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Review

Memories of Jack Pickup: Flying Doctor of British Columbia

April 11, 2014

Review By Bret Edwards

      

Transportation and communication technologies have played an integral role in modernizing British Columbia by reconfiguring possibilities of movement and exchange. As Cole Harris has pointed out in The Resettlement of British Columbia (1997), the province’s historical development has been one of a “struggle with distance,” in which the logic and pattern of colonial settlement, propelled by industrial technologies like the railway and telegraph, collided with local geographical realities to complicate the state’s effort to extend its gaze, underpinned by a capitalist ethos, across space and time. The modernization process was thus protracted and uneven, bringing some areas more than others within new social and economic webs of life and revealing that industrial technologies possessed impressive, but limited, means of conquering distance and reconfiguring socio-spatial relations in the early twentieth century.

Four recent historical biographies about aviation in British Columbia extend this story into the postwar era and explore the distinctive footprint left by the airplane in the province. In different ways, each highlights how air travel changed the terms of navigating British Columbia’s disparate geography, making local communities more accessible and knowable, and incorporating remote territories within wider economies. As stories about individuals and their particular relationship to aviation, these works contribute to the historiography of small-scale civil aviation and bush flying in Canada, and bring greater clarity to events in British Columbia that have thus far received less attention than other parts of the country like the Canadian North.

Mobility is a common theme across all four works, particularly with respect to how the airplane facilitated multi-scalar movement and altered local understandings of space and place. Marilyn Crosby’s Memories of Jack Pickup: Flying Doctor of British Columbia tells the story of general practitioner Jack Pickup, who taught himself how to fly to serve residents of remote northwest Vancouver Island. Pickup’s embrace of flying demonstrated a keen awareness of the challenges of practicing medicine along the coast and an understanding that modern technology could serve social ends and save lives. While the narrative is at times uneven and unfocused, straying from a discussion of Pickup’s ingenuity and involvement in flying to dwell on local community squabbles and the author’s personal connection to her subject, this is nonetheless an engaging story of a community figure which highlights the importance of aviation to rural life in postwar British Columbia.

Similarly, Brandon Lillis’s Atlin’s Anguish: Bush Pilot Theresa Bond and the Crash of Taku Air Flight 2653 examines the opportunities and pitfalls of flying in northwestern British Columbia. Lillis recounts the story of his sister, Theresa, a bush pilot in Atlin, a remote town near the British Columbia-Yukon border, who was at the helm during a plane crash in 1986 that claimed several lives. Alongside revealing the real risks — unpredictable weather patterns and dangerous take-offs and landings — of navigating the province by air, Theresa’s experience as a bush pilot and her struggles to exonerate herself after the crash offers insight into the gendered nature of bush flying, an understudied topic in the history of Canadian aviation. Because she had chosen to enter a male-dominated world, her suitability and competency for flying were measured according to a different, harsher standard, prompting her in some ways to perform as a man, wearing overalls and a ball cap until others literally thought she was a boy (85). Overall, despite functioning at times as a platform from which to confront his sister’s critics and rehabilitate her image, Lillis offers a rich, detailed narrative on the relationship between flying and individual and community identity in rural British Columbia.

Switching to the economics of air travel, Jack Schofield’s A Pilot’s Journey Log: Daryl Smith and Pacific Coastal Airlines traces the life of Daryl Smith and his involvement in civil aviation in late twentieth century British Columbia. A bush pilot and logger, Smith later founded and became president of Pacific Coastal Airlines, building it into a successful regional carrier during an era of deregulation in Canadian commercial air travel. Schofield argues that Smith’s business acumen, specifically his decision to serve both commuters and bush ventures along the coast, enabled Pacific Coastal Airlines to weather a series of challenges — particularly the threat of acquisition by a larger airline and onerous federal taxation requirements — and emerge as British Columbia’s only independent regional air carrier by the 1990s. Smith’s ability to have “a foot in both worlds” (xi), and to recognize the commercial potential of regular air service to local resource economies, helped ensure his unique position in the province’s aviation industry. A colourful account of a fascinating man complete with a multitude of beautiful photographs and funny anecdotes, A Pilot’s Journey Log will appeal to anyone seeking insight into the history of commercial air transport in the province and the changes underwent following deregulation.

But beyond offering potential profit and greater mobility, the airplane also provided the means by which the state could accumulate knowledge about territory and landscape. In Furrows in the Sky: The Adventures of Gerry Andrews, Jay Sherwood details provincial civil servant Gerry Andrews and his successful efforts to introduce aerial photography in British Columbia between the 1920s and 1960s, first as an employee of the Forest Branch and later as the province’s Surveyor General. Believing aerial surveying to be more precise and effective than ground methods for mapping terrain, Andrews initially found his position a hard sell in government because it clashed with existing ways of marking territory. In one exchange, Andrews struggled to explain the merits of aerial photography to his sceptical boss, who contended that “the only way to map the country is to get out and see it” (73). But over time, resistance to these new measures eroded and Sherwood credits Andrews, through his embrace of new technologies, with revolutionizing the provincial forestry industry and the techniques underpinning postwar state megaprojects. A well-researched effort that could have benefited from the inclusion of footnotes, Sherwood’s work should be of interest to historical geographers, historians of aviation, and those attentive to the process of state building in the twentieth century.

In different ways these four works thus point to another chapter in British Columbia’s “struggle with distance,” namely how the technology of the airplane changed the calculus of navigating and traversing the province’s geography, challenging spatial frictions, and unsettling and reshaping lived experiences. More broadly, each book offers a snapshot into the history of bush flying and civil aviation in British Columbia during the last half of the twentieth century, a welcome start for a topic that still remains largely to be written.

Memories of Jack Pickup: Flying Doctor of British Columbia
Marilyn Crosbie
Courtenay: RDM Publications, 2012. 128 pp. $18.00 paper.

Atlin’s Anguish: Bush Pilot Theresa Bond and the Crash of Taku Flight 2653
Brendan Lillis
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2012. 192 pp. $24.95 paper

A Pilot’s Journey Log: Daryl Smith and Pacific Coastal Airlines
Jack Schofield
Mayne Island: CoastDog Press, 2010. 152 pp, $34.95 cloth.

Furrows in the Sky: The Adventures of Gerry Andrews
Jay Sherwood
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2012. 240 pp, $19.95 paper.