SHIRLEE: Aviation Author
The Peace River country has long been a magnet for explorers, adventurers, and those seeking freedom to follow their individual paths. My first visit to the Town of Peace River, my husband’s birthplace, kick-started my instant love affair with the Peace country’s geography, its people and their positive attitudes. And so it was my great pleasure in the 1960s to come to live in Hudson’s Hope, BC, 300 miles upstream from the Town of Peace River. There, I met people who had grabbed and held on to their dreams. Mine was to be a writer, and this dream was immediately encouraged: I was forthwith appointed to write everything from birthday poems to obituaries.
When I first met pilot Jimmy “Midnight” Anderson, who regularly flew a Piper Super Cub to Hudson’s Hope from his home base at Mile 147 on the Alaska Highway, I knew he would make an excellent subject for a short story. The result, titled “The Wolves and the Heathens,” turned out to contain more truth than fiction, and was published in several magazines and anthologies, and dramatized over CBC radio.
We moved back to Calgary in 1983, where an influential writer and friend suggested that I seek out several aviation stories and present the idea for a collection to a publisher. The fact that I knew nothing about aviation at the time was considered a minor problem: I was a published writer and a meticulous researcher, who by this time had published a biography of an Oblate mission priest (Youngblood of the Peace) and an award-winning book on hydro-electric dams co-authored with a local resident Earl K. Pollon (This Was Our Valley).
To augment my research for the aviation collection, I contacted Jacek Malec, then the curator of the Aero Space Museum of Calgary, seeking access to books and documents on various aviation personnel and events. Jacek immediately provided me with not only secondary research materials but, more importantly, introduced me to a man who became instrumental in opening doors that enabled me to discover the historical, inner sanctum, of aviation events and personnel in Calgary. Bill Watts, then in his 80s, had been Manager of the Calgary International Airport for twenty-two years, and, on retiring, had founded the Aero Space Museum.
Through Bill I met and interviewed Phil Lucas, Joe Irwin, Roy Staniland and others, and in 1994 my first collection of aviation stories, Flying the Frontiers: A Half-Million Hours of Aviation Adventures, was launched – appropriately enough at the Aero Space Museum.
This led to my offer to volunteer at the museum, and in 1997 I was hired on staff as Administrative Officer. How wonderful to be surrounded every day by interesting aviation people and vintage aircraft! My first volume of aviation stories was followed by two more in the Flying the Frontiers series: Vol. II - More Hours of Aviation Adventures; and Vol. III – Aviation Adventures Around the World. I was employed at the museum for over 12 years, while producing further aviation books: Lost: True Stories of Canadian Aviation Tragedies; Maverick in the Sky: The Aerial Adventures of WWI Flying Ace Freddie McCall; and Amazing Flights and Flyers.
In the meantime, I became connected with women and men from every side of aviation -- pilots, engineers, dispatchers, cargo handlers, those who relied on various aspects of aviation for their work in gas and oil exploration; guiding and outfitting, expediting of goods -- and I wrote about them all. In 1999 I was presented in Edmonton with the 99s Award in Aviation, by Rosella Bjornson, an honour in itself, for my literary work in the field of aviation. It was she who informed me about an organization called Canadian Women in Aviation, International, which accepted members who were not necessarily pilots (as was the criteria for membership in the 99s). I attended the inaugural meeting of what became the Alberta Rocky Mountain High Chapter in Calgary, and have been a member ever since.
So, while my affiliation with aviation may be different from most others in the organization, I have felt fully welcomed for the feature that I am able to offer. In fact, on requests from organizing committees, I have given writing workshops at CWIA annual conferences in London, Ontario; Victoria, BC; Edmonton, Alberta; and in San Diego, California.
I am often asked if I fly. I say “No: They fly, I write.” I feel it is important for these stories to be told, recorded, published and distributed, often just in time as our pioneers are leaving us. Because their stories have been captured, others may continue to enjoy, learn, and marvel at the talent, courage, and determination of those with a love of aviation in its various forms, and who have sacrificed time, money, and sometimes endured the incredulity of naysayers, to achieve their goals. Through them, I have achieved mine.
- Shirlee Smith Matheson, author (website: www.ssmatheson.ca)