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McMurray Aviation: Servicing the North

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It’s only been in recent times that most of us enjoy good railway, road and aviation systems that traverse the country. We can ride the rail, drive or fly to almost any destination we wish. Just a few decades ago, things were quite different in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The national railway linking was installed before World War I and was the lifeline for many in the central part of the region. There was no twinned highway connecting the community to the rest of Alberta, and aviation was in its infancy.

As much as the building of the Canadian Pacific railway is credited with forging this nation, bush pilots were responsible for opening up and maintaining access to communities throughout this country that were isolated by the rugged terrain of this great land. To these isolated and often sparsely populated communities, bush pilots were a lifeline. Trappers, prospectors, anglers, sportsmen and entrepreneurs in these places all relied on bush pilots.

Bush flying began in Canada after World War I when there was a surplus of warplanes and service-trained pilots who found a new use for their skills providing air service to remote areas. The “bush” in bush pilot originally described the scrublands of South Africa. Eventually, the word “bush” was used to depict everything from windswept tundra and northern boreal forests, to the sand dunes of the Sahara. We have slightly smaller dunes in our very own Richardson Backcountry.

These intrepid aviators flew second-hand planes that had been damaged, repaired and patched so many times that, as one pilot admitted, they were little more than a collection of spare parts. They flew over ice-covered mountains, barren tundra, dense forests and arid deserts to bring food, medicine, mail and emergency aid to communities that could only be reached by air. From Vermillion to La Loche and beyond, pilots were vital to survival. These pilots and their planes brought isolated communities much needed supplies and reunited families. They could fly over rugged terrain in hours what would take days or weeks to traverse on the ground.

To service these isolated communities, bush pilots had to teach themselves flying techniques unthinkable to pilots from Air Canada or their predecessor, Canadian Airlines. Since there were few airports available, they taught themselves to land planes on sandbars in the middle of rivers, landing strips carved out of dense forest, ice flows and on narrow strips of rock precariously located on the Northern Shield. At times, they flew without a radio or weather reports over unmapped forests in the worst weather. With a ceiling of less than 200 feet and visibility less than a quarter of a mile, when all other planes were grounded, bush pilots would come in for a landing. They could because not only where they fearless, but they were experienced and extremely skilled at their craft.

World War II brought with it huge advances in aviation which served to expand bush flying. Technological improvements to aircraft meant more sophisticated, reliable planes, communications equipment and navigational aids. With all the advances in aviation came better snow removal equipment too which meant that heavier aircraft than the more nimble bush plane could land at these airstrips year round. This led to a boom in aviation in Canada after the war. The boom would, in turn, bring about the disappearance of many small bush operations and the development of others into scheduled air services.

Wade Komarnisky, owner and operator of McMurray Aviation is one of those remaining bush plane operations. Wade first journeyed up to Fort McMurray in 1981 looking for employment in the aviation industry. When the recession hit in 1983, instead of taking a layoff he decided to go off on his own, founding McMurray Aviation.

Wade and his wife Renee have provided air transportation to the remote communities of La Loche, Fort Chipewyan, Uranium City and numerous remote camps surrounding Fort McMurray, Alberta.  From hunting and fishing lodges, to remote mining camps, McMurray Aviation can get you where you need to be, safely and on time. As the predominant regional air service, McMurray Aviation is a lifeline for residents, not only offering passenger flights, but also freight, grocery orders, parcel delivery and tourism.

Truly, if you are planning to land on a paved or gravel runway, grassy field or water body they are the solution. McMurray Aviation offers a wide range of aviation services including single-engine charter on both wheels and floats.

His team also provides sightseeing tours over the Oil Sands, as well as the paleolithic Grand Rapids to the south and Athabasca Sand Dunes to the north.

Many of my friends and family who have visited us know that a sightseeing tour by plane is mandatory. The pilots have such a positive and knowledgeable understanding of the region and professionally showcases the natural beauty and expansive industry that our region has to offer.

During his career, as well as flying workers and equipment to remote job sites, or sportsmen to camps, Wade would fly community members who were ill and needed much needed medical attention. For one such mission, Wade had to fly an ill woman and her son back to Fort McMurray for medical attention. In the small plane, the two passengers were seated right behind Wade. He expected that the one hour flight would be an uneventful one, that is until he heard the woman cough and was consequently felt an impact on the back of his head. She was so ill that when she coughed out came projectile vomit, that started to drip down the back of his shirt. Horrified, the woman and her son started to apologize profusely, and Wade just started to laugh, whether out of shock, or because there is absolutely nothing that could be done about the situation when you are 2,000 feet in the air. What could he do? He kept flying, covered in vomit, knowing that he’d have a funny story to tell someday. 

The love of flying has kept McMurray Aviation a family run business, even though they had the opportunity to go the airline route. Wade, as the arguably most experience pilot, enjoys the variety that running bush planes offers. Numerous fishing lodges keep the pontoons busy throughout the summer, bringing in tourism from around the globe, as well as local anglers. Without Wade and Renee, so many local business owners would not be able to operate their remote businesses as conveniently as they have for so many years. 

It was those very businesses that rallied together to raise funds to support McMurray Aviation family. In the latest devastation of the wildfires that hit the region, Wade and Renee lost their home of 30 years and on top of that faced a lengthy NOTAM order that restricted significant airspace, due to the sheer size of the Horse River Wildfire. It limited their tourism and scheduled flights to communities, resulting in a devastating loss to their revenues. Despite their losses, McMurray Aviation has come out stronger and soon will be expanding their fleet to include twin engine charters.

For the long term, Wade looks forward to retirement and as for the business, if their children have a passion for aviation and want to take McMurray Aviation over, he’d be quite ok with that. He wouldn’t ever put that expectation on them though, he was adamant that one needs to find their passion and he supports his children in theirs, even if it isn’t soaring through the big Alberta skies.