Max Ward, at 90, is as cheerfully combative as when he was building his innovative charter airline, Wardair, and was battling convention and authority in Canada’s aviation industry. Over four decades, he ran a bush pilot business in the North, pioneered chartered flights to Europe, moved into scheduled service and sold Wardair to PWA Corp. in 1988. He still lives in Edmonton where the dream began.
Before the Second World War, the only exciting thing in Edmonton was the bush pilots operating out of there. I got a pretty good dose of their stories, so at the end of the war – when I’d been a military flight instructor – that’s what I wanted to do. I started flying for a bush operator in the North, but those guys had an attitude about business that scared me. I remember one bush pilot starting up a commercial airline who suggested his airline would dictate when and where the public would travel – and at what price. I thought, “Oh, man, that’s the last thing you’re going to do. The public will tell you what you’re going to do.” So I decided to get an airplane – a little Fox Moth – and try it myself.
Yellowknife in 1946 was a frontier town, which was exciting for a kid wet behind the ears. Most of the country up there wasn’t really mapped. A lot of adrenalin was running. When you got further out, especially on the barren lands, you were really lost most of the time. You operated by dead reckoning without a compass. It was a challenge and it was so much fun.
After playing a little politics, I finally got a federal airline operating licence, but, even after that, all I did was fight government. There was the idea that “We like entrepreneurs but not in our backyard.” That was part of the fight.
But Ottawa made the mistake of giving me rights to charter flights – nobody was doing international charters in Canada. They thought, “This will get him out of our hair.” But then we built our charter business on war brides. It was about 20 years after the war, and the war brides in Canada decided they wanted to go home and see their families. Pretty soon we had an equal number of Brits who wanted to come over and visit the war brides here. That’s how it really started.
There were still battles. In fact, the federal transport minister at the time, Jack Pickersgill, closed us down once [for allegedly flouting charter passenger rules] But by that time we’d built up a market, and the public raised such Cain in the West that he had to back off. This was our saviour.
In the 1980s, it was getting too complex. Interest rates were at 20 per cent and no business could cope unless government was supplying the money. You have to keep building – to keep chasing your tail. I had been talking to PWA Corp. [parent of Pacific Western Airlines]for a long time. At one point, I went to New York to raise money to buy them out. Then I thought better of it because I was getting in deeper and deeper and there was huge debt – and there would be union problems.
It was hard to let go, but at 67, I was pretty damn tired – not of running the airline, but government wore me out because I had to spend so much time fighting them.
When I started out, I was just trying to make a living. When you got to a certain point, you would say, “Now I can do this and this and this.” So you kept on going. Somehow, through intuition or whatever, you knew where you could go next, but you never really knew where you would end up.
The airline business today is totally different. It’s a streetcar now. We used to have charters out of the West with DC-6s. It took 20 hours to go overseas, but people were so thrilled, they were walking two feet off the floor. They’d never flown before and now they were going all the way to Europe. And all the young kids with their packsacks – they were young and vibrant and it was wonderful.
Special to The Globe and Mail