June 15, 1944 – October 14, 2020
James “Jim” Alan O’Donnell died peacefully on Wednesday, October 14, 2020 at his home in Port McNeill, British Columbia after a stoic battle with pancreatic cancer.
Among other things, Jim’s intrepid exploits as an incomparable bush pilot made him a local legend, including a time when he flew an old Stinson floatplane in ground effect over rough seas and through dense fog to ensure a passenger received emergency medical treatment.
Jim was born on June 15, 1944 in Leon, Iowa and spent his boyhood years helping his parents, Lorin and Marion, work a small farm there while dreaming of another life. Indeed, many of those dreams were more than vivid, as he often attributed some of his lifelong quest for adventure and spiritual knowledge to hallucinations he experienced while retrieving cattle from family farm fields riddled with jimson weed.
Such visions may also have contributed to his fantastic bedtime stories told to his little sisters, Colleen and Karen, who learned that their parents had zippers in the backs of their necks because they were from another planet; and the bauble from Mom’s jewelry box was a treasure brought back from their big brother’s trip to the Moon with a magic monkey.
On the other hand, together with his older sister Sheryl, he excelled in the “Happy Hustlers” 4H group supervised by his father, raising pigs and a heifer while big sis focused on sheep and lambs.
After his freshman year at Leon High School his parents auctioned off the farm, including 900 chickens, and moved to DeWitt, Iowa where his father had taken a job with John Deere Co. and then at Steckley’s Seed Corn Co. Jim would excel in football as a DeWitt Saber, earning his varsity letter and being named to the all- conference team as well as an honorable mention All-State.
He also developed an interest in music, learning electric guitar and forming a rock ‘n roll band fit for the early 60s. Jim’s mother demonstrated that he was just a chip off the old block when along with a friend, she showed up at Jim’s senior prom in a bright red and white clown outfit complete with makeup and giant shoes.
Having an interest in aviation since his early childhood, Jim was always building flying models but started real flying lessons at the age of 14 in Clinton, Iowa through his Air Scout Squadron. He soloed on his 16th birthday but did not wait for his official pilot’s license to give rides – to certain female love interests in particular.
His penchant for daring was not always well received, however, particularly at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa where, as a fledgling student of St. Pius X Seminary, Jim buzzed his rented dark- green Aeronca Champ taildragger down the football field and up the side of the cafeteria building.
This escapade and an unearthed Playboy in his dorm room provided the impetus for a transfer to the University of Iowa, where he joined a fraternity and met his first wife, Pamela Ward (Reed), a sorority sister. After his sophomore year there (in the summer of 1964 at the age of 20), Jim was inspired by Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to build a makeshift sailing raft from his father’s old wooden speedboat.
By this time, the O’Donnells had moved to Albany, Illinois, a small town next to the Mississippi River, where Jim and two friends launched the raft on a river quest to reach New Orleans, or at least cruise downstream “as long as the money held out”. The adventure ended south of St. Louis, Missouri after a near calamity with a cargo barge.
Jim and Pam married and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they had three beautiful children – Kate, Tim and Heather. For a short time, Jim played semi-pro football.
But Jim was drawn to seek more adventure beyond the boundaries of domestic life in Michigan where he sold Fuller Brushes and worked in retail at Montgomery Ward. So, in “Easy Rider” fashion, he straddled an Aubergine/Alaskan-white Triumph Bonneville 650cc motorcycle and set off for a cross-country soul-searching expedition.
He would later regale stories from the trip that included: a hospital’s refusal to treat a “long-haired hippie’s” third degree motorcycle muffler burn; Native American peyote vision quests; and a lengthy stay at a Taos, New Mexico commune where life imitated art in the form of a Hobbit-like fellow with huge bare feet living underground.
He began a photography business in 1966 and after only two years was offered a position at Time Life Inc. working in all facets of film and video production. He chose to wind down his own business to pursue a career with that company in anticipation of achieving broader experience.
Jim emigrated to Canada from the United States in 1971 and until 1973, continued to work for Time Life and taught video and film production along with still photography at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Ontario. There he lived with Christine, who would become his second wife for the next 30 years. In addition to their Toronto apartment, the couple hand-built a life-size replica of a First Nations teepee using 32′ cedar poles and erected it as a second home on a local farm outside Toronto.
While in Toronto, Jim formed a partnership with a colleague to do underwater film production and relocated to British Columbia in 1973 (with teepee in tow) where he was one of five directors of Ocean Life Systems, an independent non-profit society based in Victoria until 1975.
The society focused on research of inter-species communication with Orcinus Orca (killer whales) and achieved international recognition as both an underwater filmmaking and research organization.
It was a pioneering film project which captured the first underwater footage of Orcas in the wild while documenting a sailing expedition attempting communications with the whales using synthesizers and underwater hydrophones.
In 1976, Jim founded Windsong Roe Co., Ltd., in Sointula, B.C. Prior to 1976, salmon roe, the raw material purchased, processed and marketed by Windsong Roe Co., was considered by the Pacific coast fishing industry to be a waste by-product. Jim researched the product, then went on a B.C. Government trade mission to Japan and obtained a contract to support the processing plant he then built in Sointula.
Windsong Roe Co. was profitable up to and including 1984, when a large Japanese trading company managed to seal off the Japanese market to its foreign competitors. In its peak operational years, Windsong Roe Co. employed fifteen people in its Malcolm Island processing plant.
Starting in 1982, Jim and Christine owned and managed Windsong Sea Village Resort, a tourist facility Jim constructed which catered to the recreational yachting market. The resort was located in Echo Bay on Guilford Island, 30 miles Northeast of Port McNeill, B.C. Jim and Christine’s two delightful daughters, Cedar and Willow, spent their childhoods and much of their young lives learning, playing and working in the spectacular beauty of Echo Bay.
After earning his solo ticket at 16, Jim went on to obtain his private, commercial and seaplane ratings and owned various aircraft that were instrumental in all his endeavors. In the early 1980s, he became interested in the innovation taking place in the Canadian ultralight aircraft industry and participated in testing of inflatable floats for a Vancouver based company. He also wrote and published articles on his experiences with testing and flying ultralight aircraft on the British Columbia coast.
From 1989 until June 1992, Jim managed a seaplane base in Port McNeill, B.C. owned by Waglisa Air, a British Columbia Commercial Air Carrier. He continued to fly seaplanes for various coastal bush operators and accumulated over 4,000 hours of Pacific Coastal ocean flying on a commercial basis.
In 1992, he founded Pacific Eagle Aviation Ltd. to provide seaplane services to the North Island and handle the development and sales of the Seabird and Petrel amphibious aircraft. Anyone who knew Jim knew he was happiest flying, be it the smallest ultralight, the bush workhorse Dehavilland Beaver on floats or the vintage Republic RC-3 Seabee that he refurbished and outfitted for close-up whale tours.
He spent almost 30 years as a bush pilot on the North Island and a decade as the founder and chief pilot of Pacific Eagle Aviation. Jim’s deep sense of responsibility to community, employees and friends drove him to keep Pacific Eagle Aviation in business for as long as humanly possible – including its sponsorship of public music and barbeque gatherings – ultimately at great personal cost.
Despite suffering a massive stroke in 2011, Jim was not deterred from pursuing his dreams and he continued as a visionary and adventurer – living his life to its fullest while bringing levity to any situation with his uniquely silly sense of humor.
He travelled in his classic 1989 RV and met almost daily for morning coffee with his close buddies in Port McNeill. Even while facing the abyss of a terminal disease, he placed a stainless-steel sick bowl on his head and joked it was a false alarm and everyone could just go home.
Jim enjoyed the last years of his life living with his loving and surviving partner, Linda Ash. He is also survived by: his sisters Sheryl, Colleen (Anglese) and Karen (Vogel); his younger brother Michael; his three children from his first marriage – Kathleen (Reed Conway), Timothy Shawn (O’Donnell Reed) and Heather (Reed Drutz); his two children from his second marriage, Cedar and Willow; and five grandchildren.
According to his wishes, Jim’s earthly body was cremated and his ashes scattered at a remote mountain lake in the Broughton Archipelago on Saturday morning, October 24, 2020 – at the same site where he used his Seabird ultralight amphibian biplane to spread his parents’ ashes years ago – and where their indomitable spirits live on.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic a celebration of Jim’s life cannot be held at this time, but the family hopes to announce an event in the near future. In lieu of flowers etc., the family is confident Jim would smile upon any donation to a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty, such as Oxfam.
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