SBX email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-06-03 published
Accidental airline' opened British Columbia coast
Ham-radio operator became salesman, aviator and award-winning author
By Tom HAWTHORN Special to The Globe and Mail Tuesday, June 3, 2003 - Page R5
Jim SPILSBURY was an itinerant radio salesman and founder of what became known as "the accidental airline." His businesses brought the wider world to the isolated canneries, logging camps, steamer camps and native villages along the rugged British Columbia coast.
Mr. SPILSBURY, who has died at 97, took it as his calling to make life easier for his fellow coast dwellers. He later realized to his dismay that he had contributed to ending a way of life, as many of his customers forsook the hardships of isolation for the city.
The coastal hamlets he visited by boat and, later, plane became a roll call of ghost towns and all-but-forgotten ports of call: Surge Narrows, Blind Channel, Grassy Bay, Squirrel Cove, Whaletown.
"Nowadays the world I knew has all but vanished," he wrote in 1990. "As I cruise the bays and inlets I have known so well, the coast for me becomes a haunted place, haunted by all the people and places that gave it life."
The first of two memoirs written with Howard WHITE/WHYTE was released by Mr. WHITE/WHYTE's Harbour Publishing in 1987. SPILSBURY's Coast became a regional bestseller and the winner of a British Columbia Book Prize.
A second volume, The Accidental Airline, published the following year, was also well received by critics and readers. Pastels of Pacific coastal scenes by Mr. SPILSBURY, an accomplished painter, graced the covers of both books.
Mr. SPILSBURY's arrival by boat was a welcome respite from day-to-day labours for many living and working the fiords along the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland.
That he was an accomplished storyteller and superb radio technician made him a legendary character long before his books were published.
Ashton James SPILSBURY was born on October 8, 1905, in the same upstairs bedroom as his father at Longlands, the family's ancestral home at Findern, Derbyshire. His parents had returned to the mother country from British Columbia at the urging of the SPILSBURY clan, which did not wish to have a scion born in the colonies.
His father, Ashton Wilmot SPILSBURY, was a Cambridge-educated gentleman whose modest business schemes were fraught with disaster his mother, the former Alice Maud BLIZARD, was a pants-wearing suffragist with little use for convention. Soon after their son's birth, they returned to their 144-hectare homestead at Whonnock on British Columbia's Fraser River.
After a failed business venture cost the family its land, they resettled on Savary Island, a narrow sandbar in Georgia Strait. The SPILSBURYs made their home in a canvas tent erected on an unused road right of way; they were squatters.
Mr. SPILSBURY got his first formal schooling on the island in September, 1914, a month before his ninth birthday. He would attend classes for only four years. By 1919, he began an apprenticeship with a steamship company, an unfortunate choice, as he was seasick for much of the next six months, before quitting.
He worked on Savary as a swamper and knotter on a log float before earning his donkey engineer's steam ticket. When he joined his father in business as Spilsbury and Son, their letterhead included a lengthy list of talents from well-digging to real-estate sales. They also ran a taxi service.
Mr. SPILSBURY had been fascinated with radio as a teenager, building his first crystal set at age 17. The early days of radio involved communication by Morse code. The advent of voice transmission, including a memorable night in 1922 when he tuned in an orchestra performing live from the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, turned his interest into an obsession.
In 1926, Mr. SPILSBURY set out as a radio technician on the Mary, a leaky codfish boat rented for $1 a day. He scrambled to make a living by trolling coastal hamlets and work camps, much of what little profit he made coming from sweet-talking lonely housewives into purchasing an inexpensively produced lemon-oil polish at 75 cents a bottle.
The business grew over the years, as Mr. SPILSBURY sold brand-name radios, as well as those of his own construction, to people for whom the instrument was their only daily contact with the rest of the world. In 1936, he bought a new boat, which he christened the Five B. R., after his ham-radio call of VE5BR.
As a ham operator, he once stayed awake 40 consecutive hours as part of a relay of operators from Vancouver through Parksville on Vancouver Island to Mr. SPILSBURY on Savary Island to Vernon in the Okanagan in the Interior of British Columbia, where a passenger train had derailed in an ice storm. Mr. SPILSBURY handled 340 messages in three days on his home-built radio.
The Five B. R. was called "the radio boat" and was a fixture along the coast, where Mr. SPILSBURY heralded his arrival by sounding an ear-splitting police siren.
A wartime restriction on gas for boats led Mr. SPILSBURY to purchase a Waco Standard biplane for $2,500. Service calls that had taken days now lasted only minutes. "I knew I would never be able to look at that coastal world in quite the same way," he wrote in SPILSBURY's Coast. "It had become less mysterious, less forbidding, less grand."
Mr. SPILSBURY soon discovered that those in isolated locales wanted not just radios and repairs, but access to his airplane. He got a charter licence, and bought a pair of twin-engine Stranraer flying boats converted into passenger craft, after getting a contract to serve logging companies on the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The ungainly Strannies gave birth to Queen Charlotte Airlines Limited, which took as its slogan, "In the wake of the war canoes." The airline bought so many second-hand aircraft that a separate company was formed to buy and sell equipment. Some said the initials Q.C.A. actually stood for Queer Collection of Aircraft. By June, 1949, only two other companies -- Trans-Canada Airlines and Canadian Pacific -- were flying more revenue miles than Mr. SPILSBURY's accidental airline, which had grown to 300 employees during the postwar boom.
The company replaced the ugly-duckling Strannies with sleek DC-3s, but the airline struggled as Russ Baker of Central British Columbia Airlines, later Pacific Western, lured passengers away. The upstart bought Queen Charlotte Airlines for $1.4-million in July, 1955, by which time Mr. SPILSBURY was a minority shareholder in the airline he had founded. He was out of the airline business just as suddenly as he had gotten into it.
He continued manufacturing communications equipment at a converted warehouse in Vancouver. Spilsbury and Tindall Ltd. was a name known around the globe; their famous SBX-11 portable radio-telephone was used at the North Pole as well as at the summit of Mount Everest.
One is on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec
Some of Mr. SPILSBURY's business ventures displayed his father's touch. He lost an estimated $65,000 trying to sell the two-seat Isetta, a microcar nicknamed "the rolling egg."
In 1981, he sold his radio-manufacturing company, by then known as SPILSBURY Communications Ltd.
His two memoirs were followed by SPILSBURY's Album in 1990, also published by Harbour, which recycled some of the anecdotes of his memoirs with photographs of the coast.
Mr. SPILSBURY was named to the Order of British Columbia in 1993. He was also inducted into the British Columbia Aviation Hall of Fame. An award bearing his name is presented annually by the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Western Canada Telecommunications Council (which he founded) to the person who contributes the most to marine safety through the use of radio.
Mr. SPILSBURY died of pneumonia at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver on April 20. He leaves three children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce -- daughter Marie LANGTON and sons Ron and Dave SPILSBURY. He also leaves six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He was predeceased by his second wife, the former Winnifred HOPE.
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