Yellowknife (Nov 03/00) - A memorial service for Frank O'Connor, who with his brother Bob, established Aero Arctic Ltd. as the first licensed helicopter company registered in the NWT, will be held in Yellowknife Saturday.
Born Francis Angus O'Connor, Frank had been in ill health for the past year. He died Monday evening in Stanton Regional Hospital, two weeks after undergoing surgery. Fellow pilots staged a farewell flyby past his hospital window earlier in the day.
Pilots all their adult lives, the Montreal-born, O'Connor brothers had been flying in the Arctic since 1959, when Bob O'Connor joined Bradley Air Services working out of Resolute in the Arctic islands. Frank got his wings in 1959 and flew with Northward Aviation and Northwest Territorial Airways, in the NWT, Lamb Airways in Manitoba and Great Northern Airways in Whitehorse before qualifying as a helicopter pilot in 1970. They established Aero Arctic in 1969.
Several southern-based helicopter companies were operating in the North by then, but in summer months only. The O'Connors' bright red Bell 206 and Sikorsky S-55 with their galloping polar bear logos were the only helicopters permanently based North of the territorial boundary for the next four years when the oil boom began attracting other companies. Their machines, including the Sikorsky dubbed the 'Rose of the Arctic', became familiar sights from one end of the Arctic to the other.
Bob, who learned to fly helicopters with Okanagan Helicopter Services in 1960, was Aero Arctic's lone pilot, Frank was the company's engineer and Bob's wife, Bonnie, the office staff until Frank graduated from helicopter training in 1970 and became Aero Arctic's second pilot.
"More than a few people owe their lives to Frank," Bob O'Connor says. "He flew many search and rescue missions in his time, not infrequently at night and under grim weather conditions.
"Ministry of Transport regulations prohibited night flying of helicopters, but crises happen at any time of day or night. Frank used to say 'I have the option of not going out after dark but what are you going to do if someone you know is bleeding to death and you are sitting in town with the only helicopter which can reach him in time to save his life?'
"I remember him going to White Beach Point on the north arm of Great Slave Lake one night after a lamp exploded in a cabin, badly burning one man and critically injuring another. The weather was simply dreadful but he got in there and flew the injured men back to the old Stanton Hospital. Afterwards he told me that the weather was so bad he didn't think he was going to make it, but he did."
That was Frank. He was a very private, quiet guy with a sharp but dry sense of humour, but he never talked much about his work. Frank lived and breathed aviation. It wasn't unusual for him to get up from a meal to head for a window to check out passing aircraft.
He leaves behind two brothers, Bob in Yellowknife and Christopher in Florida, his mother Kathleen O'Connor in Montreal and his loving companion of many years, Pattie Beales, as well as his two sisters-in-law, Bonnie and Denise, nieces Kathleen and Colleen of Yellowknife and Lynn of Montreal, grand niece Mariah of Yellowknife and nephew Benjamin of Montreal.
A memorial service and reception are planned Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Department of National Defence Northern Region Headquarters of the armed forces at Yellowknife.
Yellowknife (Nov 17/03) - A funeral service for Bob O'Connor, 65, was held in Yellowknife on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2003.
After a courageous 14-month battle against cancer, he died peacefully at home on the evening of Oct. 20, surrounded by his family.
He and his brother Frank established Aero Arctic Ltd. as the first licensed helicopter company registered in the NWT.
Born Robert William Thomas O'Connor in Montreal, he was the second son of two Irish immigrants. His father Philip passed away when Bob was two. His mother, Kathleen, passed away last November at the age of 101.
When Bob was diagnosed with colon cancer in August 2002, he and his wife eventually headed to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, he underwent six months of treatment before heading back to Canada.
Pilots and licensed aircraft maintenance engineers all of their adult lives, the O'Connor brothers had been flying in the Arctic since 1959. That was when Bob joined Bradley Air Services, working out of Resolute Bay in the Arctic Islands.
He started working for an aviation company in Montreal when he was very young, and became involved in ferrying aircraft from Europe to Montreal. From there he went to work in many places in Canada and the Middle East. He did a lot of contract work over the years. He eventually went to work for Eastern Provincial Airlines in Newfoundland. He once said that it took him about a year to get his hat. When he did, he put it on and it just didn't feel right, so he quit the job.
He returned to contract work and headed to the Arctic Islands, where he would spend a good six months of the year living in a tent or small exploration camps for the next several years.
He loved the Arctic Islands. He would say on occasion that he was so glad to have seen the North before these recent changes. It was different then.
He eventually saved up enough money to be able to work for himself. He convinced Frank, who was out east flying in Labrador, to come North. They established Aero Arctic Helicopters in 1969.