Frank Flegel -- "a pilot of all trades"

"A pilot of all trades" -- Frank FlegelOct 29, '07 11:58 PM
by groome1919 for everyone


The following is an edited version of Frank Flegel's Sept. 14, 200, remarks to the Roland Groome chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

I remember the first time I was aware of an airplane.

It was just prior to the Second World War. My dad, sitting on the front porch watched somebody, in what I now know was a Tiger Moth, practise spins over the east side of the city.

My dad told me it was a greenhorn and I had a picture in my mind of some odd being coloured green because it couldn’t fly the airplane.

I had no concept that someone was actually inside that thing spiraling down.

I also recall a war bond drive that featured a Mosquito bomber buzzing the city.

That was exciting because the plane was so low you could almost make out

the pilot. Unfortunately, he got a little too low in Calgary and crashed.

(I had an opportunity to peek inside a Mosquito when I was working at the Regina Flying Club; either the city or the province contracted an outfit to do some aerial mapping. The pilot must have been a World War II Mosquito driver because every time he returned from a flight, he would shoot up the airport. I peeked inside when it was parked outside the club hangar and was surprised at how compact it was -- and how obvious was its plywood construction. Try as I might, though, he wouldn’t take me up in the thing.)

My first airplane ride was with Freddie Weimer, who operated a service station at Kronau. My sister and her family lived there and I visited quite often.

Freddie flew a Piper Family Cruiser, a three-place job, pilot in front, two passengers squeezed in the back. My nephew and I (both adolescents) barely fit in that seat together, which gives you some idea of its size.

He took off on a country road allowance behind his shop and we flew over Balgonie to see the damage a tornado caused the night before.

I was enthralled! I was hooked! I had to learn to fly!

We landed on that road after chasing off a truck that was coming into town.

Taking off and landing on that road allowance was a portend of things to come.


My next association was with aviation legend Leo McKenna.

He operated Canadian Aircraft in No. 3 hangar at the Regina airport.

It was the largest hangar, double the size of the other two, with all sorts of interesting stuff.

It was in 1950; I had just come out of Grade 10 and responded to an ad for field markers.

I didn’t know what that was -- but it was somehow associated with airplanes, so I applied and was accepted.

Well, much to my delight, it was standing on the edge of a field, waving a huge white flag, and watching the airplane aim for me.

We were supposed to move off, count 20 paces (60 feet), the width of a swath, as soon as we were sure the pilot saw us.

But once in a while, just for the hell of it, I’d wait until the thing was just about on top of me and drop to the ground as he roared overhead, usually drenching me in spray. Man, I used to stink when I came home.

The chemicals used then are all banned now: DDT, Aldrin, Dieldrin and the superpowerful Endrin. I didn’t have much to do with Leo and really didn’t find out much about him.

I know he was a go-getter and among the first to get in the aerial spray business.

And he was, with others I’ll briefly mention later, an aviation pioneer in Saskatchewan. He had a satellite operation out of the old Weyburn airport.

The year I worked as a marker brought me in touch with another legend, Ernie Duggans.

He was a daring pilot, I thought. And looking back, he was much more daring than I thought.

The spray plane was an old J-3 cub with a 65-horsepower engine -- obviously underpowered for that kind of job.

One time I happened to be at the chemical truck and noticed that what I recognized as the airspeed indicator had been smashed. He told me that when he pulled up over the wires, the needle just about went to zero and it scared the hell out of him -- so he smashed it with his fist and didn’t worry about it any more.

That same year, Campion College regained the air cadet squadron, No. 25, that it had during the war. I joined and, through the cadets, received my private pilot’s licence in 1952, went to summer camp, won an overseas exchange visit to England, Scotland and Holland in 1953, eventually became a cadet instructor and remained with it for the full nine years that 25 (Campion) Squadron was in operation.

What a tremendous experience! Jim Fyles was our commanding officer/squadron leader, Flight Lieutenant Ken Mitchell was the nav. instructor for the cadets and Jim Myles was drill instructor.

Fyles was the whistler. Didn’t matter where he was or what he was doing, he was always whistling.

Myles was the tough drill instructor. We won several awards under his tutelage, including one for something called "monkey drill". Our drill team, once we fell in, did everything from memory and by the numbers.

There were no commands; just the sound of marching feet. It was fun and quite a challenge. I’ve always marveled that with my terrible memory we never screwed up a performance -- and I was the main marker for the team!

Myles told a couple of wartime stories that I’ve never forgotten.

He was an air force warrant officer in charge of discipline at some station. One guy came back from a training mission with hay stuck in the undercarriage and was charged with low flying and buzzing his girlfriend's farm house.

He denied the low flying and insisted he had remained at 1,000 feet.

But he admitted there was hay stuck in his undercarriage and that he had hit a haystack.

When asked how high was this stack, he replied, "One thousand feet, sir!"

The other story is also a low-flying story.

A farmer complained that yellow-coloured, really noisy planes were flying too low over his farm and scaring his livestock. He was asked to describe the plane and any identifying marks.

He couldn’t remember anything under the wings, but he got a glimpse long enough to read under the tail, two words: "LIFE HERE".

Now, those words were about an inch or two high...

Sorry, I digress.


The air cadets were the beginning of my flying career. My private license in hand, I went for my commercial, eventually got a job, first with Prairie Flying Service, then the Regina Flying Club, then Prairie Flying again to start a flight training school.

My instructor for my private licence was Fred Nagel, the club manager and CFI. To me, he was a dashing individual, the personification of a fighter pilot; slim, with a little mustache and quick movements when he walked.

I was a little disappointed when I learned later than he was never a fighter pilot, but had spent most of the war as a flight instructor.

He was an intense man as I recall, but not without humour -- and one helluva good instructor, as far as I was concerned.

He was the club manager and CFI from shortly after the war to about the mid-1970s, I think. He left and went east not long after his son Michael died in a Montana plane crash, to work for an aircraft parts supplier. He didn’t stay long and returned, I think, in a couple of years and again became manager of the Regina Flying Club. He was only there for a short period, then left or retired.

There were about 20 of us on course that July 1952. We used eight aircraft: two Tiger Moths, CF-CLV and 'CLW, two Fleet Canucks, 'DYP AND 'BYW, a couple of Cessna 120s, 'EZL and 'GRB, a "rag-wing" Cessna 140 on lease, 'EHA, and one aircraft on loan from Prince Albert, but I can’t remember for the life of me what it was.

I desperately wanted to be on the Tiger Moth. They were so romantic: real World War II trainers (at least at the beginning of the war) and throwbacks to the romantic age of aviation. And they were aerobatic. I learned later that you didn’t throw them around any more because they might fall apart on you!

But no, I was put on a Fleet Canuck, old 'DYP. No radio (the tower communicated with an Aldis lamp) and a non-sensitive altimeter. Basically needle, ball and airspeed. The seat was a wooden bench covered with a thin, sponge-filled cushion.

After a rough day, the sorest thing on our bodies was our butt. A private licence required 30 hours, broken down as 12 hours minimum dual and 18 hours minimum solo. Most completed the course with no more than 32 hours.

The club got paid for 30 hours, so it was rare when we flew more. But we learned to fly. We soloed at an average of seven hours.

Nagel was the only full-time instructor, but several others worked part-time; George Whittet, Bob McKnight, Jack Clake, Morris Sims (we used to call him "Red") and Norm Street. Norm eventually became airport manager at Regina and was later transferred to Vancouver. Clake and Sims have Alzheimer’s and are in Santa Maria nursing home, McKnight, Nagel and Whittet are dead and so, I think, is Street, although I don’t know for sure. Red was always laughing about something or other.

They were all good guys, but the "card" was George Whittet.

His day job was as a railroad switchman, but his heart was obviously in the air.

He taught on the Tiger Moths and one of the first things he told his students was to never bail out of the aircraft.

The Moth had steel bucket seats and you had to wear a parachute pack that acted as a cushion, but it wasn’t a parachute.

It had all the accouterments and was made up like a 'chute.

There was a ripcord attached to the back of the pack and it looked like a real 'chute.

But it was filled with blankets. Whittet said he was never concerned because he always wore his "spring shoes and light fall coat and wouldn’t get hurt!"

Corny, I know but it made us laugh or groan.


All were ex-air force guys and all were instructors.

The air force wanted to keep a pool of experienced pilots around. The Korean war had just ended and the Cold War was in full bloom and I guess the air force felt it needed some guys around who could be quickly called up in case another war broke out.

So they supplied some flying clubs with a nifty little aircraft called a Chipmunk. It had an inverted in-line engine that leaked a lot of oil, in-line seating and was fully aerobatic. The old air force guys were required to fly a certain number of hours a month in order to keep their ratings.

It didn’t take much persuading for them to fly. It was a fun machine to play with.

George took me up one day and taught me some aerobatics. We did rolls, loops, half-loops, inverted flight for as long as the engine stayed alive. It wasn’t equipped with a carburetor that kept the engine fed, so after a few seconds it would sputter and die. The sputtering came when you flipped it back. Snap rolls, Immelman turns. I had a ball.

Only certain people were allowed to fly in the Chipmunk and I was one

of them. I was an instructor at the club and I guess George figured that had to count for something.

Whittet was also one of my instructors when I took my commercial license. I remember one flight, in the winter: we took off in a rag-wing 140. As soon as we were airborne, I put on the orange goggles and with the blue screens on all the windows, everything was black. (Or was that orange screens and blue goggles?)

In any case, you couldn’t see a thing outside; just the interior of the aircraft was visible. We took off on runway 30, and climbed out.

He told me to keep climbing and after about 20 minutes or a half-hour the thing wouldn’t go any higher. It just hung there at around 12 or 13 thousand feet. On that day, that was its absolute ceiling.

We were over the Qu’Appelle Valley and George told me to take off the goggles and look around.

There was high cloud above us, but it was one of those winter days when the air was clear and you could see forever. He pointed out the elbow of the South Saskatchewan River about 60 or 70 miles west of us. I had never been that high before and I felt a little lightheaded.

Whether it was the lack of oxygen or if I was a little nervous being that high, I was never sure.

The airplane felt like it would fall out of the sky at any moment.

The engine was at full throttle, in climbing mode, the nose was up, but it hung there like a kite.

I put the goggles back on, turned around, put it into a glide, located the low-frequency beam and flew back to the airport.

When George told me to remove the goggles, I was at about a thousand feet, a mile back and almost directly in line with the runway.

I was never able to do that again.


A few months after I received my commercial, I was offered a job with Prairie Flying. $120 a month and a buck per flying hour.

I was working for the provincial government at the time and part-time at night, delivering fish and chips for the old Dutch Mill. With my part-time earnings, I was doing close to $200 a month.

They said I would fly about 50 hours a month. So I said okay, pay me $170 a month and a buck an hour over 50 hours. They agreed and I took the job. I made a good deal because except for one month in the years I worked for them, I never came close to 50 hours. I had worked for them the previous summer driving the chemical truck during spray season, which coincided with my holidays, so they knew me and knew I was just finishing up my commercial.

Pat Watson, John Howe, Bob McKnight and Art Davis had started Prairie Flying after they all got out of the air force. Howe, McKnight and Davis were pilots, Watson was groundcrew. He also ran the office and the other guys did the flying.

Just before I arrived in January 1956, Watson and Howe bought out the other two.

Davis flew for air ambulance for quite a few years, first out of Regina, then headed up the Saskatoon operation.

I don’t know about Davis, but McKnight and Watson are dead. An aneurysm took Watson, and McKnight bought it when his aircraft, an Aztec I think, ploughed into a field just west of Moose Jaw on a return flight from Swift Current, I believe.

Those first two years with Prairie Flying were a real joy. We did powerline patrols up and down the centre of the province from the U.S.. border to where the lines stopped just north of Prince Albert. We flew charters and, of course, we crop-sprayed.

Now there’s a gig that’s loads of fun. You can get away with breaking every rule in the book. I noticed in recent stories that today’s spray planes stay a couple of meters above the crop. Perhaps the modern machines are more capable of delivering the spray to the crop, but we flew a foot to 18 inches off the crop.

My machine was an Aeronca chief: two-place in-line seating that you were supposed to fly from the rear seat.

We never did, of course, because you couldn’t see anything from back there. It had a 90-95 horsepower engine and besides the spray equipment, special harness and helmet, the only modification was a fine-pitch prop that gave a quicker response when you shoved the throttle forward at the end of a field.

My first spray experience was in the Glentworth area, just north of what is now the east section of Grasslands National Park. In fact, I think we sprayed some land that is now within the park.

The Howe ranch, where John Howe grew up, was there and, of course, that was why we were there. It is rough country, hilly but at that time very few power lines.

It was a great initiation.

Howe cracked the landing gear on his machine, another Aeronca chief, when he landed in a field he thought he knew in order to get a drink of water from an old well. We had to fly back to Regina to get it welded.

My plane, 'FMZ, had a 30-gallon tank wired into metal cage and bolted to the floor in place of the seat. Howe’s machine, 'HDW, had a seat tank that held 45 gallons. When loaded, it flew like a pregnant duck.

'FMZ, on the other hand, handled like it had no load at all.

Besides the broken landing gear, the only other incident down there was when I ran out of gas coming up a hill.

The gas gauge was broken and we had to guess how much gas was in the nose tank. You never carried much more than was absolutely necessary; otherwise it would detract from its performance.

I was lucky because right beside me was a pasture. When my engine quit, I just pulled up, turned to the pasture and landed with little trouble.

Howe was on a nearby field and flew over to see why I went down. I signaled "gas", he brought me a jerrycan full and we continued.

When we finished down there, I filled the nose and wing tank, which should have given me enough to get back to Regina. But I ran into a wicked headwind and knew I wasn’t going to make it.

I was near St. Victor and noticed a gas station on the east side of Main Street. So I landed on the road leading into town, filled up with bronze, and sputtered my way back to Regina. It would run on bronze, but it didn’t like it.

We did more jobs along the Soo Line that year -- and I particularly remember when I was down on a railroad track spraying weeds.

About 6 a.m., I’m cruising along, mindful of telegraph poles, railway signs and that sort of thing when I notice, out of the corner of my eye, something gaining on me.

I did a quick take and saw a red Cadillac passing me on the highway!

I looked at my airspeed indicator and I was doing about 95.

In August of that year, we went north of the Qu’Appelle Valley to spray for worms, bertha army worms mostly.

Around Middle Lake, near Humboldt, Bill Tonita and I took out most of the phone lines in the area.

It was bushy and the poles were often hidden in the bush. But once in a while, the end of a field would be clear and you’d fly through the clearing, which sometimes had a thin telephone line running through it. You broke those with little trouble, but power lines were another matter, as I learned four years later.


June 30 1960: We were up early as usual, finished a field near Weyburn and flew to an area around Lang.

It was a great day: high overcast, very little wind, an ideal day for spraying, so we worked all day.

Usually, it got too rough in late morning and we quit until late in the afternoon, so you got a little rest in between, usually sleeping under the wing or, if we were close to town, going to your hotel room.

I came over top of the farmhouse and down on the field, which had a single-phase powerline running out diagonally. Normally, they were flush with the field.

This was about 7 p.m. I’d been flying all day, and had only half a ham sandwich and a bottle of 7-Up for food.

We didn’t want to waste a good day and we had a lot of work ahead of us.

I passed the end of the field, avoided the power pole off to the right and forgot the line ran diagonally to my left.

I lifted the wing for a right turn and it caught the line about two feet in from the edge.

I did a spectacular Immelman and nosed into the deck.

Old 'FMZ was a write-off, my nose was smashed to nothing, my steel helmet had a 2 1/4-inch gash and I had two broken vertebrae in my lower back.

I got out of the aircraft almost before it stopped bouncing, called the hangar and Len Surdu came and got me in a Cessna 150.

I spent 10 days in hospital and another six weeks in a body cast.

Didn’t get any more spraying in that year.

The next year, we had a terrible drought and there was little spray work. The year after that, I left aviation.

I first went to the flying club in April 1957 and spent close to two years there.

I enjoyed instructing, but I really missed spraying and the fun things like powerline patrolling or charter flying.

I did a couple of freelance spray gigs that summer and the next year, flying a Cessna 170 with wing tanks mounted on it that looked like bombs. It flew like a tank.

It was fun, but it was heavy flying.


In the winter of 1958, I think, the phone rang early one morning, about four or five.

Fred Nagel said, "You’d better get out here! Leo’s hangar is on fire and yours (Prairie Flying) may be next!"

I was living on the 2200 block Wascana Street, looked out the window and could see the flames shooting above the houses across the street. I remember saying, "Geez, you’re not kidding!"

I got dressed and rushed to the airport. Howe, Watson and Albert Maurice, our engineer, were already there, the doors were open and a couple of aircraft were already out of the hangar.

We had a Cessna 180 with one wheel off, sitting on a jack. Howe began shoving it and Maurice yelled to stop. If it fell off the jack, we’d have had a tough time lifting on to a dolly.

Maurice got a dolly beside the jack just as Howe shoved if off and the leg landed on the dolly.

We managed to get all our aircraft -- about a dozen or so, I remember -- out of the hangar. We were lucky.

The flames stayed away, but Canadian Aircraft and all the airplanes were no more.

We saw Leo sitting in his car on the apron after the hangar was gone and talked briefly with him.

He said he had no insurance.

I don’t know how he did it, but shortly after, the new hangar -- the one that’s there now -- was up, new airplanes were there and Leo was back in business.


Aviation gave me the opportunity to be on site for two historic occasions.

I took a crew of bosses out to what became the Gardiner Dam and Diefenbaker Lake the day they inaugurated the project.

I watched from the hill as the earthmovers, at a signal, moved down the hill and began moving the dirt.

I took some power company executives to the site of the Squaw Rapids dam north of Nipawin, now called the E. Bruce Campbell Dam, and watched as that project got under way.

I also met the people who developed aviation in this province.

Besides the guys I’ve already mentioned, there was Harold Mitchison in Saskatoon, Al Smith in Swift Current, Austin Ingham in Yorkton, Don Walz in Moose Jaw, Nicholson in Estevan. Unfortunately, I forget the names of the guys in Prince Albert. They all struggled to get things going and Saskatchewan aviation owes a lot of its early postwar growth to these people.

My dream was to fly the airlines. But it was the wrong time.

The Distant Early Warning Line, was just finishing construction and reams of pilots with all sorts of good time were coming out of the bush and the airlines were snapping them up.

They weren’t interested in a guy whose time mostly consisted of spraying, charter, power line patrols and instruction.

It looked like my flying future would be as an inspector with the Department of Transport.

That did not appeal to me.

So in February 1962, I left aviation and after a nine-month stint in life insurance, began a 28-year career in broadcasting that was almost as much fun as flying!