Forgotten Men of Flying

You don't hear much about the air engineers but they play a vital part in making Canadian aviation safe

W. B. BURCHALL December 1 1937

Forgotten Men of Flying

You don't hear much about the air engineers but they play a vital part in making Canadian aviation safe

W. B. BURCHALL December 1 1937

Forgotten Men of Flying

You don't hear much about the air engineers but they play a vital part in making Canadian aviation safe


THERE WERE four of us flying from God’s Lake to Winnipeg —a mining executive, a newspaperman, a world-renowned traveller and the writer. The craft was float-equipped, as is usual when lakes and rivers are open.

Although visibility was fair—four to five milesthere were periods when no open water could be seen. The ceiling was just above the tree tops and there wasn’t room to squeeze through at times, so flying in spots was blind.

As we skimmed the tree tops along the dry hops between Island Lake and Berens River I nudged the traveller, who apparently was dozing, and pointed through the window. “I don’t want to look,” was his gruff retort.

This man had flown much in Europe and recently had made the return trip by air along the Mackenzie River, therefore he could appreciate the situation to the full.

The aircraft wasn’t fitted with radio, the country was impossible in case of a forced landing, the weather was bad. True, the pilot had got a report before starting that the weather ahead was improving, but that wasn’t much comfort to those in the cabin, who could only sit and look out at things as they were.

What was thé biggest safety factor?

To me it was the airworthiness of the aircraft and engine; and my thoughts reverted to Air Engineer Paul Davis who, up with the dawn, had inspected the craft from propeller to rudder, and later had affixed his okay to the flight report, thereby personally assuming all responsibility for the fitness of the machine.

While all other conditions were unfavorable, I knew from experience and Government statistics that the chances of being let down by this engine or through structural faults were a thousand to one in my favor.

Duties of an Air Engineer

Y\7HERE WOULD the safety record be without the air * * engineer?

Let’s see what the Government does to ensure safety in air travel. It is all set forth in a little pamphlet called ‘‘Air Regulations” a collection of rules and regulations with which every pilot and engineer must be conversant, particularly when they are being examined for their licenses.

Like most important rulings, it is brief and very much to the point.

“No commercial aircraft shall fly on any day unless it has been inspected by an Air Engineer on that day . . . and until such Air Engineer has signed certificates of fitness of the flying machine to fly and the certificates have been countersigned by the pilot.”

In short, provide the pilot with a stout ship and make someone directly responsible for its condition. The pilot may disregard advice regarding bad weather conditions. He may fly with or without radio, and even without certain instruments which today are considered indispensable. In ordinary commercial flying, the only regulation imposed on him is that “he shall be responsible that the load does not exceed that specified in the certificate of registration, and that it is properly secured.”

The air engineer is the man responsible for the condition of the craft.

He directs the work of the mechanics; he inspects the plane and he “signs it off” before it takes the air. The ruling that he must do so is strictly enforced.

To him is due the fact that Canadian flying is characterized by very few forced landings through engine failure or structural defects.

No other engineer, whatever his designation, works under such bad weather conditions. In summer there is the extreme heat and the flies, which in the North Country are unequalled for numbers, size and voracity. In winter the engineer is lucky if he has a nose-hangar in which to work, sheltered from a temperature that often sinks to forty below zero, and piercing winds.

Despite these handicaps, repairs are generally carried out in the open. Commercial aircraft seldom see the inside of a hangar.

Nature at times plays tricks. Rotten ice, wind storms and flood provide the engineer with trouble in plenty, particularly when misfortune strikes at some distant Northern post or on the shores of a lake, hundreds of miles maybe from any settlement. In such cases, he is lucky if there are trees to provide poles for salvage work.

On December 12, 1935, Superintendent “Wop” May was taxiing toward the shore line at Fort Chipewyan when the craft broke through the ice and sank until immersion was checked by the low-wing structure.

Engineers A. D. Goodwin and F. Kelly were entrusted with the job of salvaging the craft. Spruce-pole tripods were erected at nose and stern, the poles resting on the bottom of the lake some twenty feet below’. The current was swift and the ice thin, so planks were laid around the machine, and the engineers stood on these while they worked at hoisting the craft clear of the water. Some of the parts were damaged, so these were removed to a temporary workshop.

The machine could not be moved shoreward as the ice was too thin, so the surrounding ice was fkxxied daily to build up thickness, and extra skis were fitted to spread the weight.

While working on and about the machine, the engineers were roped for safety. Each day someone fell in and had to be thawed out of his clothes, for the temperature fell as low as twenty-four below zero.

After the craft was hoisted clear of the water the engineers were joined by T. W. Siers, superintendent of maintenance, who remained until the craft was repaired and flown to Fort McMurray on January 9. When the engine was being checked and while the valves were being ground, the temperature dropped to sixty below. Little wonder that all suffered from frostbite, particularly on hands and wrists.

Work of this kind is much more strenuous than routine work at a base where refuelling, minor adjustments and repairs keep the engineer constantly employed.

At break-up time, equipment must be changed from skis to floats, and vice versa at freeze-up. As it is at these two periods that vacations are generally arranged, work frequently has to be rushed through with a depleted staff.

There are few slack periods if machines are to be kept in tiptop condition. There never can be any slackening of vigilance on the part of the man who has to put his okay on the daily reports.

Keeping Up With Developments

TN RECENT years there have been revolutionary changes -Iin the design and construction of airplanes and their engines. New alloys have come into use, combining lightness with strength; new fuels are being developed giving greater power per engine unit; new mechanical processes have been introduced into the fabrication and assembly of components.

In all these technical advances, the engineer must keep thoroughly posted.

Then there are always new ideas to be developed and tried out. For instance, during the winter, wings have to be swept and cleared of snow and frozen sleet; engines have to be heated by means of gasoline torches. Sometimes most of a morning will be spent in preparing a machine for flight. Lately, by the use of slip covers for the wings and electricheaters for the motors, this delay has been almost entirely obviated. The heaters, however, can only be employed where power transmission lines are accessible.

At Kenora, Ont., and Lac du Bonnet, where Engineers W. Tall and S. Tomlinson are stationed, a machine can be made ready to fly on fifteen minutes notice, no matter how low the temperature.

The older, more experienced engineers possess an uncanny knack of spotting incipient trouble, a kind of sixth sense. That is why pilots prefer certain engineers to accompany them on long or hazardous flights.

When Superintendent W. E. Gilbert flew Major Burwash over the North Magnetic Pole, he chose Engineer Stan Knight to go with him.

When Superintendent C. H. “Punch” Dickins landed at Aklavik, July 1, 1929, and initiated many Eskimos in this new form of transport, he was accompanied by Engineer Louis Parmenter, whose association with aircraft reaches farther back than that of any Canadian pilot flying today, for Louis was employed by Messrs. Short Brothers, builders of the Empire flying boats in pre-war days.

Air Engineer A. “Tommy” Gilmour, Manitoba born, never smelled salt water until he was chosen to accompany Pilot W. J. Buchanan to Queen Maud Gulf, in the Arctic Ocean.

Air Engineers Bill Kahre and Emile Patrault have accompanied pilots on photographic and exploratory flights into the far corners of Labrador and Northern Quebec.

These and many other engineers have had years of experience at the air bases serving the mining areas of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and on the Mackenzie River. Their accumulated flying time is very impressive, and many are quite capable of “taking over” and relieving the pilot on long flights.

They Share Hazards Too

GENERALLY, the commercial pilot does all he can to ensure the comfort and safety of his passengers, but there are times when weather conditions must be disregarded and the flight undertaken with a full knowledge of the risks involved. At such times the engineer does not hesitate to accompany the pilot and share the hazard.

Such a flight was made by Pilot Archie McMullen and Engineer W. Sunderland on May 8, 1936, from Fort McMurray to Edmonton.

The Clearwater River was on the rampage. Ice jams had resulted in the flooding of roads, houses and hangars. As the water receded a passage was blasted through the thirtyfoot wall of ice on the river bank. All the available manpower of the settlement concentrated on this for four days. In the forenoon of May 8 the local doctor enquired if an emergency trip could be made with a woman patient dangerously ill with peritonitis. Engineers launched and prepared a machine. The pilot surveyed the swirling current, and decided to try to find an open stretch between the floating blocks of ice. After taxiing out, conditions looked so bad that he thought of returning, but, thinking of the possible consequences to his sick passenger, he decided to take off. With the patient, a nurse and Engineer Sunderland on board, the 300-mile flight was completed at Cooking Lake after dark.

The patient was rushed to a hospital and operated on immediately. Within a few weeks she was back at her home in Fort McMurray. >t

Then there was the flight made by Pilot E. P. “Billy’

Wells from Burns Lake into the Ingenika country in Northern British Columbia. He took risks, as did Engineer Bill Faulkner who accompanied him: moreover. Bill got frozen fingers in addition to a severe bruising.

The flight was made at “break-up” to carry food to an isolated mining camp situated in a deep, snow-filled valley. As the craft was on floats, for Burns Lake was open, the pilot could not land on the Northern lakes, which were still frozen. Anywhere en route a forced landing would have been disastrous.

The door of the cabin had been removed, so that Bill Faulkner could more easily lean out to drop parcels of food when the pilot circled the camp. As a precaution. Bill was secured by a rope around his waist. The plane kited up and down in the swirling currents of the mountain passes, so that Bill, who was lying on the floor, found himself alternately bumping against the roof and floor of the cabin.

Examine any reports dealing with exploratory or other outstanding flights, and frequently there will be revealed, behind the pilot’s story, another story regarding the initiative, ingenuity and courage of the air engineer.

Training of an Air Engineer

THERE ARE many engineers in Canada who have received training as aircraftmen in the ranks of the Royal Canadian Air Force or the Royal Air Force. On completion of their terni of service, these men have obtained civil licenses and entered the employ of a commercial air transport company.

Other air engineers are recruited from the ranks of mechanics who have received mechanical training in factories, or who have gained an all-round experience in repair shops or at an operating base.

At least two years practical work on aircraft and engines

is necessary before the aspiring mechanic will be considered as a candidate by the Government inspector. If proof of character and experience be satisfactory he will be examined in practice and theory, and if successful will be licensed in one or more of four categories -A, B, C and D.

Licenses A and C are indispensable to the engineer working on flying services. Possession of an A license qualities an engineer to sign off aircraft before flight, while a C license applies to engines before flight.

But these licenses do not give blanket, coverage to sign off all types of aircraft or engines. The Government’s objective is safety, so all licenses are endorsed only for those types of craft or engine with which the engineer has had a close working acquaintanceship.

The engineer who has worked only on Flying Club Moths and Gypsy engines could not sign off a Fairchild or Stinson; neither could he sign off a ship equipped with a Wasp or Cyclone motor. There are no exceptions to this ruling. A university degree or membership in an engineering society does not count. Even aircraft designers cannot sign off the ships they have designed.

This may appear unduly restrictive, and undoubtedly at times it proves inconvenient to the operating company; but there it is, a ruling imj)osed in the interest of safety.

Once a year each commercial airplane is thoroughly reconditioned. The skeleton of the structure, if fabric covered, may have to be stripped and examined for corrosion, fractures or other signs of deterioration. The internals of the wings are inspected and repaired if necessary, and all other units—undercarriage, fin, rudder, tail plane and floats—receive similar treatment.

When work of this nature has been done, or when, on operation, major repairs have been effected, only an engineer having a B license can certify the aircraft as airworthy. There are certain reservations even to this ruling.

Major repairs to engines are certified as okay by an engineer having a D license.

The technical knowledge and practical experience required to attain ranking in categories B and D pertain more to manufacturing processes. The candidate must have a knowledge of the strength and testing of materials, fuels and lubricants, also of the heat treatment of metals.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there are comparatively few engineers assessing licenses endorsed for all four categories.

The youth whose aspirations lean to the engineering side of air-transport operations would be well advised to gain some practical experience in an engineering workshop before going as a mechanic on field operations.

Educationally, a high-school standing is desirable, and in addition an all-round knowledge of internal-combustion engines and allied subjects.

There are no institutions in Canada where intensive training is given to youths who wish to qualify as air engineers, nor are there any scholarships which open the way for boys to high executive posts such as those financed by the Society of British Aircraft Constructors.

The work of the air engineer is such a vital factor in promoting safety and efficiency in aircraft operation that the provision of adequate technical instruction is a matter of concern not only to the employers but to the public.

Facilities for giving advanced technical instruction other than that afforded by routine and practical work in the shops and at the bases, are not easily available, particularly in Western Canada.

During the winter 1935-36 the University of Manitoba, co-operating with the Aviation League of Manitoba, arranged a series of lectures and laboratory demonstrations under the direction of Professor A. E. Macdonald. The subject matter and projects were arranged specifically to cover the requirements of candidates for B and D licenses.

This scheme is notable as being the first ,n Canada arranged to assist the air

engineer, and much of the success attending the effort may be ascribed to the interest of T. W. Siers, superintendent of maintenance, Canadian Airways Limited.

Flying instruction is subsidized by the Government, flying clubs receive grants for ab initio pilots, but heretofore the air engineer has had to bear the cost of apprenticeship, training, tools, etc., out of his own pocket.

Air Transport’s Future

WHAT DOES the future hold for the air engineer? What chance is there of promotion?

This may be answered partially by a reference to the “Annual Report on Civil Aviation,” until recently published by the Department of Defense, Ottawa.

It must be borne in mind that commercial aviation in Canada is little more than ten years old, so deductions must be tempered with an appreciation of the comparatively limited aerial activity of this period and what will indubitably be the greatly augmented activity of the era which lies ahead.

In 1926 there were forty-four licensed aircraft in Canada; there were sixty-five air engineers, many of whom were licensed pilots.

In 1936 the number of aircraft had risen to 450, and air engineers numbered 533.

Scanning the list of engineers of 1926, it is noticeable that about fifty per cent of their number are today holding executive positions. Be it noted also that most of these men held the dual qualification.

Less than ten are acting in a purely engineering capacity today. However, the period under consideration was essentially a formative period, so that it is extremely difficult to prognosticate regarding the future of the more than 500 engineers who have qualified and maintained their status since 1926.

In many cases, the younger air engineers are today graduating as pilots. Some, undoubtedly, with their intimate knowledge of operations, will make the grade as executives.

Prospect of increased remuneration is I the chief incentive for the change; more! over, engineering executive opportunities ! are not numerous. After deducting the totals of the six largest commercial air fleets and excluding flying cluLis and private craft, it is apparent that, with operating companies numbering 116 and those employing only 241 aircraft, the majority of firms are operating only one or two aircraft each one-man propositions as regards engineer reciuirements.

This is the immediate outlook, but the great era of aerial activity has only commenced. Canada’s major project in air transport has yet to be organized and staffed. For years to come, air transport will be indispensable to Northern development. It is certain, therefore, that in the years ahead there will be a steady demand for the services of air engineers to maintain the augmented fleets of this Dominion.

Successful operation of scheduled services, necessitating night flying and flying in bad weather, will depend to an ever increasing degree on the competent application of those aids to navigation

with which all air-line pilots are provided. These delicate instruments, mechanical and electrical in operation, will need constant care and expert maintenance. Development of international and transoceanic routes, as yet in their experimental stages, will call for the use of craft even larger than the biggest now in use; craft having more powerful engine units, with greater combined output.

Throughout all this expansion, the prime concern will be that of safety. Speed, comfort, and regularity are as nothing if safety be not assured.

“Early and provident fear is the mother of safety,” said Edmund Burke.

“Provident fear” is best evinced before a take-off, and the Government has decreed that the exercise of “provident fear” shall be the specific function and responsibility of the air engineer.

In view of the exacting nature of this duty, who can deny that the work of the air engineer, so often overlooked or forgotten, is the factor contributing most to safety in flight?