A 1958 Tribute to Russ Baker -
from Bush Pilot to President of Pacific Western Airlines
Arctic & Northern Aviation
Arctic & Northern Biographies
Dateline: November 20, 2019.
On November 15, 1958, Russ Baker, who had gone from bush pilot to President of Pacific Western Airlines, died of a heart attack at his home in West Vancouver, at the age of 48. The Vancouver Sun published a multi-part tribute to Baker that evening, and that tribute comprises the majority of the content on this page.
Francis Russell Baker was born in St. James, Manitoba on January 31, 1910. The boy attended Isaac Brock Elementary School and finished his public education at age 14. He then took up shorthand, typing, penmanship, English, spelling and bookkeeping at Success Commercial College in 1924/5. He got a job in the offices of Western Canada Airways, and in 1928 he began flight training with that company at Kirkfield Park. He obtained his commercial pilot licence on October 29, 1929, but from 1931 to 1933 he worked for his father's company, Western Gypsum Products.
Baker got his start as an entrepreneur in aviation by restoring a De Havilland Fox Moth for Ginger Coote at Gun Lake (British Columbia) in the winter of 1936/7. He worked for Grant McConachie's company United Air Transport. Later Punch Dickins offered him a job with Canadian Airways in the same region.
In January 1942 Russ Baker rescued the crews of three B-26 bombers that had made an emergency landing between Fort Nelson, BC and Watson Lake, Yukon at a location now known as Million Dollar Valley. Baker made a dozen flights to an improvised runway over several days to extract the 24 crewmen and two officers. He was recommended by Lt. Robert O. Cork for the Air Medal which Russ was awarded March 22, 1948, in Vancouver by the U.S. consul George D. Andrews.
In 1945, Russ Baker and Walter Gilbert founded Central British Columbia Airways and made Fort St. James their base for freighting supplies to mining operators in the region. Between 1949 and 1952, the company acquired seven other smaller flying services, and in 1953, the name was changed to Pacific Western Airlines.
The Vancouver Sun, November 15, 1958
"Russ Baker is dead."
These words flashed a message of sorrow across Canada's entire aviation industry today and into the north country of British Columbia and Alberta.
A heart attack killed the colorful and dynamic bush pilot and airline president in his West Vancouver home shortly before 3 a.m, today. He was 48.
President of Pacific Western Airlines, Canada's third-largest air carrier, he left behind him a legend of a spirit that recognized no horizons.
Success in a Decade
His death was a blow to Canada's aviation community.
He was an airman's airman, a man equally at home in an Indian wickiup, in the bitterly cold cockpit of a tiny bush plane and in a panelled executive office.
His unfailing enthusiasm built PWA out of a one-plane bush operation at Fort St. James in just over 10 years.
Surviving him at home at 1246 Millstream are his wife, Madge; two daughters, Noni, 18, and Joy, 14. A sister, Mrs. Robert Hiley, of Vancouver, also survives.
Funeral arrangements are to be announced.
Won U.S. Citation
The real world of Russ Baker was that of 50 below zero landings on frozen lakes in northern B.C., the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, the hours of bucking icy winds, snow, clouds and rain to bring injured men to hospital, and the tree-top searches and rescue of downed fellow fliers.
He won the U.S. Air Medal, with a citation signed by ex-president Harry Truman, for "exceptional daring and pilotage ability" in rescuing 24 U.S, Air Force personnel from a crash involving three aircraft in a tiny valley near Watson Lake in the Yukon.
Russ Baker was barnstorming the prairies at 16. In 1928, he flew the first airmail out of Winnipeg in an ancient Fokker.
He later moved to B.C., piling up a total of more than 15,000 flying hours and more than 700 mercy flights.
Children were born in his planes, murderers were carried to justice, and hundreds of lives were saved through his skill and carefully calculated daring.
Pierre Berton, Canadian author and associate editor of the Toronto Star, pays his last respects to an old friend in the following special article for The Vancouver Sun. Russ Baker, who died here today, flew Mr. Berton into B.C.'s mysterious Nahanni Valley on a Vancouver Sun exploration in 1947.
By PIERRE BERTON
Russ Baker was the last of the great bush pilots.
The country will produce no more of his breed because flying has changed and progressed since he first jockeyed a patched-up De Havilland Fox Moth through B.C.'s northern mountains back in 1937.
He was the greatest pilot I have ever known - a man in whom you had perfect confidence. He died with his boots off.
If any further tribute is needed to his skill, there it is: he survived 15,000 flying hours in one of the most hazardous areas of the world - a graveyard sprinkled with the bones of men who were less lucky and less expert.
I flew with him just a little over a year ago and I remember one particularly chilling incident. We were winging through that hideous alpine country that lies behind Kitimat, Here is a wall of mountains with chisel tops, swept by winds that never die. The down-drafts are more like waterfalls off the edges of the peaks and a plane can be crushed in an instant against the granite ramparts.
Suddenly one of these drafts seized our Beaver plane and in a matter of seconds we plunged 1,200 feet. Mr. Baker simply shrugged, righted the aircraft, and flew on, He made it look so easy that we who were his passengers did not understand the danger.
Russ Baker Was Modern Pioneer
These things were second nature to Russ Baker because he grew up with flying in B.C., because he knew every northern peak and canyon as a commuter knows his own street car stop, because he understood every trick of wind and weather, because he had wrestled for 20 years with the land - and won.
Scientific and technological progress has made his kind as obsolete as the courier de bois and the voyageurs of old. For Mr. Baker was a modern pioneer, His real life success story was far more thrilling than any television serial.
For all of the hungry 30s he was virtually destitute, but he was never down and out.
In 1930, he and a crony rode the freights out of B.C. - licked by the land they had hoped to conquer, Mr. Baker was crammed into a tiny tool box on the tender, trying to hide from the railway police.
But he came back in 1934, this time with his wife, Madge. They were so broke that they lived on clams dug from the sand of English Bay and on cracked bones begged at butcher stores for their dog.
Later, in the hill country of the Cariboo, they went prospecting, living on wild onions, wild potatoes, and deer meat.
The two of them once walked the 244 miles to Vancouver, existing on berries picked by the wayside. When they hit town they slept in a Chinese flop house at 25 cents a night.
He Loved B.C. And Its North
But Mr. Baker loved this province, especially the north, and he determined it would not lick him again.
In 1937 he got hold of his first aircraft and determined to fly it in the mountain country, It was a De Havilland Fox-Moth that had survived two crackups and submersion in a river - a far cry from the scores of new aircraft he commanded at the time of his death.
He was living in an attic near English Bay in those early days. He worked on his plane day and night at Lulu Island trying to make it airworthy.
He could not afford the Seven cents tram fare so he walked out to the airfield every day - a tall and strapping man with the biceps of a blacksmith.
This was the plane that launched him on his career. Its performance was so poor that he told me he never once saw the tops of the mountains but had to fly between them; it just wouldn't climb that high.
He operated out of Fort St. James and his beat was that furious ocean of jagged peaks that stretches off to the west - a land of canyons and glaciers and granite walls often shrouded in fog.
When he was carrying a payload Mr. Baker could not afford the extra weight of snowshoes, sleeping bag or emergency rations,
The noseplate was cracked and he was often blinded by flying oil which cut off his vision. He had neither engine nor prop cover and on freezing winter days he used to have to borrow blankets, drape them over the engine, and build a bonfire beneath it to warm it for takeoff.
Heart in Flying And Mountains
Such was the harsh life that Russ Baker lived in the late 30s and 40s. He was map-maker, trapper, doctor, prospector, ambulance driver, postman, fire fighter, freighter, and forest ranger - all rolled into one. He loved every minute of it.
He was a one-man flying company and in the end he became a one-man success. How could he be anything else?
He was as strong as an ox and he worked harder than any man I know. His heart was in the mountains and in flying, he cared for little else. He loved B.C., his adopted province with an ardor and a fierceness that is hard to describe. His dream was to operate an air line that would girdle the earth, He never quite realized it because his heart would not let him.
But his monument is much more than his air line, it is the North itself, which he helped to open up. Like the explorers and pioneers of old he leaves it as his legacy. There can be no better one.
Tributes to Russ Baker, bush pilot and airline executive extraordinary, flowed in today from all parts of Canada.
Mr. Baker died of a heart attack in his West Vancouver home at 3 a.m.
From old flying mate Grant McConachie, president of Canadian Pacific Airlines, came these words:
"The passing of Russ Baker is a heavy loss to his many friends in the aviation industry. I've flown and associated with him for 25 years, and have always admired his warm personality and unfailing enthusiasm.
"He had the vision and the enterprise to build a thriving airline from a small charter operation.
"He earned himself an undisputed claim to distinction in the annals of Canadian aviation, and the air industry has lost a great leader.
"Russ Baker has always been one of my closest friends, and I join his other friends and aviation officials in mourning his untimely passing."
Said Trans-Canada Airlines president Gordon McGregor:
"Russ was a good personal friend and a great friend of Canadian aviation. He personified its whole spirit. His death is a tremendous loss to the entire industry."
From another fellow flyer, Hal Wilson, regional superintendent of airways for the department of transport came this tribute:
"Russ was a bold flyer. He was rough and ready, every inch a man. His death strikes us all as a personal loss, and is a heavy blow to aviation."
Maurice McGregor, president of B.C. Air Lines: "Russ Baker's death was completely untimely. He was a man who still had a long way to go in a business he loved with his whole heart and being."
'HE'LL BE MISSED'
Tom How, regional chief of transport department air services; "Russ was a great friend of aviation here and across Canada. He'll be missed wherever he flew his planes."
A close personal friend, Vancouver Sun editorial director Jack Scott, added these words:
"Russ Baker was a magnificent man. I've never met anyone who could compare with him in the qualities of strength of character, determination, and lust for life. He was a man of vision, as well.
"Flying was for him not just a job. It was a love affair. He was happiest when he got away from his office desk, and at the controls of a Beaver flew north into the country he knew so well. He was a great flyer and a great man."
Russ Baker memorial
This October 2015 blog post about Fort St. James includes 4 photos of the 2 Russ Baker memorials there.
Russ Baker memorial
This June 2016 blog post about Fort St. James includes a photo of a 1/3 scale Junkers W34 float plane, the type of plane used by Central British Columbia Airways in the late 1940s.
A brief bio by Doug Gent.
Million Dollar Valley
In January 1942 Russ Baker rescued the crews of three B-26 bombers that had made an emergency landing at this remote location.