25 March 2016

Book Review - Pem-Air - The Community Airline That Did It All

  • Pem-Air - The Community Airline That Did It All
  • by Del O'Brien, Q.C. Juris D.
  • Published by Burnstown Publishing House, Burnstown, Ontario, 2015
  • 6" X 9" trade paperback
  • 158 pages, including an introduction by Bob Gould and an author's biography
  • $20.00

For 32 years, from 1970 to 2002, Pem-Air flew scheduled and charter flights from its base in Pembroke, Ontario without a death or serious injury, which is quite remarkable. Its safety record alone would put it above most other small Canadian air carriers, but Pem-Air was quite different from the typical small airline. It was a community-building project, started by local Pembroke business men with the aim of bringing economic growth to the small Ottawa Valley town.

The book's author, Del O'Brien, is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Pem-Air. O'Brien is a local Pembroke lawyer who was also the founding chairman of the Pembroke Airport Commission in 1968 and became the founding president of Pem-Air in 1970. He was there from beginning to end of Pem-Air and to some extent this history of the airline is his own personal memoir from the period. He is also a private pilot and aircraft owner and so understands the language of aviation as well as the business and legal sides.

When O'Brien opened his law practice in Pembroke in 1966, the town had no airport and no air service. With the large army base at Petawawa nearby, plus Atomic Energy of Canada Limited's Chalk River facility in Deep River, there was no shortage of need for an air service, though. Furthermore the town's attempts to attract businesses to locate there often hinged on air connections and, lacking them, businesses often located elsewhere.

To address the problem, the town first built an airport, with O'Brien leading the venture in securing Bliss Brown's small grass airstrip for development and expansion. That was followed by airline service being initiated by Royal Air of Montreal. Service started in August 1968 with a Douglas DC-3 flying Pembroke to Toronto. Royal Air later applied to the Canadian Transportation Commission to serve the town with a Fokker F-27 turboprop, but the CTC rejected the application, a turn of events the author suggests was due to Air Canada's influence, a recurring villain in this story. Royal Air suspended service and that left the town without air connections again.

AECL indicated that they really needed daily air service to Toronto to maintain their nuclear facility and staff and this encouragement moved O'Brien to start a new airline as a community project. He approached many of the town's leading citizens and sold them each $5,000 shares in the new service, to be called Pem-Air. The new airline initially operated one Beechcraft Model 18, purchased for $20,000 and started service on 1 May 1970.

After a period operating a pair of Beech 18s on scheduled runs to Toronto, plus many charters as well, the airline bought its first DC-3 for $37,000. The operation did well for a time, until the 1973 Yom Kippur War resulted in the Arab employment of the "the oil weapon" and the price of fuel skyrocketed overnight. The economy experienced a recession at the same time, resulting in reduced passenger loads. A major construction project at the Pembroke Airport to expand the space and accommodate the army's requirements for air force Lockheed C-130 Hercules support for its airborne training meant that Pem-Air had to reduce operations and fly out of the military base's small grass airstrip instead, resulting in a further loss of traffic and financial red ink.

To reduce the costs of engine overhauls on the DC-3 fleet the company bought a Beech 99 Airliner, but maintenance issues and other problems meant it was not a viable replacement. The company moved to flying Piper Navajo Chieftains and these proved a winning aircraft choice. There were several setbacks along the way, too, such as a 1983 hangar fire that might have been due to arson. The fire burned four aircraft, but the losses were completely covered by insurance and the company recovered, building a new steel hangar at Pembroke as a replacement.

Pem-Air also operated a helicopter air ambulance service for a time, starting with a Bell 47-J2 and then with a Bell 206B Jet Ranger. The service was eventually ended and O'Brien names political and ground ambulance union issues as the culprits.

In 1983 the airline accidentally inherited a flying school after the local school closed, leaving many students stranded. The school was reopened and turned into a successful operation that went on to train Royal Canadian Air Cadets and also fed newly-minted pilots into the air carrier side of the business.

The company next moved to using a Beechcraft King Air A100 and finally a British Aerospace Jetstream intended to be used on a short-lived Kitchener-Waterloo to Ottawa service, linking the two hi-tech development centres.

In the end the airline was carefully shutdown over a period of time, a victim of deregulation, falling traffic levels from its home base of Pembroke, due to improved highway links, competition from the likes of Air Canada, plus a latter-day airport management at Pembroke that seemed to think that if they pushed Pem-Air out that another carrier would pick up the city as a destination. History notes that since Pem-Air shut down, now some 14 years ago, the community has been without air service.

The author doesn't mince words when it comes to analyzing what the caused issues for the community airline, from Air Canada's monopoly status to local political shortsightedness. This makes the book an interesting read and more than the usual handshakes and backslaps often found in airline histories.

I only have a couple of criticisms of the book. The first is that it has a fair number of spelling, grammar and especially proper noun capitalization errors, that should have been caught by proper professional editing. The other is the choice of fonts. The book uses a very narrow serif font that, while in a good point size, is not as easy to read as it should be. I showed the book to a number of readers and all agreed it should have been set in a better typeface.

Other than those two minor gripes, I really enjoyed the book. It has everything a reader could want in a history of a community-owned and run airline, including details about the aircraft, the people who flew them, the business side of things and especially the perils and intrigues involved, both before and after airline deregulation occurred in Canada. While most pilots and aviation enthusiasts will find it an interesting and engaging read, it should be mandatory reading for anyone even vaguely thinking about starting up an airline.

The book is published by Burnstown Publishing House, a relatively new publisher, just started by Tim Gordon in 2015, after he sold his previous publishing business, General Store Publishing House, also of Burnstown and later Renfrew, which he had owned since 1981. The book selling business is very challenging these days and Gordon has taken an interesting tack on dealing with the diminishing returns that retailers offer publishers. He explains on his website, "with the demand for higher and higher discounts by the chain stores, we have concluded that we cannot do effective business with Chapters. We will be selling books to giftshops, bookstores, and libraries on a 50 percent-off, non-returnable basis. With this system in place, BPH will have no need for a warehouse, which will be a big help in keeping down the cost of getting a book into print." He also sells directly from his e-commerce equipped website, too. I hope Gordon succeeds in his publishing endeavour, as we have very few book publishers in Canada these days willing to print new works by new authors and not just print old back catalogue works guaranteed to keep selling. He deserves our support!

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1 comment:

Bonnie Sitter said...

I was the Travel clerk at Atomic ENergy when Royal Air and Pem Air
operated out of what was Bliss Brown's airfield.
My husband and I chartered the DC-3 and took a full load to Oshkosk one August.
We few through a hail storm on the way back to Pembroke and it sounded like we were being machine gunned.
Bonnie Sitter bonnie.sitter@gmail.com