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The Origin and Growth of Western Canadian Aviation as I Have Seen It

by Roy Brown

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 14, 1957-58 season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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As the request for this paper is to outline "The Origin and Growth of Western Canadian Aviation As I Have Seen It", I am going to attempt just that. To give details of exhibition and stunt flying from 1910 to 1926 would be irrelevant and would only interest those of us who are 'antique' enough to remember. It is, therefore, my intention to deal with the inception and growth of the industry from the time the aeroplane became a useful and practical means of transportation. I will take as the eastern boundary, the first commercial base at Hudson and Sioux Lookout in Ontario, some 300 miles east of Winnipeg; and the western boundary, the Mackenzie River basin which was served from Edmonton and Waterways in Alberta. I will touch only briefly on the latter as I did not personally participate in that area a great deal, although I was constantly in touch with their operations. I will digress for a short period and give a brief outline of a trip through the Barren Lands and into the Arctic in the autumn of 1929. This was the famous search for Colonel C. D. H. McAlpine and party and which is still considered one of the great northern flying achievements of its time.

The actual start of bush flying in the eastern area was from Hudson, Ontario, in the early part of 1926, sparked by a gold strike at Red Lake, approximately 110 miles to the north west. Quite a few weird and wonderful aircraft joined in the mad and lucrative rush; these were equipped with various types of skis, as the snow was too deep for wheel operations. The rates were fabulous and the volume of business was something to make the mouth water. With the advent of the break-up period, all were faced with the problem that only aircraft capable of landing and taking off on water were of any use. This brought in the first seaplane types and the odd flying boat. During this summer, the number of miles flown per aircraft in the district was remarkable considering the reliability of engines, etc. of that era.

I have given considerable thought to the use of names and have decided to eliminate them almost entirely as there is not sufficient time to cover the adventure and romance of those early years in a paper such as this. There were some fabulous characters in the first ten years of the industry; great adventurers and gallant gentlemen, most of whom I was privileged to call my friends. The number who gave their lives in the opening of our north is too large for pleasant thinking, and we who are left remember them with affection and admiration. Their story, if and when written, will be one of Canada's finest bits of history. Since I am neither an historian, nor a writer, I must leave this to more capable hands. As I progress, should I use the words 'I' or 'we' occasionally, please consider me as a fictitious narrator and remember that I do so only because I happened to be where these things took place.

During the latter part of the open-water season of 1926, the late James A. Richardson was persuaded that aviation had a future. He financed the first western company which became known as Western Canada Airways Limited. It was found that the most suitable aircraft for the type of work was being manufactured by the Fokker Aircraft Company in New Jersey, as it was readily convertible from wheels to skis and to pontoons in the open-water season.

As a matter of interest, the type of convertible under-gear for bush flying aircraft has not changed a great deal to this day. A more efficient type of pontoon has been built but it has not changed in design for twenty years. It is interesting to note, that in 1927, two brothers in Sioux Lookout designed a type of ski which proved to be very efficient. As a matter of fact, I still consider them to be the finest ski in the north. They are still being handmade by the same two gentlemen in spite of the fact that they are very well advanced in years.

To return to the operational end of flying, Western Canada Airways purchased three Standard Fokkers and moved into Hudson. This machine was powered with a 225 horsepower motor, had an open cockpit in front and a roomy four-passenger cabin behind. On good days, depending on the wind velocity, we could carry 700 pounds of freight on floats, providing the trip was not too long and the gas load was not too heavy. On skis, the load went up to 800 pounds, and if conditions were smooth, the weather good, and no one was looking, it was not uncommon for it to sneak up to a thousand pounds. This aircraft was a very good work-horse.

During the following year, all other operators left the Hudson Sioux area and Western Canada had a busy time. They were continually increasing their fleet of Fokkers and the prospecting area was spreading. The spread at that time was in an easterly direction. First of all, there was the Woman Lake area which was almost due north, 100 to 120 miles, and then there was the Pickle Lake area, 125 miles to the north-east.

An episode of note during this time follows. In March, 1927, the Federal Department of Railways and Canals requested the Company to fly eight tons of freight from Mile 423 on the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill. The story of this job is a small yarn in itself, for which we have neither the time nor space. Suffice it to say that the job was completed and the two machines arrived back at Hudson, just in time to have them dragged ashore before the ice went out and float operations went into full swing for the summer.

During this float season, the first expansion to the west took place. Sherritt Gordon Mines was opening its property approximately 110 miles north of The Pas and asked Western Canada Airways to fly thirty tons of mining machinery and supplies to the camp before freeze-up. One aircraft was despatched to undertake this job but it turned out to be bigger than anticipated. A second machine was sent and a permanent base was opened in The Pas. At the end of the year, I arrived with the third machine. Mining was booming in this district and moving farther north all the time. By break-up, three planes were really busy.

Because mining activity was moving north, with the commencement of float operations, it was decided to establish a base at Cranberry Portage, about seventy miles north of The Pas. At that time, during the construction of the railway to Flin Flon, Cranberry was the end of steel. Lake Athapapaskow provided an excellent operating base for seaplanes and, with mining still booming, we had six aircraft operating before freeze-up in 1928. During this summer also, a one-machine advance base was established about 100 miles north, at Island Falls, which was being developed as the power site for Flin Flon.

A base was established at Lac du Bonnet in order to fill the gap between Sioux Lookout and The Pas. This was also a one-machine operation and was primarily to service the old Central Manitoba Gold Mines, sixty miles north. Prospecting was very active and so the plane was kept well occupied.

Another mark of the summer of 1928 was the advent of the Super Fokker. This machine had 400 horsepower, a closed-in cockpit, a large cabin for six passengers, and it could carry a freight-load of 1400 to 1500 pounds on a 100 mile haul. This was governed by three factors-the ability of the pilot on floats, the wind, and who was watching. The Super Fokker remained the leading performer in the north for about five years.

In this same year, 1928, westward expansion took place. With Fort McMurray as a base of operations, traffic was increasing all down the Mackenzie River basin (Fort Smith, Fort Rae, Norman, Arctic Red River and on down to Aklavik). Also, Punch Dickins proceeded from Winnipeg, up through Norway House to Churchill, up the coast to Chesterfield Inlet, Baker Lake and down through the Barrens to Stony Rapids, and from there to Chipewyan and Edmonton. The only part of this journey which was not routine to most of the pilots, was across the Barrens, but the trip was outstanding at that time.

The winter of 1928-29 witnessed no expansion as prospecting was more or less at a standstill during the time the snow was on the ground. The aircraft were not too busy but were still getting sufficient work to keep crews together and not lose money. There was enough flying into the established camps to take care of this and the fur industry was beginning to find aeroplanes useful too. The Super Fokker and the Fairchild 71 of the same power were as plentiful, if not more so, than the old 225 horsepower jobs.

The float season of 1929 was a very good one. All bases were busy, with independent mining exploration companies being formed and their activities stretching farther north - some even along the Hudson Bay coast and close to the Arctic Circle. As a matter of fact, the property at North Rankin Inlet where the North Rankin Nickel Mine is presently operating was originally looked at in that year.

In September, an incident occurred which touched off one of the greatest aerial searches that the north has ever known. I refer to the McAlpine Exploration Party. While not contributing much new in development, I believe it justifies being outlined here. The whole story is quite a yarn but would take me at least an hour to relive it with words and to hope to make you see it as it was. I will, therefore, try to give you a brief picture of the why and wherefore and the result with the time at my disposal.

On August 24, 1929, two aircraft left Winnipeg with Colonel McAlpine and his party with the intention being to make the following tour - Winnipeg - Norway House - Churchill - Chesterfield Inlet - Baker Lake - Beverley Lake - Burnside River (at the southern end of Bathurst Inlet) - Coppermine - Aklavik - south to Great Bay and Great Slave and on to Fort McMurray. From there, they were to proceed eastward via Lake Athabaska to Stony Rapids to rendezvous with two other Dominion Explorer's machines on September 20th.

Smoke conditions were very bad at the time and they were two days late in reaching Churchill. The aircraft were anchored in the Churchill River for the night, but one slipped its anchor and went out to sea. It was spotted by a boat some miles out but it sank during a salvage attempt. I left Cranberry Portage for Winnipeg to get them another machine but because of the forest fire smoke it was September 6th before I could deliver it to them.

They left Churchill to complete their trip the next morning and were unheard of from there on. There were only three or four radios throughout the whole area at that time, so no great anxiety was felt until the party with the two machines at Stony Rapids, having waited until September 24th, began to think something must be amiss. There was a radio at that point, so a general call was sent to all stations requesting any news. None was forthcoming and so a search was called. I received the call at Cranberry Portage by wire from Winnipeg, advising me that I had volunteered and was to proceed to Stony Rapids to report, and was to take about 400 pounds of food, warm clothing and my Engineer. When we mustered at Stony, we were four machines in all. Since we were headed a very long way without any available gas, it was decided that two aircraft would make the dash through the Bathurst before freezeup, which was dangerously imminent. The two of us would take full tanks and all the gas we could carry in the cabin in ten gallon drums. The other two machines were similarly loaded and followed us for about 350 miles to near Dubawnt Lake where we all landed. The gas in the cabins of these machines was then pumped into our tanks just leaving them enough to get back to Stony. The weather was very low and we had run out of country which was properly mapped and had to rely on the old maps made by explorers. That evening we ended up at Beverley Lake. This lake is significant in that two very mighty rivers, the Dubawnt and the Thelon, join there within three or four miles of each other.

This was also our first check point. We knew there was a small gas cache on the north beach and if that had been used, we had to proceed north-west to Bathurst. The cache was empty. We still had ample gas to make Bathurst where there was a good supply - so the next morning, we headed out but the ceiling was so low that we could not cross the height of land and were forced back to Beverley. We waited until next morning and, since the weather looked a bit better, made another try but, within fifty miles, we were forced back. After a short council of war, we decided that, since our gas was now very marginal, it would be advisable to head east to Baker Lake where gas had been put in by boat. We planned to load up to capacity and make another try when the weather broke. This was done and the second day we made another attempt but were forced back to Beverley; next day, another try but it was still of no use. In addition, all small lakes were frozen over and ice was showing around the edges of the larger ones. In the meantime, while at Baker Lake, we were able to radio asking for skis, gas and supplies. A special train was sent to Churchill and a very famous old Arctic skipper volunteered to bring a boat through. This is the latest trip on record.

On return to Baker, we found we had been joined by three more machines. We now had no alternative but to beach them all, wait for the boat, change to skis and then wait for ice. During this period, there was a terrific storm which damaged one of the machines beyond repair. When there was sufficient ice, the four remaining aircraft took off and on the second day, reached the camp at the bottom end of Bathurst, having been unsuccessful in sighting any downed aircraft, although we were spread out over about a ten-mile stretch. The pilot of the first machine to land suspected the ice was not too good and kept up a lot of speed until he was close to shore. The second one did the same, but the third one slowed down and the plane went through right up to its wings. The crew came out of the escape hatch in the cockpit. The fourth became very cagey and went down the shore about three miles until a long shallow bay was spotted and landed safely. The pilot had to walk to the camp but his machine was in one piece.

For the next week or so, only two of us were serviceable and whenever weather permitted, we were searching in four directions but uncovered nothing. The gas got so low that we agreed to search one more day, which would leave us enough gas to get south. Next morning, an Eskimo arrived by dog team to tell us the party had turned up at Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island, about 100 miles north across the Dease Straits. We took off and picked them up about noon and returned to base. There were eight in the party, all suffering from scurvy and one from frost-bitten toes. In the mean times, the drowned aircraft was salvaged by our own crew and while the job was being completed, the rescued party was being nursed back to reasonable health by the doctor who accompanied us on the search party.

Then came the day to head south. The route was planned to old Fort Reliance-Stony Rapids-The Pas and Winnipeg. Our adventures were not over, but suffice it to say we finished up in Winnipeg on December 6th, with only three machines but with the party all intact and in excellent spirits. What happened for the next three days is history that will never be written. I say that advisedly. Of the seven pilots on the search, only two of us are living. The other five have since been killed in aircraft accidents.

As you will realize, it was inevitable that the stock market crash would put a crimp in the mining industry, particularly the exploration portion. The next couple of years were dull for bush flying but while there was not much new expansion, the position was maintained and the Mackenzie River area made progress.

Fortunately, in March, 1930, there was an entirely new development which gave us the boost we needed. This was the Prairie Air Mail which ran from March 1, 1930 to March 31, 1932. In my opinion, a resume of this operation is worth inclusion in this narrative.

The routes covered were as follows: Winnipeg - Regina - Moose Jaw - Medicine Hat - Calgary, each way, daily except Sunday; a side run from Regina to Saskatoon to Edmonton, on the same basis. These were subsequently revised as follows: Winnipeg-Calgary was changed to include Lethbridge, and Regina-Edmonton to include North Battleford. This was soon altered further to link Calgary and Edmonton, and the leg from North Battleford to Edmonton was dropped. This was partly because of the necessity of flying at night, to prove that air mail was an advantage. The route from Winnipeg through to Edmonton via Calgary was equipped, more or less, for night flying, with a rotating beacon and an emergency landing field every thirty miles and part of the way, additional gas blinkers every ten miles. The latter were not of very much help, but the landing fields with the rotating beacons were very handy. They did not have any night landing aids but there were at least boundary lights to give some guidance. The fields themselves were strictly the grass type, but serviceable enough.

The aircraft were an assorted lot, all single-engined with the pilot sitting away back towards the tail. Some were strictly mail planes with no passenger accommodation, while others ranged from four to eight passengers. The passenger cabin was located between the pilot and the engine, so that in event of an accident, the passengers were all in trouble before the damage reached the pilot. In looking back, one finds it difficult to believe that the public were brave enough to patronize the service - only one engine, questionable weather reports and no such thing as radio. It is astounding to consider that, with the contract calling for well over 2,000 miles of flying per day, 97.5% of the trips were completed over the two years and one month it was in effect. I do not claim they were completed on schedule, because with the little margin of speed we had, a head wind could cost half-an-hour between Winnipeg and Regina. Schedules were set up on a 100 m.p.h. basis and the aircraft were mostly doing their best cruising at 110 m.p.h., and I may be bragging a little at that. It is also worthy of mention that we had only two serious accidents which unfortunately cost five lives.

The Prime Minister, R. B. Bennett, took an extra look at the postal budget early in 1932 and decided we were a luxury, so the air mail stopped on March 31, 1932, and was not heard of again until the formation of Trans Canada Airlines in 1937. I will make no attempt to discuss the history of transcontinental flying and airline operation.

With the end of the mail, all the pilots scampered back to the bush; some down the Mackenzie, and the rest scattered between there and Sioux Lookout. Things were quiet but picking up. There had been no drastic changes but, with business getting better and mining activity on the increase, independent companies sprang up and competition became very keen. About 1934, the two-way radio became an established fact and it was a great asset. Mail contracts were being let to remote areas, but competition was so keen that it is doubtful if any company made money out of them.

The Lac du Bonnet or Central District expanded tremendously between 1932 and 1939; traffic was heavy between there and Red Lake with connection to Winnipeg by car. God's Lake Gold Mines had become a big community, 325 miles to the north. Berens River Gold Mines was developed and was a producing mine, 230 miles north-east. In addition to the old Central Manitoba Mine, there were San Antonio Gold Mines, Gunnar Gold Mines, all within a sixty-mile hop of Lac du Bonnet. People in these places were receiving daily service, with often as many as six calls per day.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, things became rather poor. Pilots were joining the Forces, labour was scarce in the mines, and there were numerous other factors.

The war years were brightened by the Canadian Pacific Railway forming Canadian Pacific Air Lines and buying out all the smaller companies. This was probably a good thing for some.

At the end of the war, it was decided by all operators that, in order to operate economically, landing fields were essential to permit the use of larger aircraft on wheels and the float equipment could take over from these northern fields and do the short haul part. This has been steadily developed with the result that the cost of air transport to the larger northern centres has been greatly reduced. One example is our local situation-Winnipeg to Red Lake, daily, on wheels, in fifty minutes; daily service from Winnipeg to Dauphin, The Pas and Flin Flon; three trips per week through to Lynn Lake and three times weekly to Churchill. All this has been made practicable by the building of landing fields. At all these points, the old time "bush operator" is standing by to carry on.

It is rather remarkable how little change there has been in the "bush type" of operation in thirty years. The top horsepower on seaplanes is approximately 600 with the speed increased about twenty-five percent and the engines are much more reliable; the average payload is also up about twenty-five percent. The pilots still do not fly by instruments, but they have good photographic maps and they still seem to get to their destinations.

For my part, it has been a grand life and I really believe the aeroplane is here to stay.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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