North

Max Ward, bush pilot turned Canadian aviation pioneer, has died

Max Ward, a bush pilot who came to found Wardair, which would go on to become the third largest airline in Canada, died in Edmonton on Monday at 98 years old. His family is celebrating him as "a true Alberta maverick."

Max Ward, 'true Alberta maverick' who founded Wardair in Yellowknife in 1953, was 98

Max Ward in his Yellowknife office. Ward, who served as a flight instructor with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and returned to Canada to work as a bush pilot before founding his own airline, has died at 98. (NWT Archives/Henry Busse/N-1979-052-3789)

Canadian aviation pioneer Max Ward died Monday, CBC has confirmed. He was 98. 

Ward was born in Edmonton in 1921. He served as a flight instructor with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War before becoming a bush pilot. 

In 1953, he founded Wardair in Yellowknife. By 1989, the airline would become the third-largest airline in Canada. 

Ward sold the airline to Canadian Airlines that year.

In a news release, the Ward family described him as "a true Alberta maverick." 

Ward launched his commercial service with a single 14-passenger single-engine Otter that operated on wheels, skis and floats, according to a biography from his 1989 induction to the Alberta Order of Excellence. 

The business expanded steadily, acquiring more Otters, Beaver aircraft and Bristol Freighters, like the one that still stands behind the City of Yellowknife sign on Old Airport Road.   

The Wardair Bristol freighter greets visitors to Yellowknife, a reminder of the city's aviation history. (Hannah Paulson/CBC)

"When DeHavilland built the Twin Otter and then the 4-engine Dash 7, Wardair was the first to operate them in Canada," the citation notes

Ward bought his first Boeing 727 in 1967 and went on to add several 747s to his fleet.

Yvonne Quick, a former bush pilot and current Yellowknifer, said Ward ran "one of the best charter operations in Canada."

Ward rode the 1960s travel boom, offering international holidays to ordinary folks at good prices. Good service was his selling point, with champagne and silverware on board his flights.

WATCH | Max Ward's impact on the Canadian air travel industry:

Bush pilots: Max Ward sells Wardair

Digital Archives

32 years agoVideo
4:47
A profile of Max Ward, who has sold his airline Wardair. 4:47

He started with flights between Western Canada and the U.K. In the winter, he added flights to Hawaii and the Caribbean. 

"Mr. Ward's pioneering of air transportation in the Northwest Territories has been of immeasurable value to Alberta and has maintained for this province its standing as the supply base for the western Arctic and the Yukon Territory," the Alberta Order of Excellence citation reads. 

"On the national scene, Mr. Ward was in the forefront of those urging deregulation of the airline industry."

Ward inspired significant loyalty among his employees, many of whom still gather on social media to remember the company and former employees who have died. 

"He was a shrewd businessman," said longtime friend Jacquie Perrin, who "never forgot the people who got him to where he was."

Perrin said Ward was flying in Canada's North before planes had radios, before GPS and before good maps were available. "Whenever he took off, his wife Marjorie never knew if she'd see him again."

Perrin's husband, Fred von Veh, worked as a lawyer for Ward. 

"He cared about people. He cared about pilots. He cared about flight attendants. He cared about maintenance people," von Veh said. "That was Max's gift." 

Von Veh recalled the unique voice that would come over the intercom whenever Ward flew large passenger planes. 

"He did more for aviation in Northern Canada than any person ever did and any person ever will do," von Veh said.

Ward's business made mining easier and communities more accessible by establishing the North's aviation industry. 

Since 1995, Ward allowed the Midnight Sun Float-Plane Fly-In to take place on his property in Yellowknife every two years. The event would not have been possible without him. 

In 2000, Ward and his wife survived a plane crash when his float plane hit the water too hard near Yellowknife. Two other passengers also survived. The floats broke off the plane when it slammed into the water, CBC reported at the time. 

Still, Ward kept flying. 

He was inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974, and made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1975. 

He held several honorary degrees from the University of Alberta, York University, Trent University, Carleton University, Athabasca University and Lakehead University. 

WATCH | Max Ward reflects on his career as a northern bush pilot: 

Canada's aviation hall of fame

Digital Archives

42 years agoVideo
23:38
In 1979 some of the bush pilots who opened up the north reflect back on the early years. 23:38

With files from Hannah Paulson, Sara Minogue

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