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Viking Outpost’s classic bushplane page 2

Story and photos by Robert S. Grant

The Carlsons should know. They grew up in Red Lake during an era when few airstrips existed north of steel (railway lines). Each open water season since the company’s creation, they watched bushplanes come and go. Everything and everyone from wood stoves, boats, lumber, septic tanks and turkeys went by air inside or outside an airplane to outpost camps unsullied by mines, roads or timber barons. Nearly every day, the family woke to reverberating roars of full throttle takeoffs and ended their evenings with the hiss of seaplane floats on glassy water. With efficient air services such as Green Airways or Ontario Central Airlines nearby, ownership of anything larger than light camp check airplanes did not make economic sense. However, as Hugh and Craig came of age, aviation-related organizations in Northwestern Ontario underwent dramatic changes while politicians searched for ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

“Suddenly, airports popped up everywhere and wheeled aircraft did the freighting to Indian reserves and, at the time, mining, trapping and government contracts were down. The companies which used to have that diversified work were left with only tourism so they didn’t need as many airplanes,” said Hugh’s wife, Enid, a former Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologist. “Green Airways gave excellent service–we still use them–but changing conditions left us quite vulnerable even though they always gave us first choice when our tourists showed up at their dock, and 75 out of 200 passengers would be ours.”

To guarantee Viking’s arrivals and departures and encourage clients to return, the Carlsons believed that applying for their own air service charter would make economic sense. Hugh had already soloed Piper J-3 CF‑NHB in 1968, and quickly followed with a commercial pilot licence. Craig attended Thunder Bay’s Confederation College, returning with a commercial pilot licence in 1978, and soon supervised Enid’s private pilot training in Aeronca 7EC CF‑NHH. They all kept current with CF-NHH and a Cessna 180, CF-HVD. The Carlsons had purchased these floatplanes in 1973 and 1976 for camp checks and non-revenue side trips for beer and bacon-starved tourists.

Red Lake, always one of the most flourishing aviation centres in Canada, had hosted dozens of airplane types since a cumbersome Curtiss HS-2L flying boat chugged north from Minaki at 60 mph in 1924. Corrugated metal Junkers, plywood-lined Avro Ansons and cotton-covered Bellancas, Stinsons and Fairchilds–they all came. When the Carlsons decided to make their move to a larger aircraft, de Havillands and Cessnas dominated the community waterfront. They had to choose the most practical, cost-efficient product since a wrong choice would mean financial hardship.

“Tourist operators are a goofy bunch who want to be independent,” Enid said. “If they’re in this business, the air service part’s necessary but it can make or break you, so don’t get the wrong airplane. Ask the women who do the books and they’ll talk about companies spending too much on their air service component and not encouraging the tourists.”

Some outpost camp owners preferred the Beaver, a remarkable STOL airplane, famous around the world. However, having watched them operate, the Carlsons realized that in decades of chartering, they had almost never called upon a Beaver. Most Viking loads consisted of a party of four with gear, which the DHC-2 could not handle without what one pilot called “innovative paperwork.” Ownership would mean additional trips and more pilots for an extra cost clients would not appreciate.

The DHC-3 Otter came next on the shopping list. After years of outstanding service, the 11-passenger “Stoneboat” had developed a reputation for “popping jugs” (blowing cylinders) on the R-1340 engine. Worse, several caught fire in the air–events well known to the Carlsons since their base radio remains tuned to Red Lake’s air-to-air traffic. Some AMEs attributed the problems to poor cowling design–which could perhaps be justifiable since Norsemen use the same powerplant yet rarely experience stoppages.

“Besides, Otters are tough buggers to handle on the water because of that big tail,” said Hugh. “Between Beavers and Otters, there’s enough ADs to make up a fat book. Since the Norseman came out, it’s only had about three and all you do is an inspection on the wing nose ribs as well as the carburetor heat.”

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