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

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

Ward was born in Edmonton in 1921. He served as 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, going on to add several more.

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

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. 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 Facebook to remember the company and former employees who’ve passed away.  

Quick said Ward’s contribution to the North was large. 

His business made mining easier and communities more accessible by establishing an aviation industry “where nothing would compete.”

Since 1995, Ward has 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, Quick said. 

“He will really be missed.”

In 2000, Ward and his wife Marjorie 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. 

Ward kept flying. 

Ward 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 honourary degrees from the University of Alberta, York University, Trent University, Carleton University, Athabasca University and Lakeland University. 

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