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Transportation History

The Accidental Airline

Spilsbury's QCA

by (author) Howard White & Jim Spilsbury

Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.
Initial publish date
Jan 1994
History, Radio, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 1994
    List Price

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His books with Howard White made a bestselling author out of Jim Spilsbury - the BC coast's legendary pioneer, painter, photographer, aviator, inventor and raconteur. Now all three volumes of the Spilsbury saga are available in trade paperback!

Jim Spilsbury bought an airplane in 1943, when wartime restrictions prevented the use of his boat to visit the upcoast camps and settlements where he repaired radios. From this innocent beginning grew Queen Charlotte Airlines, and when he sold the business to Pacific Western Airlines twelve years later, it was the third largest airline in Canada.

This is the history of the accidental airline and those incredible years of flying, growing, and scrambling. There's the trip from Vancouver to the Queen Charlottes and back that took eleven days and three airplanes; the Waco covered with lamp-black, inside and out; the fatally jinxed Stranraer; and the twelve-gallon ice cream sundae in the muskeg. There are tales of mercy flights, tragic crashes, and miraculous rescues and escapes, and many entertaining details of the luck, business skill, and hard work needed to keep an airline aloft.

Affectionately known as "Queer Collection of Aircraft" by the loggers, pregnant homesteaders and touring 1950's movie stars who rode its ungainly "Flying Boxcars" through rain and fog, QCA beat out the competition to reign for one glorious decade as the queen of the booming post-war coast. There's never been an airline quite like the QCA and there's never been a flying story quite like The Accidental Airline.

About the authors

Howard White was born in 1945 in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He was raised in a series of camps and settlements on the BC coast and never got over it. He is still to be found stuck barnacle-like to the shore at Pender Harbour, BC. He started Raincoast Chronicles and Harbour Publishing in the early 1970s and his own books include A Hard Man to Beat (bio), The Men There Were Then (poems), Spilsbury's Coast (bio), The Accidental Airline (bio), Patrick and the Backhoe (childrens`), Writing in the Rain (anthology) and The Sunshine Coast (travel). He was awarded the Canadian Historical Association's Career Award for Regional History in 1989. In 2000, he completed a ten-year project, The Encyclopedia of British Columbia. He has been awarded the Order of BC, the Canadian Historical Association's Career Award for Regional History, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, the Jim Douglas Publisher of the Year Award and a Honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree from the University of Victoria. In 2007, White was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He has twice been runner-up in the Whisky Slough Putty Man Triathlon.

Howard White's profile page

Jim Spilsbury was born in Findern, Derbyshire but came to the BC coast in his infancy and remained there all his life. He began manufacturing small radios in the 1920s and in 1941 founded Spilsbury and Hepburn Ltd, later Spilsbury and Tindall Ltd., one of Canada's best known radio-telephone manufacturers. In 1943, Spilsbury founded Queen Charlotte Airlines which merged with Pacific Western Airlines in 1955. He also authored several books including Spilsbury's Album, and The Accidental Airline.

Jim Spilsbury's profile page


  • Short-listed, Roderick Haig-Brown Regional BC Book Prize

Excerpt: The Accidental Airline: Spilsbury's QCA (by (author) Howard White & Jim Spilsbury)

One time QCA received a charter for Garibaldi Park. Three young hikers wanted to be taken into Garibaldi Lake with their packs and supplies. The weather report was marginal but Johnny Hatch decided he would try making the flight himself. All went well until he turned out of the valley and headed up toward the end of the lake. The end of the valley is blocked by an eight-hundred-foot-high lava 'dyke' that forms the lake, and he had to fly up over the barrier to land on the water.

Just as Johnny was approaching the barrier, a violent downdraft of cold glacial air hit the aircraft and caused it to lose several hundred feet of altitude. Since it was impossible to clear the barrier, Johnny took the only course left to him. He chopped the throttle, shut off the ignition, and aimed straight for two medium-sized, springy-looking fir trees. The aircraft, now at stall speed, struck the trees forty-five feet above ground, pushed them over to a forty-five degree angle, then slid down the trunks like an elevator and made a reasonably soft landing.

Quite a few things happened to the aircraft during the process. Both wings sheared off. The pontoons doubled back under the fuselage like pretzels and the engine came off its mount. Gasoline was everywhere. When the broken branches and glass and bits of aircraft stopped falling, Johnny looked around to see how his passengers made out. Before he could think what to say, one of them turned from the window and exclaimed, "Oh, isn't this absolutely bee-yootiful!" None of them had ever been in an aircraft before and they had nothing with which to compare this uncommon performance. They seemed to assume that this was just the normal way you landed your floatplane on a mountain.

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