The airline was established in 1963 by bush pilot Otto John Hegland and started operations in July 1963 from its base at Big Trout Lake, Ontario (but was named after Bearskin Lake where Hegland had a general store). It started out by providing only charter services to the remote First Nationsreserves in northern Ontario, using bush planes equipped with floats in the summer and skis in the winter. In 1977, it began its first regular scheduled flights between Big Trout Lake and Sioux Lookout.
From then on, other scheduled flights were progressively added, first to Thunder Bay, followed by Kenora and Winnipeg. This was also the period when the Government of Ontario began constructing new airfields that would make the northern communities accessible year-round. Therefore in the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Bearskin made the transition of bush planes to wheeled commuter planes.
Following the collapse of NorOntair in 1996, Bearskin picked up over two thirds of that carrier's routes, thereby adding scheduled service to all the major northern Ontario cities. Three years later, it expanded operations to destinations in northern Manitoba. In 2003, it sold its routes and assets servicing northern First Nations communities to Wasaya Airways. This marked as a break with its bush flying background to focus on becoming a regional carrier.
It was owned by Harvey Friesen (President), Cliff Friesen (Executive Vice-President), Karl Friesen (Vice President of Operations), Rick Baratta (Vice President of Finance) and Brad Martin (Director of Operations), but in 2010 it was sold to Exchange Income Corporation (EIC) for $32 million. EIC also owns Calm Air, Perimeter Aviation, and Keewatin Air. Bearskin has 240 employees.
As of April 1, 2014, all service at Region of Waterloo Airport (YKF) and Ottawa Airport (YOW) was cancelled, affecting seven routes and significantly decreased the flight operations. The company indicated that a softening mining sector and high tech sectors (such as BlackBerry) were to blame for cutting the routes. Additional factors included the introduction of new competitors (such as Porter Airlines). The company indicated it's refocusing on northwestern and northeastern routes in Northern Ontario.
Bearskin is a major provider of flights for Hope Air, a charity that organises free non-medical emergency flights for people in financial need, particularly from remote communities.
Bearskin Metroliner at dusk
Bearskin Airlines operates services to the following Canadian domestic scheduled destinations:
The airline offers Aeroplan rewards points, both to collect and to redeem.
Accidents and incidents
May 1, 1995: Flight 362, a Swearingen Metroliner, collided with an Air Sandy Piper Navajo Chieftain while on approach to Sioux Lookout Airport, destroying both aircraft and killing all persons on both aircraft, a total of 8 dead.
December 4, 1997: Flight 310, a Beechcraft 99 hit the runway at Webequie Airport when it descended too quickly. No injuries were reported.
January 29, 2003: A Beechcraft 99 climbed and entered a turn, but the captain had trouble seeing the artificial horizon. The first officer called that the aircraft was in a 2000 feet per minute descent. He then took control, but was not fast enough to prevent the aircraft from striking a frozen lake and bouncing back into the air. Believing that both propellers were damaged, he then crash landed on the lake. No fatalities were reported.