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Max Ward, a founding member of Wardair who set the standard for Yellowknife’s aviation industry died in Edmonton on Nov. 2. He was 98.

An Officer in the Order of Canada since 1975, Ward was born on Nov. 22, 1921.

Max Ward, the founder of Wardair – once the country’s third-largest air carrier – met with Ruth McKeown in Yellowknife in 2014.
photo Courtesy of Ruth McKeown

He first came to the North in the late 1940s as a bush plane operator. He founded the aviation company that would go on on to become an international charter carrier in 1953.

Many who knew him said that he exemplified free enterprise and broke new ground for aviation in the North.

“Certainly he was a major player in the early days of development of the Yellowknife aviation business,” said Mike Vaydik, a longtime fellow member of the Fox Moth Society, the NWT’s aviation historical society.

“As a businessman he recognized the needs and was the best at meeting those needs in terms of what was here in those days. Yellowknife was just a bush camp on the edge of nowhere and the NWT was made up of little aboriginal communities that didn’t have air strips.”

Vaydik said that Ward saw the importance of servicing mining camps first with smaller crafts and starting with the Fox Moth. Eventually he accumulated planes more attuned to the Northern bush environment through de Havilland Canada, including the Beaver, the Otter, Twin Otter, Dash 7 and Dash 8 models.

He also brought the Bristol freighter for hauling goods into the mines.

“The Bristol Freighter was an existing aircraft in Britain but he recognized the need for something like that to develop exploration in the mines because it was big enough to haul mining generators and ball mills and other mining equipment into the remote sites,” Vaydik said.

Born in Edmonton, Ward was a carpenter by trade. He learned to fly serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

After the Second World War, he was involved in building houses in Alberta before moving to Yellowknife to attempt a bush pilot operation.

In 1962 he obtained a license to operate international air charters and he left Yellowknife for Edmonton shortly thereafter. It didn’t take him long to make an impression. He was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame just 12 years later.

“He singlehandedly went from one pilot, bush plane biplanes to 747s over his career,” Vaydik said.

Fred Dornan, who first came to Yellowknife in 1959 to work for Pacific Western Airlines, went to work for Wardair in 1962. He stayed with the company for 20 years.

He kept ties with Ward, speaking with him as recently as six weeks ago.

“I think he was an example of how to run a great bush operation and because of him we always had first-class equipment,” Dornan said. “He always had the latest in everything and his code of ethics and safety standards were unparalleled by anybody. There were never shortcuts with maintenance or pilots or anything (other) than perfection.

“I was always inspired by his work ethic and he was a perfectionist. Everything had to be done right. He was just such a dedicated guy to what he was trying to do. He had a lot of success in the North, for sure.”

Steve England was born in 1947 at Con Mine and grew up and around the early aviation environment of the 1950s and ’60s.

He worked for a few years  as a pilot with Wardair in the ’70s and said he was always appreciative that Ward kept in touch with local people even as he grew to be quite successful in commercial aviation.

“I knew him personally quite well and his whole family,” England said. “Even though had been gone from Yellowknife after the early ’60s, whenever he came to town to his fishing lodge on Red Rock Lake he would drop into Weaver and Devore because he had connections with the store.”

England said he was always grateful for Ward mentioning him in his 1991 book The Max Ward Story: A Bush Pilot in the Bureaucratic Jungle.

Ward is survived by his wife Marjorie and daughters Gai and Blythe and sons Kim and Blake and several grandchildren.

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Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. A through and through "County boy" from Prince Edward County, Ont., Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin...

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  1. Max Ward was a great helper to all northerns
    I owned the Flite Deck at the Yellowknife Airport.
    We put meals on his planes, including charters.

    His son Kim ordered in flight meals, from Flite Deck at the Yellowknife AirportKin was a delightful man, like his Mom and Dad, happy and hard working
    He had Ward Air dish sets, a Ward Air best of the best.
    In the mid seventies
    Ward family great helpful Northern Canadians
    Sandra (Mason) Elliott

    We put inflight on all his planes

  2. I never met Mr. Ward but between 1969 and 1974 when I lived in Yellowknife occasionally I would be a fellow passenger on a 737 flight south to Edmonton. I was always impressed that Mr. Ward was seated at the rear of the plane and had a smile and a kind word for everyone. He struck me then as he does now as one of the truly memorable figures ever to grace Canada’s North with his presence. His aviation/business accomplishments speak for themselves. His character was exemplary for those of us fortunate enough to share his presence even at the width of a PWA 737.