Copyright: Claire Festel
This profile was published in Yukon, North of Ordinary Volume 2 issue 3, Fall 2008
At 3:45 p.m. on May 24, 2008, a deHavelin Bever, the North’s signature bush plane, tilted from side t side in the bush pilot’s salute as it flew over the Watson Lake Airport. A few minutes later Frank Close addressed the 200-plus people gathered to celebrate the life of Stanley Bridcut, a Yukon aviation pioneer and legendary bush pilot.
“Earlier this afternoon, Stan made his final flight to the resting place of his choice in his most favorite aircraft,” said Close. “Stan was a lot like a Beaver – he was dependable and he was always reliable.”
Stanley Bridcut was born near Valleyfield, Quebec on August 23, 1925. He left home at 16 years old to find work and made his way to the west coast of Canada. “When you’re young, you have no idea what you’re gonna do, you just go straight ahead,” he said during the interview he gave.
He tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RACF) in 1943, but was rejected because he “was too skinny”. So, he went logging on Vancouver Island to “bulk up” and was accepted on his second try in April 1944. “My first plane ride was in Portage LaPrarie, just out of Winnipeg.” That would be his only flight while in the RCAF because the Second World War ended before he finished his training as a tail gunner. That one flight sparked a passion for aviation, which turned into a lifetime of bush flying in the North.
When he was young, Bridcut wanted to see the Yukon. “When I got out of the services in 1945, they’d [RCAF] pay for wherever you wanted go…so I was able to get right up to Dawson Creek, the end of the roads [at the time] in B.C. I knew one of the fellows who worked in the grocery store and he got me a ride with Schmitt Trucking up the Alaska Highway. I went right up to Whitehorse and then back to Lower Post [B.C.].”
Over the next couple of years, Bridcut spent summers in the Yukon and winters in B.C. as he followed seasonal work: trapping, prospecting, placer mining and logging. He moved permanently to Watson Lake in the mid-‘50s. “I didn’t blow everything. You could look around and see what was happening with the rest of the people. I made up my mind I was never going to be broke.”
In 1947, he took flying lessons. “I just wanted to try it. I figured, ‘Oh, what the heck.’ And sure enough I got my private license in Langley, B.C., and then went straight over to Sea Island Airport [now Vancouver International Airport] and bought my first airplane right there.” He purchased a 65-horsepower, two-seater, Aeronca 7AC Champion with floats.
In order to fly a plane with floats, Bridcut needed an endorsement from a certified flight instructor, Before getting that, he spent an hour and a half practicing water landings and take-offs on the Fraser River. He headed north on the same day he receive his endorsement.
“The beauty of the Champ was that it could fly on any type of fuel, even automotive, but it had a small tank: only 12 gallons [45 litres].” Bridcut packed the passenger compartment and floats with extra fuel containers for the 2,000-kilometre journey. He landed often to replenish his tank. “I made it, but I had no extra fuel left when I got to Watson.”
Bridcut obtained his commercial license in 1953, and two years later he replaced the Champion with a 180 horsepower Piper Super Cub, “It was a good performer and had a good range too,” said Bridcut.
Until 1961, Bridcut worked on retainers for mining companies and flew geologists all over the territory. He even took along a drill to do some prospecting of his own. “Not too much money in it but it was interesting – always something new.” He also helped stake claims for the Cassiar Mining Corporation.
The access created by the completion of the Alaska Highway opened up the Yukon to the world economy. The Watson Lake area was booming. A growing townsite straddled the highway, and the airport was almost a town in its own right with both a community hall and curling club.
Gordon Tool, Bridcut’s lifelong friend, recalled it was during this time a number of partners founded Watson Lake Flying Service (WLFS). The core of the company was pilot Bridcut and aeronautic engineer Jimmy Close (Frank Close’s father).
Bridcut said, “It was busy all the time in Watson Lake in the ¢60s and early ¢70s. Canadian Pacific flew two flights a day with a 737, five days a week. We had six planes at our peak: a Cessna, two Beavers, an Apache, a Beech 18 and a Super Cub.”
Tool said the mining activity fueled the economy, “and also there was lot of demand from forestry for fire control and from big game outfitters.”
The boom lasted until the worldwide mining recession of the ‘80s. Bridcut and Close shut down the WLFS in 1997.
At Bridcut’s memorial, friends unveiled a polished jade monument. It is mounted at Watson Lake airport. It reads:
In loving memory of a northern bush pilot. A life well lived.