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September 19, 2003

Austin Airways - Northern Ontario Pioneers

In this year of celebrating 100 years of flight the contribution of Austin Airways in Northern Ontario is worthy of recognition. A reader of this column lent me the book Austin Airways - Canada's Oldest Airline (1985) by aviation author Larry Milberry.

The book contains dozens of photos and well-written history of the 4 decade Austin success story. The photos here are from the book. The reader's book is a keepsake because it is signed by the author and by Stan Deluce the man who bought Austin Airways in 1974.

One of Austin's famous black and red Norseman planes in a typical Northern setting (Jeff Wyborn photo from Larry Milberry's book)

Jack Austin (1912-1984) and his older brother Chuck came from a successful lumber family in Renfrew run by their two older brothers. In 1933 Jack and Chuck while students at the University of Toronto decided to take flying lessons. Using some of their inheritance money they started Austin Air Services in Toronto. The goal was to provide transport and passenger service, airplane sales, supplies, testing, instruction, etc. Milberry in his 160-page book describes what a sound business sense, sound financing and perseverance in times of difficulty can do.

The Austins bought a couple of Waco biplanes 70 years ago next February and after a period moved to Ramsey Lake in Sudbury to provide better service to Northern Ontario. They became pilots, engineers and businessmen who had a knack for finding outstandingly capable and loyal staff. One of their first planes was equipped with a stretcher which allowed for many missions of mercy over the years. The classy looking Wacos caught the eye of well to do sportsmen interested in hunting and fishing. The Austins did well buying and selling planes along with hundreds of trips all over Northern Ontario including Hudson's Bay and James Bay.

In the early years they taught flying and many of their graduates went on to careers in WWII. The Austins even gave sight seeing flights for $5 each. They got furs and fish from isolated communities making these businesses viable. A depot in Nakina brought tons of sturgeon and caviar to lucrative markets.

In later years they got long term contracts carrying out aerial photography for the Ontario Government. They also flew electromagnetic survey equipment across vast areas helping INCO find ore deposits, especially in Manitoba. They used war surplus Ansons specially adapted for the aerial photography. They also customized surplus Canso bombers and developed water bombing technology to fight fires.

The best part of the book is Milberry's profiles of the people and their contributions. Dozens of personality profiles, adventures, accidents, etc make the story come alive. The book was written from dozens of interviews and visits to various sites. My thanks to Larry Milberry for letting me use the photo shown here. Copies are no longer available except online at amazon.com & abebooks.com but most libraries have copies of this book and Milberry's other excellent books.

Chuck Austin and his helper Britt Jessup who went on to a long career at the Nugget (Rusty Blakey photo from Larry Milberry's book). 

I chose the photo of Chuck Austin talking to his helper teenager Brett Jessup because Jessup soon left Austin for a long career with the Nugget. He started as a cub reporter and went down in history as the reporter who got a call to talk to Archie Belany's first wife Agnes. She said that the famous Grey Owl married here 25 years before and was an Englishman not an Indian. To the Nugget's credit they did not print the story until Grey Owl's death 3 years later in 1937 when the story hit newspapers around the world. After becoming an outstanding sports reporter and excluding war years as a bomber pilot he became editor of the Nugget until his retirement in 1981.

Stan Deluce, who bought out Jack Austin in 1974, along with his 7 pilot sons took Austin into the jet age. Jack Austin received the prestigious McKee Aviation Award and became a member of the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1975 (see www.cahf.ca)

My thanks to René Lamarche of Mattawa for providing me with the Milberry book and the idea for this column.

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