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Del O'Brien's history of Pem-Air launched

By Ryan Paulsen, The Daily Observer

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
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Publisher Tim Gordon and author Del O'Brien held a launch party on Tuesday evening, Nov. 17, so celebrate the publication of O'Brien's book Pem-Air, celebrating the history of the titular airline that ran for decades out of the Pembroke and Area Airport.

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
Publisher Tim Gordon and author Del O'Brien held a launch party on Tuesday evening, Nov. 17, so celebrate the publication of O'Brien's book Pem-Air, celebrating the history of the titular airline that ran for decades out of the Pembroke and Area Airport.

On Tuesday evening, Nov. 17, local history buffs, aviation enthusiasts and alumni of the Upper Ottawa Valley's only regional airline came together to celebrate the launch of “Pem-Air: The community airline that did it all”, a new book tracing the history of the remarkable air service penned by its founding president, Del O'Brien.

“I'm very happy to have the launch today,” O'Brien said after the official portion of the launch party concluded. “We have a full house, and people have come from hundreds of miles to be here. This is a book launch, but also a reunion of a lot of the employees, and we're very pleased to have them.”

The book's subtitle is appropriate, given the huge range of services the airline provided over the course of its 32-year lifespan, from 1968 to its closure in 2000. In addition to regular passenger service and charter flights, Pem-Air also provided transportation of radioactive isotopes to New York and Boston, ferried national politicians from Ottawa to Quebec, and made the difference between life and death countless times on rescue missions in the Northern Ontario wilderness.

“In all those years, we never had a major accident,” recalls O'Brien. “We flew millions and millions of miles, both in the United States and Canada, up north doing rescue missions, the only flight for four years between Ottawa and Quebec City, and we gave great service. The operation was very well respected in the industry, and the credit goes to the people who made it work, and I had the privilege of leading them.”

After retiring five years ago from a lengthy and illustrious career in law, O'Brien set his mind to the task of documenting the history of the airline.

“I wanted to write a book because all of the people working with Pem-Air deserve to have their stories told.”

For O'Brien, it was those people who made Pem-Air what it was.

“I really don't like to call them employees, because they were all partners.”

One of those partners was pilot Glenn Harmsworth, who went on from Pem-Air to work for 28 years with Air Canada Jazz, but who always remembered his time in the valley.

“To say it was a family sounds cliche, but that's exactly what it was. I don't know if it's the weather or the feeling of being almost isolated, but we were all pulling ahead together. Nobody hesitated to put in that extra hour, to stay longer if there was work that needed doing, whether it was pilots or engineers. I don't think you'd find that today. I don't think you could get a group together like that. People now are more self-centred and think 'well, what's in it for me' but then it was always 'what's best for the company?'”

Although Harmsworth finds it “uncomfortable” to see some of his memories in print, he is thrilled with the prospect of the book being finished, and to see O'Brien's five-year mission come to a successful end.

“I'm just very happy for Del. I'm very happy that he put it together, and I can't congratulate him enough for having the wherewithal to record it all.”

The book's launch comes at a time when the Pembroke and Area Airport is starting to make headlines again. With the announcement of new employees, and requests for infrastructure support going out to townships once again, a buzz is starting around whether or not there could be another Pem-Air.

For O'Brien, who can still vividly remember the monumental effort of getting a dozen local municipalities to pool their collective resources back in the '60s to build the airport itself, the idea is not so far-fetched.

“Anything is possible,” he says with a grin. “If I talked to you in 1965 before we got started, everyone said it wasn't possible then, but we made it happen, and it could happen again. It just takes imagination and determination and a community that's prepared to work together.”

ryan.paulsen@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @PRyanPaulsen