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In the early days, Air North founders Joe Sparling and Tom Wood heated their Whitehorse hangar with a wood stove. The pair was lucky enough to find two surplus pieces of the Trans-Alaska pipeline in a scrapyard, and the 48-inch pipe was fashioned into a firebox that brought cheap and welcome heat into the hangar from a roaring exterior stove.
Founded on Feb. 1, 1977, Air North built that first 9,600-square-foot hangar in 1980. It was the company’s first big investment in non-aircraft infrastructure, and it came shortly after another big purchase–a pair of Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
The preceding three years had been filled with both opportunity and hard work for the fledgling operation, which initially offered both charters and flight training with a well-used fleet of small Cessnas, soon augmented with a Britten-Norman Islander, a DHC-2 Beaver, and a DHC-3 Otter.
“I think we worked pretty hard back then and we were resourceful, and we started at a time when the mining industry was on a bit of an upswing,” recalled Sparling, Air North’s president and CEO. “There were opportunities to serve the mining industry and lots of charter flying.”
And then–right after they built the hangar and bought the DC-3s–the bottom fell out of the Yukon economy. Fortunately, the company was flexible.
“I think we were fortunate that we could contract very easily,” said Sparling. “In the slowest of winters, it was just Tom and I.”
Sparling and Wood met in the summer of 1972, when Sparling–who was born in Edmonton and later moved to Vancouver–was working in his family’s Whitehorse hotel.
“I’d always been interested in machinery and equipment. That summer, there was an opportunity to get a PPL [private pilot licence] for $750.”
After earning his PPL, Sparling purchased a Cessna 172 to log hours toward his commercial licence. Wood was the aircraft maintenance engineer who inspected Sparling’s aircraft.
“We pitched a local charter operator to lease the airplane to him, and his comment was, ‘Why don’t you just buy me out?’ So, we made an offering of $50,000 subject to financing. We never really thought he’d accept it or that the financing would go through,” laughed Sparling. “But it did.”
And so, with Sparling taking on a flying and administration role and Wood handling aircraft maintenance, Air North was born. Gradually, the company shifted its focus toward charters and eventually the flight school division was sold.
This year, Air North is celebrating its 42nd anniversary and Sparling can look back over more than four decades of steady, measured growth. With 350 employees, including about 20 pilots, the airline now operates a fleet of five jets: four Boeing 737-500s and one 737-400. On the turboprop side, Air North flies two ATR 42-300s and two Hawker Siddeley HS 748 aircraft.
From its Whitehorse headquarters, Air North jets provide scheduled passenger service to Vancouver, Kelowna, and Victoria in B.C., Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, Yellowknife, N.W.T., and Ottawa, Ont. The airline’s turboprops fly to northern Yukon communities including Dawson City, Mayo and Old Crow, as well as Inuvik, N.W.T. All aircraft proudly bear the tagline “Yukon’s airline.”
With a land area of 474,712 square kilometres (183,287 square miles), the Yukon is sparsely populated by about 37,000 people. Many of those inhabitants live in First Nations communities that rely heavily on air travel. It was this fact that led the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) to buy Tom Wood’s share of Air North just when he wanted to sell it in 1999.
“The timing was right,” said Sparling. “They identified the airline as a strategic investment. They were investing for future generations and a lifeline to the community.”
Sparling is still the majority shareholder in the company, with the VGFN owning just under 50 per cent, and the balance held by approximately 1,500 Yukon residents who used the Yukon Small Business Investment Tax Credit program to support “their” airline.
“I completely underestimated the interest that everyday Yukoners had in their gateway air service,” admitted Sparling. “Today, about one in 15 Yukoners holds an equity stake in this airline and we have raised almost $12 million in equity capital. These are investments from ordinary people! Quite frankly, that really scared me.”
Sparling is proud that Air North has enabled more people to travel more often in the Yukon.
“When our own kids were growing up, I remember driving up and down the Alaska Highway for hockey tournaments,” he said. “Today, kids are coming and going [by air] almost every weekend to participate in sports and cultural events. We take a lot of pride in helping to broaden their horizons. It makes the Yukon a better place to live and work.”
No stranger to hard work, Sparling continues to fly the airline’s Boeing 737s, and has amassed a total of 25,000 hours of flight time. He uses these flights as a chance to connect with pilots, flight attendants and ground crew.
Air North is one of the largest private sector employers in the Yukon. In the last year and a half, Sparling said there has been some increased pilot turnover and “the talent pool seems to have dried up a bit.” He attributed this to the ongoing pilot shortage and said the airline is working with flying schools and local educational institutions to identify aviation as a viable career path for local youth.
Indeed, Sparling wants to develop Air North’s “home field advantage” as much as possible, especially in the face of competition from Air Canada and WestJet.
But while he wants to remain competitive, Sparling also said growth and expansion aren’t priorities.
“By locating our infrastructure up here, we’ve knowingly limited our growth opportunity,” he said. “But we can be successful in our own backyard. We can develop closer working relationships with mainline carriers to feed into their routes. We can look at fleet modernization as well.”
Would he do anything differently? Sparling said experience has been a good teacher and the company has learned from its mistakes.
“But slow and careful growth has been a good strategy for us, and I don’t think we’d change that at all.”