Civilian and pioneer aircrew don’t get much of a look in here in the corridors of ABR. Well, the groaning trestle table that serves as a desk, anyway. When they do, it’s usually a former military pilot managing to gain flying work in a world swamped by eminently qualified candidates, some of whom, admittedly, never wanted, or had the chance, to fly again. An aircrew book generally only includes this period of a life in great detail if the author, having completed the most exciting part of the story, sticks with it and doesn’t condense the post-war period into a chapter or two.
Pre-war civilian flyers feature even less here. Some airlines - like Pan Am, Qantas and BOAC - kept flying in support of the war effort so those men not called up kept circulating. Like the legendary P.G. Taylor, many were brought in to the Ferry Command fold. They are more than welcome here.
That is how Pilot of Fortune came to be added to the review pile. Its author is an authority on the civilians of Ferry Command and originally wrote this biography, about the great Canadian aviator Sheldon Luck, in the early eighties when it was released as Walking on Air.
Luck was born in Ontario in 1911. His father was a reverend with a dim view of aviation. This did not deter his son who, like many boys at the time, became enamoured by these new flying machines. His education prevented a military flying career so by sheer hard graft, during a time when jobs were thin on the ground, young Sheldon earned the money that would allow him to fly. By doing any job he was offered he managed to pay for his tuition, his solo (at eighteen years old) and then subsequent commercial training.
Married by the time he was twenty, and a father shortly after, Sheldon’s first work as a commercial pilot was for a client who was prospecting for fish in the myriad lakes of the north. With a recalcitrant aircraft, an American Eagle (one of many classics to feature throughout the book), this was not a successful venture, but it led to the first of the many survival stories perhaps all of the pioneer bush pilots experienced more than once.
Looking for work from the various mining outfits in the north usually led to the same result – someone had beaten him to it. This flying entrepreneur was a man who would help shape Sheldon’s career for the best part of a decade. He was Grant McConachie, one of Canada’s airline pioneers. A man of vision, and no slouch in the cockpit himself, McConachie, as time wore on, was deskbound more and more as he kept his company running. His promises of greater pay and better aircraft in the future, if Sheldon could just hold on, were far from hollow, but they did tend to take longer than first expected. Sheldon loved the flying, he loved the people he met and carried, he loved the wild north and the respect he had for his boss was reciprocated in spades. He also liked to keep a low profile and get on with the job. It was not a volatile relationship, and Sheldon’s career benefitted from McConachie’s input more than once, but there was only so much a bush pilot could take once the success he had helped achieve made United Air Transport/Yukon Southern one of the operations that would be merged to make Canadian Pacific Air Lines.
Sheldon’s life of flying the entire UAT/YSAT fleet on wheels, floats or skis, and landing on everything from frozen rivers to sandbars, surviving terrible weather and the occasional failing aircraft, gave way to ‘polished’ airline flying. The politics were too much, however, and, with a war on, the improved conditions of Ferry Command beckoned. With his experience and survival skills, Sheldon was ideal for the role. Towards the end of the war, he was flying Consolidated Coronado flying boats with 231 Squadron. Once again, there was no shortage of adventures and misadventures.
Post-war he spent a frustrating time with CPAL and then a pioneering, but equally frustrating period with the Argentinian national airline. He then became a corporate pilot flying a Lockheed Lodestar. The 1950s is where he truly became a pilot of fortune, flying for money wherever he could find it. Supplying the DEW Line (radar stations strung across the north) construction project proved lucrative while his time farming did not. Building time in Cansos and Catalinas helped him become one of the original Flying Firefighters and you can imagine what that entailed. After close to fifty years as a commercial pilot, he let his licence lapse and, as all good legends do, lived a quiet and unassuming retirement.
This is a book full to the brim with tales of remarkable flying, the sort of tales that leave the reader buzzing. What stands out is that Luck, while living up to his surname, is completely at home in the air and a man with a lot of common sense and good judgment. The author also gives McConachie enough space to be a well understood part of Sheldon’s life. Early on, the measure of the man is laid bare when, in response to Sheldon’s second crash, he puts together a recovery program that sees our hero back in the air as soon as possible. While bearing the weight of successively burdensome corporate positions, McConachie is clearly shown to be the progressive, intelligent and insightful aviation professional that he was.
The variety of interesting characters inhabiting the wilds add wonderful colour to a life of considerable adventure, as do the many aviators. All are suitably researched and portrayed, with handy references when they return after a long absence. This commitment to detail, coupled with observation and measured assumption, reveals the veteran journalist in the author. As one of considerable merit and experience, he has a particular style and unique take on things that is at first, admittedly, a little off-putting. It is far from a bad thing, but be prepared for a quirky way with words. It works, though, as the author really knows how to spin a yarn, and makes for a rollicking good read.
Even the layout of the book, with regular headings throughout each chapter, hints at a strong newspaper background, but these often serve as signposts to the next adventure. There are, however, in this edition at least, a few sentences that seem out of place and the inclusion of weird extra words at times. Whether these are the product of the revised and expanded edition is not clear, but, if they are carried over from Walking on Air, they should not have survived the most recent round of proofreading.
A book of this nature, with its fascinating people, far flung destinations and wonderful variety of classic aircraft, would benefit greatly from a fine selection of photographs. Not counting several images of Sheldon’s logbook, which are actually quite hard to read as they are printed on the same paper stock as the text, there would not be more than fifteen photographs in the entire book. While photos specific to Sheldon and his career are probably thin on the ground - you’re not going to take a photo of a Fokker on skis when your fingers are freezing – there must surely be images representative of the conditions he flew in, the towns he visited, the people he met and so on. While a lovely glossy photo section would increase the cost of the book, at least then the images would match the vibrancy of the writing. The cover, too, might be better served with an image of a Barkley-Grow, or something of that ilk, rather than a seemingly generic DC-3/C-47 photo (it’s actually an apparently irrelevant Russian Li-2!).
The vibrancy is a little lacking right at the start as the first chapter lays out the history of UAT. If the reader is not familiar enough with the history of Canadian aviation, and, to be fair, who outside of Canada would be, it’s a bit of a slog up front. It does, however, add needed context. The same can be said for when Sheldon joins Ferry Command and when CPAL came into being. Again, it is valuable context, but at that stage of the book, the reader is deeply invested in Luck’s story and wanting to read of his next adventure.
At a little over 300 pages, Pilot of Fortune is a paperback that, for the most part, is hard to put down. Canadian bush pilots are the stuff of legend, and the aircraft they flew aren’t far behind, yet very few have ever been written about in such detail and with such candour. There is little doubt Sheldon Luck deserved such treatment, but perhaps his name just popped up at the right time. Either way, his life was one worth sharing and it is pleasing to see it done so well.