It was truly an idea before its to time—Bob Wingen’s dream to haul seafood by air into the little village of Tofino then on to international markets. While Bob was growing up there had been lots of aircraft activity on the West Coast. The steady flights for the gold rush at Zeballos had been followed by the excitement of military patrols. Also, there was that big airport not far from town, built during wartime to handle heavy bombers and coastal reconnaissance planes, with a magnificent runway complex, hangars and offices sitting there doing nothing - virtually abandoned since 1945. “We could haul the seafood in containers into Tofino by floatplane then out of the airport with big cargo planes,” was how Bob described his dream. It was only 1970 and there were many skeptics but Wingert came from a pioneer family known for their hard work and innovation. He wasnt planning to wait around dreaming about this idea - he was going to do it. He took flying lessons and bought a small floatplane.
Flying the west coast of Vancouver Island in his little plane. Bob realized he needed the help of an experienced coastal pilot and definitely a bigger aircraft. He became friends with Gary Richards who was running Island Airlines Tofino base. Gary liked Wingens idea and Bob liked Gary’s flying skills and coastal knowledge.
Bob traded his Aeronca 15AC on a float equipped Cessna 180 and they set out to locate an aircraft that could handle good sized loads out of Tofino Airport .They found a recently retired “Expeditor” and bought it. The Beech 18 would handle a good load and developed a fair airspeed allowing this new business to service Vancouver and Seattle.
The first trip with the Beech 18 was a full load of fresh BC oysters to a fish buyer in Seattle. This flight was to become a classic adventure told and retold by pilots everywhere for the next decade, but on that day, it was the exciting beginning of a new business. It can be said that Gary landed a tad short of the runway at Seattle’s Boeing field. In fact, he landed in a parking lot, destroying several cars, demolishing the aircraft and spreading fresh BC oysters all over the lot. Gary made a quick exit from the wreckage, unscathed, and after a short stay in Seattle, returned to Tofino.
Undaunted, Wingen returned to his original concept and commenced setting up a series of floating fish camps at Ahousat, Hot Springs Cove, Nootka Island and Kyuquot, all on Vancouver Islands west coast. He also engaged the packer, “MV Harriet E” in his plan which was to have trollers delivering their catch to the closest of the camps or off-load to the Harriet E. Seaplanes would pick up from the camps and fly the loads to Tofino.
Wingen formed a new company called, Sea-Air-Pac Ltd, which included partners Tim Morton and the late Ray Herbert . Their first task was to select the type of floatplane they would use for the fish haul. They ultimately decided on a Mk 4 Noorduyn Norseman, CF-PAA, which was offered for sale by pilot, Jack Hodge, up at Smithers. It was an exciting day when Gary flew the big plane into Tofino harbour and the wheels of the little business started to turn.
Containers were designed and fabricated to fit the tapering hull of the Norseman and up at the camps, roller systems were installed which fit into the Norseman cargo doors. A supply system was set up so that the planes would not be flying in empty. Fresh produce and groceries, break-down parts and equipment were flown into the camps and the seafood hauled out.
While all this industry was taking place, another Norseman was located and purchased from an owner in Washington State. This plane, a Mk 6 model, had been crated after the war and was as good as new. It was also wheel equipped and floats had to be found for it. This new plane bore the proud registration letters, CF-SAP, the initials of the new company, but it would be a while before it joined the Mk 4 now in service for it was too heavy for bush work. Built for the military, it contained huge fuel and oil tanks and piles of military hardware to be stripped out.
The Norseman is constructed of a steel tube frame with wooden stringers, spars and wing ribs all covered with doped fabric. Operating in a salt water environment, corrosion prevention requires constant attention. In addition, the regular checks and maintenance inspections were required on the big planes which meant a flight over the island to Campbell River. It had been arranged to do this work in the Island Air hangars where Dave Nilson was the chief engineer. Working in the hangar at this time was an apprentice engineer Doug Banks, who suggested that he might like to work for Sea-Air-Pac.
“As an apprentice aircraft engineer, I needed to work under a licenced engineer,” explained Banks, “so Dave Nilson agreed to supervise me from arms length, making it possible for me to continue my apprenticeship. The arms length was the distance between Campbell River and Tofino,” laughed Banks, who moved his wife and young family to the west coast village and set up shop for the fish haulers. Being both a pilot and engineer, Doug became important part of the new companys operation.
By 1972, the herring roe industry was reborn from the increasing demand from the Japanese market. The long dormant industry was showing promise and Sea-Air-Pac quickly became involved. A few companies were using aircraft as spotters for their fishing fleets. The Norseman was also employed in this role. Sea-Air-Pac devised a unique plan to mount a depth sounder on the aircrafts spreader bar which could be lowered into the water allowing the plane to taxi around checking the volume of herring. Doug Banks, designed a system to lower and retract the sounder and it was mounted on the forward spreader bar.
“While it seemed like a good idea it didnt really turn out that well,” recalled Banks as he told us, with a grin, how the other companies quickly copied this idea, believing Sea-Air-Pac knew something they didn’t.
During these times, Doug was working on reducing the weight of CF-SAP. Of the three belly tanks he removed the two rear ones - one being a massive 79 gallon capacity. The oversized oil tank had to be left intact but all the military hardware was stripped out. The battery was relocated forward to remove some very heavy electrical cables. In addition, the cargo doors were redesigned - all the doors were wooden framed and heavy.
“The panel under the belly fuel tanks was made of laminated wood and weighed a ton,” explained Doug, “It was easy to replace things like that with an aluminum panel and, combined with the other improvements, brought the empty weight pretty close to that of the Mk4.”
During this time, the Japanese fish buyers sent out quality control inspectors to monitor the catch. These inspectors, who rarely understood English, would be flown out to the fishing fleet where they would observe and attempt to make recommendations in sign language. Doug Banks tells a humourous story of the pilot of SAP who flew one of these inspectors up to Coal Harbour in Quatsino Sound. The pilot took his Japanese passenger into the dockside coffee shop, bringing forth a bevy of questions from the fishermen present. “ ‘Where did you come from and where are you going?’ was being asked, so the pilot, being a jokester, said, ‘I can’t tell you that information, but which way is it to Pearl Harbour?’ Well, Pearl Harbour was the only words the Japanese man understood, causing a very stoney and embarrassed silence on the return trip.”
With SAP totally ‘lightened up’ Doug Banks and a pilot friend, Richard von Flintel, took it on themselves to brighten up the drab exterior of this Norseman. They removed the air rudder and the cowlings and spent a day masking off and painting them with a loud red and white chequer-board pattern. When Bob Wingen spotted SAP on the dock next morning, sporting this fancy paint job, he was impressed.
“He also liked the ‘nose art’ we painted on the fuselage,” said Doug, who recalls being somewhat apprehensive that his boss might not have appreciated them taking the liberty of dollying up his airplane.
One night, during these busy times, Doug and his family were awakened in the dark, small hours of the morning by Gary Richards who had entered their home, yelling, “Get up, get up, the Cessna has sunk!” Everyone leaped out of bed and Doug and Gary raced down to the docks. The sad sight that greeted them was the wing tip of the Cessna pointing to the sky, totally submerged at the dock. A typical southeasterly squall had torn through the area as they slept and capsized the 180. They all spent the day and most of the night salvaging and drying out the plane.
Late that night, Doug had her running again so he went home to bed. Before dawn the next morning, Gary again burst into the Banks bedroom shouting. “Wake up, wake up, the Cessna didn’t sink last night.” Doug and wife, Shirley, could have shot him.
One day in June of 1972 a garbled phone call was received in which Gary Richards was understood to be calling for help with the Norseman. He needed a ‘patch’ on his wing before he could fly out of Nootka. Doug took the Cessna and loaded aboard all the tools he might need. Not knowing how big a patch Richards was referring to, he threw in an almost full roll of .032 aluminum sheet. “That proved to be a good move,” he recalls, as the hole in the underside of the wing was a huge corrugated panel under the wing fuel tank. It had departed the aircraft as Gary was preparing to land. The full sheet of aluminum fit nicely until a proper replacement part was obtained.
More problems developed during the summer salmon haul when SAP blew an engine coming out of Nootka Camp. The plane was towed to Tahsis and the search for a replacement engine got under way. Every Pratt & Whitney 1340 engine that could be found had been sold to the producers of the movie, Tora, Tora, Tora which had modified a bunch of AT6 or Harvards to look like Japanese wartime aircraft. Finally an engine was found at Delta Air Park, outside of Vancouver. It was attached to a derelict Harvard trainer which was signed out by an engineer for a ferry trip to Tofino. Gary, who was to ferry it over to Tofino, was warned by the engineer not to retract the gear - the retract system could not be trusted. He took off out of Delta and flew to Tofino without incident. A crowd of locals were waiting as Gary had promised an aerobatic display when he got back. As a former CF100 jockey he was prepared to put on his own airshow.
The ‘derelict’ Harvard did some low level aerobatics over the Tofino water front then, on the last manoeuvre, something went amiss and Gary pulled up and headed for the airport. Doug Banks describes the scene that greeted them when they got back to the field.
The Harvard was in the middle of the runway with Gary, cautiously, looking up into the wheel wells. The wheels were down but not locked and were in the unsafe position. Gary had disobeyed the engineers instructions. As he put it, “Who does aerobatics with their wheels down?” With a little prodding the corroded micro switches finally showed down and locked. Why didn’t he finish the last maneuver? “Well, the top of the control column broke off in my hand,” he laughed.
If there is anything that marks an endeavor like that of Sea-Air-Pac, it is the total involvement of all the participants to make it all work. Dedication and improvisation are the hallmarks of the enthusiasts who fix and fly airplanes and heartbreaking mishaps simply fan more enthusiasm to get things back on track. Bob Wingen was described by his friends and fellow workers as the most indomitable and resourceful person one could meet. He flew the Norseman and the Cessna, he skippered the packer and ran all facets of the fish plant at Tofino. If there was something to be done which was difficult, he made it look easy. Somehow all this ability and enthusiasm couldn’t keep him ahead of the problems which beset the flying operations of Sea-Air-Pac. The fish plant and all other facets of his business flourished while the flying operation continued to run into a series of problems.
In August of 1972 past difficulties paled before the development of ‘bumps’ on the upper surface of the Mk 4s wings. When opened up and inspected, the bumps proved to be the disintegration of the ribs. The milk-based Casein glue used in this 1938 airplane had disintegrated - the wings were falling apart and had been held together simply by the fabric and rib stitching. While flying operations did continue after this plane was shipped off for repair, this was the breaking point for the fish hauling airline and it was, from then on, a down hill ride.
The remaining aircraft were used more for delivery purposes for Wingen’s fishing fleet and the fish plant and for the yearly herring season. Gary Richards and Doug Banks left to fly elsewhere during these doubtful seasons for Sea Air Pac. In later years they both returned to the outside coast and started their own charter operation appropriately named Tofino Air. It thrives today from the bevy of tourists who now come to this west coast village to see the rugged coast, the idyllic little village, the grey whales and yes, to sample that wonderful fresh seafood for which the area is famous.
Foot note: CF-PAA the Mk 4 Norseman did not survive as a flying machine. Doug field repaired the worst wing with common 2x4s in order to ferry it to a shop who contracted to rebuild it. That company went bankrupt and the aircraft was trucked to Tofino where Doug completely rebuilt one wing to specification. It was signed out by Dave Nilson and readied for fabric. Time and money ran out and the airframe was assigned to Ed Zalesky’s museum for future rebuild. The Mk4s engine was put on the Harvard so it could be sold. This provided a golden opportunity for several pilots to check themselves out on the Harvard - some more successful than others!
CF-SAP was ferried to Fort Langley where it sat, derelict, for some time then ferried to Vancouver where the floats were sold. One day it took off, on wheels, destined for Winnipeg. Footnote to the footnote: In 1988, the editor of this magazine was flying a Beaver in the North West Territories, 400 miles north of LaRonge, Saskatchewan. A Norseman which was based out of a place called Woman Lake, in Manitoba, landed at his base camp and took on fuel and two passengers. It was a beautifully restored Mk 6 Norseman and bore the registration, CF-SAP.
West Coast Aviator magazine, March/April 1998
The Norseman featured in this story is in the Museum's collection for restoration in the future.