Born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1920, Keith earned his private pilot’s license at the age of 20. He joined the U.S. Navy during World War II and was first stationed in Alaska where he flew OS2U Kingfishers and learned the hard way what the brutal Northern Pacific winters can do to the functionality of an aircraft. Just 5 kms after take-off, Keith’s iced-up aircraft crashed and with a severely sprained ankle, Keith and a crewman managed to walk back to the base. He later transferred to F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcats and was posted to combat duty on the aircraft carrier Hornet off of Japan.
In 1948 Keith moved to Algoma Mills with a DeHavilland Foxmoth and Fairchild 71 and started Great Northern Skyways. In 1949, they moved to Sault Ste. Marie with a Noorduyn Norseman and Cessna 180 and formed Sault Airways.
In the 1950’s Wawa was a remote bustling mining town with no road in or out. Keith Messenger provided a scheduled mail service between Wawa and Sault Ste. Marie on a daily basis. Before Wawa’s airstrip was constructed in the early 50’s, the Norseman was either rigged with skis or floats/pontoons to land on Wawa Lake. By the time the highway was completed in 1960, Keith was making up to 5 round trips a day between the Sault, Wawa and all points in between.
Along with Wawa’s mail and supplies, Keith’s Norseman also became a lifeline for residents who required emergency medical treatment in Sault Ste. Marie and beyond.
“Keith had a long and colourful career flying hunters, fishermen and tourists to out of the way destinations.” It is said that in his final operating year he carried almost 4000 passengers. Keith Messenger also “had the good fortune to have survived several aircraft mishaps.”*
Keith eventually sold Sault Airways. He retired from flying and refocused his energy to his life long hobby of flying racing pigeons. During his flying career the pigeons were sometimes used to relay messages between his clients in the middle of the bush and Keith’s base of operations in the Sault. If there was an emergency at a fishing camp, or the successful moose hunters needed to get their meat out of the bush earlier than scheduled, a “Messenger” pigeon would be let loose to head back to Keith’s pigeon coop miles away and the next morning the Messenger Norseman plane would be on its way.
In June 2006 Keith Messenger was honoured by the Aircraft Maintenance Engineers Association of Ontario with a Plaque of Appreciation. At the age of 90, Keith Messenger left his life as an aviation entrepreneur and pioneer in bush flying in Algoma on October 11, 2010. He is fondly remembered by the staff and volunteers at the Canadian Bushplane Museum in Sault Ste. Marie, as well as by the long-time residents of Wawa who remember the hum of his Norseman as it passed over the town to deliver its precious cargo and provide us an important link with the rest of Northern Ontario.
Photos courtesy of Janet Messenger