The “Ghost of Charron Lake” — “It was the first type of aircraft purchased by my father”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

Last week, the July 17 recovery of the engine, propeller and other smaller artifacts from Fokker Standard Universal G-CJAD was told. The “Ghost of Charron Lake” has rested on the bottom of the northern Manitoba lake since the spring of 1932 . After 30 years of futile efforts, it was found under 40 metres of water on July 4, 2005, though the recovery was only undertaken this year. 

To avoid a blinding snowstorm, pilot Stuart McRorie landed on Charron Lake on December 10, 1931, but when taxiing toward shore the ski-equipped aircraft broke through weak ice and sunk up to its wings. It remained embedded until the spring when the ice melted and the aircraft sunk below the surface.

Pilot McRorie and mechanic “Slim” Forrest escaped as the Standard Universal sunk to its wings under the weight of a heavy cargo of mining equipment, tools and canned meat. 

McRorie and Forrest camped beside the aircraft the first night and moved to shore the next day, taking with them whatever gear they could salvage from the Fokker.

Although they lit fires on two islands and created a large ring of spruce saplings out on the ice as signals to rescuers, continuing bad weather prevented them from being seen from the air. To survive, the men ate emergency rations and canned goods recovered from the aircraft’s cargo hold.

By December 20, the two men had realized that a rescue was not imminent. They arranged for Tom Boulanger, a native trapper who was returning from his traps in the northern section of the lake to his southern camp, to guide them to the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Little Grand Rapids, which was 100 kilometres to the south and their original starting point. 

A fee of $50 was agreed upon for Boulanger’s services. The transportation for their journey was two dog sleds, and they were also accompanied by another unnamed native guide.

Two days later, and on the ice near Little Grand Rapids, Canadian Airways pilot “Westy” Westergaard spotted the trekkers, picked them up and flew the two men back to Winnipeg, just in time to celebrate Christmas.

The aircraft remained frozen in the ice until the spring of 1932 when the ice started to melt and the plane slipped below the lake’s surface. It is estimated that the airplane actually “flew” underwater for about a kilometre before coming to rest, which offers an explanation of why it took so long for the Fokker to be located, despite having information from eyewitnesses to the emergency landing.

G-CAJD, the “Ghost of Charron Lake,” was owned by Canadian Airways Ltd., the air carrier established by Winnipeg’s James A. Richardson in 1930 when he amalgamated Western Canada Airways (WCA) — a company he founded in 1926 — and five eastern-based air services. 

Richardson, using the evidence provided by McRorie, was able to file a successful insurance claim for the loss of the aircraft.

It was bush pilot Harold A. “Doc” Oaks who convinced Richardson that an airline serving the north could be profitable,  telling him that all that was needed was someone willing to make the investment. In Richard’s Winnipeg office, the two men shook hands and WCA was born as Canada’s first commercial airline.

Oaks travelled to Teleboro Airport factory in New Jersey and purchased WCA’s  first Fokker Standard Universal, which he flew to Sioux Lookout. (In 1929, the asking price of this aircraft at the factory was listed as US $14,200.) This single-engine, open-cockpit airplane, was designed G-CAFU and named “The City of Winnipeg.”

Between 1926 and 1931, Richardson purchased 12 of the only 45 Fokker Standard Universals ever built.

“It was the first type of aircraft purchased by my father when he set out to build a commercially-viable airline,” said George Richardson. “He was convinced that its specifications were perfect for flying in the Canadian North.”

Because of the family’s past association with the aircraft, George Richardson and James Richardson & Sons, Ltd. were major contributors of funding for this year’s recovery effort which was co-lead by Patrick Madden and his wife Annette Spaulding. Starting in 1991, Madden, a former supervisor of the RCMP’s Underwater Recovery Team, had made several previous attempts to find the Ghost. Now retired, Madden and Spaulding live in Rockingham, Vermont.

The Fokker Standard Universal had a plywood wing, welded tubular steel fuselage and tail surfaces and a Wright J-5, 220-hp “Whirlwind” engine. It was this engine that powered the “Spirit of St. Louis” on its trans-Atlantic flight. It took pilot Charles  Lindbergh nearly 34 hours to complete the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic, which started in New York and ended at Paris on May 21, 1927.

The Standard Universal’s fuselage was fabric covered and all control cables were on the exterior. The wingspan was 14.55 metres (47 feet nine inches) and it had a length of 10.13 metres (33 feet three inches). Its weight empty was 996 kilograms (2,192 pounds) and a cargo capacity of an estimated 427 kilograms (940 pounds). Its maximum airspeed was 189 km/h (118 mph) and a cruising speed of 157 km/h (98 mph).

The Standard Universal’s heyday was actually quite short. At the time of  McRorie’s emergency landing, Canadian Airways was already purchasing Fokker Super Universals, an aircraft with an enclosed cockpit and twice the horsepower of the Standard Universal. In fact, two Super Universals were on the same cargo run as G-CJAD to Island Lake, setting out just ahead of McRorie and safely beating out the bad weather.

The Super Universal’s heyday was equally short, encompassing a scant five years, according to Roy Brown, a   WCA pilot and the man who shot down the Red Baron during the First World War. The only flying version of the Super Universal, restored over the course of 17 years by Clark Seaborn of Calgary, is now on display at the Richardson Gallery of Flight in the WCAM, 958 Ferry Rd., Winnipeg.

“Flying the (Standard) Universal, Richardson’s pilots carried out the first major airlift in Canada, proving to the mining community and government that the airplane had a role in peacetime,” said Shirley Render, executive director of the Western Canada Aviation Museum.

Bush pilots started to rule the skies above the Canadian Prairies and the North in the years following the First World War when war veterans took up the challenge.

“(Many believed) the opening of the rich Canadian North was impossible,” said Canada’s most successful First World War flying ace Billy Bishop. “Then the bush flier came along and wrought a miracle.”

Veteran Canadian bush pilot Clennell H. “Punch” Dickins, another war veteran flier and one of WCA’s first employees, said in 1962 that he defined bush pilots as “a pilot and mechanic, who are ready and willing to take any kind of a load to any destination, on or off the map, within limits of their aircraft, and the financial resources of the customer.”

A bush pilot had to be this and more because an emergency landing left only three options: fix the plane, take a long hike back to civilization or perish, according to aviation writer Roger Guillemette.

The flight engineer also was essential to fix an engine in the dead of winter or repair collapsed landing gear in the heat of summer, he added.

Brown said in a 1958 speech to the Manitoba Historical Society that WCA purchased three Standard Universals in 1926 and moved them to a base in Hudson, Ontario, to cater to mining operations that followed a gold strike at Red Lake in 1925.

“Quite a few weird and wonderful aircraft joined in the mad and lucrative rush ...,” he added. “The rates were fabulous and the volume of business was something to make the mouth water.”

Brown said the Standard Universal was welcomed by the pilots as a “very good workhorse ... (and) had an open cockpit in front and a roomy four-passenger cabin behind.”

Brown provided an example of how much of a workhorse the Standard Universal was for WCA. In the summer of 1927, when Sherrit Gordon was opening its mine approximately 176 kilometres (110 miles) north of The Pas, the company asked WCA to fly 30 tons of mining machinery and supplies to the camp before freeze-up. Three Standard Universals were used, including one flown by Brown. The success of the mission led to the decision by WCA to set up a permanent base in The Pas to serve the mining boom in the region.

Brown’s adventures in the north continued into the winter of 1927 when he encountered three distraught prospectors at Lac la Ronge. The trio told Brown they had found the mother lode of copper, a “glowing red mound,” north of Flin Flon, Manitoba. While waiting for their assay results, word got out about their find and a group of rival prospectors had headed out four days earlier to expert guides to stake their own claim.

Brown agreed to fly the prospectors to their claim. Unfortunately, the prospectors were unable to recognize landmarks. Lost, the aircraft was nearly out of fuel when Brown remembered the location of an air force fuel dump. They refuelled and set out again. Finally, one of the men sighted the glowing red mound. Looking below, Brown saw two canoes filled with men paddling frantically to the site, but the resourceful pilot was able to land his party well ahead of the paddlers and they staked their claim which later sold for $150,000.

“Flying by the seat of their pants” and using aircraft like the Fokker Standard Universal, bush pilots were the pathfinders who proved that Canada’s vast hinterland could be conquered by air.

(Last week’s part 1 is available at www.winnipegrealestatenews. com — click on Archives at the top of the Web page and go to Heritage Highlights.)