Monday, February 09, 2009

It's been 40 years to the day since the Boeing 747 first flew. I'm not really going to talk about that, but it's as good an excuse for a post as any... :)

This Wardair 747 is a -200 series aircraft, essentially the same as the original Jumbo Jet, but modified a little to carry passengers and/or cargo.

I haven't flown as a crewmember in a 747, but I have some really fond childhood memories of spending time in them, so I'm gonna go with that. When we moved to Canada in 1977, every couple of years afterward we'd go to Ireland and England to visit friends and relatives. Luckily for us, an airline called Wardair offered direct flights from Saskatoon to London Gatwick, and so we were introduced to Wardair, arguably the finest Canadian airline ever.

Wardair was founded by Max Ward, back in 1953. He started with a single DeHavilland Otter and eventually wound up with 19 heavy airliners in 1989, focusing on exceptional customer service coupled with relatively low prices.

From a little-kid-passenger perspective, Wardair seriously rocked.

I remember having a great time aboard the absolutely spotless 747, drinking free pop and eating real food and sneaking the occasional small bottle of wine - one of Wardair's taglines was "Steak and Champagne" so you know the customer service was good and the attitude toward giving little kids booze must have been quite permissive back then, which was awesome. Sure they had free booze for the adults, but it takes a special airline to give free booze to the kids :) Now that I think about it, it's genius on their part - give the little brats a shot of hooch and they sleep the entire flight - though I'm not sure if I'd be allowed to use that technique on any kids I might have. The aforementioned steaks were freakin' great also, each one was served on Royal Dalton china with a carnation, cooked to order and big and juicy and filled with the flavor and promise of vacation days yet to come! I'm not even kidding about the part where they asked if we wanted our steaks rare, medium or well-done.

After the steaks came the separate dessert trolley - again I'm not even kidding. I remember getting a piece of black forest cake that the flight attendant cut from the main cake and served to me on a china plate. Oh, in case you are thinking we were rich or something, I'm talking about coach class, not first class. Godzilla only knows how they were treated in first class - I'm guessing hot stone massages and complimentary oil portraits.

One funny thing I remember as a sign of the times was listening to music through headphones that were literally hollow tubes that you'd plug into the armrest - if you put your ear over the noise-holes in the armrest you'd hear the music just fine, and the tubes just conducted the music back to your ears. You'd flip a lever to direct the particular sound tube from the armrest into your headphones, from a choice of about a half-dozen.

Three times I was allowed up front in the cockpit to see out the windows and ask goofy questions- the Captain would let a herd of us file through sequentially in between meal services, sometimes more than once per flight - this was 20 years before 9/11 so we weren't even tased.

It's funny how some of those memories have stayed with me. You know, every time I hear a pop can open in the background, it brings back memories of the Wardair flight attendants opening a can for me and bringing me the ENTIRE can with ice, usually with an extra bag of cookies thrown in because, you know, what the heck. Then sitting in my window seat looking out over the endless blue, the soft hum of the engines in the background reminding me that we were doing 8 miles a minute across the waters. Good times, good times.

What happened to Wardair? Kinda sad story, so I'll be brief. Basically around 1986 they attempted to go from 7 heavy jets to 45 heavy jets in 2 years. That didn't work out so well, and as a result of the scaling difficulties and crushing debt, Max Ward was forced to sell his company to PWA International, which rolled it into Canadian Airlines, which eventually merged with Air Canada. Chomp chomp.

On the bright side, Max Ward is still around, flying up north. He was reportedly the oldest Canadian jet pilot 12 years ago, and doing the math I'm guessing that's still the case. Good on ya, Max.

Oh, and the Boeing 747 celebrated its first flight 40 years ago today.


Paul Tomblin said...

Actually, Wardair didn't have first class. It was a charter only airline, and all seats were supposed to be equal.

Actually, I think the big expansion was because they wanted to do scheduled service instead of charter service.

Paul Tomblin said...

I just realize I start sentences with "Actually" too much.

Sulako said...

Heh yeah I know they didn't have first class, but I wanted to include 'hot stone massage' in my post somewhere, so I imagined a what if scenario that would let me do just that :)

Anonymous said...

I loved Wardair, My Dad, Sister and I would go to the UK to visit his family in the summers. Ahhh, Black Forrest Cake and my Dad smoking non stop in the back. Loved it.

Aviatrix said...

I've used to have a little mini suitcase from Wardair. I wonder what happened to it.

amulbunny said...

Your memories of Wardair remind me of the good old days of TWA when there was customer service and people cared. When the 1st TWA 747 came to LAX, I took a bunch of my friends with me to the hangar, armed with my dependent pass and we got a tour of the beauty from the mechanics on duty.It was something that I will never forget.
A wonderful airplane and a great remembrance. \PS - It can't be 40 years, I can't be THAT OLD!

Chris said...

Thanks for the memories. I flew Wardair from Vancouver to London a number of times and, you're right, every seat was first class. The food was great, the booze was free, the service impeccable. My wife worked as an Inflight Service Manager with 18 crew-members on Wardair for a number of years. It was a great airline in an era that seems now to have existed in another lifetime.

LemonJelly said...

At CYXE there is an almost always empty observation area on the second floor. It's so out of the way, almost no one knows it exists. On the wall are images showing the history of the Saskatoon airport, including an image of a Wardair 747. I've never actually seen a 747 in the skies over Saskatoon (Of course, I was rather young at the time). Did they fly those in to YXE, or did they use something smaller?

YYJ said...

I love your memory about the pop can opening! My brother was a Wardair flight attendant and I know exactly what you mean. Hearing that sounds takes me back as well. :)

Anonymous said...

A Fantastic Airline. My relatives always flew Wardair from Vancouver to Prestwick. I flew once with them to Vancouver and the service was superb.
Have flown Air Canada and Transat to Vancouver and there service is nowhere near what Wardair's service was.