Chapter 2: The Era of Expeditions

Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North




The Era of Expeditions


During the first two decades of the twentieth century, aviation in the Canadian North shifted from international airships and aeronauts, to homegrown initiatives. Buoyed by J.A.D. McCurdy’s Silver Dart and the success of Americans such as the Wright brothers, northern flyers went to great lengths to gain altitude. Many of these early bush pilots were veterans of the First World War and had seen first-hand how useful aviation could be for scouting terrain and transporting people and supplies. They also quickly realized that flying in the North required careful planning and made-in-the-bush solutions.


Yukon Air-Mindedness


A decade after the Klondike gold rush, Dawson City was still a mining centre — albeit a much smaller one. Its population had continued to fall after the days of Professor Leonard and Antoine Variclé, and by 1910 there were about two thousand people in town. As resident Laura Berton recalled, while the hotels were doing well, the dance-hall era was over and Second and Third Avenues were “on the verge of becoming a desert of second-hand shops and junk yards. Some of the buildings were already vacant and the windows boarded Nevertheless, Dawson was a cosmopolitan city with citizens from every continent, and stores carried the latest Paris fashions and Japanese kimonos.

     As in the gold rush days, getting Outside was still a challenge. The Yukon River was the main form of transportation, and at the turn of the century, British Yukon Navigation Co. steamers travelled back and forth between Dawson and Whitehorse, taking two days downstream and three and a half days up. The steamers ran while the water was open, from mid-June to the end of October, while in winter, travel was restricted to a trail the government had constructed between the two cities in 1902. The White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) ran a tri-weekly stagecoach service using Concord coaches until there was enough snow for a sleigh. As Berton remembered, the overland stage to Dawson in February was far from luxurious. She and thirteen other passengers rode in the open sleigh for a week, often braving temperatures of forty below, stopping every thirty-five kilometres at roadhouses along the way. But at least it meant movement of people and goods: when the river was impassable during freeze-up and breakup, the town was essentially cut off from the outside.


Dolar De Lagrave constructed and tested this glider in 1927 in Dawson City, Yukon. He had joined the Klondike Gold Rush in 1899, and never returned to his family in Quebec, opting instead to remain in Dawson as a tailor and inventor.

DCM Archives/1998.22.734


     It was these ongoing transportation challenges — as well as a growing sense of air-mindedness — that encouraged Yukoners to create new aviation schemes. In 1909 J.A.D. McCurdy executed the first heavier-than-air flight in the British Empire when his aircraft, the Silver took flight in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. It may have been over seven thousand kilometres away, but it inflamed the imaginations of those living in the territory. Dolar De Lagrave was the first in the Yukon to turn this interest in aviation into an actual flying He had left his family behind in Quebec to seek riches during the Klondike gold rush and never returned, opting instead to stay in Dawson and work as a tailor and inventor. In the fall of 1910 he constructed a biplane glider with a wingspan of 4.5 metres to test aeronautical theories. His methods of testing, however, were more foolhardy than scientific: “Mr. De Lagrave,” noted the Dawson Weekly “simply puts his arms through supports, and plunges off the prow of the hill, letting the wind assist the air.”

     At the time there were also reports he was building an airship with the support of his fellow Dawsonites, and he may have been behind the March 1918 plans for a fifty-seat flying machine to go between Dawson and Nothing came of either of these schemes, unfortunately, but he continued to build and test gliders in Dawson until his death in 1938.


The First Alaska Air Expedition


De Lagrave may also have been inspired by early brushes with aviation in the Yukon. He was in Dawson in June 1913, for example, when the first airplane arrived in the territory, although he never saw it fly. Indeed, no one did: the Gage-Martin tractor biplane and its pilot, James V. Martin, travelled by train to Whitehorse and then on to Fairbanks by stern wheeler. The airplane was crated the whole time it was in the


< Councillor Robert Lowe gives a welcome speech following the landing of Captain Streett at the Whitehorse, Yukon, airfield on Discovery Day, which fell on Tuesday, August 17, 1920. The other three U.S. Army Air Service aircraft of the First Alaska Air Expedition had landed the previous day, becoming the first heavier-than-air craft to land in the territory.

Sam McGee/Beverly Gramms Coll/YA/83_58 _11


     He and other Yukoners likely had their first contact with airborne planes in August 1920. That month, the First Alaska Air Expedition arrived in the Yukon with much fanfare. The expedition involved eight U.S. Army airmen flying from New York to Nome, Alaska, in four open-cockpit D.H.4Bs, which were left over from the First World War. As author and pilot John Grierson notes, this was “an extremely ambitious target for any aeroplane in those days, even over the flattest and easiest flying And the section of the trip from Edmonton to Nome was anything but easy. It involved some very challenging topography, which the pilots tackled with rudimentary maps, no radio, and very little information about the weather they might The U.S. and Canadian governments were willing to take these risks, however, to explore the feasibility of establishing air routes to the North for civilian and defence purposes.

     The two countries had begun preparing in June. Captain H.T. Douglas of the U.S. Army Air Service and Captain H.A. LeRoyer of the Canadian Air Force travelled by steamer to make arrangements at Whitehorse, Dawson City, and various places in Alaska for refueling sites. At Whitehorse, the only place considered suitable for landing was the golf course west of town, which sat on government land leased to lumberman Antoine “Tony” Cyr. Councillor Robert Lowe oversaw the project to turn the course into an airfield, which involved a team of about ten men, including Cyr, clearing “scattered clumps” of pine trees and brush to make a landing field of roughly 450 by 115 metres and “slashing” the trees on the north and south ends to make the approach easier. By July 2, the Air Force signed off on the work, and the landing field was ready for

     When the planes departed New York on July 15, local interest — which was already high — reached a fevered pitch. Newspapers updated Yukoners on the expedition’s progress and the many hazards the flyers faced between Edmonton and Whitehorse: burst oil pipes; a forest fire over the Pembina River country; the grounding of the fleet in Prince George, British Columbia, after a hard landing, among

     On August 16, three of the aircraft finally arrived in Whitehorse (the fourth had to stay behind because of a nicked propeller). Whitehorse was still a sleepy little town that had shrunk to three hundred people after the boom years at the turn of the century, but the population turned out in force. After all, the arrival of a steamer or train was big news, so the first airplanes were not to be missed. Laura Berton remembered that “the entire village flocked up the hill to look at the strange machines, which seemed to be all wire and Another resident, Frances Watson, wrote her friend that she had a perfect view of the landing field: “I stood on the balcony of the old hospital where I was nursing and was thrilled to see the three [airplanes] coming in formation.” She observed that local indigenous people had been getting ready for a funeral “just as the planes came in.” When the procession spotted them, however, “the group of young men quickly placed the casket in a nearby wooded area and went up to the airport. As soon as the planes left they returned and carried on to the burial ground.” After all, Watson remarked, “No hurry

     When the town learned the fourth and final airplane was due to arrive the next day, there was another rush of people to the The Weekly Star reported on the scene: “Three cheers burst from the crowd as the captain, smiling and happy, stepped from his cramped quarters and shook hands with the excited assembly, many of whom were old timers of Yukon and had never seen an aeroplane before.”

     From Whitehorse, two of the pilots departed for Dawson City, where four thousand people had gathered for a Discovery Day celebration to mark the Klondike gold rush. Minto Park, on the south side of town, was decorated with flags and streamers and the celebration was well under way when two of the aircraft came into sight mid-afternoon. Someone in the crowd yelled, “Here they come, here they come!” and everyone looked to the sky. They then quickly deserted the park for the ferry landing to catch a ride across the river to Dr. G.M. Faulkner’s Field in West Dawson. Dawson’s power, telephone, and telegraph wires made it dangerous for the pilots to land near town.

     The following day the weather was overcast when Captains Streett and Crumrine, who had stayed in Whitehorse to repair a blown tire, flew to Dawson to rejoin their comrades. On his way in, Streett had a very near miss: the ferry the spectators had used the day before employed a cable strung about thirty metres above the river. Streett, according to the Yukon News, “had not been told about the overhanging cable as no one had figured any of the flyers would be coming in that low.” Luckily, he saw it just in time: “He keeled over on one wing, dipped under the cable and flew on to land safely.” Apparently, even once he was out of his plane and on the ground, the veteran airman was trembling from his experience. He admitted it had been the closest call of his life.


One of the U.S. Army Air Service’s D.H.4B open cockpit biplanes takes off from the hastily constructed airfield in West Dawson on August 17, 1920. It was the First Alaska Air Expedition’s final Canadian stop en route to Nome, Alaska.

LAC/ PA-101569


     After they had steeled their nerves and rested their weary bodies overnight, the flyers left for Fairbanks and then on to Nome. While it was the final destination of their arduous cross-continent trek, they still had to get their machines home again. Locals were again delighted when the pilots flew through the territory a week later, and made them honorary northerners by inducting them into the Yukon Order of Pioneers.


“A Man of Exceptional Skill and Pluck”


In 1922 the Yukon received its next aerial visitor, who was also flying to Nome from New York. However, instead of a well-organized military operation, it was a solo pilot relying on the generosity of the crowds he entertained en route. Clarence Oliver Prest was a twenty-nine-year-old Iowa native who had been in the “flying game” for over a He told Yukon reporters he had been an instructor for the American Flying Corps during the First World War, and afterward, had gotten into auto racing and motorcycle stunting. Then, like many out-of-work pilots after the war, he started flying from town to town barnstorming — that is, performing aerial feats and selling airplane rides to local residents. The year before, he had made his first attempt to reach Alaska in a modified Standard J-1 biplane, Polar He had managed to fly without incident from Tijuana, Mexico, up the coast to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. There, however, he not only got thrown in jail for illegal exhibition work, but his plane cracked up in a heavy wind and he was forced to start over.

     On his second attempt, in 1922, Prest left from Buffalo, New York, in early June, flying a brand-new J-1 biplane, the Polar Bear II, across the U.S., making enough money at each stop to fund the next leg of the journey. At Seattle he and his airplane boarded a ship and sailed for Juneau, Alaska, where he did a fifteen-minute exhib-ition that included the loop-the-loop, side-slip, and a number of other stunts. Then on July 6, he made the first aircraft landing at Skagway before departing for Whitehorse, where he set down at “Cyr’s airfield” — the same spot the Alaska Expedition had used in 1920. There, Prest was met by the local RCMP, who had been warned about his legal tangle in Prince Rupert the year before. This time, however, he had registered the aircraft with the Air Board in Ottawa before his departure. After filling out a ship’s “Bill of Health” form — since there were no aircraft forms yet available — and applying Canadian registration letters to the fuselage, he was allowed to continue on.


American aviator Clarence Prest and RCMP officer Claude Tidd stand by Prest’s Standard J-1 biplane, nicknamed Polar Bear in a field near Whitehorse in July 1922. To avoid legal tangles, Prest had to fill out a ship’s “Bill of Health” form and apply Canadian registration letters, switching N-CACH to G-CACH on the fuselage.

Claude Tidd, YA/007794


     There was one snag: the Canadian officials informed him he could not do any exhibition work or carry passengers because it would be unfair competition to Canadian flyers. This was a major blow to Prest and his ability to fund the rest of his flight. When residents of Dawson City heard of this, though, they petitioned to allow him to perform there. Prest could not “disadvantage Canadian aviators” in the territory, they argued — there were none!

     Lucky for Prest and would-be spectators at Dawson, the Air Board agreed. With all the bureaucracy sorted out, he departed Whitehorse in his plane, now sporting registration N-CACH, on July 10, bound for Dawson. On his way he stopped at Selkirk — the first aircraft to do so — and decided to stay there until he was sure the landing site at Dawson was ready. The next day, after he received the all-clear, he took off. It was overcast, but he was not too concerned as the ceiling was high and the Yukon River provided many beaches and sandbars for emergency landings.

     As Prest flew toward Dawson, people in places like Quartz Creek kept an eye on the skies and telephoned his position. In Dawson, the telegraph and Dawson Daily News offices posted bulletins for the excited townspeople. Dawsonite Archie Turnbull hurried to the landing field in West Dawson when he heard the plane was nearby. Turnbull, who had been with the American Flying Corps as well, had been charged with preparing the runway as no airplanes had used Faulkner’s Field for two years. The north end, which the U.S. Army flyers had used, was covered with heavy hay, so Turnbull placed a white cross made of cheesecloth on the south end to mark where the plane should land. He also lit smudges so Prest could watch the smoke for wind direction.

     At the same time, the fire chief sounded the fire bell and war siren to alert the town to Prest’s impending arrival, and in spite of the early hour, a number of citizens took the ferry across the river. A special reception committee and RCMP constables were also on hand, but unlike at Whitehorse, they had been engaged to stand guard over the plane — not Prest. While he was thrilled at the warm welcome, the pilot had to tell the disappointed crowd he would not take up any passengers while in Dawson to conserve his plane: “I’m carrying practically no spare parts … and I have to go easy with the machine.” He reassured them, however, that he would perform a twenty-minute exhibition that Saturday evening.

     On the appointed day, people came from across town and even the gold creeks to watch the show. At 8:30 p.m. Prest took off from the newly cleared beach in front of Dawson and rose to a height of about six hundred metres. Then, “turning over the north end of town, the flyer pointed her prow downward, in the dare-devil nose dive, and shot so close to the ground” that spectators worried he would crash. Instead, the local newspaper reported, “he gave a graceful twist that sent the plane skimming on the horizontal and she shot by with a thrilling ‘zoom’ and soared away into the distance above the Klondike and the Yukon rivers.” On his way back, he did a “beautiful spiral” and landed, by all accounts, quite gracefully on the beach. Everyone was thrilled with the performance, and fêted him at the tourist dance held afterward. In addition to giving and receiving a short address to honour the occasion (as well as a purse the equivalent of $6,500 collected by the audience), the press noted the young pilot danced with “many of Dawson’s charming young ladies.”

     On July 15 he left Dawson bound for Fairbanks, Alaska, with a quick stop at With him, he took letters destined for those Alaskan locales as well as copies of the Dawson Daily He also took on board what was apparently the Yukon’s first international cargo shipment: a bottle of cough syrup sent from Chief Isaac of the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in to Porcupine Pane, an indigenous man at Eagle.

     Yukoners respected Prest, saying only “a man of exceptional skill and pluck would venture, as he is doing, to cross Yukon and Alaska alone in an airplane.” Nevertheless, some wondered if he had overestimated his abilities. This was especially the case when he and his plane went missing in the bush 120 kilometres from Eagle. He had been forced to make two landings to deal with engine troubles on his way to Eagle, and once there he told reporters he “planned a general overhauling of the engine on arrival at Fairbanks,” but insisted on pressing on. “Prest took unusual risks in attempting to cross such a wide stretch with an engine in unsatisfactory condition and with little or no food,” observed the reporter for the Dawson Daily “Few experienced woodsmen or northern travelers familiar with … local conditions will plunge into such a region without food. Some few have been known to live off the rifle,” he conceded, but Prest did not have one.

     Luckily, Archie Turnbull had given Prest a thirty-two-calibre automatic pistol in Dawson in case of emergency, and the pilot put this to good use. When his plane went down in bad weather, it miraculously crashed into a herd of caribou. He shot one with the pistol and was able to butcher it with a pocket knife. After roasting the steaks over a fire he had started with aviation gasoline (or avgas as it is commonly known), he took shelter from the rain in the tail of the airplane. The miserable weather continued, and when a strong wind flipped the machine over so he could no longer sleep in it, he decided to try to make his way to Eagle on foot. His incredible luck continued: he picked up a trail and found an empty dry cabin on his third night, and then ran into one of the search parties on the trail, seventy-two kilometres from Eagle. He was tired and sick of eating caribou, but otherwise unhurt.

     The aircraft, however, was a write-off, and according to Prest, “utterly impossible” to move. Even with this second crack-up, and agonizingly close to his goal, Prest was undaunted. He told reporters he would try again the next year, but, having seen all the rivers and lakes in the Northwest, he would fly a “hydroplane” instead so he could land on water. Yukoners were also unphased by what could have been seen as a major setback for aviation in the territory. Even after his crash, the editor of the Dawson Daily News suggested the high-profile search had given the territory positive international exposure: “The whole Prest exploit gives the Northland a great and gripping advertisement far and


“Made in the Bush”


In their rhetoric about Prest’s expedition, journalists drew parallels with another aviation undertaking north of 60: the 1921 Imperial Oil flight into the Northwest Territories. Both flights, the Dawson Daily News argued, directed “fresh attention to the possibility of regular air service in the Northland.” They also showed that avi-ation facilities and demand were sorely lacking — at least for the moment.

     On August 27, 1920, Imperial Oil drills had struck black gold at Fort Norman (now called Tulita) and the world’s focus turned north. The local Dene First Nation had known about the oil’s presence for centuries and used its “residue to smear and waterproof their In 1789 explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie had also noted oil in the area, but outsiders did not search for the resource until the early twentieth century. The First World War interrupted their work until 1919, when Imperial Oil sent in two geologists and a six-person drilling team. The information they gathered during that trip was enough to set off what could have been a “speculative spree,” even though it took eight weeks to travel by rail and dog team from Edmonton in winter, or five to ten days in summer by boat with several difficult To prevent a free-for-all, the federal government introduced regulations to make small mineral claims unappealing, and the RCMP put restrictions on winter travel down the Mackenzie

     Imperial Oil also took steps to protect its interests by quickly setting up its own air service. This, it was hoped, would get employees to the well before the rivers were navigable and before would-be competitors, such as Northern Canada Traders Ltd., could send its own aircraft to Fort In September 1920, Imperial Oil hired May-Gorman Aeroplanes, owned by war veterans Wilfrid “Wop” May and George W. Gorman, to establish operations. The Edmonton pilots, along with air mechanic Pete Derbyshire, began their work by flying to the railhead at Peace River, likely to find a suitable base of Gorman was tasked with choosing which type of aircraft Imperial Oil should purchase, and decided on two Junkers-Larsen JL-6s, which were the world’s first all-metal transport aircraft. He and May then had to get the aircraft from the factory in New York to Edmonton in January 1921 — a frigid cross-country trip.

     At this point, May took his leave from the operation to pursue other projects, but Gorman continued to work with Imperial Air Services on careful preparations for the upcoming flight to Fort Norman. The company designed and built skis for Vic (G-CADP) and (G-CADQ), as the two aircraft were now called, and undertook the first ski flights in western Canada. There were major risks involved in flying north from Edmonton, as Canada’s former Director of Civil Aviation J.R.K. Main noted: this was the “first winter operation of any magnitude undertaken in Canada,” and “little was known about the steps needed to make winter flying But the Imperial Air Services crews were determined. On March 22, 1920, the flyers — Elmer Fullerton, George Gorman, George Thompson, and air engineer William J. Hill — departed to stash fuel at the Hudson Bay Company post at Upper Hay River, Alberta, about halfway to Great Slave Lake. This flight went off without a hitch, and the men were cautiously optimistic when they left for Fort Norman on March

     Their optimism was soon tested. The multi-day journey was fraught with bad weather, heavy winds, detours, and unknown landing conditions. At Fort Providence, for example, they landed in a field adjoining the HBC post in a metre of snow. In order to get out the next day, they and several Dene men had to tramp down a runway using snowshoes. A landing at Fort Simpson presented them with an almost insurmountable challenge. As the pilots neared the settlement in a light snowstorm, they looked for a place to set down. The surface of the Mackenzie River looked “extremely rough,” so they aimed for a nearby field. Unfortunately, it was riddled with snowdrifts. nose-dived into them, damaging its propeller, undercarriage, and wingtip. Fullerton, who was piloting saw what happened and landed safely in a nearby channel.


In March 1921, Imperial Oil sent two Junkers-Larsen JL-6 airplanes from Edmonton to Fort Norman, Northwest Territories, to secure its claims at what would become Norman Wells. En route, the planes encountered a series of calamities and bush solutions. Pictured is G-CADP, nicknamed at the Fort Simpson Roman Catholic Mission with the flight crew, RCMP officers, and possibly Chief Antoine of the local Dene.

NWT Archives/Fred Jackson fonds/N-79-004:0075


     The next day they decided Fullerton would go on to Fort Norman, but Vic had developed engine trouble over the previous days’ flights, so they cannibalized fitted the parts to and decided to send it on instead. When Gorman attempted to take off, however, “it rocked, nose-dived, and shivered the second propeller to atoms.” The crews were able to draw on local help to get the machines up and running again, which involved one particularly stunning piece of bush-flying ingenuity: Hill and Walter Johnson, the HBC boat’s engineer and general handyman, spent two weeks making a new propeller out of sleigh board and moose glue. This was done in the relative comfort of the Roman Catholic Mission workshop, where Father Decoux, O.M.I. offered them tools and whatever they could find to use as clamps.

     By the time the propeller was ready, installed, and tested, the Dene at Fort Simpson warned the aircrews that the ice on the Liard River might go out before their planned departure date of April 24. Fullerton and company ignored them, which nearly cost them all their hard work. Luckily, a local Métis man, Henri Lafferty, woke them early on the morning of the twenty-fourth, shouting that the ice was breaking up. They jumped into their clothes and snowshoes, and hurried over to taking off just in time and landing the plane on a still-frozen lake nearby. According to HBC post manager Phillip H. Godsell, “only about 400 feet of solid ice remained for a take-off — while a foot of muddy water was already swirling above the skis.” That evening, Godsell and the other HBC workers ferried Gorman, two mechanics, and their guide, Jack Cameron, to Vic in a canoe. By then they had received word from Imperial, however, to return to Edmonton, as the well at Norman had failed to make any fuel for the Junkers. So they headed south in Vic while remained at Fort Simpson with Gorman, Hill, and Johnson to await parts.

     In late May Imperial sent Fullerton and Vic back to Fort Norman to take geologist Theodor A. Link up for a reconnaissance flight of the district. They were plagued with engine and radiator trouble as well as bad weather, but finally managed to do the flight on August 6, completing “a survey that would have taken months on foot.” Vic rejoined at Fort Simpson, and by August 21 the airplanes were ready to depart for the south in convoy.

     Their troubles were not over yet. One final insult (and injury) occurred when came in for its landing at Peace River: while trying to avoid a cable ferry at the last minute, the right pontoon struck a log or rock beneath the water’s surface and there was a “terrific crash.” All the people aboard were safe — Gorman, Hill, Johnson, reporter Chester Bloom, and Imperial employee Ronald W. MacKinnon — but one of the two husky puppies they had with them drowned.

     was salvaged the next day, but it was a write-off. Vic was fine, but Imperial Oil still decided to shut down its air service. It put Vic into storage in Edmonton, along with parts from and sold everything the next year. The experiment had cost them quite a bit in machines, men, and hangar construction at Peace River, but it had shown that surveys by aircraft — when they worked — were useful and efficient. The trips had also illustrated the importance of good ski technology and proper float training.


Airplanes to the Arctic


In the 1920s Canada also began undertaking aerial expeditions even further afield. In response to an increased American presence in the Arctic, the Canadian Coast Guard ship Arctic had begun a series of patrols to the far North at the beginning of the The country’s attention turned elsewhere during the First World War, but by 1922, the Federal Department of the Interior looked north again, both over sovereignty concerns and with the aim of enforcing a Canadian-style justice system over Inuit. In that year, it decided it would set up RCMP posts in the region, and asked for the co-operation of the Air Board.

     Before dispatching any planes, the RCAF wisely sent Squadron Leader R.A. Logan to do reconnaissance. Logan, a land surveyor familiar with northern conditions and an experienced flying officer who knew meteorology and navigation, departed Quebec City July 18, 1922, aboard During the next two and a half months, Logan and his team visited Baffin, Bylot, the north of Devon and Ellesmere Islands, and began marking the site for the “world’s most northerly air strip” on the latter.

     Logan recommended setting up detachments and investigating the use of airships, which he thought would be ideal in the Arctic. These would allow Canadian authorities to watch the movement of ice and report conditions to ships. As Logan wrote in his report, perhaps concerned about the relatively recent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, it would also be useful for the defence of Canada, Great Britain, and Europe, against what he called “the Slavs.” He also reported airships could be used to transport surveyors and track animal populations.

     Unlike many of his contemporaries, Logan was able to appreciate local expertise. He recommended that a local Inuk ride along on each flight in case of forced landing and suggested that personnel should wear clothing as “similar in every way to that worn by the natives of the islands.” Shoes should be the waterproof kamiks made of sealskin he had encountered, and socks should be sealskin with the fur inside. Because Inuit women traditionally repaired clothing, he advised the RCAF employ them at each base. Finally, Logan said station personnel should learn the local dialect of Inuktitut.

     The next step, Logan said, would be to send two small, specially equipped aircraft and their crews with an Arctic expedition. They could then “establish an air base, and conduct flying operations throughout the year” to observe local conditions and gather data. Unfortunately, while the Air Board agreed with his findings, by then it had merged with the Department of National Defence, and Canada’s aviation policy had changed direction. Ships continued to patrol the Arctic — indeed annual expeditions were sent between 1922 and 1926 — but the RCAF would not be

     Instead, the first flyers in the Canadian Arctic were Americans. In August 1925, the U.S. Navy sent three identical Loening COA-1 amphibious biplanes by ship to Greenland under Lieutenant Commander Donald The MacMillan Expedition, as it became known, landed the planes on Ellesmere Island’s Hayes and Flagler Fiords — without prior Canadian approval. As historian Shelagh Grant notes, the Americans considered much of the archipelago as terra nullius, and sought uncharted lands near the North Pole to potentially use as an advance defence post. The Canadians, in an attempt to assert sovereignty over the region, first had the RCMP undertake a major sled patrol from Craig Harbour across Ellesmere Island to Axel Heiberg in the winter of 1925. The next year, the government created the Arctic Islands Game Preserve to underline its claims.


American Navy Lieutenant Richard E. Byrd’s Loening COA-1 amphibious biplane approaching the stern of the SS The ship and airplanes were used by U.S. Navy as part of the MacMillan Expedition to claim territory in the Arctic in August 1925, and were the first heavier-than-air craft in the Canadian Arctic.

R.S. Finnie/LAC


Hudson Strait


The RCAF did not get its first polar air experience until 1927, when it launched the Hudson Strait A railway had been built to carry grain within Manitoba from The Pas to Churchill on the coast of the Hudson Bay. From the railhead, ships would bring the cargo through the Hudson Strait to markets in Europe. The trouble, as author Larry Milberry notes, was the Canadian government “knew little of navigation conditions” in the area and “rushed to correct the situation” using the RCAF, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, and the Department of Marine and

     The RCAF expedition was commanded by Squadron Leader Thomas A. Lawrence and consisted of six officers, twelve airmen, four personnel from the signal corps, three RCMP constables, and nineteen civilians who were to build the The six aircraft selected were rugged Fokker Universal monoplanes, with registrations from G-CAHE to G-CAHJ. They also had a small experimental biplane, the D.H. 60X Moth (G-CAHK), for initial base-finding flights. The whole contingent sailed north from Halifax in July 1927 aboard the icebreaker CGS Stanley and steamship Larch, and over the next year the expedition established bases at Port Burwell, Wakeham Bay (Kangiqsujuaq), and Nottingham Island (Tujjaat). The RCAF used Fokkers on skis or floats to conduct regular patrols and take oblique photographs, which Logan had championed, then wrote detailed reports about conditions.

     Lawrence also believed in engaging Inuit for northern operations and each aircraft carried an Inuit guide. This proved an excellent practice, and helped avoid tragedy. On February 17, 1928, RCAF pilots A. Lewis and N.C. Terry were on patrol with their guide, a one-eyed Inuk named Bobby Anakatok. They were travelling from Port Burwell to Resolution Island, and then on to the Grinnell Glacier on Baffin Island. On the return flight the crew became lost in a heavy snowstorm and reported back to base that they were out of fuel. Darkness was closing in, and Lewis was unaware of his exact location and radioed he was going down on the icepack. He dodged towers of ice and looked for a place to land: “The pinnacles were so numerous, however, that we could not avoid hitting one head-on.”

     They had crashed on the frozen ice of the Labrador Sea well east of Ungava Bay. They built an igloo in half an hour, brought their sleeping bags and other emergency equipment inside, and made tea. The next day they carried what they could as they began trekking toward what they hoped was salvation. After not sighting land, Lewis realized they were actually eighty kilometres out in the Atlantic. They immediately reversed their direction and headed west, and seven days later, after travelling over rough ice conditions and crossing open lanes of water in their inflatable rubber raft, they reached the stark coast of Labrador, starving and exhausted. “The greatest hardship of all,” Lewis recalled, “was the complete absence of fresh water.” They were surrounded by ice and snow, but it had a thick crust of sea salt on it.


These three Fokker Universals, purchased by the Department of Marine and Fisheries for sixteen thousand dollars each, were used during the Hudson Strait Expedition in the summer of 1927. The planes and their crews were critical in establishing bases, conducting patrols, and taking aerial photos as well as learning about flying conditions in the North.



     The crew members, having consumed all the food in their emergency kit, lived off raw meat from a walrus Anakatok shot with their rifle. After four days of trudging northward up the barren coast, suffering badly from hunger and exposure, they came across an Inuit family who helped them to a village and gave them “some beautiful salmon-trout.” The men recalled later: “Seldom had anything tasted so delicious. Then, still parched for fresh water, we proceeded inland under our hosts’ direction for about a mile to a frozen lake, at the edge of which a spring bubbled.” The next day, the family woke them early for a “hectic komatik [sled] dash from moonlight to moonlight” to reach their home at Eclipse Harbour. Lewis and Terry bid farewell to their hosts the next morning with “promises to return and visit them with a ‘tingiook’

     Even with this close call and the fact the RCAF Moth was lost when it “overturned at its mooring in a storm,” aviation authors consider the Hudson Strait expedition a “striking The RCAF learned much, not only about the conditions in the Strait, but about flying in polar regions. The airmen learned how to start the Universals in the deep cold of an Arctic winter by draining and warming the oil and heating the covered engine with blowtorches — a method bush pilots would use for many years. The RCAF also realized the importance of creating accurate maps and charts for the region, something that would become central to the RCAF’s activities in the coming years.


The Bouncing Bruno


Meanwhile on the civil front, interest in prospecting north of 60 was high as increased demand for Canada’s mineral products spiked prices. Prewar railway building had brought new “large tracts of mineral-rich country” into the range of prospectors, and both the general public and large mining syndicates took advantage of the maps and reports put out by Geological Survey of Canada field

     It took until 1925 for the first aerial prospecting to take place in the Yukon — and for the first Canadian pilots to touch down in the territory. That summer, Seattle-based Dease Lake Mining Co. leased Laurentide Air Service’s Vickers Viking Mark IV (G-CAEB) flying boat, nicknamed The Bouncing Bruno, to scout for minerals in northern British The mining company also hired a Laurentide flight crew to operate the plane: J. Scott Williams as pilot and C.S. (Jack) Caldwell as co-pilot and engineer. From their base at Dease Lake, Williams and Caldwell explored the southern Yukon, landing at the small HBC post at Frances Lake where “the Bruno created a

     The next summer Caldwell and the Bouncing Bruno were back north. This time they (along with air engineer Irénée “Pete” Vachon) were searching the southern fringes of the Northwest Territories — all on the vague directions of a grizzled prospector with a mason jar full of gold. The previous fall, the prospector had arrived at the offices of the Northern Syndicate Ltd. in Calgary, Alberta, with this jar, saying he had collected it from a deposit near Great Slave Lake. He refused to give the exact location, but said he had “marked it with a rough cross cut in the bush by the side of a large lake” and left his Dene wife to watch over it. They would be able to find the spot from the air easily, he said, and they would all be rich.

     While the Northern Syndicate was making preparations for this flight, however, the prospector got in a bar brawl and fractured his skull. The blow affected his memory, unfortunately, and his health would not permit him to go as a guide. The Syndicate decided to proceed without him, and in mid-June the Bouncing Bruno was shipped to Lac La Biche in northern Alberta and overhauled. Then, on June 25, Caldwell and Vachon left for Fort Fitzgerald using the same route Vic and had taken in 1921. Unlike the Imperial Oil crews, however, they had excellent weather and only one aircraft glitch — a cracked crankcase. But that was all the luck they had: they spent July flying in ever-widening circles while Northern Syndicate-employed prospectors examined the ground on foot. But they never found the site.


The MacAlpine Expedition


Even with its disappointing results, the Northern Syndicate saga underlined the usefulness of airplanes for mineral prospecting, and several other mining syndicates turned to the era’s best bush pilots and In 1928, for example, Clennell H. “Punch” Dickins flew 6,500 kilometres across the Barren Lands in the Northwest Territories — the first to do so — in G-CASK, a Western Canadian Airways Fokker Universal. He did this while under contract with Dominion Explorers (Domex), which, based on reports of mineral wealth in the area, had begun setting up prospecting bases along the northwestern shore of Hudson

     As Dickins told writer and fellow bush pilot Tim Sims, the eight-hundred-kilometre section from Baker Lake to Athabasca illustrated what he and other pilots were up against in the region: there were “no weather reports, no maps worth a damn, no distinctive water systems or mountain ranges, no radio aids, in fact no radio — period.” When Sims asked Dickins how he navigated, the latter replied “dead-reckoning. Having started from some point, I made as careful a check of maps as possible, laid out general compass headings to within a few degrees, and then kept a check on progress by map reference, or by landmarks that I had spotted and marked on previous flights.” Dickins noted responsible pilots also only attempted new flights in good weather: “failing to do this, and the ‘press-on’ syndrome, caused many an aviation tragedy.”

     The next year Domex was involved in what became the most famous aerial undertaking of the decade — and the largest ongoing aviation search in Canadian In August 1929 two Western Canada Airways (WCA) airplanes, a high-winged Fairchild CF-AAO piloted by Stan McMillan and another Fokker Universal, G-CASP (which was later replaced by SK after a mishap), left Winnipeg for the vast tundra of the Northwest Territories called the Barrens. On board were eight prospectors, including Richard Pearce, editor of The Northern and the leader of the expedition and head of Domex, C.D.H. MacAlpine. The group went in search of mineral riches; instead, they found themselves trapped in an unforgiving landscape without proper equipment or training.

     Dickins, who later searched for the missing men, notes the Barrens in summer is “surprisingly … beautiful country with lots of brilliantly coloured flowers.” But by September, summer is decidedly over and the weather changes McMillan, who was ex-RCAF and had a year’s experience flying throughout the Northwest Territories, was caught in the turning weather. With his compass affected by the magnetic pole, he got lost and flew to the limit of his fuel, and was forced to land above the Arctic Circle. MacAlpine, who knew communications in the North were usually spotty at best, had left orders that no search was to be undertaken unless they had been missing for ten days. On day ten, WCA pilot Andy Cruickshank and Domex agent Guy Blanchet deployed all available RCAF and civil aircraft in the search. While those involved read like a who’s who of early Canadian bush flying, author Larry Milberry notes efforts were hampered by “limited fuel supplies, the need to change over to skis, and several costly accidents.” Besides these, few of the air crew had had experience flying over the Barren Lands.

     The search went on for ten weeks, and as time wore on, McMillan admitted, “there were times when we got depressed.” They were understandably impatient to return home — especially after one of their number was forced to have “field treatment” for an abscessed tooth — but they had to wait for the ice to thicken so they could walk the 112 kilometres to Cambridge Bay. “The Inuit told us it was not [ready], but we insisted,” McMillan recalled later. “We got out a couple of miles and ran into open water, slush, and slob ice.” In the end, they relied on an occasional “slug of Scotch,” cigarette, or piece of chocolate — and of course local Inuit — to keep their spirits and strength up during the long wait. Finally, they ran across the partially frozen ice to the HBC post at Cambridge Bay where they sent word to Domex and WCA to send planes to evacuate them.

     In the end, the search parties spent over three hundred flying hours and covered 46,670 kilometres in what was often bad weather. Luckily, neither the members of the MacAlpine Expedition or their rescuers were critically injured or killed during the saga, but Domex’s Dominion Explorers’ share in the search costs was roughly five hundred thousand dollars at a time when the world was headed toward the Great Depression. After another year of aerial prospecting in the Northwest Territories, it stopped all aviation operations on January 14, 1931.


The First World War was a catalyst for aviation and provided, in the words of historian Jonathan Vance, “a large cadre of experienced, skilled pilots who could put aviation to practical Before the war, northerners like Dolar De Lagrave had put their ingenuity to the test with limited resources and no first-hand experience with flying machines. By the second decade of the century, he and others living in the Yukon and Northwest Territories had watched the Alaska Air Expedition or aerial prospectors land on their fields or lakes, been dazzled by Clarence Prest’s aerobatic displays, or spotted Vic and flying overhead toward northern oil wells. There had been many close calls, forced landings, and crashes, but for the moment it appeared aviation in the North held nothing but promise.