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Remembering Frank Norie: Celebrating a Vancouver Island Flying Legend

May 27, 2008  By Ken Armstrong

Vancouver Island lost a flying and logging legend with the recent passing of Frank Norie. This quiet and modest man once owned Vancouver Island Helicopters; and with his son and current owner, Ken Norie, grew the company into a brilliantly successful operation. In recent years VIH has expanded rapidly by buying up companies at a rate that has astounded industry watchers.

Vancouver Island lost a flying and logging legend with the recent passing of Frank Norie. This quiet and modest man once owned Vancouver Island Helicopters; and with his son and current owner, Ken Norie, grew the company into a brilliantly successful operation. In recent years VIH has expanded rapidly by buying up companies at a rate that has astounded industry watchers.

Frank and Faye Norie stand beside a restored Bell 47 at the VIH 50th Anniversary celebration in 2005.

Frank was born on March 27, 1919 in the Cowichan Valley house that he lived in his entire life. His Scottish father was a accountant and the family hoped Frank would follow in his footsteps with a career in finance. Frank was schooled locally in the valley and after graduating from Duncan High School lived in a Victoria boarding house and worked first as a “board boy” in the local stock market. He commuted regularly to his home up island on the weekends. His strong attraction for his family and the home his parents built at the turn of the century would motivate Frank to commute regularly from any of his workplaces to the homestead throughout his entire career. He and his older brother Henry were very close and in one way or another their careers intertwined. During the early commuting years, they both bought war-surplus Harley Davidson motorcycles as their first vehicles, and this would be only the first similarity in their transportation modes.

Frank followed the family wishes and entered banking in Duncan – perhaps to be closer to home. However, he realized that this career was not his by choice and he soon left to work in the forest industry where he started at the bottom of the ladder. Initially employed in a sawmill and then as a choker-man, his dedication and work ethic found him elevated to equipment operator, trucker and cat operator in short order. The later tasks showed his proclivity for working equipment, and his growing knowledge and advances in the industry foretold of leadership. 


In 1939 Frank and Henry joined other partners and started their own logging company with leases around the Cowichan Valley. In time, the Norie brothers would acquire full rights to the operations and name the company Norie Brothers Logging – a company that would be active in the industry for 40 years. In 1955, an opportunity to buy the Elk Bay logging lease north of Campbell River would prove pivotal in their lives. Initially the area was served only by railroad and this provided a grand challenge to working this timber-rich area. Frank and Henry saw the benefit of aviation to this remote area and in 1955 obtained their pilots’ licences from the Victoria Flying Club and purchased a Republic Seabee amphibian to commute to their logging shows. Frank subsequently owned a Stinson 108-2 and speedy Bellanca.

Providence interceded at this time in Frank’s career through a friendship with fellow Truckers’ Association director Viv Williams. Also a logger, with operations in the Dean Channel and Spuzzum, Williams utilized his Bell 47G2 to provide transportation to sites as well as general support and survey of his properties.  After a flight with Williams, Frank realized the potential of such a machine for Norie Logging and purchased a G2 from Alpine Helicopters in 1969. Henry quickly followed suit with his own machine, and the brothers effectively employed the helicopters to survey roads and timber blocks for their Elk Bay property and logged there for many years. These useful tools continued to serve them well when they expanded into other logging shows such as Phillip’s Arm, Sonora Island, Neville and Call Inlets. Expanding interests that required more power and performance first led Henry to trade up to a turbocharged B1 and Norie Logging was unknowingly well on its way to becoming a major helicopter operation.

Living 15 minutes by air northwest of Victoria Airport typically brought Frank to VIH for maintenance. The Island helicopter legend Bruce Payne was Frank’s helicopter instructor and through time, a good friend. Ditto for VIH’s major shareholder, the late Alf Stringer.

Frank was a great mentor and helped channel his son Ken into rotary-wing aviation. Ken trained for his licence at VIH and graduated in 1973. Frank motivated Ken well and the latter recalls his father saying: “You may have ten reasons why something can’t be done, but all I need is one good reason to do it.”  These words have served Ken well in his decision-making and more recently, in company expansion.

Initially, 40 per cent of Vancouver Island Helicopters was owned by Bill Boeing, who at the time was the Bell Helicopter’s northwest distributor. Stringer approached Frank with a suggestion that he buy Boeing’s portion as the latter’s interests led elsewhere. Frank anted up in 1975. Later, in the mid-1980s, times were tough in the helicopter industry and VIH was financially challenged. At that time, Stringer had a major heart attack, sidelining him. Negotiations between families ensued and Frank bought into 45 per cent of the company; Trevor Deely, the local Harley dealer and a Bell 206 owner, acquired 45 per cent and the company’s chief engineer, Barry Hewko, bought 10 per cent. 

Another of Frank’s beliefs – “things are never so bad that they couldn’t be worse” – may have been quite prophetic, as it took quite some time for the company to struggle through these challenges. Still, this structured ownership was very valuable as they all infused capital to keep the doors open. By about 1990 Trevor had lost interest in company ownership and his shares were bought by Frank and Ken.  In the mid-1990s Barry had seen significant appreciation and sold his shares to Ken.  At the same time, Ken had discovered some new opportunities in the logging industry, and realized a need for heavy-lift helicopters. Ken decided to begin his own company utilizing these heavy-lift helicopters and called it “VIH Logging Ltd.” The company introduced and utilized the Kamov Ka 32 coaxial heavy-lift in Canada and met with great success. By 2000, VIH Logging had done so well that Ken was able to buy out his father and take over presidency of VIH Helicopters.

In Frank’s logging days he was known as very approachable, and knew everyone in the company on a personal level. He treated everybody equally in logging and carried this practice over to helicopters. Frank’s door was always open to employees. He was extremely generous and lived a life that was a role model for anyone in the industries he supported. Frank was a man of action and was always prepared to pitch in to get a task accomplished. My personal experiences with Frank began in the 1980s when I lived close by and asked him if it was possible to operate my plane – later planes – off his airstrip. Without hesitation he granted my wish and expected nothing in return. Ken recalls his dad as a great supporter. His outlook on life helped Ken immensely. Frank was a doer and he was very supportive of anyone who was prepared to work to achieve goals. His exceptional leadership saw him hire good management personnel and allow them to accomplish their tasks without interference. Larry Huff, previous chief engineer at VIH, had complete respect for Frank as he hired good people and left them alone to do their jobs.

Frank’s outlook on life can be demonstrated by one of his first days on a logging show. His boss, Hammy Dougan, pointed to a bulldozer that was all in pieces and instructed Frank to reassemble it and then get building some road. Well, that was a problematical because Frank had just come onto the job, was not trained as a mechanic and had little or no experience operating a bulldozer. Undaunted and  excited by the challenge, he put the machine back together and went about building roads with it. Frank was a guy who would look at problems and challenges in a positive way and stick with things until they were successfully accomplished.

Frank Norie will be greatly missed by Faye, his wife of 58 years,  and the extended family members: Chris and Peggy Whittaker, Stephen, Zoe and Hailey Whittaker, Russ Whittaker, Ken and Lori Norie, Jeff Norie and Jen Norie, Sherry Norie, Pete and Tina Norie, Alana Norie and Kai Norie; as well as by two industries that benefited from his leadership and skills.

Frank Norie passed away on March 31, 2008.


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