Meet Joe Sparling of Air North

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.

This year, Air North is celebrating its 42nd anniversary and Joe Sparling, president and CEO, can look back over more than four decades of steady, measured growth. Air North Photo
This year, Air North is celebrating its 42nd anniversary and Joe Sparling, president and CEO, can look back over more than four decades of steady, measured growth. Air North Photo
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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.

Air North now operates a fleet of five jets: four Boeing 737-500s and one 737-400. Simon Blakesley Photo
Air North now operates a fleet of five jets: four Boeing 737-500s and one 737-400. Simon Blakesley Photo

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.”

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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.”

18 thoughts on “Meet Joe Sparling of Air North

  1. Happy birthday Air North. This Airline should be the Standard for its outstanding customer service, efficiency and ‘a warm home made chocolate chip cookie ‘ at the end of each flight!

  2. We are very proud to have Air North in The Yukon I’m sure all Yukoner’s feel the same We will always support you as well as your up comming family and friends
    Thank you Air North

  3. That Sparling guy what an A. Holey I never realized it was owned by Yukoners haha I know with the thousands of comments saying nice things about Joe the only way my commment would get noticed was to be the one that appeared to be negative haha.
    I always judge a man by what the old folks say about him and again not a bad word about this guy. The stories are legendary about his big good deeds.
    The most important thing he has ever done are the deeds no one but him and another know about. That’s the times when he took the time to say hi to a nobody. Or a smile in the direction of a nobody.
    All the while knowing that those nobody folks are who gave him the opportunity to be a somebody.
    He has become a modern day champion for all yukoners to admire and emulate.
    Good on you Joe
    Much love.

    1. I am so proud of our Yukon Airline Air North and the hurdles that Joe had to overcome. On one of my flights a couple from Calgary couldn’t get over the service and repeatedly said “I love Air North”. Whenever I get on an Air North flight I feel like I’ve arrived home. Looking forward to my flight in April!

  4. Congrats Joe. Even though I have been retired for many years I have followed the companies progress closely. The early years with you and Ace were interesting and fun at times. We fly with Air North every year and always pleased with the service.

  5. Joe Sparling and Air North will always No. 1 I need my books! I don’t think he ever met me personally, but I’ll never forget the time many years ago when my family had a family emergency and we had to get 2 of my children to Southern Canada like right now! I called him up ( he was at home eating breakfast) , explained our situation to him and also that we did not have the cash on hand to pay for the girls fares right that day. He told me to get the children on the next flight out, and not to be concerned about the fares for the moment. Well, he phone the office and authorized the trip for our kids; we got the kids out on the morning flight, and the folks at Air North treated the kids like gold. THey took such good care of 2 little girls who had never been on a plane before or who had never been on a trip without their parents before either. Air North made sure that the girls connected with our family in Calgary, and the same kind of service and attention was bestowed on them on their return trip. Since then I have ALWAYS tried to fly Air North whenever possible. Hats off to you Joe and all the Air North gang! You are the BEST!!!

  6. I’ve been an ‘aviator’ in the Yukon for about 25 yrs.. I’ve known Joe about that long. I’ve flown on Air North to various locations within Yukon all through the 90’s and since. Even tho I consider myself a West-jetter, that loyalty ends when I can purchase an Air North ticket to anywhere they fly. I will choose Air North over any other airline if it is an option. I encourage all Yukoner’s to do the same.

  7. In addition to flying with Air North – Yukon’s Airline, many Yukoners have also had the immense pleasure of working for Joe at some time in the aviation world. Just reading this, flooded back memories of working the DC 3 scheds to Fairbanks and charters to Ross River with Cpt’s Hobie, and Nasty. Never a dull moment!
    To Joe and staff at AN, well done, and congrats on your 42nd successful year in an industry that is not for the feint of heart.
    Happy Birthday and may you have many, many more!

  8. Joe Sparling and Air North — God Bless All of You. You all make us here and everywhere to go where we can and show the love and caring spirit to each of us. Now to bring back my mom’s China from Calgary when I fly really soon. Happy 42nd Anniversary

  9. Congratulations Joe and Air North ! The service you offer is simply the best, and has been since you started ! That’s something to be proud of !

  10. The stories of Joe’s good deeds are varied and numerous and they span many years, in this great big small town called the Yukon. I’m just so proud of our airline and the good people who make up Air North. Keep on doing you, Joe Sparling.

  11. Congratulation Joe, awesome article that gave me insights into the history of Air North. I wish you and Air North nothing but the best!
    Idea: You might want to consider recruiting US military pilots who are retiring, usually in their 40’s. A little specific airplane training and you’ll have some phenomenal pilots!

  12. The hardest working flight attendants in the business. Friendly courteous and never seen to sit down or take a break. They set the bar very high. Congratulations to all and especially Joe and Ace Woods. To many stories to remember.

  13. Words cant express the feeling of comfort and security, you feel knowing Joe Sparling (Air North).. always has your back. They will never leave you stranded, they will do anything in thier power to bring you home!
    Air North, is Joe Sparling! The very Best!
    Much Respect

  14. Your kindness and “soft” air travel are well known. That, and the cookies. I am very pleased that Air North has opened direct flights from Whitehorse to Victoria. My son moved there at about the same time.
    I also have had the pleasure of flying Air North to Ottawa, and then Porter to downtown Toronto. It’s a refreshing way to cross this country and get to Toronto.
    Thank you so much for all you do, Air North. Carolyn Moore, Atlin, BC

  15. We had the pleasure of taking Air North between Ottawa and Whitehorse. Both directions, I was blown away by the service. I guess with travelling other airlines, I had grown accustomed to what this industry has become. At the end of flight back to Ottawa, I realized that Joe’s wife was sitting behind me and just took a few minutes to congratulate her on their airline. She asked where I called home and if I new of any good restaurants they could visit that night. Turns out they were taking the entire crew out for dinner. Wow!

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