Pilot With A Briefcase"
Grant McConachie ,
President of CPAir.
I had read Grant
McConachie's biography many years ago and remembered it as intriguing if
not frustrating. The intriguing part was that the book was nicely written
to show the balance between Grant McConachie's flying shenanigans and his
business exploits. The frustrating part was that the book also tried to
find a balance between his flying exploits and his business shenanigans.
Most of the time, however, there was little difference between the two.
McConachie's career was meant to happen. I
don't believe in fate or destiny, or even dumb luck, but some things in
history just work out better one way than the immediate alternative. In
the development of Canadian Pacific Airlines and the success of
deHavilland of Canada, and the progress of bush flying in general,
McConachie played the key role. Anyone that knows the history of all the
above will cringe when they read this proclamation, but if not for
McConachie we as bush pilots would have been worse off.
You would never have guessed by giving a
critical reading of McConachie's biography. His story is a frustrating
case history of how incompetence and failure can lead to one success after
another. To most pilots crashing a plane would mean a loss of job or
livelihood, but to Grant it meant insurance money or new opportunities. To
most airline owners running a route with no passengers meant poor
business, but to Grant it meant future prospects by opening new territory.
He was to me the worse kind of airline owner
or bush pilot. He pushed himself beyond all reasonable limits and expected
the same out of his employees. With his impatient determination against
all reasonable odds, he directly caused more crashes and hardships than
anyone could justify. Through sheer dumb luck, which I don't believe in,
he struggled through a decade without killing himself or taking anyone
with him, to become the prime candidate for running the second largest
airline in Canada.
That, however, in the great scheme of things
was where he was heading all along. It was clear from his complete
incompetence with finances and his complete disregard for the safety of
his employees or passengers or even his wife, who he made to sit on a pile
of freight with no seat or seatbelt during a night time rough water
landing, that he should have gone nowhere, except perhaps to jail. What
was not so clear was that all this took him to or groomed him for where he
ended up, as the President of CPA.
McConachie was a dreamer, a futurist, a
prophet of progress. He impatience was drawn from the deep well of
discontent with the way things were, and his drive was geared by the need
to speed up the slow wheels of change. He wanted results to show he was
making progress. He wanted change to say he was being effective. He wanted
to prove he was alive by proving he could make a difference. He was
constantly attempting the impossible with the too little available to him;
specifically with his severely limited finances and with a flotilla of
outdated and inadequate aircraft. Grant McConachie was simply way ahead of
his time. He wanted too much from the too little he had.
And along came Canadian Pacific Railway. CPR
had felt the pressure to move into air transportation. That was a good
thing. They started by buying out all the half decent bush flying
operations in Canada. Smart move. They get all the licences, along with
some equipment and experienced employees, and suddenly they have an
airline. Now the next move is predictable. Pick out the smartest manager
from the best run, best organized, and most well off financially airline
of the bunch. Name the crème of the crop to run CP Airlines, and have him
sell off the worst of the bush planes with their VFR charter rights, and
keep all the IFR licences, with the highest passenger per mile traffic
routes, the busiest airports, and the heaviest freight hauls.
Figuratively, separate the wheat from the chaff to end up with a premier
Luckily for CPA, or maybe unluckily for CPR,
there was a staunchly conservative CPR manager who thought different. Or
at least he was persuaded to do different. W.M. Neal became a believer in
McConachie's dreams to build a world spanning airline and despite all
economic logic to the contrary he ended up naming as President the manager
of the worst run, least profitable, least likely to succeed airline in
Canada. The title of this pretender to the throne's biography should have
read; "Grant McConachie; Dreamer With a Brief Case and a Pilot
Licence to Boot" or "How to Turn Your Financially Unviable
Dreams into Reality."
With Neal's managerial background it was
difficult to believe that he was fooled for so many years by the artful
persuasion that was McConachie's legacy. He must have understood that CPA,
and CPR, needed a dreamer like McConachie. Without him the budding airline
would have been lost. It was obvious, after only a few years in operation,
that Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister, and C.D. Howe, the Transportation
Minister, had intended for Trans Canada Airlines to monopolize the airways
of Canada and abroad as the national carrier. End of story. CPA should
have folded their hanger doors at an early stage in Canadian airline
history and admitted defeat. How could you compete against a rival that
was given a monopoly on all the high density traffic routes?
Monopolies don't work, to the same degree
that Communism doesn't work. Except for one individual's drive and
imagination, the Canadian travelling public would have been allowed to
wallow in the quagmire of political and economic dictatorship for the
unseeable future. Grant McConachie saved us from all that, by doing what
he had been doing all along. He dreamt of an impossible route to the
Orient like he dreamt of an impossible route to the Yukon. Except now he
had the financial backing to make it all happen with first rate aircraft
and first class service.
No more risking lives and aircraft by trying
to leap frog into the future with inadequate resources and underpowered
tube and fabric open cockpit aircraft. By sheer determination, the same
determination that almost killed him innumerable times before on stormy
black nights over the mountains, during blizzards in the prairies, while
hanging his Fokker on the prop behind the power curve with a load of ice,
while grossly overloading his floatplane hauling fish, during night
landings on rough water, or even while barnstorming for cash to buy fuel
and parts to continue his quest, Grant McConachie was able to literally
pick Canadian Pacific Airlines up by their boot straps and continue to
They did it by picking up routes considered
unprofitable by TCA, and by not abandoning the north. Where TransCanada
paralleled traditional ground routes between densely populated cities, CPA
served the rest of Canada. The rest of us. CPA even built their own
airports in remote communities that continue to be used by bush flying
outfits to this day. Yellowknife, Red Lake, Pickle Lake, Fort Smith, and
Fort McMurray owe their beginnings to CPA. Moreover, they continued to
honour their bush flying heritage. Although most pilots looking for a
steady career wanted to get hired by Air Canada, the truth was that CPA
was known to hire and respect bush pilots, while Air Canada went for
military pilots. It's a mute point which training would have yielded the
best airline pilot, but CPA believed pilots working their way up from the
grass roots of aviation would have a better respect for their customers
than those who never had customers.
I remember hating having to fly on Air
Canada in the days of government ownership. Unless you were in business
class in a suit coming from Ottawa or Montreal, the pilots and flight
attendants were downright rude and inconsiderate. On the other hand, the
CPA pilots would invite you to the cockpit and the flight attendant would
sit and have a chat when they were less busy. You felt at home on CPA. You
felt like you belonged. I will never forget my flights to Vancouver,
Hawaii, Fiji, and Australia with Canadian Pacific. One of those flights
was an adventure that would have make Grant McConachie proud. I was going
to fly a float plane for a small airline own by a struggling business man
who needed a good old-fashion hard working Canadian bush pilot willing to
work for coconuts to keep his dream of a complete air and sea passenger
So how did Grant McConachie help deHavilland
and bush pilots in particular you ask? By becoming President of CPA and
allowing "Punch" Dickins to move on to a better future for all
of us bush pilots. Dickins was a brilliant pilot and sharp administrator
who had as much or more experience for the job than anyone else in Canada.
He had developed his own trademark personality that included self designed
bush flying clothing made out of deerskin in the summer, and Eskimo furs
in the winter to insure his survival if he ever went down. Moreover,
"to the mechanics he was a martinet, extremely fussy about the planes
he flew, a quirk that perhaps had aided his survival…"
That "quirk" was, simply put, what
the rest of the damn bush pilots of his day should have demanded.
Mechanically sound aircraft. The north would have still opened up. The
flights would still have gotten accomplished, a lot less aircraft would
have needlessly crashed, and a whole lot more "pioneers" would
The problem for us bush pilots was that if
Dickins had been made president his tight fiscal management and straight
forward thinking would have dragged CPA down even before it had began. The
CPR board of directors would have seen the folly of trying to run an
expensive airline on marginally low passenger per mile routes and would
have had to pull the economic plug. It was only McConachie's inspired
vision for the polar routes to China and Europe, and his untiring attempts
to link the north with the south that induced the mesmerized CPR board to
continue to pour money into such high flying and far fetched ideas.
Dickins, to all our benefit, was relegated
to a lesser position in the company and subsequently quit. During an
inspiring period in history, Dickins went to work with deHavilland to
help develop the greatest line of bush planes ever assembled. The Beaver, the
Otter, and the Twin Otter. Thank you McConachie for leading Dickins into
his true calling and, at the same time, keeping our bush flying heritage
alive within the tumultuous structure of the great Canadian Pacific
Only now, with the purchase of Canadian
Airlines by Air Canada, that has all changed. As bush pilots, past and
present, we will all mourn the passing of a great airline. Least we forget Wardair succumbed first.
Article and Book Review by John S
To order your copy today click on the flag!
Bush Pilot With A Brief Case. By Edwin
Note from the Editor.
One of the great bush flying stories taken out of Grant McConachie’s
biography Bush Pilot With A Briefcase epitomizes, to the extreme,
an example of what it is like to be the bush pilot with a responsibility
to his trusting customers left in some remote wilderness. Hopefully we
will never get to experience what it feels like to be the stranded fool
waiting faithfully on the pilot to return. For that story see The High Granite Wilderness
starting with the Editor's Introduction.
The attitude indicator will take you back to Features2.
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John S Goulet Editor
March 05, 2006 .
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.