By Shirley Render
In the late 1920s and 1930s when James A. Richardson’s company Western Canada Airways (later Canadian Airways) was flying, Sioux Lookout was the largest air base in Canada and the second largest in North America! Only Chicago was larger. Flying open cockpit Fokker Universals and Fokker Super Universal aircraft on floats or skis, these early pilots flew under primitive conditions over vast difficult terrain in challenging weather conditions. During this period pilot and plane did more to open up and reveal the undeveloped wealth of northern Canada than men on foot, in canoes or in dog sleds had done in the previous centuries.
Fast forward to 2008. Today Sioux Lookout, with a population of a little more than 5300, is no longer a major hub for Canada’s aviation industry but the aviation tradition remains strong. Indeed Sioux Lookout’s airport is the 4th busiest in Ontario, providing service to many northern communities as well as southern destinations. Sioux Lookout is known locally as the “Hub of the North” and “Sunset Country” and tourism is a mainstay for six months of the year. It is understandable that flying and servicing aircraft remain an important economic denominator.
For Jason Stillwaugh, owner of Northern Airborne Maintenance, aviation is a way of life. “I’m a third generation pilot. I grew up flying,” said Jason. When Jason was in high school he and his father bought a Cessna 172 and Jason maintained it. “I always had a mechanical aptitude and knew that I’d go into that line of business, ” he said. Born and raised in Manitoulin, Ontario, Jason was fortunate to obtain the bulk of his AME training from a freelance instructor in Manitoulin and to finish off in Sudbury. Unfortunately he hit the job market when there was a down-turn in the aviation industry. “I sent out over 70 resumes. I applied as far as Yellowknife.” As it turned out, he began his career with Eagle Aviation of Sioux Lookout and stayed with them for 10 years.
“I tried to buy the company from my boss,” recalled Jason. When that did not materialize, Jason left for Bearskin Airlines. But owning his own business was his goal. “I’m a workaholic and was sick and tired of making others rich. I was always the guy taking the overtime.” In 2002, at the age of 29 Jason struck out on his own. “My wife and I had saved for a long time and I had help from a friend. We started small. We leased a hangar, my wife did the books and I worked on the aircraft.” It was tough going at the start. His wife “Naz” held onto her full-time job so they could pay the bills.
How did he choose his company name, I asked. “When I began I had no name,” he said. “I had to think about it for a few months. My philosophy was to keep airplanes airborne; they don’t make money on the ground.” Northern Airborne Maintenance was the outcome of his thinking.
Today Jason operates out of a new 90’ x 125’ hangar (built in 2007) and employs 6-9 people – four engineers and three apprentices currently.
They service an area roughly within a 500 mile radius with Armstrong and Red Lake the outermost limits. They handle everything from Norseman, Otter, Beaver to Cessna, Navajo and the Metroliner. Two-thirds of their customers operate on floats “There is no lack of customers,” said Jason. This is understandable since he works hard to provide good service and handles a broad range of customers.
When I asked Jason if expansion was in his plans he said, “Well, it depends on my day and my mood. If I have the people, I think of expanding. We could branch into the rotary world. But I’m still doing lots of over-time. Out of an 8-hour day, I spend 5 hours on paperwork and if I spend two days on the hangar floor then I know I’ll have lots of paperwork and thoughts of expansion disappear.”
Jason is licensed for aircraft structures. Aero Recip maintains their piston engines. ‘I like Aero Recip,” Jason explained. “They always stand behind their product and they‘ve never let us down. They get it: if a plane is grounded the customer can lose a lot of money.”
It was this kind of thinking that resulted in the Northern Airborne Maintenance name: keeping planes airborne keeps companies airborne. And it is this kind of thinking that carries across generations of air engineers from the times of the Sioux Lookout airbase hub, to the industry we see today.