Max Ward pictured with a model of his first plane, the De Havilland Fox Moth CF-DJB, in Edmonton on Tuesday November 17, 2015. Max Ward, an aviation pioneer who went from bush planes to international charters, has died. Family friend Jacquie Perrin says Ward collapsed at his home in Edmonton and died shortly after in hospital, surrounded by his family and 20 days short of his 99th birthday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

From bush pilot to international charter carrier: Aviation pioneer Max Ward dies

From bush pilot to international charter carrier: Aviation pioneer Max Ward dies

EDMONTON — A northern bush pilot who built a regional carrier into Canada’s largest charter airline has died.

Max Ward collapsed Monday at his Edmonton home and died in hospital shortly after surrounded by family. He was 20 days shy of his 99th birthday.

“He’d been in failing health for some time,” said family friend Jacquie Perrin, who confirmed Ward’s death.

“He did his best to hang in for the 99th, but he didn’t quite make it.”

It was a rare example of Ward not reaching his goals.

Born in Edmonton in 1921, Ward got his pilot’s licence in 1941 during the Second World War, a conflict he spent training fellow pilots across Western Canada under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. After the war, with his new bride Marjorie Skelton, he headed north to Yellowknife to fly the Arctic skies.

Ward flew passengers and freight in his tiny de Havilland Fox Moth. He was one of the pioneers that opened the North, said Yvonne Quick, a northerner and longtime friend.

“If it hadn’t been for people like Max Ward who came to Yellowknife back in the day and started working with the mines, there never would be a Yellowknife,” she said.

“The mining industry grew because of the aviation. Max was one of those pioneers.”

It was an aviation era rich with yarns that Ward himself became famous for spinning. One story he told was about how he once crash-landed the Fox Moth in a gravel pile near Kenora, Ont.

The pilot founded airline Wardair in 1953 on the wings of a 14-passenger de Havilland Otter. Prospectors, medical teams, food and machinery found themselves bobbing over the tundra in his trusty machine, which landed on floats in summer, skis in the winter.

By 1962, the company was operating six aircraft in the North and had moved its headquarters to Edmonton. It had also acquired a DC-6A, which allowed Wardair to expand into an international charter service for overseas passengers.

Wardair grew more rapidly in the 1970s on revenue generated by vacationers to the Caribbean and Mexico. By 1984, the company was flying four Boeing 747s and three DC-10s.

The ambitious and gregarious Ward dedicated the 1980s to turning Wardair International into a scheduled passenger service on par with the country’s established airlines.

Ward’s biggest business gain came in 1984 when he won the right from the Transport Ministry to fly both domestic and international scheduled flights. He purchased 12 Airbus 310s and waded into the commercial airline business and a thicket of government red tape and regulations protecting competitors Air Canada and Canadian Airlines.

His new-found prominence landed him in a fare war with the two major airlines. Wardair won the hearts of many passengers with excellent service, but the established lines had deeper pockets and eventually drove him out of business.

In his 1986 book, “The Max Ward Story,” the author referred to himself as “a bush pilot in a bureaucratic jungle.”

His many friends knew him as a decent man who kept his sense of humour in a rough-and-tumble business.

“It’s hand to mouth in the airline business,” he once said. “If you have a profit of a few million dollars, it’s nothing. You can lose that in a day.”

He sold his debt-laden company to Canadian for $250 million in 1989 and retired two years later.

“Emotionally it was a very tough decision,” he said. “But the balance sheet dictates that these decisions have to be made.”

A Wardair Bristol Type 170 Freighter still stands on a plinth above the Yellowknife airport. Local lore has it that it’s the first plane to have landed at the North Pole.

Ward’s awards include the Order of Canada, induction into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and the Trans-Canada trophy, Canada’s oldest aviation award.

He split his retirement between his metal fabrication and woodworking shop in Edmonton and a fishing camp in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. He maintained his connection to his bush pilot colleagues, who gathered at his northern-fly-in cabin every two years..

Quick said she will miss those times and those memories.

“His family would come and people who had worked for him would come. Max was a great host.

“We will certainly miss him.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2020.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. A British Columbia company that feeds food waste to insects to produce pet food has received $6 million from the federal government for it’s new state-of-the-art plant just north of Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
B.C. company turning fly larvae into pet food gets $6M in federal funds

Fly larvae fed a mixture of food waste and agricultural byproducts

FortisBC is reporting record electricity usage as temperatures spike. (File photo
AltaLink seeks to refund extra $350 million over three years to Alberta customers

AltaLink submits proposal to Alberta Utilities Commission

Annamie Paul, leader of The Green Party of Canada and byelection candidate for the Toronto Centre riding, walks back to her car after greeting supporters on election night, October 26, 2020. Paul has spent most of the past 10 months holed up in her apartment, just like you. But that stationary, pandemic-induced state belies the sharp pivot her party is making as it manoeuvres to break the tether of a one-issue party and reframe itself as a fresh inheritor of Canada’s social justice tradition. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Annamie Paul charts new course for Green party — through crowded waters

Paul’s calls for guaranteed livable income, universal pharmacare and child care, and free post-secondary education

ATB Economics released new vehicle sales stats for November. (Contributed by ATB Economics)
2020 will be remembered as tough year for new car and truck dealers in Alberta

ATB Economics releases new vehicle sales stats for November

Justin Kripps of Summerland and his team have competed in Olympic action and World Cup competitions in bobsleigh. (Jason Ransom-Canadian Olympic Comittee).
QUIZ: Are you ready for some winter sports?

It’s cold outside, but there are plenty of recreation opportunities in the winter months

A man wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near banners of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. The Tokyo Olympics are to open in six months on July 23. Interestingly, Tokyo organizers have no public program planned to mark the milestone. There is too much uncertainty for that right now. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Tokyo Olympics Q&A: 6 months out and murmurs of cancellation

Instead of a countdown celebration, the focus is on COVID-19

Fashion mogul Peter Nygard is shown during a bail hearing in Winnipeg on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in this courtroom sketch. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tadens Mpwene - POOL
Canadian fashion mogul seeking bail on U.S. charges of sex trafficking, racketeering

Lawyers for the Attorney General of Canada say Nygard has a history of not showing up to court

Montreal Canadiens down Edmonton Oilers 3-1, sweep series

Montreal Canadiens down Edmonton Oilers 3-1, sweep series

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) loses the basketball as he tries to drive around Dallas Mavericks center Willie Cauley-Stein (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris O'Meara
Lowry leads the way as Raptors down the Mavericks for their third straight win

Lowry leads the way as Raptors down the Mavericks for their third straight win

Johnny Gaudreau’s goal and assist paces Flames to 5-2 victory over Canucks

Johnny Gaudreau’s goal and assist paces Flames to 5-2 victory over Canucks

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Tory MP Sloan accuses party of hypocrisy over efforts to have him expelled

Tory MP Sloan accuses party of hypocrisy over efforts to have him expelled

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 file photo Britain's Andy Murray reacts during a press conference following his first round loss to Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia. Former world number one Murray's participation at the upcoming Australian Open is in doubt after the Briton tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
Australian Open arrivals hit by 3 COVID-19 positive tests

Australian Open arrivals hit by 3 COVID-19 positive tests

Most Read