Aviation legend Max Ward remembered for opening up the North

Last modified: November 4, 2020 at 10:42am

Canadian aviation legend Max Ward, who got his start as a bush pilot in the Northwest Territories, has died at the age of 98. 

According to longtime family friend Jacquie Perrin, Ward died surrounded by his family in Edmonton on Monday afternoon – 20 days short of his 99th birthday. 

“He was one of a kind. We’ve lost another great one in aviation and I think we’re a little sadder for it,” she told Cabin Radio. 

“The family is very saddened but they are so grateful for the long life that Max had, for the influence he had on the aviation industry, and for all those who have always honoured him over the years.” 

Max Ward sits holding a candlestick telephone in his office in Yellowknife. NWT Archives/Henry Busse fonds/N-1979-052:3789

Perrin remembers Ward as having a “shock of grey hair” even in his nineties, a distinctive voice, “very subtle” sense of humour, and humble personality. 

“He’d never forgotten the people who were always there for him in the good times and the bad. So he was marvellous that way,” she said.

“When I listen to him talk, it’s like I’m listening to a history book, because he was there when so many things happened.” 

After serving as a flight instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force, Ward flew as a bush pilot in the Northwest Territories in 1945. A year later, he founded the Polaris Charter Company in Yellowknife, which went on to become Wardair in 1953. 

According to the Alberta Order of Excellence, which Ward received in 1989, Wardair was the first airline to operate De Havilland’s Twin Otter and four-engine Dash 7 in Canada. In 1967, the airline bought the first Boeing aircraft ever sold in the country. 

Wardair flew people and cargo across Canada and the world until it was sold to Canadian Airlines in 1989.

The airline is still remembered in the North, particularly in Yellowknife, where a Wardair Bristol freighter remains on display. 

“He was always ahead of his time in choosing the aircraft. It was largely because of him that Canada’s North opened up, because he got larger and larger aircraft,” Perrin said of Ward.  

Even in his later years, Ward maintained his connection to the North. He spent summers at a camp he built on Red Rock Lake, north of Yellowknife. 

“That was a place where his heart really was,” Perrin said. 

A man with ‘strict standards’

Retired pilot Ray Weber, who flew with Wardair during his career, said he would often catch up with Ward and his son when they returned to Yellowknife on their way to the camp.

Weber said watching Ward’s airplanes land and take off on Yellowknife’s Back Bay made him want to be a bush pilot. 

Ward was a friendly man, Weber said, who appreciated his crew and was “always willing to stop and tell stories.”

Retired pilot Ray Weber worked for Wardair during his career. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

“I always enjoyed working for Max,” Weber said. “He was not a hard man to get along with.”

Weber described Wardair as “the company to work for” when Ward lived in Yellowknife, adding that everyone in town knew him. Even today, he noted, Wardair is a familiar name in the North.

“It was a good company, primarily because of him. He had some pretty strict standards, which I think most of us understood,” Weber said.

Weber said Wardair was a success because Ward went out of his way to find quality pilots, engineers, and managers. Back then, he said, people liked to know who they were flying with and airline staff knew their customers.

“A customer would mention that they’d flown with this guy and were quite happy with him, and Max would make an effort to feel him out if he would like to come and fly for Wardair,” Weber said.

Unlike many airline managers today, said Weber, Ward knew the ins and outs of flying and fixing airplanes. 

“He’d run his own operation. He loaded his own damn airplane, put the fuel in it, cleaned the wings off when they were frosty, thawed out the engine in the morning with a blow pot,” he said, referring to a device used to heat engine oil in the winter. 

“Bush pilots were the kind of people he wanted in his international operation because they understood that, too.”