This article appeared in the January 1988 issue of Canadian Aviation. It was my first piece of writing accepted by an outside publication.
Stubb Ross: One Man's Recollections
The Piper Pacer had just taken off and was circling the airfield at Lethbridge, the sun glinting off scrubbed wings and fuselage as the pilot brought it around and passed over us. I was supposed to be in that plane.
The owner had told me that if I helped him clean it, he’d take me up for a ride. So I had spent the weekend with him, scrubbing off bird droppings and hangar dirt. And here I was, still on the ground, watching him fly away. At 15 years of age, the fact that the airplane was undergoing a Certificate of Airworthiness check flight didn’t mean much to me. I still wasn’t up there and I longed to be.
I was in front of the flying club hangar, leaning against the wing of a sleek Commanche. It’s owner, a tall fellow with a crew cut, was watching the Pacer with me. “I suppose we ought to go up there and see how she looks from the air,” he said. “Get in and let’s go.” I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d never met this guy before but I knew he was the son of a big-time rancher from a place called Manyberries. His name was Stubb Ross.
A few years later, I began working for the Lethbridge Herald as a part-time press photographer. It was an exciting job for a kid still in high school. Best of all, there were times when aerial photographs were required. That’s when I’d phone Stubb and let him know what was needed and off we would go.
The photo mission would dictate the kind of airplane to be used. If there was no rush, the plane of choice would be a Piper Colt. That old trainer would fly just fine without the door and the uninterrupted field of view made it a marvelous photo platform. Stubb would climb in first and I would jump in beside him. One lapbelt between us kept me out of the slipstream.
A call came into the newspaper one morning concerning a train wreck near Brocket, out on the Peigan Reserve. The paper went to press just before noon each day but the editor decided he might just be able run a photograph if I could cover the 120 miles out and back in a big hurry. That meant flying. And that meant Stubb and his Commanche.
We were airborne on a clear day in about 20 minutes and I watched the Rocky Mountains fill more and more of the front window. We spotted the wreckage on a wide plain below us, rail cars smashed into heaps and smoke billowing from chemical fires fed by the cars’ contents. Some quick shots from altitude and then it was down for a straffing run. We crossed the wreck three or four times, each run ending in a steep climb and sharp bank for the next pass. Finally, a fast run down the length of the train, a gentle pull up and a course set for home. The Herald got its story and exclusive photographs of southern Alberta's worst train wreck. The CPR just got mad.
There were other flights with Stubb and I can recall them vividly. Flying a Cessna 172, he was my pilot on a media familiarization flight around the southern end of the province. Crossing St Mary’s Reservoir, Stubb said he thought we ought to go down there and see how it looked from low level. So we did. The radio crackled with the voices of pilots following us, wondering where Stubb had gone.
My last flight with the crew cut at the controls took place just after a freak spring blizzard shut down all of southern Alberta. The paper wanted pictures of the devastation brought on by the storm, particularly shots of cattle stranded out on the rangeland.
Stubb flew me down to the Milk River ridge. From low altitude, we found cattle bunched into fence corners, unable to move. Worse were scenes of newborn calves floundering in deep snow, seeking their distraught mothers.
The trip was eerie. The beauty of the snow-cloaked ridges and gullies, lit by an incredibly brilliant sky didn’t sit right with the suffering we had witnessed. I think Stubb felt a real frustration at being so close but unable to help the kinds of critters he had grown up around down on the Lost River Ranch.
I left the Herald and those memorable flights with Stubb Ross in 1967. But I kept track of his progress over the years. When he made the transition from charter operator to airline president, I was pulling for him.
Like other southern Albertans, I shared the pride in our own small but growing airline. The first Beech 18s were kind of comical compared to the stately Vickers Viscounts that Air Canada last flew into Lethbridge. But as the daily service to Calgary grew and prospered, so too did the level of equipment improve. Expanding routes called for more capacity and gradually de Havilland Twin Otters, Focker F-27s and Shorts 330s were added to a growing fleet. The eventual partnership, first with Pacific Western and now Canadian Airlines International, assured Time Air of a permanent place in Canada’s skies.
In 1981, I moved to Edmonton. When driving down Kingsway Avenue, I often thought of Stubb as I passed the Time Air hangar at the Edmonton Municipal Airport. I had heard that his health was declining and that he no longer piloted an aircraft. That must have been hard on him, a natural stick-and-rudder man. When I learned that he had died, it didn’t somehow seem possible that the “flying cowboy” had gone.
For many people who knew him, Time Air will remain as an enduring reminder of Stubb Ross. For me, memories of those flights across southern Alberta with a man who loved to fly will do just as well.
Contributed by Timothy A. Johnston, a flying enthusiast and editor of the ATA Magazine, the official publication of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Walter R. “Stubb” Ross, founder of Lethbridge-based Time Air, died last autumn at age 56.