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Rob Seaman Rebel With a Cause

Carl Millard a true Canadian aviation pioneer

Written by Rob Seaman   
As a youngster growing up in the shadow of what is now Pearson International Airport, I can remember going to sleep at night to the sounds of large radial-engine aircraft rumbling overhead. If I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse out the window, I could see the glow of the exhaust stacks as the old workhorse lumbered overhead.

As soon as I could drive, I spent many hours sitting around the ramp at the north end of the airport watching the DC-3, DC-4 and Beech 18 activity on the Millard Air ramp. One day I even stopped by and asked Mr. Millard if I could look around a bit. He went me one further, and dropped what he was doing to conduct the tour himself.

I learned a lot that day about round engine aircraft and the operations behind them. I was also impressed by the fact that a businessman would stop and take the time to introduce a young kid to the world of aviation. Later I learned that this was nothing unusual for Carl. He always makes time for others – especially young folks who are just getting into the business.

When you walk up the stairs today and into Carl Millard’s office, it is like entering one of those museum rooms representing a time from the past. No computers. The shag carpet is still there (although my wife tells me that is all the rage again now) and the furniture could pass for a trendy art deco treatment. A collection of awards, photos and personal memories that will keep you staring for hours adorns the walls. Everywhere you look there is little piece of Carl and his life. And don’t even mention retirement. The word does not exist in his vocabulary. Even Hilda, his trusted office manager, will tell you that she has been with the firm for 45 years and at one time was the flight attendant on their DC-3 trips. Despite the antiquity, it all works. They know what is where and how things need to be done. After all, this time it is not business so much as a lifestyle. And the most modern office addition between the two of them is a fax machine. Hilda says that her typewriter does a better job than computers and works when the power goes out!

Just about to turn 92, Carl is in the office and very much involved with his business each and every day. He still shows the determination and enterprising spirit that drove his firm to many industry firsts. Millard has earned the right to be recognized as one of this nation’s true aviation pioneers. Even a car accident and stay in hospital a few months ago has not stopped him. His walk is a bit slower, but he remembers and recalls with accuracy the very fine details of events and issues that many would have long since forgotten – yet he is well up to date on most aspects of the aviation community today, being an avid reader of various aviation journals and texts.

Nearly everyone around Toronto who is involved with aviation has some sort of Carl Millard story to tell. Over the years he has been responsible for giving many a young pilot or engineer their first break into the business. In addition to training his own staff, Millard was one of the first in Canada to offer the opportunity for pilots to pay for and earn a rating on his type of aircraft. “I did all the training myself,” he says. “From the Beech 18s through to the DC- 3s, DC-4s and even the smaller aircraft – I was the one who taught them and checked them. I even was asked by Transport Canada once to train and check one of their pilots – so they could then check us. I told them to send someone qualified instead.”

Any conversation with Carl and you quickly come to understand why the label “rebel” fits. Over the years his air carrier business flew everything from people to horses and large marine mammals to parts and supplies. He always developed unique and workable ways for the goods or people handled to be serviced properly. “The racehorse used to just wander up the ramp we built,” he says. “And we found that they preferred travelling by air – it was less bumpy than their road trailers.”

While the OC assigned to Millard Air has been retired, the business is still alive today selling aircraft and parts. At its peak in the 1970s, Millard operated 21 aircraft (and owned more on top of that) and employed some 25 staff (including pilots). There are still six aircraft owned by the firm today: three DC-4s – one in open storage at Brantford and two at Pearson – and three Piper Navajos, which are also kept at YYZ.

Millard comes by his pioneer spirit naturally. By the age of 18, the young Carl – a direct descendant of Chief Joseph Brant – had started his first business. It was a grist mill and feed store in his rural home town of Ingersoll, Ontario. After three years he had saved enough money for flying lessons and bought his first aircraft even before his first solo flight. Tom Williams – a First World War Canadian fighter pilot and holder of one of the earliest issued Canadian pilot’s licences – was his instructor back then. He continued to run the mill and feed business for another five years, during which he worked to upgrade his piloting skills.

Carl’s first airline flying job came in 1940 working for Trans-Canada Air Lines “You had to have a commercial ticket to get hired – and then they trained you from there,” he says. His 15-year tenure (he was a captain for 14 of those years) with the airline started on Lockheed 14s, then progressed to Lodestars, DC- 3s and finally North Stars. “I have a million miles under my belt in the North Star,” he proudly states. Logged time as pilot in command is something that Carl is not lacking – having accumulated 41,000 hours all told in his flying career. “At Millard Air I have been type rated in everything that we operated.”

In 1954, Carl started his own aviation business. Beginning with a Piper Apache, Millard became one of the first air charter operators in Canada. It was in 1956 that Millard Air was formally incorporated as a family business with Carl as president, his wife, Della, as secretary-treasurer and son, Wayne, as vice-president. (While Della has long since passed on, Wayne is still very much part of the business today.) By 1957 the first of many Beech 18s arrived and the firm was on its way to becoming a significant provider of charter service for everything from people to racehorses and auto parts. Eventually, the carrier was licensed to fly throughout North America, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and the British West Indies as well as Bermuda. Among its many memorable achievements were flying the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on its tour of Arctic Canada (including the stage), transporting fighting equipment to northern Ontario during the devastating forest fires of 1968 and even flying to help in mapping the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1961 Millard set the airport on notice that he was playing for the long term when he purchased the old Toronto Flying Club hangars and had them moved to what became known as the ‘North Side’ of the airport. “Because of the size of the hangars, we had to move them across the airfield. The roads certainly would not do and even the runways were not big enough. Some of the trucks and wheel sets actually ran off the hard ground onto the grass and we broke at least one axle. Regardless, once we started the move we had to continue until we cleared the active flight areas.” Carl also noted that once the hangars were moved to the north end, they set the new foundations five feet higher above the ground than they were before to provide clearance for larger aircraft. In the years to come, Millard Air even took on the role of FBO (taking over the business from Innotech), becoming the Shell Aviation service provider at YYZ. It offered one of the first executive lounge/FBO service facilities at Pearson and stayed active in the business for many years.

Over time, Millard has been responsible for many industry-first STCs and aircraft refinements. “We operated a lot of DC-3s over the years and found many ways to make them work better. Having flown those aircraft for so long, I am really proud of the fact that we were the first to make a DC-3 cabin really warm in the winter,” he says. “We redesigned and modified the heating system so that it actually did the job – and as anyone who has flown in a DC-3 will tell you, that made a lot of people happy.”

As recently as 12 years ago, Millard started a program to redefine service life for the Piper Navajo. Among the mods developed for this aircraft, one involved removing the turbocharging system from the engines and redirecting hot air into the engine. This greatly enhanced performance. The interior also came in for a significant change complete with seats that were newly designed by Millard Air engineers. The end result is an aircraft with improved performance, enhanced cabin capabilities and a new lease on useful service to smaller carriers. The mod is still actively for sale and available from Millard Air. Even today, it remain one of the best sources for DC-3 and DC-4 parts – not to mention the significant brain-trust it holds on everything to do with operating these old aircraft.

Millard has always garnered the attention of colleagues and industry officials – wanted or not. In one instance, he bought the first – and perhaps only – Hansa Jet ever to fly in Canada. The Hansa was a first-generation corporate aircraft developed by MBB in Germany during the mid-1960s. When they ran into certification problems in Canada, Millard trudged on and pressed it into service anyway. Eventually Transport Canada won and the aircraft was sold, ultimately being replaced by a Citation 500. On another occasion, when engaged to move some sea mammals from Mexico to Niagara, Millard Air ran into problems with US authorities for improper importation to the US. From Millard’s standpoint they were not importing them to the US – just passing through on the way to Canada. In the end it was all sorted out – but not before hitting the media. During air traffic controller and national postal strikes, it was Millard Air that continued to fly the mail across Canada and make every effort to keep things moving.

One of Millard Air’s final Transport Canada stand-offs – and perhaps the one that signalled the beginning of the decline of its active air service operations – occurred when all aircraft aviation radios were changed to 720-channel service in the 1980s. Millard soldiered on as long as possible, resisting a costly fleet refit that would affect all the aircraft he operated at the time. In the end, he could fight no longer and technology requirements of the day caught the operator and his older equipment up. While this may or may not have been the beginning of the end, several of the workhorses went on the open sales market, and ever since Millard Air has slowly been selling off its once proud fleet.

Even as recently as last year, everyone on the north side of Pearson jumped and hit the phones one afternoon. The reason? Carl was seen running up and taxiing one of his DC- 4s around the ramp. Was he just testing to see who was watching? So even today – when Carl Millard does something – people still take notice and talk about it. And as for how long he plans to be around, he says that his current space lease runs out in 2011. Carl states flatly that if he does not like what is happening at Pearson then, he can always pick his hangars up and move them somewhere else. And knowing the man involved – he is fully capable of doing it too!

Thanks, Carl, for giving many of us a start and helping develop and evolve our industry.