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Hugh (Howdy) McPhail: On the wings of an eagle

Hugh McPhail (affectionately referred to as "Howdy" from a young age) was delivered by his father in a blizzard at Bankend on March 14, 1914. He attended local schools and later Notre Dame College at Wilcox on a hockey scholarship.
Hugh (Howdy) McPhail

Hugh McPhail (affectionately referred to as "Howdy" from a young age) was delivered by his father in a blizzard at Bankend on March 14, 1914. He attended local schools and later Notre Dame College at Wilcox on a hockey scholarship. One of the stories he told about his time at Notre Dame was that money to buy coal was scarce, and coal was even more scarce. In order to keep warm, the boys would steal coal from the railway yard in the middle of the night. Their principal, Father Athol Murray, would turn a blind eye. After high school, Howdy attended the University of Saskatchewan graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in 1942. An excellent athlete, Howdy played both football and hockey while at the university.

After completing his university education, Howdy joined the Royal Air Force and was trained as a bomber pilot. On Howdy's first mission to Germany, his Lancaster was disabled by German fighters. His plane on fire, Howdy ordered his crew to extinguish the flames. With great courage and nerves of steel, Howdy continued to fly the crippled bomber to neutral Sweden where he ordered his crew to abandon the plane. Howdy was the last to parachute to safety. He and his crew were briefly interned before being sent back to the U.K. Had he and his crew bailed out over Denmark, they would have spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. After returning to the U.K., Howdy completed a tour of duty (30 missions). For his bravery and success as a bomber pilot, Howdy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, the City of North Battleford also expressed its gratitude to Howdy by naming a park at the corner of 14th Avenue and 100th Street the "H.D. McPhail Park."

After the war, Howdy returned to Canada and went to work for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. His degree in agriculture certainly must have helped him land the job. He also had a connection. His uncle, Alexander James McPhail, was the first president of the Wheat Pool.

Howdy was a success in everything he undertook, including working in the field of agriculture. But his heart was in the skies. He longed to fly again. It was his wife, Mary, who persuaded Howdy to leave his career with the Wheat Pool and embark on a career he loved. "All you talk about is flying. Why don't you start a flying business?" Indeed, why not? McPhail Airways made its debut at the North Battleford Airport, Hanger No. 3. Howdy's "flying business" successfully operated for 30 years - crop spraying, training pilots, fighting fires and chartering planes and helicopters for everything from dyeing sheep for research to hauling fish. Howdy was always looking for a new opportunity and a new adventure.

During the 1950s, Howdy took thousands of aerial photographs of farms, towns and cities across Western Canada. In 2010, Dr. Bill Waiser, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan, completed a pictorial biography of Howdy entitled, Portraits of an Era: The aerial photography of Howdy McPhail.

Howdy sustained only one serious accident during his 40 year career as a pilot. On one occasion in 1968, Howdy was crop spraying near Shell Lake. At several hundred feet above the ground, he made a routine turn to line up for another pass when the engine stalled. The plane slammed straight into the ground at 200 mph. Miraculously, he survived, but was nearly fatally injured with horrific injuries. His leg was broken in three places. The ankle on his other leg was broken, as was his arm and nose. Despite his condition, he never lost consciousness and was able to instruct those who had run to the plane to call for an air ambulance. Mary and Norm Millar arrived at the crash site at about the same time as the air ambulance. Howdy was rushed to the University Hospital in Saskatoon. He spent over a year recovering from this accident. His doctors told him that it was not likely that he would ever climb stairs again, but Howdy thought otherwise. With characteristic determination and courage, Howdy endured intense, daily pain, exercising his rebuilt knee until he regained its full use.

Many stories have been told about Howdy during his legendary career. One of these was as humorous as it was remarkable. On one occasion, Howdy was flying a photographer over Jackfish Lake. The man who sold Howdy the plane had neglected to tell him the gas gauge did not work. When the plane ran out of gas, it was, of course, necessary to make an emergency landing. As usual, Howdy was cool, calm and collected. The roads and the beach were too crowded to land, so the only option was to land on the lake. Howdy told the photographer how they would come out of this experience - what they needed to do when they began to sink. They both survived. Howdy concluded this story by relating that he had to forcefully pull the photographer out of the plane because he was unwilling to leave his camera and equipment behind.

There was more to Howdy than flying airplanes. He was a citizen who contributed fully to his community. He served on the North Battleford Collegiate Board of Education, was a member of the Cosmopolitan Club and helped found the sheltered workshop. But in addition to Howdy's volunteerism, he is best remembered for his friendship, generosity and hospitality. Howdy would give anyone the proverbial shirt off his back. He routinely picked up hitchhikers. He would hire anyone who needed some cash to sweep the floor of the hanger. Hanger No. 3 was a men's club where friends met to visit and reminisce over coffee. In addition, many were the visitors Howdy and Mary brought to their home from the airport for lunch. These included all kinds of dignitaries, scientists and government officials - all of whom Howdy found highly interesting. Howdy and Mary also entertained at their beloved cabin on Jackfish Lake. He kept a Seabee plane at the lake so he could give his guests rides. Thousands of people got their first airplane ride from Howdy, at the lake or at the airport - no charge.

Howdy met his wife, Mary, in Wilkie where she was a young practising doctor. A blind date led to romance and a proposal. Howdy and Mary were married in 1949. Howdy was a "liberated man" and supported all of his wife's endeavours when it was not common for women to be medical doctors. Howdy and Mary were blessed with three children - Chiki, Pogo and Tammy.

Howdy McPhail was a man of adventure and action. But he was also interested in many other things from politics to poetry. He particularly enjoyed Shakespeare and reading the Manchester Guardian, which he received by airmail every week. And, Howdy was a consummate story teller who could entertain for hours. So there we have it - Howdy McPhail - athlete, pilot, businessman, community volunteer, friend and family man. During his remarkable life, he served our nation in war and made important contributions to our community, province and country. This charming man with the tweed hat and corncob pipe was loved by many. When he passed from this life, his funeral was attended by hundreds from across Canada.

His life of adventure, and service to his fellow man are surely unequalled. On the occasion of our city's centennial, we pause to reflect on the life of this extraordinary man - Howdy McPhail.