Articles

Runway to the World

Gallant Arctic explorers, speed-mad globe-girdlers and an air-minded people have put Edmonton in capitals on the air maps of the world

PIERRE BERTON August 1 1949
Articles

Runway to the World

Gallant Arctic explorers, speed-mad globe-girdlers and an air-minded people have put Edmonton in capitals on the air maps of the world

PIERRE BERTON August 1 1949

Runway to the World

Gallant Arctic explorers, speed-mad globe-girdlers and an air-minded people have put Edmonton in capitals on the air maps of the world

PIERRE BERTON

BACK in the early 30’s, when fliers still wore goggles, high polished boots and whipcord breeches, and “jet” was a dictionary word meaning a spout or nozzle, an American lawyer on a transcontinental flight spotted a green and gold Bellanca sitting on the Hudson River inscribed “Mackenzie Air Service, Edmonton.” Next day in Seattle, Wash., he spotted a scarlet Fokker afloat in the bay. It was inscribed “Yukon Southern Airways, Edmonton.”

This so astonished the mouthpiece that he made a special trip to Edmonton. “What kind of a town is this, anyway?” he asked.

“This is an air-minded town,” they told him. Just about this time a 14-year-old boy named David Jacox was going up for his first solo flight. He was the youngest pilot in Canada. He was from Edmonton. And soon afterward a 28-year-old stenographer named Evelyn Hudson established a new solo women’s endurance record down California way. She was from Edmonton, too.

Edmonton is still an air-minded town—the most air-minded town in Canada. In Edmonton, it seems, nearly everybody reads an altimeter. Edmonton has dying prospectors, flying priests, flying trappers, flying insurance men, flying dentists, flying fur buyers, (lying politicians, flying housewives, flying grandfathers, flying moppets and flying fools.

Just the other day a Grade 11 high-school boy named Vic Horner took his father, a famous bush pilot, up for a flip from the Edmonton airport. Jack Starkey, an Edmonton coal-mine tycoon, has finally passed his third medical exam and now flies in his own plane for pleasure. Insurance man Gordon Smeltzer, another grandfather, flies his on busineas.

For years the blue monoplane “Santa Maria” of Bishop Joseph Gabriel Breynat, the Flying Priest, was known from Edmonton to Aklavik. Dr. Lee Dodds, an Edmonton dentist, used to fly 5,000 miles every summer around the Arctic, occasionally taking pieces of high-grade ore from miners and making a gold tooth on the spot.

J. C. F. Dalziel, the Flying Trapper, still comes into the Edmonton airport on occasion. Once he landed his Curtiss Robin with grizzly-bear claw marks on the fuselage. The bear had smelled a load of beaverskins and nearly wrecked the plane. Fred Giaque, a flying prospector, flies two planes, a Fleet Canuck and a Fox Moth, back and forth to his properties at Yellowknife.

Oil has brought in flying executives, flying geologists and even flying wildcatters: Gulf

Research surveys for oil by air with radar. Bill Parkinson and Herman Eideck, two Edmonton welders, find it cheaper to commute to the Devon oil fields by plane rather than bus. Drillers faced with a “fish job” (where a part breaks 2,000 feet below surface and has to be fished up) think nothing of hopping off by plane to Wyoming to pick up the necessary tool.

Oil companies keep five or six planes and one helicopter in constant movement out of Edmonton.

Consolidated Mining and Smelter officials also fly their own Puss Moths or Fox Moths to mining property in the North.

Continued on page 45

Runway to the World

Continued from page 15

The centre of all this activity is the Edmonton Civic Airport, which is almost in the geographical centre of the town itself. The glint of sunlight on duralumin wings and the constant roar of engines is as much a part of Edmonton as the high-level bridge or the scrub-wild Hudson’s Bay Reserve in the centre of town. Edmontonians regard the engine’s roar as music, for the airport brings close to $8 millions a year to Edmonton pocketbooks.

Lots of Edmontonians still have a crick in their necks from that day in September, 1943, when 865 aircraft went through town in 24 hours, or about one every two minutes. That’s upward of 100 more than went through in the whole year of 1939. Then the airport was a 160-acre piece of pastureland with a couple of hangars and gravel runways. Today it covers 750 acres, has three mile-long concrete air strips, 16 hangars, 200 small buildings and employs 1,000 persons. Eleven major air companies use it as headquarters and the whole shooting match is worth close to $13 millions.

It calls itself “the busiest airport in Canada.” In 1943 it set a world record for take-offs and landings—a whopping 82,500, with nothing less than a DC3 with a flight plan of at least 600 miles counting.

This year it may beat that record. In April alone it chalked up 10,000 landings and take-offs. When other airports were infants Edmonton’s name was known around the world. (You can see it written on Wiley Post’s world-girdling “Winnie May” in the Smithsonian Institute today.) Edmonton had Canada’s first municipal airport (1926), and Western Canada’s first Class A airport (1930).

How much freight is trundled through the airport annually is anybody’s guess. One hazard: 12 tons a day. One known fact: Canadian Pacific Airlines alone ships a million pounds north every year.

Flashbulbs and Eskimos

There have been some strange cargoes. Uranium ore is still stacked carelessly in mundane sacks in an airport hangar. An American visitor was once flabbergasted to see bush pilot Leigh Brintnell unload half a ton of gold ingots from Yellowknife onto the tarmac without an armed guard or an armored car in sight. Flying Trapper Dalziel once brought in $150,000 worth of stone marten. Sacks of whitefish, three quarters of a ton at a time, come in from the North.

Once a plane took off for the North with a ton of Pennsylvania hard coal. Miners near Yellowknife were willing to pay almost prohibitive air costs for it because they needed to temper their tools. Almost everything goes North by air: loads of steel cable, dynamite, nitroglycerin, boilers, bulldozers, Diesel engines, children’s toys, crockery, the occasional horse, a piano for a mine operator’s wife, a new wing for a stranded Stinson.

Perhaps at no other airport do sophistication and the frontier meet so squarely head-on. One early morning last February an RCAF Dakota, its lights vying with the faint fingers of the aurora on the horizon, swept in from the North, its steam freezing on the air in a solid-looking plume. Parka-clad airmen helped a child with enormous astonished black eyes into a waiting ambulance. This was Kamiuk, legless Eskimo boy from the disease-ridden Arctic settlement of Cresswell Bay, 1.500 miles away. Beside him stood Kavavow, in a handsome white sealskin parka and sealskin boots, a stocky, motionless inscrutable Eskimo, staring unblinkingly into the white men’s flashbulbs.

In the same week a big Northwest Airlines transport roared in from Tokyo and a group of businessmen with brief cases climbed off asking: “What day is it now?” This is one of the reasons why radio station CJCA in Edmonton has changed its slogan from “Gateway to the North” to “Crossroads of the World.”

Jim Bell, the slight, quick, browneyed Yorkshireman who has been the airport’s manager since its inception, carries a silver dollar on his watch chain which symbolizes Edmonton’s position at the crossroads as well as anything.

They Used to Be Harbors

When Wiley Post came through Edmonton in 1932 Bell asked him: “How do you finance these trips?”

“I don’t,” Post told him. “Look, I had eight of these silver dollars when I started out. I still have five. Here, take one for luck. It’s the fastest dollar in the world.”

Later Bell lent the dollar to Edmonton pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon. Hollick-Kenyon flew the dollar and Sir Hubert Wilkins over the North Pole on an Edmonton-based search for Sigismund Levanelfsky, “the Russian Lindbergh,” lost on an Arctic ice floe. Then he flew the dollar and Lincoln Ellsworth over the South Pole.

The dollar has indeed brought Bell luck. On May 24, 1934, he and bush pilot Berry were dragged from the burning, twisting wreckage of a 10passenger Fokker before a holiday crowd of airport spectators. It took Bell four years to recover, but now he’s as sound as his globe-girdling dollar.

The airport was really Bell’s idea from the start. In 1919, fresh out of the RAF, former civil engineer Bell went to the Edmonton city fathers. “Some day you’re going to have a great air harbor here,” he said. “When that happens I want to be harbor master.” (Nobody had got around to calling them “airports” yet.) Bell got his wish in 1930. A mild man today, he used to be known as “Hotski the Terrible” because he was forever chiding young pilots for taking chances.

About the time Bell was talking about air harbors a blond and owlish young man named Wilfrid (“Wop”) May was coming home. May was the pilot that German air ace von Richthofen was vainly chasing when another Edmontonian, Roy Brown, put an end to the German’s career. Brown won the V.C.; a grateful city gave May an airplane, a Curtiss Canuck dubbed “City of Edmonton,” which had been bought as a war trainer by public subscription.

May and his brother trundled the plane onto a farmer’s field and the Edmonton airport came into being. With this as an H.Q., May and others like him barnstormed about the country in the postwar years, charging $20 for a three-minúte ride at country fairs and putting on parachute demonstrations as added attractions.

May used to kid his hired parachutist that the chute opened nine times out of 10. The joke backfired. The stunt man made nine jumps, but refused flatly to make a 10th. May had to cancel all his contracts.

Flying didn’t really take hold until the winter of 1928-29 when several things combined to make Edmonton an air-crazy town. First, the airport became the western terminus for the old prairie air mail (which the Bennett Government later canceled). Then, in January, 1929, Wop May and Vic Horner climbed into a tiny, silver, open-cockpit Avian biplane, hoisted 30 pounds of serum aboard, and guided by trappers’ smudges along the river headed for diphtheria-ridden Fort Vermilion in the Peace River country.

This terrible journey in 40-below weather caught the imagination of the city and most of the continent. May and Horner froze their hands, faces and lips. They spilled their last oil on the snow, had to scoop the congealed snow up into cans, heat it over a fire to steam the water out and pour it back in the engine again. But they made it there and back again and 10,000 people jammed the airport to greet them when they returned. Because of this, May’s company, Commercial Airways, got the air-mail contract to Aklavik on (lie Arctic Ocean.

At this time May’s big rival was Clennel H. (Punch) Dickins of Western Canada Airways, who had made the first flight to Aklavik earlier that year but lost the mail contract. Dickins had charged $4,000 to bring out a load of furs that January. But the furs sold for $40,000 more than they would have brought if they’d come out alone by steamboat the following summer. This sort of thing made Edmontonians air-conscious.

Next year Edmonton tore down the old hangar which had been rotting on the airfield since 1920, built a big new one, named Jim Bell manager and got a class A rating for the airport. They also held Canada’s first, air show.

After the Mad Trapper

Business boomed and competition was hot. Wop May sold out to Western Canada Airways which became Canadian Airways (and later CPA) with May on the payroll. Leigh Brintnell formed Mackenzie Air Services and parlayed two secondhand Fokkers into 15 planes. First man to fly Gilbert I^aBine and Charles St. Paul into Great Bear Lake, where they subsequently made their great radium discovery, he got the freight contract from Eldorado mines and hauled out the first radium ore $20,000 worth of it.

It was the era of the bush pilot, of the mercy flight, of the aerial pioneer. In 1928 Punch Dickins had won the McKee trophy, Canada’s oscar for airmen. Wop May won it the next year. In the first, nine years the trophy was awarder! Edmonton pilots copped it six times.

Walter Gilbert on a flight to the North Magnetic Pole found some of the lost records of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, 150 years old. His first due: a human skull rolling with the wind down the barren shores of King William’s Land.

Wop May’s Bellanca followed the snowshoe trail of the mad and murderous trapper Albert Johnson through the Rat River Pass on the edge of the Arctic Circle. After the gun battle that left Johnson’s torn body smearing the white snow May flew blind through the blizzard-choked pass to bring a wounded Mountie to a doctor’s care.

Stan McMillan flew across the Barren Lands from Great Bear Lake to Letty Harbor on Amundsen Gulf, with one hour of daylight to see by and a compass needle whirling like a dervish, to bring eight sailors stranded on an ice-locked schooner to safety in Edmonton. Matt Berry, another McKee trophy winner, picked up two RCAF officers, starving in the Arctic. North Sawle (so named because he was born in the North) roved the great lone land between Cameron Bay and Coppermine, finally located his quarry: a Hudson’s Bay Post manager and two companions huddled in an igloo made from the engine cowling of their shattered plane. Punch Dickins, first man to Aklavik, was also first over the Circle, first across the Barren Lands.

Meanwhile the record breakers were coming through Edmonton in an almost steady stream. Parker Cramer, first man to fly from Siberia to New York, roared into the Edmonton field in 1929 on short notice one night, tore the belly out of his fabric Cessna in the flickering light of the oil flares, got it stitched together and roared off again next morning.

Post and the Mountie

Capt. Ross G. Hoyt, trying to set a long-distance Atlantic to Pacific record, cracked up in B.G. He returned to Edmonton in 1934. with U. S. Lieut.Col. H. H. Arnold (later General “Hap” Arnold of World War II fame) and 10 U. S. bombers on the first military flight to Alaska.

Speed champion Frank Hawks brought his “mystery ship” to Edmonton, mystified bush pilots by flying to Fort McMurray (260 miles away) and back before lunch.

In 1931 Post and Gatty helped put. the airport’s name on the map. The night they landed Edmonton had a record rainfall and the “Winnie May” bogged down in a sea of gumbo mud. Post climbed ruefully out of the plane. “'I’his is the end of it,” he said. “We’re finished.”

While the fliers slept in Bell’s office Bell hustled up a farmer’s stoneboat (a land-going sleigh) and had the plane towed onto Portage Avenue (now Kingsway) which borders the airport. Portage was a wide paved street with no houses on it, thanks to a land-boom bubble that, burst in 1913. Two and a half miles long it made a perfect landing strip. Post got off it in five city blocks.

Post came back solo the next year— on the last leg of his world hop; destination, New York. Dead tired he refused to talk to newsmen. Suddenly he spotted a Mountie in the crowd—the first he’d seen. From then on he talked freely with the Mountie while reporters’ pencils scratched. U. S. newsmen. radiomen and moviemen jammed the airport. But Canadian newsreeler Lucien Roy scooped his betterequipped, better-heeled rivals by slipping his exposed film onto Post’s own plane and beating the competition to New York.

Men With “the Fokker Stoop’’

A weary Jimmy Mattem, forced down in Siberia on a world-girdling hop, was through a few weeks later. Picked up by Russian pilot Levaneffsky, Mattem returned to Edmonton later to help in the search for the missing Red airman.

It was the era of big chances for big gains. Before the war Jim Bell kept a logbook of pilots who had checked through his airport. The other day he looked through his old book, came up with the names of 55 who had been killed in the air. “But remember,” Bell says, “these men were explorers. Look at Franklin. He lost 100 men in one expedition. Those fliers deserve just as big a niche in the hall of fame.”

Strange clues sometimes led to mangled aircraft. Once Indians came upon fishbones scattered miles inland from water. A search party working on a shrewd hunch came upon the wrecked plane of a Slavic pilot named Kheilbauch. He’d been freighting fish and when he crashed the bears had scattered the bones.

The Eldorado and Yellowknife strikes boomed flying in the 30’s. The bill for the first plane chartered to equip the radium mine at Eldorado came to a smashing $1,475 (the pilot thought it looked less astronomical than a round $1,500). Freight from Fort McMurray to Aklavik in the early days cost $2.50 a pound. Passengers, jammed in between bales of groceries, mining machinery and the low ceilings, walked with what bush pilots called “the Fokker stoop.”

As the airplane came into its own rates dropped. Despite this one big mining company working out of Yellowknife spent $80,000 on aircraft alone in 1936. The freight to Yellowknife mounted to $2 millions a year. In 1937 Edmonton’s citizens voted themselves a new $35,000 hangar. The airport was becoming big business. How big nobody knew until the war made it the world’s busiest.

In the words of pilot Leigh Brintnell, the war made Edmonton a “storybook town” and the airport became a storybook airport. It was so busy at one point that 27 aircraft were circling over the town waiting for the signal to let down. One day a plane from Russia asked priority to land ahead of the others. Jim Bell couldn’t give it even though Vyacheslav Molotov was aboard. Molotov had to wait his turn while three other aircraft landed.

Flights of 600 aircraft heading north for Alaska or Russia came through at one time. Once Bell had 120 DC3’s lined up at one end of the airport along the railroad waiting for weather. Their cargoes: live naval torpedoes.

Bell met some queer customers during the war. One was a girl from Prestwick, Scotland, who had stowed away in the front wheel housing of a Liberator and persuaded Canadian authorities to grant her a stay in Canada. She was heading through Edmonton for Alaska to meet some Russian women pilots. Her ambition was to ferry planes to Russia. She didn’t realize it.

Old Ladies on Ferry Runs

The G.I.’s themselves gave Bell plenty to think about. Once he stared out of his windows and rubbed his eyes when he saw an entire two-story house on the airport, smoke belching from the chimney. It turned out to be a U. S. Army canteen. The Yanks had been towing it across the field when the lunch bell sounded. On another occasion the Americans astounded the Canadians by moving one of the giant hangars from one end of the field to another overnight.

Bell was sitting in his office one day when a U. S. civilian in overalls burst in and asked to use the phone. He called long distance and asked for a Tennessee number. “They took me off my regular run and sent me up here ferrying a ship to Alaska,” he explained. “I haven’t been home yet. My wife’ll be plumb worried.”

Today, four years after the end of the war, Bell finds his airport almost as busy as ever. His airport is now headquarters for the largest territorial air command in the world. The Canadian Northwest Air Command stretches from the 49th parallel to the North Pole, from Schreiber, Ont., to the Pacific Coast.

One Sunday early this year 930 planes landed or took off from the airport. That’s more than that day in 1943, though the planes were probably smaller. The globe girdlers are still coming through. Penmaker Milton Reynolds and his pilot, Capt. Bill Odom , have stopped over a couple of times. Two youngsters flying Piper Cubs around the world were through not long ago; also two elderly ladies ferrying Aircoupes to Alaska. A British housewife, trying to circle the globe, was stranded in Edmonton for a couple of weeks last spring. Seamen ferrying oil tankers to the Orient are flown back through Edmonton.

With Edmonton expanding in another boom (oil this time) Bell has his problems. City bylaws keep building restricted under the six flightways that, approach the airport. International air regulations prohibit any tall buildings within 13,000 feet of the tarmac— a distance that stretches right to the Saskatchewan River and business section. This is one of the reasons why Edmonton has no skyscrapers. Now, with the city filling up, Bell sometimes wonders whether he can maintain an international airport five minutes from the castlelike MacDonald Hotel.

Bush Pilots in White Collars

If the airport should have to move there’s still the big, unused, RCAFoperated field at Namao, eight miles out of town, four times the size of the civic airport. Its runways are 10,000 feet long, its approaches unblocked from any direction.

By now the bush pilots who helped build the airport have gone onto big executive jobs. Punch Dickins has a top-echelon job with de Havilland Motors. Grant McConachie runs CPA, with Wop May bossing his western division. Matt Berry now sits at Ottawa as Independent member of Parliament for the Yukon. Leigh Brintnell heads a new company, Arctic Airways.

Meanwhile, the new crop from the new war are building with the airport. Tommy Fox, an RCAF veteran, has expanded his Associated Airways in four years from a two-plane organization into the biggest charter company in Alberta. Two ex-paratroopers, Hargreaves and Dick, run a supply depot on the airport.

Yet some of the old pioneering spirit that helped make the story of the Edmonton airport one of the most dramatic in Canadian aviation history still clings to the broad new concrete runways and the glistening glass bubble of the airport tower.

Only last winter Matt Berry dug up two old photographs and recalled that back in 1930 he’d spotted what looked like lead ore on the shore of an unnamed island in the Arctic. He got some backing and planned to head North.

Keeps Thinking of Vikings

The modern plane, scheduled to take Berry and his party to the Arctic, broke down at the last moment, so Berry climbed into the same old Fairchild 71 which he’d used to fly over the island 19 years before. With two postcard-sized photos and his memory to go on he located the island, landed in the dead of winter, brought back a heavy chunk of lead ore to the Edmonton airport. Now a company has bi?en formed to develop the area.

Bell likes to see this sort of thing.

“This is the Key to the North,” he says, with capitals in his voice. “I keep thinking of the Vikings and the men of the old shipping days, always exploring . . . trying to further trade and knowledge by extending their grasp beyond all horizons. That’s just what’s been going on at this air harbor all the days of its existence.”

The phone rings. Bell speaks into it.

“Yes. Storm coming up in another hour. Traffic still rolling through.” ★