The following story is an excellent example of the various hardships bush pilots and their crew faced on a daily basis. This true account, as retold by the flight engineer, demonstrates just how vulnerable bush flyers were to circumstances they could not control. Personal lives often had to be put on hold, as urgent flights could not be predicted in advance. Since there was also no foolproof way to predict either changes in weather or mechanical failure, pilots and their crew were always at the mercy of fate.
The pilot in this story was Walter Gilbert, and the air engineer was Stan Knight. It took place in the wintertime during the early nineteen thirties, when they had to fly a party of prospectors from a lead and zinc mine out from Pine Point to Edmonton. Knight stresses that this adventurous trip was not typical of bush flying, and that he does not recall another flight with so many setbacks in such a short period of time.
From the beginning of their journey, special measures had to be taken to deal with the cold weather. At six in the morning, Knight began his usual hour and a half routine of warming up the plane and readying it for flight. This involved using a blow torch to thaw the engine, and replacing the heated oil that had been removed from the airplane the night before to prevent freezing. Soon Knight wound up the engine, which with a few coughs finally caught.
Gilbert and Knight had a successful first day of their trip. They flew to Fort Rae, where they dropped off some supplies for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and then arrived in Resolution where they planned to spend the night.
The first stop the next morning was in Fitz to refuel, where the weather was bitterly cold and breezy. When ready to take off again for Edmonton, Gilbert decided to take a look up-river with the aircraft to check the ice. This precautionary measure usually took no time at all, and the crew expected to take off shortly. When Knight saw the aircraft had stopped, however, he knew there was a problem. This was confirmed when Gilbert opened the hatch on the cockpit and signalled for help.
When a river above rapids is glare ice, it is often an indication that the main river ice is converged with overflow and has frozen over. This condition is usually caused by broken ice travelling under the main ice, which blocks the flow where the main ice meets the open water at the head of the rapids. This is cause for concern because it is impossible to tell whether the fresh ice will support the weight of the aircraft, or how deep the new layer of ice is. In this case Gilbert's plane had broken through the top layer of ice, and was sitting in eleven inches of ice water.
To remedy the situation, a load of lumber was obtained to fill in the space between the two levels of ice, so the plane could run back on the top layer. After a hard day working in below-freezing temperature water, the plane was refuelled and ready to leave the next morning. One day behind schedule, the pilot and crew were eager to head back to Edmonton.
The next morning the crew continued on their way bright and early. The first leg of the trip was completed in good weather, but once the plane reached Hay Camp in Buffalo Park, visibility was poor. Snow fall continued, making it necessary to land on the Athabasca River. They were forced to taxi up the river relying on an old hand sketched Captain's map. Navigation was treacherous during times of limited visibility because there were many inlets in the river. The position of these inlets, however, changed over the years. At this time, only three were open. The others had been blocked by ice, which pushes earth up from the bottom of the water, eventually leading to tree growth and the closing off of the inlet.
Gilbert and Knight continued to carefully follow the banks of the river, until some hours later visibility returned and the sun broke out. Both pilot and engineer were relieved until Gilbert suddenly noticed that the gas gauge registered no fuel. This confused them, since they should have had more than enough fuel to make it to McMurray. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the plane had been operating on full mixture setting instead of a leaner setting, which deprived them of an hour of flying time. Luckily, a dog sled team showed up, and Gilbert caught a ride to search for fuel while Knight occupied himself with checking the area they would be using during takeoff.
Only a couple of hundred yards upriver, Knight discovered an ice "hummuck" that had formed when the first freeze had broken open. It was about 25 feet high and covered in fresh, untouched snow, which made it practically invisible. It was in fact a good thing they had run out of fuel when they had, as the plane would have been in serious trouble had they landed on it. Knight marked the spot with some spruce boughs for easy identification, and after finding no more obstructions, he returned to the plane to find Gilbert was back with the fuel. Half an hour later they had reached McMurray, where they immediately fueled up so they could reach their final destination of Edmonton!
Even though it was almost dark, the pilot and crew were eager to take off. Gilbert had the Edmonton airport wired so the runway lights would be on if the plane did indeed arrive after nightfall. After such an eventful trip, the pilot, crew and passengers were ecstatic to be home. Knight explained their noisy arrival in Edmonton "We were very naughty, but we raised the lights of Edmonton twenty minutes after dark, and, as it was a very special occasion, we flew down Jasper at 200 feet to let our 'Honeys' know we were in town - you see, it was Christmas Eve".
From The Stuart Graham Papers, The Beginning of Bush Flying in Canada
Sat, Oct 15 2011 1:51 AM
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