Air Ontario was formed in 1981 when Great Lakes Airlines was renamed. Its growth during the 1980s would see its merger with Austin Airways and affiliation with Air Canada, however even though it was a successful commuter, which would go on to form one of the central components of Air Canada Jazz, not all its moves paid off. Certainly the purchase of a pair of F28 Fellowships would not be the success that its first pure jet service hoped for and in fact would end in tragedy.
Great Lakes Airlines was an Ontario based commuter formed in 1961. In late 1969 a pair of ex-Swissair Convair 440s (HB-IMG and IMK which became CF-GLC and GLD respectively) were introduced. These were joined in 1974 by four ex-Linjeflyg CV-440s. By 1975 the airline was in trouble and was purchased by a partnership including Mr James Plaxton who would later become the 100% owner. In 1976 at least 5 CV-580s joined all being ex-Allegheny / Lake Central / United aircraft and in 1979 another (this time ex-Cruzeiro do sul) was added. An agreement was signed with Air Canada to fly their London-Toronto route whilst other schedule services connected its Sarnia base with Ottawa and Peterborough.
In 1981 Great Lakes was renamed Air Ontario and 50% of the carrier was sold to the Deluce family who owned Austin Airways - a major commuter in Northern Ontario and Canada's oldest airline. In 1986 Air Canada and competing Pacific Western both acquired 24.5% of the company as the rush to gain control of feeder airlines gained pace. In 1987 Air Ontario and Austin Airways were merged together despite them sharing little in common. Austin had a diverse fleet of 30 aircraft ranging from Beech King Airs to DC-3s to Cessna Citations to HS748s. Scheduled air services were merely a portion of its operations. Air Ontario was operating 11 CV-580s in Air Canada feeder markings. Operating conditions between Austins Northern Ontario and Air Ontario's Southern Ontario routes were dissimilar and the latter was also unionised whilst the former was not. The merger had come about by a joint swap of stock between the two airlines and the purchase of a 75% share by Air Canada (with the other 25% now held by the Deluce family).
The merger did not run smoothly and led to the divesting of most of the former Austin Airways Northern network in 1988 to Air Creebec and Bearskin Airlines. Lay-offs, pilot strike action, consolidation of operations in London, bringing together separate pilot and flight attendant groups, working with Air Canada and introducing new aircraft types (DHC-8s joined in April 1987) all contributed to difficult times for the airline. At around this time a pair of Fokker F28 Fellowships joined the fleet.
Both F28s shared similar histories having been delivered to THY in 1973 as TC-JAR and JAS. They both joined the French regional TAT in 1987 (as F-GEXT and U) shortly before being leased to Air Ontario as C-FONF and C-FONG respectively. The decision to acquire the jets was largely one of prestige and the belief that they would be seen more favourably and to be more competitive against other operators than the DHC-8 turboprops. The introduction of the F28s was a major programme of work for Air Ontario within the given timescales and the quality of their introduction has been questioned subsequently.
This questioning was warranted as unfortunately on March 10, 1989 C-FONF was lost on take-off from Dryden Ontario. Of the 65 passengers on board 21 were killed as well as 3 of the 4 crew members. The crash was caused by a series of mistakes. Upon landing at Dryden the F28's APU was unserviceable yet a ground based power source was not available. This led to the pilot to keep one of the engines running but as it was snowing ice began to build up on the wings. They should have been de-iced but couldn't be when the engines were running and so as to avoid having to delay the service and deplane the passengers the deicing was missed. Upon take-off the accumulated ice was too much and the aircraft crashed very shortly after lift off.
The resulting investigation found that deregulation pressures had cut into safety levels, the plane shouldn't have been operated to an airport with such limited equipment and that the pilot's training was deficient. Unsurprisingly the other F28, C-FONG, was returned to TAT very soon afterwards (in July). TAT leased her to Air Niugini as P2-ANY in July 1989 but she was returned in November and became F-GIAJ. Sadly her career was to be equally as tragic as her sisters. Leased to Iran Asseman in 1992, as EP-PAV, she was written off, on October 10 1994, near Natanz killing all 66 onboard. A sudden power loss caused her to descend and she struck a mountain not long after take-off from Isfahan.
Air Ontario itself continued as an Air Canada feeder and built its fleet around the DHC-8. In 2002 it was one of the major Air Canada feeder companies that were merged to form Air Canada Jazz.
Commission of Inquiry into the Air Ontario Air Crash Final Report
Aviation Safety Network - C-FONF Crash
Aviation Safety Network - EP-PAV Crash
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: