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Sudbury Aviation

Story and photos by Robert S. Grant – first published summer 2000

Sudbury Airways Beaver C-FIUU

C-FIUU easily has space for outboard motors, propane stoves and live bait when carrying guests to the 16 outpost cabins north of Sudbury. Most flights are less than 40 minutes, and at the end of each, a picturesque cabin constructed from peeled vertical logs awaits the travel-weary.

The peculiar squeak of an engine primer carried across the wooden dock as pilot Mel Laidlaw prepared to start de Havilland Beaver C‑FIUU. Seconds after the two-blade propeller turned over, blue exhaust smoke swept back and the Edo 4580-equipped airplane chugged away. Before long, the roar of a Pratt & Whitney R-985 echoed along the shoreline as Laidlaw departed northbound for Otterpelt Lake, where pickerel, pike and a housekeeping cabin awaited a husband-and-wife fishing team from Ohio.

The dusty fuel hoses, rusty garbage cans and glistening float pumps leaning against an outboard motor could have been part of a set from the ’60s or even earlier in the history of Canadian bush flying. However, in this case it was Sudbury Aviation Ltd. at Azilda, a mining community eight miles northwest of Sudbury, Ontario, where owner Margaret Watson Hyland depended on a five-airplane fleet for charter flying and flight instruction. As FIUU became a silhouette above the treetops and then disappeared completely, she stepped into a nearby cottage-like building which served as office, lounge and lunchroom.

Created in 1955 by John and Pearl McMahon, with help from silent partners, Sudbury Aviation used several aircraft types over the years, including fabric-covered Fleet 80 Canucks and underpowered Cessna 150s. Much of the revenue was derived from a series of outpost camps north of the city and occasional charters to places like Sault Ste. Marie, where a teenaged Margaret Harris graduated from high school in 1958. Her family lived near the city’s airport and, from time to time, the thought of becoming a professional pilot crossed her mind.

“Women pilots were rare then. The closest a girl could get was to become a flight attendant, but in those days you had to be a nurse, and there’s not one part of me that’s nurse,” she recalled. “After finishing high school, I became a bookkeeper for Dominion Stores in Sudbury but always knew that airplanes were somewhere in my future.”

While pushing pencils and counting cash slips on weekdays or paddling canoes in Northern Ontario lakes, Watson–she married Robert Watson in 1962–had noticed a Michigan moose hunter concentrating intently on a book. She learned that he intended to write a private pilot exam before buying a Cessna 172 for $8,000. At the time, her automobile cost $11,000. Like many people unfamiliar with aviation, she had believed that anything with wings sold for nothing less than $50,000.

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