Official Commons petition launched to rename Edmonton International for legendary aviator
Bill Powell was 13 years old the first time he wrote to Max Ward after his first Wardair flight. He had just returned from his first flight to Scotland to visit his grandmother aboard a Wardair 747.
“I can tell you the aircraft I was on,” he recalled in an interview. “The original Herbie, I was on C-GXRA, I sat in 1K. And I had two windows at the front of the cabin, thank you very much, in the nose of the plane. And I mean, I remember absolutely everything about it.”
He wrote to Ward about the service, about the crew – he knew their names – and his experience.
The legendary aviator wrote back, dictating a letter thanking him for his comments and promising to share his compliments with the crew. He would write to Ward after every flight, telling him the good and the bad.
“It came with a Wardair wings pin,” he said. “And then there was this beautiful colour route map, which, for a 13 year old kid, I was over the moon.”
That correspondence helped spawn a lifelong love affair with aviation.
“My parents referred to him as my pen pal,” Powell joked.
Now, on the cusp of his 50th birthday, Powell is leading the push to rename Edmonton International Airport for Ward who died in November.
Max Ward, aviation pioneer
Ward was born in Edmonton in 1921. During the Second World War, he was a flight trainer and was posted for a time to Saint Catharines, Ontario, where Powell grew up.
After that, he went north to find his fortune as a bush pilot. He founded Wardair in Yellowknife in 1953 with a Twin Otter, flying people and supplies across the Northwest Territories.
But it wasn’t until he moved his airline to Edmonton that he started to build a nation-changing business. He launched charter flights to Europe and with the jet age, brought the first passenger Boeing to Canada.
By the early 80s, Wardair had a fleet of four Boeing 747s and three DC-10s ferrying passengers to Europe. In 1984, he started flying domestic routes with a fleet of Airbus A310, with ambitions to add McDonnell-Douglas narrow-body aircraft to the fleet.
His battles against federal regulation – which dictated where airlines could fly and what they could charge – helped lead eventually to airline deregulation in Canada. Although that change in government policy likely came too late to save Wardair. By 1989, he sold the business to Canadian Airlines International.
All the while, he kept a focus on keeping customers happy. A fact still remembered fondly by anyone – like Powell – who had the fortune to fly Wardair.
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Powell spent 20 years working with airlines. First at Canada 3000, then Canadian Airlines, Transat, and finally with Jazz and Air Canada.
Though he never got to work with Wardair, a number of former employees moved to Canadian when the airlines merged. Powell got to meet them at his Operations Centre job. And he felt a special kinship with one plane in particular.
“Whenever tail 881, the max Ward 747, would be in the hangar,” he said, “I got to go down to the hangar and I got to climb on board the airplane. And I would sit and work on the airplane. It was the closest I could come to to working for Wardair.”
When Ward died, Powell knew he had to do something.
“I thought, what a life well lived,” he said. But how to honour that life? “Knowing he had had so much recognition and accolades – and all those wonderful things from the Order of Canada on down. I started thinking about it. And I thought about the airports. And then realized that could visualize the airport in Edmonton, having been there so many times. Wouldn’t it be great naming the airport after him?”
Max Ward’s family supports the measure as a means of recognizing his role in building aviation, particularly in Edmonton and the North.
Three months of hard work have led to a House of Commons petition which went online Tuesday. Within 24 hours, the petition garnered more than 350 signatures from across Canada. The petition is well on its way to receiving the 500 signatures needed to present it in the House. It will be open for another month.
(Full disclosure, Western Aviation News has launched a change.org petition with the same goal. Unlike the Commons petition, change.org cannot compel governments to reply).
Part of a larger campaign
Powell is also working with Wardair alumni to show support within the aviation community. Transport Canada and the federal government ultimately control the naming of airports.
“Going back to that first letter I sent,” he said, “I didn’t realize in 1984, when I was a 13 year old kid writing to the CEO of this airline, that someday I would be writing a public letter or government petition, or drafting a public letter that is seeking his peers in way from aviation companies across the country, in his honour.
“My dream,” he said, “is to be standing in the concourse of Edmonton Max Ward International Airport. And for us to have an opportunity to raise a glass and there to be a ribbon cutting. And either it’s a beautiful nameplate, or there’s a beautiful image or artwork, whatever it is, to be able to recognize this great man.”
Powell still has the pin Max Ward sent him with that first letter 37 years ago. Perhaps it will be on his lapel if and when his dream comes true.
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