Transair: A Look Back at Winnipeg’s Hometown Airline
April 5, 2010 52 Comments
(Update, Jan. 24, 2011: A warm welcome to the visitors who, even nearly 10 months after publication, continue to drop in to read this post at an average rate of 20 readers per week. Whether you were a Transair employee or customer, or even just an interested observer, you are invited to contribute your stories and memories in the comments section below.)
Think of passenger airlines operating in Canada today, and chances are that two will come to mind: Montreal-based Air Canada or Calgary-based WestJet. There was a time, however, when Canada’s airline industry was much different.
Step back into the Winnipeg International Airport of 35 years ago, and you would be in the same building that stands today at 2000 Wellington Ave. The names painted on the sides of the jets parked at the terminal, however, would be much different.
Air Canada, of course, would have been there, at that time sporting a red-and-white livery. Northwest’s “red tails” were also a familiar sight, and would remain so for many years more.
CP Air, famous for its orange-and-silver coloured jets, also called several times each day at Winnipeg International. Frontier flew in once or twice a day from Denver, North Central Airlines showed up once or maybe twice a day from Duluth and Milwaukee, and Wardair operated the occasional charter to Europe or Hawaii.
Then there was Transair, with its easily recognizable gold-coloured fleet.
What made Transair different from the rest was that it was Winnipeg’s hometown airline.
A little more than 30 years have come and gone since the last official Transair flight departed Winnipeg Airport, just before the Winnipeg-based airline completed its merger with Calgary-based Pacific Western Airlines on Dec. 1, 1979. Many people have only fading memories of the airline, and an entire generation have grown up never having heard of it.
For others, however, an attachment remains to the tough little airline from Winnipeg that operated in some of the most rugged conditions in the world, and did what it took to survive — even if it meant hiding a 66-tonne Boeing 707.
The story of Transair began in the spring of 1947, when a small airline called Central Northern Airways was launched by Milt Ashton and Roy Brown. CNA was by all accounts a small operation that specialized in serving isolated communities and base camps around the province. The company did grow, however, leading to a 1955-56 merger with Arctic Wings, an Ottawa-based carrier that also specialized in serving Canada’s vast northern wilderness.
With the merger came a new name: Transair.
Along with the name change came the need for new leadership — someone with executive experience to run an airline that now included more than 40 aircraft in its fleet and a 24,000-kilometre (15,000-mile) route network.
The man chosen as Transair’s first president took many Winnipeggers by surprise. Ron Turner was no stranger to the cockpit, having served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. His skills as an aviator were matched by his skills as a politician, which resulted in his being elected to the Manitoba Legislature in 1945. Turner was re-elected in 1949, and was tapped by Premier Douglas Campbell in 1951 to become the Provincial Treasurer — that is, Minister of Finance — at the age of 36.
Having reached the second highest post in government at an age when many others were only just beginning their political careers, many political observers saw a bright future in politics for Ron Turner. The fact that he was still in the Treasurer’s post at the beginning of 1956 seemed to confirm that Turner was Campbell’s chosen heir.
Thus, his sudden retirement from public life in the summer of 1956 to become president of an airline took many Manitobans by surprise.
Turner’s years at the helm were growth years for Transair. In 1957, Transair added Churchill, Man. and Red Lake, Ont. to its route map, gaining aircraft and employees from Canadian Pacific Airlines, which was no longer interested in serving these communities.
In 1961, the company picked up valuable work ferrying workers and supplies to Distant Early Warning systems (DEW) in the far north. These remote stations were under construction by joint Canada/U.S. agreement to protect North America from attack from the Soviet Union. At about the same time, Transair launched Winnipeg-Thompson service.
That year, Transair made a profit of $107,000 — the equivalent of about three quarters of a million dollars today.
Transair added destinations in northwestern Ontario, Saskatchewan and southern Alberta beginning in 1963, though profits often remained elusive on these routes.
Amid the growth came some degree of chaos, however. On one occasion, Turner was quoted by a reporter complaining that the company’s aircraft were sometimes “even running into each other on the ground”.
By 1965, Transair had reached a turning point. If it was to continue to expand both its passenger and cargo services, it would need to upgrade its fleet, which was heavily reliant on unfashionable older propeller-driven aircraft. That same year, Transair experienced an unexpected shock: president Ron Turner suddenly died at age 50.
Following Turner’s death, Max Martyn moved into the president’s office. But he would not stay long at the helm. By 1967, Transair’s board had decided that the best person to modernize Transair’s fleet and improve the company’s finances would be a young U.S. airline executive named Hal Cope.
Arriving in Winnipeg, Cope found plenty of room for improvement at Transair.
“When I became president of Transair in 1967 the company was not in very good shape,” Cope wrote in a March 2010 e-mail to the author. “Its route structure was weak, the fleet of 6-7 different types of aircraft was a dog’s breakfast, and its financial forecast for the future was nothing but bad weather.”
One of Cope’s first tasks as president was to work with a U.S. airline consultancy called Lorenzo and Carney which had been hired by the previous management to offer Transair advice on which aircraft to buy. The consultancy’s co-founders, Frank Lorenzo and Bob Carney, were to present their findings to a special meeting of the Transair board in Thompson, a remote mining town located 650 kilometres (400 miles) north of Winnipeg.
Lorenzo suggested that Transair purchase Boeing 737s, a 100-seat short-haul aircraft that was just entering the marketplace. Cope, however, felt that it wasn’t the right time for Transair to place an order.
“It was my view that we needed to rationalize our fleet and strengthen our route structure to support jet equipment, and in addition, I had over $300,000 worth of unpaid bills [$1.8 million in 2010 dollars] in my lower right hand desk drawer,” Cope wrote.
“I fired them on the spot and told them to catch our mid afternoon flight back to Winnipeg.”
Years later, Lorenzo would become one of the most notorious airline CEOs in history for using the bankruptcy courts to tear up contracts and make deep wage cuts at Continental Airlines. He would then take control of Eastern Airlines and, instead of merging it with Continental, would be accused of stripping Eastern of its assets and leaving the airline for dead. (Eastern went out of business in January 1991, less than a year after Lorenzo vacated the executive suite at its parent company.)
“I am probably the only guy in the world to fire Frank Lorenzo,” Cope wrote.
Instead of purchasing 737s, Transair purchased two YS-11 turboprops in 1968. These replaced the company’s aging DC-4s and could be flown into small northern airports in a mixed passenger/cargo configuration. The YS-11s would remain in Transair’s fleet until 1979.
“The YS-11 was a true workhorse, and served its role well,” recalled Kelly Walker, who had family connections to the airline, and who would himself work for Transair as an air cargo agent in Churchill from 1978 to 1980.
Much of Transair’s business at the time came from serving small northern communities, which relied on Transair to deliver the mail on behalf of Canada Post and to deliver supplies for HBC’s Northern Stores division — which meant hard work under tough conditions for Walker and others at the Churchill base.
“Large volumes of freight, foodstuffs and dry goods would travel to Churchill on CN, then be flown to these northern communities,” Walker wrote.
“Not working in Winnipeg, with a much smaller staff and possibly more demanding work environment, we probably weren’t as by the book as in Winnipeg. I recall more than once when a Winnipeg Transair employee visited; they were amazed by the passenger and freight volume we processed, as well the conditions compared to Winnipeg.”
Among the employees at Transair’s Churchill base the year the YS-11 entered service: a young ticket agent named Peter Mansbridge.
“The Transair job looked like fun, and it quickly became just that,” Mansbridge wrote in his 2009 book, Peter Mansbridge One on One: Favourite Conversations and the Stories Behind Them.
“I was travelling around the West and the North, doing anything and everything that needed doing. I loaded planes and sold tickets,” he wrote. “I was once even responsible for keeping the engines warm on an old but pretty reliable four-engine DC-4 that ran supply missions to isolated weather and defence stations in the High Arctic.”
In 1968, a regional CBC producer overheard Mansbridge making announcements over the public address system at Churchill airport. Impressed with Mansbridge’s voice, the producer encouraged him to take a job at the local CBC radio station.
Mansbridge continued to win promotions within the CBC hierarchy over the years. In 1988, the former Transair ticket agent became the anchor of The National, the CBC’s nightly flagship newscast — a job he still holds today.
Mansbridge’s defection to the broadcasting industry hardly caused any ripples within Transair, however, as the airline was busy modernizing its fleet and strengthening its route network.
As the Sixties came to an end, Transair was facing a serious threat to its survival. It had a weak route network, with no access to major business destinations such as Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. Within Manitoba, it was also facing competition from Midwest, another regional carrier.
Cope pursued a merger with Midwest in order to maintain Transair as a going concern. Although Midwest was the smaller airline, its president Jim McBride emerged as Transair’s new president, while Cope kept in touch with Transair as a consultant.
Strengthening its route network so that passengers could travel between Ontario and the North on just one reservation was another important piece of business for Transair during this time.
The solution there was to acquire Boeing 737s. The first 737s were delivered in the spring of 1970. Like the YS-11 turboprops, they gave the airline tremendous flexibility: they could be used to carry passengers or freight, and could be operated from smaller northern airports. They could also be changed from an all-passenger to a mixed passenger/cargo configuration in about four hours.
About the same time, Transair was given government permission to serve Toronto. The Boeing 737s also allowed Transair to expand its charter business to ‘sun’ destinations in the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean.
Despite the earlier confrontation with Frank Lorenzo, Cope wrote that 1970 was the “right time” for Transair to acquire Boeing 737s, and that they turned out to be “a profitable and reliable asset for the company”. These aircraft continued to fly with Pacific Western Airlines into the early ’80s.
Dutch-built Fokker F28s would join the fleet in 1972, and would stay with the airline until the late ’70s before being sold to a small airline in Papua New Guinea. These smaller jets were similar in size to what might be referred to today as a regional jet.
In 1974, with Art Mauro at the helm as Transair’s president, the company acquired a used Boeing 707 from Northwest Orient so that it could operate charter flights to Hawaii and Europe. Soon afterwards, the company would also purchase Toronto-based Filmont Tours to help beef up its charter operations. Charters were an important part of Transair’s business, allowing the airline to keeps both crews and aircraft in the air longer.
The 707, however, would not stay long in Transair’s fleet.
In 1976, Hal Cope returned to Winnipeg to assume the Transair presidency a second time from the departing Art Mauro. Transair was being battered by both an economic recession and high oil prices, the result being a $2.7 million loss in 1975 ($11.2 million in 2010 dollars). Losses soared to $3.8 million in 1976 ($14.4 million).
“Transair owed a million to the fuel supplier, and had a collection of unpaid daily bills totalling almost $400,000 in the lower right drawer of my desk,” Cope recalled. “On top of that, I owed [Air Canada president] Claude Taylor $600,000 on ticket consolidation I couldn’t pay. ”
One way to pay off the bills was to sell the Boeing 707 to Biman Bangladesh Airlines. A creditor was making plans, however, to seize the Boeing 707 to settle their own accounts — a move that would have pushed Transair into bankruptcy.Desperate times called for desperate measures. Cope decided that the only option was to literally hide the Boeing 707 from creditors.
Hiding a 66,000-kilogram, 46-metre long Boeing 707 was no easy task, but the alternative was much worse.
“I crewed the 707 and dispatched it on a ferry flight to the Northwest Territories and high Arctic with instructions to the crew to keep it hidden in various places until I could get it sold to Bangladesh Biman Airlines, thus holding on to the life saving equity,” Cope wrote in a Mar. 3 e-mail.
This also required a trip to meet with the president and chairman of the board of Air Canada in Montreal to borrow $600,000 to keep Transair operating until the 707 sale could be completed.
“When [Air Canada president Claude Taylor] told the chairman what I owed and that I wanted to borrow another $600,000 the chairman just walked out of the office without a word,” Cope recalled.
Eventually, Cope convinced Taylor to lend Transair the money.
“Hal,” the Air Canada president called out after Cope as he was about to leave the office, “Not so fast. Where is your wife?”
“At the hotel,” Cope replied.
“Hal, she doesn’t leave town until I get paid,” Taylor said.
“Well I now knew what the value of my wife was,” Cope wrote more than 30 years later. “At least in Canadian dollars.”
The sale of the Boeing 707 to Biman Bangladesh for $7.6 million was soon completed, allowing the jetliner to return to Winnipeg from its hiding place in the far north. A Biman delegation arrived in Winnipeg on a cold winter day to take possession of their new aircraft.
“Since we were in the midst of one of those famous Winnipeg ‘brrrrrrr’ winters, we had issued parkas to the Bangladesh reps,” Cope wrote. “The parkas were in Transair colors brown with big bold golden lettering on the back.”
Cope walked into the gate area to see the Biman representatives off, only to find the Bangladeshis spread out around the gate area, using the Transair parkas as prayer mats. Wide-eyed passengers stood around taking in the unusual scene, not quite sure what to make of the situation.
“I called Bob the PR man over and asked him what in the hell was going on. He said, ‘Sorry about that, Hal, I couldn’t stop it, but I have gotten even with them. I put pork sandwiches on the aircraft for their nonstop flight to London,'” Cope wrote.
Despite the humorous aspects of the Boeing 707 sale, serious work remained to be done. In addition to the serious losses the airline suffered in 1975-76, Transair stock was trading between $1.25 and $1.45 per share in 1976, a fraction of its value in previous years.
Cope would later describe this time in Transair’s history to a federal air transport committee in bleak terms, saying that he found himself wondering “whether I’d be alive the next day”, with the airline having “no future to look forward to.”
If Transair were to avoid going out of business, it would need a saviour. It would take considerable effort to find one.
“There were no serious purchasers for Transair,” Cope wrote in a Mar. 2 e-mail. “Lots of talk, but no serious substance.”
News reports at the time suggested that Air Canada and CP Air had both dismissed the possibility of acquiring Transair. So did the Manitoba government and Nordair, a Montreal-based regional carrier that served Quebec, the Montreal-Windsor corridor and the eastern Arctic.
In the mid-’70s, Canada’s airline industry was still heavily regulated, with each regional carrier being assigned a territory. Transair’s territory covered Manitoba, northern Ontario and the northern territories.
It seemed to Cope that Pacific Western Airlines (PWA), the regional carrier serving Alberta and B.C., as well as the northern territories, might make a sensible merger partner.
“We had Toronto authority, which PWA did not have, and when I looked at the southern tier of airline routes flown by CPA, based in Vancouver, and Air Canada in the east, I saw the need for the merger so PWA/Transair could compete with the two trunk carriers on the big markets on the southern transcontinental route,” Cope wrote. “It was a marriage made in heaven.”
Cope first suggested a merger to Pacific Western president Rhys Eyton in January 1977. By May, Pacific Western had agreed to purchase Transair for $1.75 per share and to provide the Winnipeg-based airline with a $3-million loan to help it stay in business.
There was still one problem left to solve. The only airports served by both Transair and Pacific Western were all in the Northwest Territories. Without bridging the gap between Transair’s Winnipeg base and Pacific Western’s Calgary and Edmonton bases, a merger would be pointless.
Airlines at the time weren’t free to add destinations at will. If an airline wanted to start service between two cities, it had to apply to federal regulators for permission, provide evidence that there was demand for the service, and show that the demand could be met without harming other airlines.
If the gap between the two airlines’ networks were to be closed, the combined PWA-Transair would have boasted a route network reaching from Toronto to Victoria — an idea opposed by Canada’s two “transcontinental” airlines.
Air Canada and CP Air, which had a duopoly on the Ontario-Alberta and Ontario-B.C. routes, weren’t about to let the combined Pacific Western-Transair enter that market. Given that any strong objections by them to a PWA-Transair merger could have prevented the federal government from approving the union, their opinion mattered — a lot.
Some took a dim view of Air Canada’s subsequent insistence that the ailing Transair be required to give up all routes east of Winnipeg if it wanted to tie in to PWA’s network.
In their 1982 book Regulatory Reform in Canada, authors W. T. Stanbury and Fred Thompson blasted the federal government for “foolishly [going] along with this thinly veiled blackmail”, which resulted in the routes east of Winnipeg being reassigned to Montreal-based Nordair — in which Air Canada had briefly held a controlling stake in 1978 — in return for Transair being awarded the life-saving Winnipeg-Regina-Calgary and Winnipeg-Saskatoon-Edmonton routes.
Cope sees things differently.
“Kudos must also go to Claude Taylor, president of Air Canada,” he wrote in a March 2010 e-mail. “He realized there was a need to support the growth of the five regional carriers if Canada was to have a responsive and reliable air transportation system. He took a particular interest in Transair because we were the weak link in the chain.”
The PWA-Transair merger was approved in 1978, subject to Transair turning over its Ontario routes to Nordair. This took place in early 1979.
For many Transair employees, the merger was a bittersweet prospect.
“Morale was okay when I started [with Transair in 1978], but once the merger came through it was an era of uncertainty,” recalled former cargo agent Kelly Walker.
“Some saw it as an influx of more equipment and money; others saw it as an end to Transair, and our Manitoba based carrier,” Walker wrote in a Mar. 7 e-mail.
“Also I recall it being a sad day when CalmAir took over our Northern routes. I recall them starting to redecorate our freight office.”
Over the next couple of years, Transair’s golden-coloured Boeing 737s would be repainted in Pacific Western’s blue-and-white colour scheme. Other aircraft, like the Fokker F28s, would be sold off to other operators. Employees would familiarize themselves in the ways of their new employer — or in some cases, move out west to PWA’s busier Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver bases.
“I obtained a position with PWA in Edmonton. It was as a Loadmaster on their Hercules aircraft,” Walker recalled. “An interesting, exciting position, but it turned out to be a bad career move. Laid off when they began selling off those aircraft. Had I stayed in Churchill, most likely I’d still be in the Air Canada fold (in hindsight).”
Today, Walker is the administrator of a Facebook group that serves as a gathering place for former Transair employees and those with an interest in the airline.
On Dec. 1, 1979, Transair officially ceased to exist. Many employees would go on to work for Pacific Western and then with Canadian Airlines following PWA’s 1987 merger with Vancouver-based CP Air.
Some former Transair employees even went on to become Air Canada employees in the 2000s, following its acquisition of Canadian Airlines — which, like Transair in 1977, was on the brink of bankruptcy when it merged with Air Canada in 1999. Among them was Rosella Bjornson, whom Transair hired as Canada’s first female commercial jetliner pilot in 1973. She continued flying Boeing 737s with Pacific Western, Canadian Airlines and finally Air Canada, from which she retired in 2004.
Could Transair have survived into the ’80s or beyond? Both Hal Cope and Kelly Walker believe that the answer was “no”.
“I doubt that Transair could have survived until the ’80s. PWA was backed by the Alberta government, Transair was financially weak, our route structure’s only strength was its service north, as Brandon to Winnipeg to Thunder Bay was not a route capable of carrying Transair into the future,” Cope wrote in a Mar. 2 e-mail.
“There doesn’t seem to be much they could have done, in some ways they were stuck in a bad situation, because of Canadian geography,” Walker wrote in a Mar. 8 e-mail.
“To the west, PWA had those markets locked up, and Transair couldn’t have gone head to head with them. To the east, although they serviced Toronto/Thunder Bay/Dryden, they couldn’t have gone further. They would have been going into Nordair territory, or even [into competition] somewhat [against] Eastern Provincial Airways, a Maritimes-based carrier. To get the long haul Canadian routes, they’d have to compete directly with Air Canada or CP Air, and that would have been tough. Although then it would even become political,” Walker explained.
Both Walker and Cope would end up in Alberta, Walker becoming a loadmaster at Pacific Western’s Edmonton base, Cope becoming a vice-president at Pacific Western’s Calgary headquarters until 1983.
After leaving Calgary, Cope would go on to work in Africa, pursuing not only his passion for aviation, but also his passion for the continent’s culture and wildlife as a safari guide, wildlife photographer and conservationist. His photography can be found in local galleries in Arizona, where he lives today.
Looking back on Transair, just over 30 years after its last flight, Cope describes the people who worked at Transair — many of whose names he still remembers — as being the most memorable thing about the airline.
“The best thing about the company was the employees. Each and everyone were dedicated to Transair to make it a success,” Cope wrote.
“I could not have asked for more dedicated, professional, hardworking crew. The Board was always supportable, Sutherland kept the bills paid, and George Capern kept the eastern division in play… I really enjoyed my time at Transair. It was a challenge, but fun and interesting.”
A second Transair site on Facebook, with lots of pictures
Transair fleet information (partially in German)
The author wishes to thank Hal Cope and Kelly Walker for their generous contributions to this research. Both provided insights not readily available from secondary sources, and are owed a debt of gratitude. Credit is also due to the Winnipeg Public Library, which maintains a valuable archive of newspaper clippings from the ’60s and ’70s that saved many more hours of research.