November 13, 2020

Remembering Aviation Legend Vaughn Olmstead


Vaughn Olmstead passed away at age 89 on November 4 at home in Hawkesbury, Ontario. He was regarded as an aviation legend among his peers after one of the most storied pilot careers in the history of Canadian aviation.

(See Brian Russell’s 2018 article on Olmstead from the May 2018 issue of COPA Flight, included below or view a PDF version).

Vaughn Olmstead, 1930 – 2020.

Olmstead is as well regarded for a flying career spanning his work as bush pilot during the uranium rush to serving as a lead airline Captain as he is for decades of contributions made to the aviation industry. In 1957, he became one of the first members to help drive the growth of the Canadian Owners and Pilot Association, founded in 1952, for which he remained an active member until his passing.

Olmstead was born in Corning, New York in 1930, also spending time in Ohio, before immigrating to Canada and early on living in Belleville, Ontario, Elgin and Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, as well as Caledonia and Port Wade, Nova Scotia. He served with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for four and a half years before resigning to pursue a career in aviation.

In 1954, Olmstead moved to Blind River, Ontario, and spent two years flying as a bush pilot for Lau-Goma Airways during the exploration and mining boom of uranium. He initially flew a DH.83 Fox Moth and later Stinson Reliants, SR 9 and SR 10s and the Noorduyn Norsemen.

In 1956, Olmstead began flying for Mont Laurier Aviation and moved to Roberval, Quebec, later to Pointe Claire, and finally to Hawkesbury, Ontario. Mont Laurier Aviation became Nordair, which after many years became part of Canadian Airlines International Limited. Olmstead retired off the Boeing 767 on January 1, 1991. He had also flown the de Havilland Beaver, Canso, DC-3, DC-4, Curtis C-46, Lockheed Super Constellation, and stretch DC-8 among other aircraft – with what his family describes as a special liking for the Boeing 737.

In remembering his career, Olmstead’s family points to his adventurous career, flying gas caches with a DC-3 on skis as far north as land goes in North America for the first land survey of the Arctic islands. Several hours from any rescue teams, in -40 degree weather and without radar or GPS, Olmstead would the aircraft on sea ice, snow-covered dry riverbeds, and other unknown surfaces. He always flew the DEW-line and medical evacuation flights and took fur-traders into northern Quebec, recalls his family. In later years, Olmstead flew to Africa, the United States, the Caribbean and regularly to Europe, but his family recalls his fondest memories were always of northern flying.

The family recalls Olmstead and his good friend, and fellow pilot, Lou Goodwin making several northern trips together to teach piloting skills for northern flying and survival. Olmstead gave freely of his time to present slideshows for aviation-club meetings and to help others with their aircraft projects; teaching them from his wealth of skill and experience, in aviation, plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.

Olmstead also became an Aircraft Maintenance Engineer and with Don Power founded a company for light aircraft maintenance and restoration. He owned his Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser since 1974 and flew it last in May 2020.

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Vaughn Olmstead, An Aviation Legend
By Brian Russell (COPA Flight, May 2018)

High-time bush pilot and aviation pioneer Vaughn Olmstead gave a two-hour presentation at the march 10 meeting of the Lancaster Aero Club/COPA Flight 190. Olmstead showed slides he had taken from the time his commercial flying career began in 1954 until he moved to larger aircraft in the 1960s, allowing attendees a glimpse into the past and the early development of northern Canada.

Olmstead shared insight into the work of pilots flying in Canada’s bush and Arctic islands before the days of GPS, even before Lloran-C, Decca and other electronic navigation systems. A good directional gyro was a valued instrument back then and, in the High Arctic, an astrocompass was essential. This was a time when maps had some blank areas on them and the map-makers didn’t have the accurate information that came later. Much of the flying depicted by Olmstead was his support of the first land survey done in Canada’s arctic islands, using ski-equipped DC-3s to fly in fuel and supplies for the surveyors. Olmstead explained some of the hardships of living in the north, providing a glimpse into how bush pilots supported northern development and describing the bond that formed between northern pilots and local residents.

Olmstead started his commercial flying career after leaving the RCMP in Toronto. Heading north to Lake Lauzon with a little over 200 hours in his log book, his first assignment was piloting a ski-mounted de Havilland DH.83 Fox Moth. Over the next two years, he flew the Seabee, Stinson Reliant and Norseman. Olmstead later went to work in Quebec for Mount Laurier Aviation, which joined with Boreal Airways to form Nordair. While there, Olmstead flew yet more aircraft types, including the de Havilland Beaver and Canso. Later assignments led Olmstead to the legendary DC-3, Curtis C-46, DC-4 and the Lockheed Super Constellation, among other types.

Olmstead’s career took him throughout Ontario and northern Quebec, from the St. Lawrence River to Ellsmere island, and from Thule, Greenland in the High Arctic. Of all the different aircraft which Olmstead flew, he especially liked the Boeing 737, a workhorse for Nordair. He spent many years flying the ‘37, as he called it. In March 1987, when Nordair was taken over by Canadian Pacific Airlines, Olmstead went on to fly the Boeing 767 with Canadian Airlines International until he retired in 1990.

Without a doubt, Olmstead is one of Canada’s aviation pioneers, and is perhaps a living legend. All pilots owe people like Olmstead a debt of gratitude for their contributions to Canadian aviation. Olmstead deflects these tributes, however, pointing out that aircraft such as the Canso, DC-3 and C-46, all of which were in use in the 1930s, were the real pioneers in Canadian aviation. According to Olmstead, the many manufacturers of great bush planes are also owed a great deal for our bush-flying heritage. Olmstead continues to fly his Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser near his Hawkesbury, Ont., home.