Inuvik pilot Fred Carmichael named to Aviation Hall of Fame

Fred Carmichael grew up near Aklavik, N.W.T., and saw his first small plane at age 12. In 1955, he became the first aboriginal person in the North to earn a pilot's licence. He went on to found two airlines, inspiring and mentoring many along the way.

Carmichael was the first aboriginal person in the North to earn pilot's licence in 1955

Fred Carmichael was the first aboriginal person in the North to earn a pilot's licence in 1955. He'll be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame next year. (submitted)

Fred Carmichael, a Gwich'in pilot and a true pioneer of Northern aviation, has been named to Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame.

"It feels good to be recognized like that," he said from his home in Inuvik. "I know there's a lot of others out there as deserving as I am, but I guess I'm the lucky one."

Carmichael's modesty belies a lifetime of hard work and accomplishment. In 1955, he became the first aboriginal person in the North to earn his pilot's licence. That launched a six-decade career as a pilot, entrepreneur and search and rescue volunteer.
In 1960, Fred Carmichael established a charter airline service, Reindeer Air, that operated through the next two decades. He later established a successor company, Antler Aviation. (submitted)

He still vividly remembers the day he saw his future. He was 12 years old and his mother had travelled from their remote home to the nearby community of Aklavik, N.W.T. In Aklavik, she chartered a plane to carry supplies back home, where Carmichael and his father were waiting.

Carmichael was mesmerized by the plane.

"I watched it take off, disappear over the horizon, and thought, 'Wow. That's what I'd like to do'," he said.

He later befriended a former Air Force pilot who was working in the North as a missionary. Carmichael started helping the pilot work on his airplane, and eventually got invited along on a flight.

"I was bitten there, for sure," Carmichael said.

His pilot friend helped arrange flying lessons in Edmonton, and Carmichael was soon airborne again.

Pioneer, entrepreneur, mentor

Within a year or two of earning his licence, Carmichael bought his first plane and flew it North. It was a memorable trip, from another era of air travel. 
Within a year or two of earning his licence, Carmichael bought his first plane and flew it North. (submitted)

"These days you have GPS and everything else, and all kinds of [navigation] aids. In them days, it was a map and compass," he said. He describes that period as the "tail end" of the early days of flying, the time of the "real pioneers."

Carmichael weathered the changes in his industry well. In 1960, he established a charter airline service, Reindeer Air, that operated through the next two decades. He later established a successor company, Antler Aviation.

Along the way he served as a mentor and employer to many Northerners.

"Of course I wanted to have my friends and the people I grew up with as part of the operation, and it made sense to hire locals. So I encouraged them to take up the flying," Carmichael said.

"Certainly it was great for my company. You don't build a company by yourself," he said.

'A desire to help'

These days, Carmichael is retired but still keeps a commercial pilot's licence, and a private plane. He said he has no big plans for the future, but finds it difficult to be retired after so many years of being active in aviation.
Carmichael will be inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame at a cermony in Ottawa in June. 'It feels good to be recognized,' he said. (CAHF)

He said his one constant motivation through decades of work has been "a desire to help the North and its people."

"I've been a big promoter and push for the aboriginal people to just become more self-sufficient, and [have] a better way of life."

Carmichael was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2010, and received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 2013. He's also an honorary lifetime member of the Northern Air Transport Association. 

Carmichael will be formally inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Ottawa on June 9.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.