3257 Carp Road
In a few short decades, Bradley Air Services Ltd. has evolved to become Canada's foremost Arctic and remote region air carrier, operating under the trademark name--FIRST AIR. Today, First Air, The Airline of the North, is owned by Makivik Corporation, the body responsible for administering the land claim settlement of the Inuit of northern Quebec. Through a series of prudent acquisitions in recent years (Ptarmigan Airways and NWT Air), First Air has expanded its fleet, its route system, and already extensive range of air carrier capability. We are proud to say that throughout First Air's evolution and growth, Russ's legacy lives on. The First Air name is recognized around the world, more synonymous today than ever, with innovation and operational expertise for remote regions and unusual or especially taxing environments. Our service-based attitude and extensive northern experience are two of the main reasons why First Air planes and crews are a natural 'first choice,' when it comes to choosing an airline in Canada's Arctic.
Bradley Air Services Ltd. operates First Air, Canada's largest northern airline. Its scheduled passenger and cargo services link 24 northern communities, some of them very small, to Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. The fleet of 34 aircraft ranges in size from prop planes to Boeing 727 and 737 airliners. First Air uses the Boeing 727s to fly charters all over the Western Hemisphere and beyond; two of these are stationed in Copenhagen for European freight jobs. The company carries 200,000 passengers and 20 million kilograms of freight a year. Passenger traffic accounts for about half of revenues, with the remainder divided between cargo and charter sales. About 450 of the company's 1,100 employees are based in the North; it is the region's largest private sector employer as well as its lifeline. Parent company Makivik Corporation also owns a smaller airline, Air Inuit.
Russell (Russ) Bradley formed Bradley Flying School at Ottawa International Airport in 1946. It began as a one-man operation. The first plane used was the Super Cub, a very small, simple, and forgiving airplane. Bradley moved to Carp Airport on the outskirts of Ottawa in 1950.
In 1954, Bradley began flying charter and survey missions to support construction of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line of radar installations in the Northwest Territories. This work occupied four Cessna 180 aircraft. Even smaller planes, Piper Super Cubs, were used to support the Geological Survey of Canada in 1958. These planes were outfitted with special balloonlike, low-pressure tundra tires developed by Russ Bradley and his partner, Weldy Phipps.
The charter business continued to expand in the next ten years. Larger aircraft types, such as the de Havilland Beaver and Otter, were brought in. The Canadian government's long-running Polar Continental Shelf Project began in 1968 and was still producing a demand for air support more than 30 years later.
Flying in the arctic meant dealing with unusual and extreme conditions, noted the Wall Street Journal. The cold was world-class, often reaching 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Darkness extended throughout most of the day during the winter. Wildlife like arctic hares sometimes occupied the runways. Sunspots could disrupt radio communications and the North Pole skews magnetic compass readings. The possibility of being stranded for days in winter storms prompts crews to carry tents on every flight.
Frozen Firsts in the 1970s
John G. Jamieson acquired Bradley Air Services in 1970 after the death of its founder. Jamieson subsequently served as president of the airline.
In 1971, Bradley opened the world's northernmost commercial air service base at Eureka, Ellesmere Island, only 600 miles from the North Pole. De Havilland's Twin Otter was added to the fleet in the same year, and in 1972 two DC-3s were acquired.
In 1973, a new base at Resolute Bay in the Northwest Territories became Bradley's major staging point for High Arctic charters. The trade name "First Air" was introduced in 1973 as the company began scheduled services between Ottawa and North Bay using a single eight-passenger plane. Bradley began the first commercial air operation on Antarctica in 1974, using a Twin Otter to fly in support of the U.S. Navy's Ross Ice Shelf Project. Bradley opened two more bases in the Northwest Territory. A base at Iqaluit opened in December 1975, followed by another one at Hall Beach in June 1978.
Jets in the 1980s
Revenues were about C$20 million in 1985. First Air acquired a Boeing 727 in 1986, allowing it to introduce chartered and scheduled jet operations to the North and throughout the Western Hemisphere. This plane was capable of carrying a variety of configurations of cargo and passengers. A newer model 727 was acquired in 1993; within a few years, the company was flying half a dozen 727s in all.
Also in 1986, First Air began operating a single, specially equipped Dash 7 aircraft on ice patrols for the government. In the late 1980s, First Air began acquiring Hawker Siddeley 748 aircraft, a turboprop-powered type that could carry 44 passengers. It would build up a fleet of eight of these over the next decade.
Inuit Ownership in 1990
Bradley was growing quickly, but debt made it seek out a partner for a capital infusion. The company was acquired by Makivik Corporation in 1990 for C$13 million. This was the corporate entity created to receive and invest more than C$100 million compensation funds for the Inuit of Northern Quebec from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement signed in 1975.
Makivik already owned Air Inuit; the combined operation had a fleet of 20 aircraft and more than 650 employees. Bradley was the largest independent regional airline in Canada, and its scheduled network connected 23 points in Canada, the United States, and Greenland. Revenues reached C$100 million in 1990, when First Air was carrying 23,000 metric tons of freight a year.
The airline scaled back scheduled services to Montreal and Boston in the early 1990s due to competition and a slow economy. The grounding of Nationair Canada diverted an additional thousand passengers a week to First Air's charter flights. In a striking change of scenery, in 1994 First Air dedicated one of its Twin Otters and crew to another airline in the Caribbean, flying between the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Growth by Acquisition in 1995 and 1997
First Air acquired Yellowknife-based Ptarmigan Airways Ltd. in 1995. Ptarmigan had been serving the western part of the Northwest Territories since the mid-1960s. It, too, operated a range of aircraft types, from the Cessna 185 to the Gulfstream 1 business jet.
First Air acquired NWT Air in June 1997, adding two Boeing 737s and one Hercules freighter to its fleet. NWT had been active in the North since the 1960s and had a more westerly orientation, with bases in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Edmonton, Alberta. It had been bought out by Air Canada in October 1989. A marketing agreement provided Air Canada with access to NWT's feeder traffic after the sale.
Bob Davis became First Air president in 1998 after joining the company as a mechanic and rising through the ranks. Revenues were about C$165 million ($113 million) for 1998. During the year, First Air signed a code-sharing alliance with Air Canada.
A new Canadian territory, Nunavut, was fashioned from the Northwest Territories in 1999. It had a population of only 25,000 spread across one-fifth of Canada's land mass. Air transportation was central to the region's trade, and landing fees were heavily subsidized by the Canadian government. Adding to the expense, many of First Air flights were empty on the return trip.
Another Inuit-controlled airline, Air NorTerra Inc., was expanding its Northwest Territories services to compete directly with First Air on the Ottawa-to-Iqaluit corridor. NorTerra's service, launched in cooperation with Canadian Airlines, was marketed under the Canadian North name.
First Air was cooperating with tourism boards to promote Nunavut as a leisure destination. Activities such as hiking and kayaking, however, were mostly limited to the summer.
2001 and Beyond
In 2001, First Air began to replace its fleet of aging Hawker Siddeley 748s with 40-passenger ATR 42 turboprop aircraft. Lower aircraft prices in the wake of the September 11 attacks allowed First Air to accelerate its fleet replacement. The company used mid-sized Boeing 737 jet airliners to launch Yellowknife-Vancouver service.
Although First Air's business was not affected by post-9/11 events to the same extent as other airlines, the company had started to diversify in order to weather an economy that had already been slowing. It had based a pair of Boeing 727s in Copenhagen for European cargo charters and was performing maintenance for other airlines.
Planning for the worst--reducing debt and cutting spending--helped First Air avoid the bankruptcy threats that faced other airlines in 2002, wrote the Ottawa Citizen. The National Post named it one of Canada's 50 best-managed companies.
Principal Competitors: Air NorTerra Inc. (Canadian North).