'The right place at the right time'
Robert Engle, founder of NWT Air, is a Canadian aviation pioneer

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 24/00) - Scheduled airline service in the North was only a dream when Robert Engle made his first tour of the Arctic in 1955.

He did it and in April was named a pioneer in Canadian aviation by the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg for changing the face of the North with the establishment of Northwest Territorial Airways (NWT Air).

"I'm aware of one (change) that is recently becoming more identifiable and that is Canadian sovereignty," Engle said from the home he keeps in Yellowknife. Engle also spends his time at homes in Palm Springs and B.C.

"If you look at Canadian sovereignty, the opening up of the Arctic and the Canadian Northern peoples -- those were my priorities. A more personal one was financial independence which goes along with business enterprise."

A serious aviator

The history of aviation in the North can be told in part through Engle's experiences and business decisions. It can also be shown on a larger scale through the evolution of Northern development and what Northerners have become accustomed to today regarding air transportation.

One fellow aviator and long-time Yellowknifer describes Engle as a serious aviator, a fair man and a skilled pilot -- but more frequently, an excellent businessman.

"In all the years I sub-contracted my planes and did contract work for NWT Air, Robert P. (as we called him) was always very honourable in his dealings," explained Joe McBryan, owner of Buffalo Airways.

"When a job was over you always had a fair deal, but never a free lunch."

McBryan went on to explain how Engle has always surrounded himself with "winning players."

"He's a very forward-looking, positive man," he added. "He supported other business people who believed in the North like he believed in it."

A love affair with the North

During his first scouting trip North Engle flew from British Columbia to Yellowknife and down the Mackenzie River to the Beaufort Sea, through the Yukon and up to Alaska.

"The thrust of that trip was really a survey to find out what was going on in aviation in the North," he said "I came back in 1958 with a Beaver, this time under contract with Max Ward."

Under that contract Engle flew a McGill Arctic Expedition to Shepherd's Bay, on the Boothia Peninsula. Ward flew the Bristol Freighter that is perched near Yellowknife Airport, while Engle flew a Beaver on floats along the Arctic coast.

He said that was the beginning of his love affair with Yellowknife -- after returning from seven weeks of Arctic flying. Yellowknife then was home to 2,500 people, there were no roads and communication consisted of hand-cranked telephones.

"From that time on Yellowknife became my home," Engle said. "There were two groups of pilots who made their way North to find a career in Northern aviation, and from the early days of bush flying Canada was seen as very romantic in that it was daring and rather risky. I did my best to remove the risk and reduce the daring to make a business out of flying and established Northwest Territorial Airways in 1961."

Shorty Brown, a long-time Yellowknife businessman, described Engle as an excellent pilot.

"I've known him from day one and helped him get his start," Brown explained. "I can tell one story about one time when we were taking off and it was about -35 degrees (Celsius) outside. We were going to Discovery mines in a single-otter. We were at the end of the runway and gave the plane full power and took off. The oil breather was froze up on take-off so we were up a couple-hundred feet, made a steep-turn in a dead engine and dropped it aback on the runway. They call it dead-sticking her in -- it was unbelievable. He's a very good pilot."

Brown said he logged in many hours flying with Engle and, like most other people who have anything to say about him, his skill was most prominent in how he operated his business.

"He ran a very good, safe operation," Brown said.

The first NWT Air floatbase is now the Prospector Restaurant. Nearby was Wardair and CP Air, Engle said, adding there was no airport then. Planes operated on skis in the winter and floats in the summer, using the lake as a runway.

Engle built up his fleet with a Havilland Otter in 1962, twin-engine Beech 18s the following year and a DC-3 the year after. This plane made NWT Air's first scheduled flight service possible in 1968.

"Everything happened in the '50s around the rock, which is, of course, Old Town," Engle reminisced. "New Town was being built after the war -- that's Yellowknife today. We flew float planes around the clock in the long days of summer and spent more time warming up the planes in the winter than we did flying them because the trips were usually pretty short in the winter time.

"In those early days there was a lot of camaraderie because of the risk and dependency on the other air crews. Search and rescue was a military role but your best bet was your fellow bush pilots if you were down."

In 1968 the first hangar was built at the Yellowknife Airport. NWT Air's hangar was large enough to service multi-engine transport planes and broke new ground in Northern aviation. Prior to that all large carriers had to be routed through Edmonton.

Engle said the company soon became a scheduled airline. In 1975, NWT Air began flying Lockheed Electras, a large turbo-prop airplane. This acquisition enabled the company to carry passengers as well as freight. In 1978 NWT Air bought a Hercules to accommodate the budding oil and gas industry.

In 1988, after purchasing Boeing 737 aircraft, Engle had accumulated about 30 years in the Northern aviation business and a wealth of Northern experience. It was then that he sold the company to Air Canada, who subsequently sold to First Air.

When Engle flew into Yellowknife last month he mentioned that the Boeing 737 he arrived in on was once one of his.

"Aviation is not always a history of success," Engle said.

"You can look back and see the successes because they stick out but behind that success is always good fortune.

"It's essential to be in the right place at the right time and that is based on planning."

Engle also received the Order of Canada in 1989 for dramatically reducing isolation in the North through aviation.