Yk to UK in 16 hours
The comfort of friends turned a long flight into an unforgettable experience

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Oct 11/99) - You don't hear of many transcontinental airline flights these days featuring bingo games and swinging basket stowage above the seats for babies.

Those were just a few of the perks on the first direct overseas flight out of Yellowknife. That was back in 1965, just before the arrival of all the government folk, a time when everybody knew everybody else and their business.

The main perk of the adventurous trip, then, was everyone was travelling with family and friends to swinging England, where a rock group called the Beatles was just beginning to make a name for itself.

Bargain basement airfare

The man who made the flight possible had already made a name for himself in the North. Max Ward was an accomplished pilot and owner of Wardair, which organized the charter. When Ward started the company, Wardair specialized in bush flying in the North. Under Ward's guidance, the airline would grow to be the third largest in Canada.

"My husband came home one day and said there's a flight going to London," recalled Cosimina Meraglia. "I said, 'Let's go!'"

Passenger Carolyn England recalled tickets cost about $300 apiece.

"It was awfully cheap," said England, a friend of the Wards since the '40s.

"In those days you had to belong to a club to get on a charter flight and for that trip it was the Legion. I remember a lot of people were scrambling to join the Legion, Germans, Italians, Dutch. A lot of people had family over there."

Wardair began flying overseas out of Edmonton to London four years earlier, said Ward. "Everybody wanted to go to London," he recalled.

"We flew out of Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon at the time and we decided to put a charter together for Yellowknife," said Ward, an officer of the Order of Canada.

The flight sold quickly and was booked solid. Ninety passengers, including five babies and many children, boarded the DC-6 as another winter's worth of ice on Yellowknife Bay was beginning to thaw.

Community comes out

It was a big event for the small town, and one celebrated with unabashed Northern spirit.

"Everybody and their brother was at the airport to see us all off," said England. "A friend of mine made a red, grey and brown toupee for my husband, who was bald, out of hair cuttings."

England was outfitted with a pair of audaciously long false eyelashes she could barely see through.

Barb Bromley and her late husband, Peter, did not dress up, but it's something she said that people often did when seeing people off or greeting them on arrival.

"That didn't stop in the '60s, but it was still the old-timers who did it," said Bromley. "It was a lot of fun."

Meraglia, with her late husband, Giorgio, daughter, Rosanna, and baby son, Rocco, took up a row of seats. It was their first trip back to Italy as a family.

"We went back six years later on a three-month cruise on the (luxury cruise liner) Michelangelo and that little trip was just as much fun," said Meraglia. "It was just like a big family going on holidays."

It was the family's first trip back to Italy since they became a family in Yellowknife.

As was the custom at Wardair, passengers were treated like guests in a fine hotel. Dinner was served on bone china with real silverware instead of plastic cutlery. The food was wonderful and between meals large bowls of fruit were passed around.

The only concession made to modern ways on the flight, said Bromley, were plastic wine glasses.

Ward had recruited a bevy of college girls from down south to serve as stewardesses.

"They were just the cutest things, in their navy blue skirts and pressed blouses," recalled England. "But by the time we got to London, you should have seen those girls. They were in their stocking feet and their starched blouses were wilted. They had been on their feet for 16 hours."

Party time

There weren't many slack moments during those 16 hours either.

"My husband and I and the Meraglias weren't great drinkers, but there were some there who really partied it up, so they were on the go a lot of the time," Bromley said.

"People were drinking just like it was water," said Meraglia with a laugh.

The stewardesses were helped along by some of the young passengers, among them six-year-old Rosanna Meraglia.

"My daughter didn't sit down for one minute. She was in her glory, she was so happy to help," said Meraglia, who now runs a restaurant in town named after her husband.

There was plenty of incentive to play bingo for the partying crowd. Prizes in the first rash of bingo games were 40-ounce bottles of liquor.

Winners had the privilege of sharing their prize with the rest of the passengers.

"My husband said, 'see if you can win us a bottle,'" said England. "So I played, but by the time I won they didn't have any left, so I got a Canadian flag pin."

England did not go thirsty. By the time the plane landed, the bottled bingo prizes were empty, as were the numerous supplementary bottles brought along for the ride.

Passengers were also a little worn by the end of the flight.

"We knew it was going to be a long flight, but we didn't know what 16 hours in a DC-6 was going to be like," said England.

The only break on the way was a brief refuelling stop at Sonderstrom, Greenland. Everybody got a chance to leave the plane and stretch before the final leg.

"Some of us picked up souvenir spoons," said Bromley. "I suppose it was a duty-free store because we didn't have to pay duty."

England said the five babies on the flight -- the planes were equipped with baskets for them that hung over the seats -- were behaved wonderfully during the trip.

No longer pacified

There was at least one exception that Meraglia can recall.

Little baby Rocco slept peacefully in his little hanging basket for the first part of the trip.

"The only thing that changed was I took him to the washroom and he dropped his soother in the toilet," said Meraglia. "That was a nightmare. He was so happy until that happened. After that he never stopped crying until he went to sleep."

Meraglia said the lost pacifier was her fault. She should have tied it on a string around his neck.

"But even that was fun," she recalled of the howling. "Everybody was laughing at it."

Stop or no stops, anyone who's spent 16 hours in an airplane knows it can do weird things to your body.

Though he wasn't on the flight, Wallace Finlayson said he's heard plenty of stories about it from his mother and late father, who were.

"My mother's favourite story was that after the flight she couldn't get her shoes on," said Finlayson. "She had to walk through the airport terminal in her stocking feet."

"And it wasn't exactly summertime either," added his mum, Wilma.

England remembers she and her husband sharing a cab with RCMP officer Gil Cox, who went on to head up the city's bylaw department, and another member of the force.

The four of them burst into hysterical laughter for the first few minutes of cab ride because all of the cars, including the taxi they were in, was driving on the wrong side of the road.

Separate ways

The deal was everybody would return to Gatwick Airport two weeks later for the trip back to Yellowknife. Some, like the four members of the Meraglia family on board, travelled to their home countries and communities to visit family and old friends.

England and her husband rented a car and toured England, Ireland and Scotland before spending a weekend in Paris. They budgeted well -- by the time they got back they had only a dollar between them.

For Bromley and her husband it was a time to check up on family.

"I had never been to England, but I had a lot of relatives there ... and Peter had some relatives there, so we thought it would be a good time to go visit the family tree," said Bromley.

The two worked in side trips Denmark and Norway, where they hooked up with the Madsens.

Wilma Finlayson and her husband, Doug, had no relatives in Europe, so their trip was a chance to experience the culture of the old world. After their few days in London, they travelled to Spain, where the heat helped relieve Doug's arthritis.

The toll the trip and the time-zone change had taken hit home their first night out in London.

They teamed up with Mr. and Mrs. Colthorp and their daughter, Sue, to take in a showing of The Sound of Music.

"We all slept through the whole thing," said Finlayson. "I was feeling tired, then I looked across at the others and they were all asleep, so I went to sleep too."

The arrival at Gatwick was only the end of the first leg of the Meraglia family's trip.

They stayed at a hotel that night and flew to Rome the next day. There they had a joyful reunion with family who had come to pick them up in two cars for the 12-hour drive to their hometown of Brindisi.

The tone on the return trip was subdued compared to the flight out. When the final count of passengers was taken, it was noticed that 57-year-old Giant Mine employee, Hans Schneiderling, was missing. He had spent his time visiting relatives in Germany.

He was discovered in the hotel room he had booked in London to await the return, the victim of a fatal heart attack.

As sad as it was, that tragedy has not taken away from the joyous moments of the trip that live on in the memories of those who were there.