Art Seller and the Skyway Air Service Story
Story by Jack Meadows
Art Seller was a determined visionary who conceived of a flying service business while still a prisoner of war. His vision established a world class company whose influence continues to this day.
Art Seller was born in Saskatchewan on November 1, 1919. He moved with his parents to the West Coast when he was still young. Like so many of that generation he grew up fascinated by airplanes and flight. Like only a few, he followed through with his obsession.
As a teenager growing up in the depression, he washed cars, delivered bread, did any job he could find to save money for flying lessons on a Taylorcraft. Later he worked around the flying world on Sea Island, doing every sort of job to the same end. Slowly, with Gilberts Flying Services, he managed to add hours until, in 1941, he had not only his Private License but also a limited Commercial License. This enabled him to join the Royal Canadian Air Force as a pilot without further screening.
He said little to his family or later colleagues about the war. As a fighter pilot flying Spitfires from Britain, soon after 'D' Day, on June 17, 1944, he was shot down by ground fire over the beachhead. He became a Prisoner of War in Eastern Germany. From there he managed to survive the long, hungry, desperate forced marches west as the Germans evacuated the camps and moved their charges away from the advancing Russians.
The beginning. Young Art Seller with his first Royal City Flying Club Tiger Moth, circa 1945.
Only after his death did his son, David find a diary kept of his time in a P.O.W. camp. It was full of plans for his postwar activities, ideas for his own company and its name, even sketches of advertising designs. He already had a very clear idea of what he was going to do as soon as peace allowed.
To take advantage of the postwar flying boom, almost as soon as he got home in 1945, in partnership with Harold Foster, whom he later bought out, he formed Royal City Flying Club at Vancouver Airport. It had one war surplus Tiger Moth. Later, a second Moth was added.
Vancouver airport was becoming crowded so, in 1947, he decided to move to Langley. He might almost be considered the father of the present day bustling Langley Airport for, in 1947, it was only a grass field - an emergency landing strip for Trans Canada Airlines, with no buildings other than a couple of old farm privies Art used as offices.
Business was good. The company grew. On August 6 1947 it changed its name to Skyway Air Services. Its third employee was an ex-sailor, Percy Lotzer, who worked in the office and was later to learn to fly with the company and become General Manager. Another important acquisition was Ed Batchelor, later of B.C. Aviation Council fame, ex-RAF pilot with instructor's rating as well as engineers license.
left to right, John Anderson, Art Seller, Peter Deck, circa 1949.
By now Skyway, as a general aviation company, was doing a bit of everything: pilot training (there was quite an international clientele), charter, banner towing, rental as well as buying and selling aircraft. There was a wide and changing variety of airplanes in use : Tigers, Fleet Canucks, Luscombes, Aeroncas, Piper Super Cruisers. So to have more time to develop other activities, Seller delegated to Batchelor the flying training responsibility. Here, Batchelor managed to formalize things. He set his heart on a standardized fleet for flying training and gradually achieved this with Piper aircraft. Later, there was also a parallel Cessna fleet.
"The event that caused me to broaden the scope of my activities was an infestation of aphids in the pea crop in Ladner, in 1947, " recalled Seller for Pioneering Aviation in the West. He saw some visiting American crop dusters walk away with more money than he made in a year and decided to convert a Tiger Moth for the job. At this time, he was joined by John Anderson as spray pilot, also an engineer.
For a time there was a happy double utilization of some aircraft; crop dusting early and late when the wind was light, pilot training in between.
But the Tigers were inadequate for the dusting job and a number of Stearmans were added. This was the start of a development that soon equaled in importance the training activities.
A major opportunity arose from the Fraser River floods of 1948. The resulting mosquito problem needed drastic action. As Lotzer says, Skyway was there and ready. Seller and Anderson flew Stearmans from dawn to dusk spreading DDT everywhere in a way that today would never be allowed.
Then, Alcan had a problem with mosquitoes at its Kemano dam project. A Skyway Tiger on floats was flown all the way up the coast to Kitimat - a feat in itself - to deal with the problem.
These activities, much more profitable than the long hours of flying instruction, helped to solidify the financial situation.
Dusting had led naturally to spraying, both crop spraying and spruce bud worm spraying. New Brunswick was suffering a severe attack of the latter and wanted help from all over the continent. Skyway's fleet of five Stearmans flew east each spring and back each fall on the Budworm contract. As can easily be imagined "the hardest part of the whole thing" said Batchelor, "was the journey out and back."
Another natural development was fire fighting by water bombing. In 1952, experiments were started with Stearmans. It was soon clear that aircraft's capacity was far too limited. There had been an infestation of spruce budworm on Vancouver Island and Seller had called in three Grumman Avenger TBMs from south of the border to help. He had thus seen what this aircraft could do.
So, when in 1957. the Canadian Navy put eighteen surplus Avengers up for sale, Seller took a chance, bid on them and got seventeen for prices ranging from $1700 - $7,000. Fairey Aviation, at Victoria modified them for Skyway's use.
Apart from some very basic early 1920's experiments with Curtiss HS2Ls and Felixstowe class flying boats out of Jericho Beach, the use of aircraft for this purpose had never before been seriously tried anywhere in Canada and certainly not on this scale.
Although the idea was being developed in several parts of the U.S., Skyway and B.C. were now leaders, at least in Canada, with the idea.
Trial and error played a big part in the development of the equipment and the bombing technique. While others were attempting the same procedures, it was not just unwillingness to pass on secrets but a lack of communication that resulted in uncoordinated developments. By and large therefore, Skyway was on its own in finding the right equipment and techniques for the task.
Water bombing is a loose term often inaccurately applied. As Art's son, David points out, it is important to be reminded to distinguish between water bombing as done by Martin Mars, Cansos and later Canadair amphibians, pumping vast quantities of plain water each time, and the more selective dropping of smaller quantities of specially formulated retardant (often also containing fertilizer) by smaller aircraft. This latter technique is usually prevention or containment rather than dousing. Although Skyway's initial experiments with the Stearmans had used only water, it is the latter process which the company was to develop so successfully.
Pap Korpatnik, Al Linkowich, Tom Wilson.
There were numerous trial droppings on the taxi track to the east of the north end of the Langley runway. In this way the special tankage, valves and doors were developed and the best dropping techniques and accuracies learned.
By now, Skyway Air Services Ltd had as Percy Lotzer delights in saying, a larger fleet of aircraft than Air Canada - even though individually rather smaller. Essentially, it was in three parts: the flying school under Ed Batchelor, with an offshoot seaplane training base at Fort Langley; the spraying and bombing service under John Anderson and the administration under Percy Lotzer. Peter Deck was operations manager. Art Seller coordinated and guided this conglomerate. It is a measure of the man and his personality that he did so not only successfully and as one company, but with the continuing respect and affection of everyone. Getting people to work together in this way "was his biggest asset", says Lotzer.
Obviously, he was also a tough entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer. His son, David, says of him that he would question and probe carefully every new idea put to him but when he made his decision he would stick to it and support the author. He says also that he was a fair shooter as both a parent and as a businessman.
The Mayor of Langley said of him that he always drove a hard bargain but when you had a deal it was very fair and he would never go back on his word.
From 1960-65 the business thrived. The demand for airline pilots helped to keep the flying school busy. It now had some twin Apaches and was giving IFR training. Just as busy were the Avengers which flew East each spring for New Brunswick spruce budworm control and back again in June ready for the B.C. forest fire season. At its peak, Skyway employed a hundred people for a fleet of 70 aircraft.
Note Avenger landing in background.
One result of Art Seller's efforts was that, with the advent of the Avengers, Langley airport had become too small for Skyway. The flying school remained, with its seaplane offshoot at Fort Langley, but the spraying and bombing sections moved to Abbotsford. First No. 1 Hangar was bought then number 3 as the company continued to grow. In 1965, Seller's activities had been recognized and he was awarded the BC Aviation Council's Robert S. Day Trophy.
From 1965, the general economic conditions led to a downturn in the flying training demand. However, the spraying and bombing business was as busy as ever and Art Seller was looking at ex military twin-engine Grumman Trackers as possible replacements for the Avengers. However, in 1968 he suffered a stroke and decided to divest himself of the business.
The following year, the Abbotsford operation, the spraying and retardant bombing part of his business, was sold to a consortium led by Les Kerr, whom he had taught to fly and who had become a spray pilot with the company. The Skyway name stayed with Seller, Les Kerr's new company was named, Conair Aviation. To Art Seller's delight it continued to grow and prosper at Abbotsford under its new management. Today, having in turn divested itself of the crop spraying business, Conair is world famous for its water/retardant bombing services and techniques and related aircraft and equipment development. Under current President, Barry Marsden, it continues as a leader in its important specialist field.
Art Seller continued to operate the Skyway flying school at Langley, with its Fort Langley offshoot. He soon passed his medicals and got his license back. A natural pilot, the love and joy of flying never left him. Earlier, he had started a glider and sailplane operation which only lasted a few years. Percy Lotzer says that in a turn, he could be looking all over the sky, but the ball on the slip indicator would never leave centre. Son David says he taught him to fly by the seat of his pants, took the fighter pilot's view that instruments are only there for very occasional reference. David reckons he is a better pilot for that.
David had got a Commerce Degree as well as his commercial pilot's license. In 1973, Art sold him the flying school whose twenty-five aircraft continued, for some years, to clock up 20,000 hours flying a year. In 1989, David, in turn sold the school (it later went bust) and at the same time, his Father sold the Fort Langley operation.
David kept a Stearman from the transaction for his father to fly and Art flew this machine almost right up to his death in April of 1998.
Art Seller would have appreciated the memorial fly-past held at Langley in his honour. There were other sides to this busy and capable man's life. He was a Shriner and a Life Member of the Canadian Museum of Flight.
In later years, in complete contrast to his other activities, Art Seller constructed a magnificent doll's house filled with equally meticulously made furniture. He gave it to the Museum of Flight to be raffled for the Museum's benefit. The winner, finding himself more in need of cash, asked Art if he knew anyone who would buy this magnificent object. Art Seller bought it himself with the intention of again having it raffled for the benefit of the museum.
Art Seller clearly made his mark on B.C.'s aviation history. As pilot and businessman he was very much a product of the immediate postwar free-wheeling years. That he succeeded where so many failed owed something to luck but far more to his capability, judgement and vision, not to ignore his integrity and character. Perhaps a more important epitaph comes from Percy Lotzer: "I have never met anyone who did not like Art Seller. He would get along with anybody."