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Plane pioneered air ambulance service


By Noelle Grosse, 1999

Black and white photo of CF-SAM, one of Saskatchewan's early air ambulance planes

CF-SAM aircraft - WDM Photo

The Norseman CF-SAM plane helped save Saskatchewan lives in the 1940s, but 30 years later, it was the one needing rescue.

The 1946 Norseman Mark V with the call letters CF-SAM was the second plane to fly for the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance Service, North America's first civilian air ambulance program. By 1974, the plane had been traded to a company in Latah, Washington and was headed for the scrap pile. The Saskatchewan Tourist Association wanted to return the plane to the province, and acquired it for the Western Development Museum.

The Norseman CF-SAM was originally purchased by the Saskatchewan government to help the fledgling air ambulance service in 1947. In its first year of operation, the air ambulance had already completed 257 missions. Polio was reaching epidemic proportions, and there were always farm accidents and complicated pregnancies that required the attention of an urban hospital.

Donald Campbell was one of the first pilots to fly with the air ambulance. In his book about the service, Wings of Mercy, Campbell often refers to the Norseman as "Old Reliable". When interviewed, Campbell says the Norseman was called the "two-ton truck of the air", with plenty of space for a flight nurse and two stretchers. But even "Old Reliable" had it share of problems.

"In the first several years there weren't any small-town airstrips. We had to use farmer's stubble fields and pasture fields, and though we didn't like it, summer fallow fields," says Campbell. "The one fault of the Norseman was that it was nose heavy, and two or three times its nose dug in when landing on soft fields." The linen covering on the plane was also a problem on long flights. "In the winter that airplane was extremely cold. On a hot day, it was murder in there," says Campbell.

The Norseman flew with the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance Service from 1947 to 1950.

Its replacement was Cessna planes. The Norseman's career with the service was short, but memorable. The first baby born in an air ambulance was delivered in the Norseman. Today, Leon Dubreuil lives in Estevan, and both he and Campell have volunteered at the Moose Jaw's Museum Learning Days to share their story with visiting schoolchildren.

"It is amusing and interesting to see the kids' reaction," says Campbell, when he introduces the students to the "baby". After 1950, the Norseman continued to be part of the Saskatchewan government fleet, and was used to deliver supplies to isolated communities and to drop smoke jumpers to fight northern fires. It was eventually traded to the Ag Air Company in Latah, Washington, and would have been stripped for parts had the WDM and Saskatchewan Tourist Association not stepped in.

The Norseman's last flight was to Moose Jaw, where it has remained since. The Norseman CF-SAM has been restored and repainted in the original gold and green of the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance Service. One of the province's most distinguished civil servants has returned home.

More about CF-Sam and the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance story:

Air Ambulance Service Makes Aviation History by Noelle Grosse - Artifact Article

Saskatchewan's Air Ambulance Service by Janet MacKenzie (WDM) - Research Paper (PDF)

This article is from Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection, available in Museum Gift Shops.


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