A circumnavigation challenge

Posted on October 10, 2017

Bob and Steven Dengler in front of helicopter
Photos by Peter Bregg

“I never grew up,” says Bob Dengler (Sci ’65). “I’m still a teenager at heart. I’ve had a wonderful life and I’m not done yet.”

And it is a wonderful life, one to which many aspire. After graduating from Queen’s, Dengler worked for more than a decade before co-founding Dynatec Mining Ltd. The firm grew over time into a major Canadian mine contractor with Dengler serving as CEO for more than 25 years. He also served on the boards of more than a few mining companies, authored several technical publications on mining technologies, and even earned an honorary doctorate from Queen’s in 1988. It is, on balance, a rich and successful career. But change is constant.

“I was running a business with about 1,500 employees and when I retired I was terrified that my brain would atrophy,” he says.

So, at 66, more than 10 years ago, Dengler did what came naturally. He earned his helicopter pilot’s licence. Later, while on a tour of the Bell plant near Montreal, he saw an early Bell 429 GlobalRanger under construction. It’s a state-of-the-art helicopter with room for seven passengers. Perhaps most interesting to Dengler, it’s a twin-engine design capable of flying in a pinch on only one engine. He placed an order.

“When I got it, I thought to myself, ‘I would love to fly this helicopter around the world,’” he says. “I had no idea what was involved, but a couple of years ago I broached the subject with my wife and with my son, Steven. The rest is history.”

helicopter in hanger
Precision engineering: Dengler owns Bell 429 GlobalRanger number 12. “It’s incredible,” he says. “The helicopter performed absolutely flawlessly, never missed a beat.”

Much of the planning and permitting work fell to Steven – the younger Dengler – in the end as the elder endured a course of chemotherapy. But it all came together on July 1st, 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation, when the father-and-son pair raised the collective on an epic 48-day circumnavigation. Dubbed the C150 Global Odyssey, the journey led them over some of the most beautiful and remote landscapes in the northern hemisphere. Highlights included the Pangnirtung Pass on Baffin Island and the Greenland Ice Sheet.

helicopter pad by river

Stunning landscape: The C150 Global Odyssey crew stops at the St. Lewis River Lodge in remote Labrador.

“Everywhere we went, people were terrific,” says Dengler. “We landed in Iceland, and the media was there to greet us. I have nothing but good stuff to say about people in Russia. And from an engineering perspective, we never had a single problem with the helicopter. We put a year’s worth of flying on it in 48 days and we never had to change a single part. It’s a tribute to the engineering that goes into it.”

They were waylaid a few days here and there because of the risk of icing, and crossing against all those time zones unexpectedly robbed them of sleep. Dengler describes the adventure as an exciting and gruelling one.

It seems something of a waste to talk with someone who has such a long list of amazing adventure stories without asking for a few secrets.

Dengler speaking to crowd

Homecoming: The Bell helicopter facility in Mirabel, where Dengler’s GlobalRanger was built, seemed a suitable spot to wrap up the trip of a lifetime.

“The most important thing I learned going to university is the ability to solve problems,” says Dengler. “No matter what happens, you learn there’s always a way to extract yourself when you run into roadblocks. Second, most of us are not blessed with great brains but, if you work hard, you can make up for a lot. Finally, it’s critically important that you keep learning. You think ‘I’ve gone all the way through grade school, high school and university. I’ve had it. I want to work, make money, and forget about all this studying.’ You can’t do that. You have to keep learning all through your life. As an engineer and entrepreneur I took courses at the Wharton School of Finance, Queen’s, and Harvard.”

Perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, though, is about the value of the prospect of failure.

“Back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the company was really growing quickly and we in fact grew too fast,” he says. “There were a lot of sleepless nights and things looked pretty bleak. We managed our way through it in time, but believe me, when you have to ask a group of people to leave the company, it’s really tough. There are real challenges in life and you have to be prepared for that, too. To me Queen’s equipped me to handle that.”

Learn more about the C150 Global Odyssey.

lady talking to Steven Dengler sitting at a table

Aviation station: Steven Dengler signs autographs at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.