Memorable Manitobans: William Nelson “Nels” Harvey (1907-2004)

Educator, air traffic controller.

Born at Nelson, British Columbia in 1907, he and his parents lived briefly in various parts of BC and Alberta, finally arriving in Manitoba and settling in the Dauphin/Ochre River area. In 1923, he acquired a teaching certificate and taught at Ochre River School, where he was Principal (1932-1934), and at Morris School. During this period, he met Beryl Joy Turner (1910-1988) of the Glenholm district. They married in 1932 and had two children. In 1936, he was accepted for employment in the postal service, where he spent two years before joining the meteorological service as a weather observer. It was then that he was introduced to the rapidly expanding world of aviation.

In 1940, he applied for a job as an air traffic controller (ATC). In those days, a written exam was the main criterion for a license and many controllers joined ATC through self-study and on-the-job training. Harvey said he had merely gone up into the Winnipeg airport control tower when it was completed in 1940 and “thought it would be a great place to work.” His first application was turned down. “There was a feeling at the time that only a pilot could tell another pilot how to safely approach an airport.” After eventually meeting the necessary requirements, he was assigned to the Winnipeg control tower in 1941. Normally, he would have had to attend training at the Saint-Hubert Airport control tower in Quebec, but in the Second World War there was no time for that, so he and his colleagues learned on the job, using a copy of Air Regulations and through verbal instruction.

During 36 years in air traffic control, he progressed through the ranks to become the regional director of Air Traffic Services in the Central Region, which extended from east of Thunder Bay, Ontario to the Saskatchewan/Alberta border. It was through his and his colleagues’ militant actions in 1955, protesting the hazardous state of air traffic control due to the high and ever increasing volume of flights, that radar was finally installed at the Winnipeg tower, even though the use of radar in air traffic control was a relatively new concept at the time. His approach to streamlining the traffic control system was both innovative and proactive and he was known to be a fair and compassionate administrator. In recognition of his contribution to aviation, he was designated a “Pioneer of Aviation” by the Western Canada Aviation Museum.

For many years, his interest in photography occupied much of his spare time. He was a long-time member of the Manitoba Camera Club, the recipient of many awards for excellence in photographic competitions, and was much sought after for weddings and portraits. He found time to travel extensively in North America, Europe and Hawaii. After retiring, he wintered at Weslaco, Texas, and during the summers in Manitoba, he travelled in his motor home with the Wandering Wheels Trailer Club.

He died at Winnipeg on 25 November 2004.


Obituary [Beryl Joy Harvey], Swan River Star and Times, 15 September 1988.

Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 30 November 2004.

Winnipeg Area Control Centre,

This page was prepared by Lois Braun.

Page revised: 27 August 2020

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

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