Seventeenth in a series of pioneer profiles
George (Hank) Coleman, a former Nelson city councillor and Regional District of Central Kootenay chair who wired Kootenay Lake hospital and once competed in a transatlantic air race, has died at 85.
Coleman was the first person in Canada to earn a pilot’s license with only one eye — he lost the other eye in an accident at age 10.
His stepson Gary Burns, whom Coleman raised from boyhood along with two brothers, says federal regulations barred monocular pilots until local MP Bert Herridge got involved.
“Hank had flown as co-pilot with Bert in the plane. Bert brought the issue up in Ottawa and said ‘It isn’t our business how you achieve what you achieve. The result is good enough.’”
Coleman went on to earn his instrument rating and float plane qualifications, and regularly flew across Canada and to the Caribbean.
He owned five planes in his lifetime, including a former RCAF Beechcraft 18 he bought with Ben Bengtsson in 1971. Outfitted with auxiliary fuel tanks and renamed the Spirit of Nelson, they entered it in a race from London to Victoria commemorating BC’s centennial. Despite having the oldest plane in the competition, they finished second in their class.
A past president of the Nelson Pilots Association, Coleman once went to Ottawa with Mayor Louis Maglio to secure over $100,000 for an airport expansion. Naturally, he flew them there.
Born in Invermere and raised in Windermere and Cranbrook, Coleman left home at 16. The military wouldn’t accept him for World War II because of his limited vision, so he ended up building air force bombers in a Halifax factory.
His first visit to Nelson was not auspicious: he rode in on a motorcycle and caught the attention of a large police officer who threw him in jail, beat him with a rubber hose, and told him to stay out of town unless he wanted more.
But Coleman returned, working for Bennett’s Electric before establishing his own business in 1954. When he visited the Bank of Montreal and asked to open an account, the manager asked what resources he had. Coleman replied: “A toolbox and $64.”
That was the beginning of Coleman Electric, in the wedge-shaped building on Front Street. As one of few Class A industrial electricians in the area, Coleman wired many major projects, including the Kootenay Lake and Grand Forks hospitals, Celgar pulp mill, and Slocan sawmill.
He also donated his time to wire the old Nelson museum and was regularly involved in troubleshooting at the city power plant.
Coleman was elected to council in the 1970s, and chaired the Regional District of Central Kootenay for two years. He also ran twice unsuccessfully in Nelson-Creston for Social Credit.
Burns says Coleman had a “profound sense of duty and service to his community.”
“When it came to getting things done, he wouldn’t let much stand in his way. To say that he could be a tyrant at times would be an understatement. Hank was never afraid to do what he thought needed to be done.”
Coleman eventually gave up his pilot’s license due to declining health — a sad day for him, but he never complained.
“He was ever the optimist,” Burns says. “He thanked his lucky stars for all the days he could fly. As it was, he exceeded what most of us can do with both eyes.”
Coleman’s funeral Saturday in Nelson included a flypast.
“Just after they put the ashes in the grave, there were still a number of dry eyes,” Burns says. “But when you heard the four planes and a helicopter coming, there were none left.”
Previous installments in this series