Flight to The Pas — followed the Hudson Bay Railway to the community

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

Pilot Hector Dougall and mechanic Frank Ellis of the Canadian Aircraft Company were undaunted by the task of being the first to fly beyond the 53rd Parallel. On Friday, October 15, 1920, Dougall and Ellis started the Avro 504K biplane’s engine and rose into the air from the St. Charles Aerodrome along Portage Avenue West in Winnipeg at exactly 11 a.m. They were embarking on the first commercial bush flight in history, taking passenger Frank J. Stanley to The Pas.

They flew with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line within sight below. It was essential for the pilot and mechanic to follow a visible route, since the only equipment the open cockpit Avro aircraft, with the call letters G-CABV, had was a compass, an airspeed indicator and an altimeter — flying just using such primitive aviation instrumentation was not an option.

Their journey was without incident until they reached Gladstone, when at a height of 7,000 feet a spark plug began to misfire. They were forced to land on a plowed field next to the town’s main street due to the faulty engine part. The unscheduled landing had interrupted their planned first leg landing at Dauphin, 296 kilometres (184 miles) from Winnipeg. At Gladstone, curious town’s folk came out to view the three men and their flying machine.

 But the problem was quickly fixed, and they were once again airborne and on their way to Dauphin for refueling. They again landed on a plowed field where car loads of people had gathered to get a glimpse of the intrepid aviators. The trio was driven to the town to make arrangements for refuelling the airplane and a quick meal to refuel themselves. Following the two-hour stopover, they were again airborne, when the weather turned cloudy and cold.

After clearing the Duck Mountains they headed for Swan River, where they landed and then hiked to a hotel to stay the evening.

The next day dawned cold and blustery with a low ceiling of clouds, preventing take-off until 2:30 p.m.

It had been their intention to fly directly from Swan River to The Pas, by way of Hudson’s Bay Junction in Saskatchewan (Junction was dropped from the name of the community in 1958), following the route of the Hudson Bay Railway line, but the weather became their enemy. Snow squalls conspired to end their journey, but they remained on course by keeping the railway tracks in view, although sometimes they flew the airplane dangerously low in order to maintain eye contact with the line.

They swerved west after the Porcupine Mountains and “crabbed” along to prevent being blown southward. They reached Hudson Bay Junction after flying 175 kilometres (109 miles). By this time, the airplane had consumed half the fuel in its 30-gallon tanks and in the name of safety, they had to land. In the midst of the storm, they circled several times, but were unable to find a solid and level landing field. What they saw below was bush, trees and what they thought was only soft muskeg. The decision was made to cross their fingers and land on the muskeg.

Ellis recalled in his book, Canada’s Flying Heritage: “It was a close call, but we were lucky. The mud of the muskeg was pretty solid. Even so, as the wheels took the ship’s weight, they settled axle deep. The strain the machine took was terrific, for we almost made a dead-stop landing. Fortunately, the Avro landing gear was built with a hefty ash skid protruding well out the front. That, and that alone, saved the day for us. Nothing else could have prevented the old girl going up on her snub nose, to end up stretched flat on her back.”

The landing was at 4 p.m. and all 50 of the village’s inhabitants rushed out to see the aviators and their flying machine. The villagers also helped get the airplane out of the mud and clear a runway through the bush to a nearby rise in the ground.

With the onset of darkness, the men retired to the local “hotel,” where an impromptu celebration was held to honour the first arrival of a flying machine in the community.

On Day 3 of their flight, the skies were clear, although there was a strong southwest wind. It took until the afternoon for the makeshift runway to be finally carved out of the bush. But they needed more fuel and were disappointed by the reply that there was none to be had. This wasn’t quite true, the local cafe and laundry owner offered up his entire supply of two four-gallon cans of high-test fuel used to keep his lamps burning. It was enough to allow the trio to again take-off and complete the 140-kilometre (87-mile) journey to their final destination — The Pas — on Sunday.

By 3:30 p.m., they were prepared to leave Hudson Bay Junction.

“Dougall’s expert handling of the controls did the trick all right (to get the plane into air), but it was a close shave, the leading edges of our lower wings swished through the treetops as we zoomed up in a hurry at the last split second,” said Ellis.

Without incident, they arrived at The Pas 40 minutes later. After a few passes above the community, they spotted the cow pasture of The Pas Lumber Co., a few blocks east of town, which they deemed suitable for their landing spot.

They had spent an elapsed time of 53 hours to cover the 625-kilometre journey from October 15 to 17, 1920, although their actual air time was just six hours and 12 minutes.

The trio were greeted by Mayor Barney Stitt and the town council, as well as hundreds of townspeople. Among those on-hand to commemorate the historic event was a Cree elder, who gave the name, “The Thunderbird,” to the biplane.

Congratulations were given for having flown the first passenger to the north, and a civic banquet was organized to celebrate the pioneering event.

Dougall and Ellis expected to fly the airplane back to Winnipeg, but severe weather had set in and they decided to dismantle the plane and ship it back by railway. Before they returned to the city, the two men took the opportunity to give joy-rides to local residents. The first to go up was Ruth Taylor.

“The object of the flight was to bring the North to the attention of airman, and to cause the possibilities of the use of these machines in the North to be demonstrated,” Stanley told The Pas Herald.

Stanley had made his point, since Avro G-CABV, “The Thunderbird,” earned its place in aviation history. As a trailblazer, “the thunder of her engine over the silent northern lakes was to have its echoes multiplied by the thousands in the years to come.”

The era of bush pilots taking to the northern skies had begun in Manitoba.