain’s oldest pilot at 39, F/L McGregor–one of Winston Churchill’s few to whom the many owed so much–racked up an impressive record. Along with S/L Ernie McNab and F/O Dal Russel, he earned the first award for courage presented to Canadian airmen by King George V at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.

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