If you’re like most business travellers, you’ll recognize that the golden era of business travel has come and gone. Today’s security procedures, delays, line-ups and documentation have made it more of an endurance test than a perk of the job. But in 1920, Frank Stanley took a ‘flyer’ on how he could use an airplane to speed up his business travels… What followed was a three-day pioneering journey with the full brunt of every traveller’s worst dreams.
First Commercial Flight into the North
On October 14th, 1920 Frank J. Stanley was on a business trip to Winnipeg and he decided to return by air to his northern home at The Pas. He called the downtown office of the Canadian Aircraft Company to charter a plane. The company manager was somewhat staggered by the request for The Pas lay five hundred miles away to the north, where aircraft had never ventured before. A deal was made, and Canadian flying history was in the making.
At 10:30 the following morning, Mr. Stanley arrived by taxi at the St. Charles aerodrome along Portage Avenue West. His livery was an G-CABV – an open cockpit, three-seater Avro, with an air speed of around 90 miles per hour.
Pilots Frank Ellis and Hector Dougall studied the maps available and decided to follow the railway as a guide wherever possible. Their course had to be a visible one, since the only equipment the Avro had was a compass, an air speed indicator, and an altimeter, together with several instruments and gauges connected with the engine.
The passenger sat comfortably in the centre cockpit and the trio took off on that sunny Friday morning at exactly 11 am. The first leg of the journey was 184 miles to Dauphin.
Over the town of Gladstone, at a height of some 7,000 feet, the pop-bang, pop-bang of a misfiring spark plug came to their ears, so without further ado they came in for a landing and settled down to a bumpy stop in a recently plowed field, right next to the town’s main street. The plug trouble was quickly mended and with many of the townfolk gathered they were soon off to Dauphin some 90 miles away.
They once again set their wheels down on a plowed field at Dauphin. Like magic, cars full of people arrived by the dozen, and the trio were driven into Dauphin to make arrangements for refuelling both themselves and the machine. The pitstop lasted two hours.
Next Stop: Swan River
The weather was beginning to cloud up and it had become decidedly colder. At an altitude of 5,000 feet, the change in temperature was not pleasant, but considerable height was required to clear the northern end of the Duck Mountains. They stopped at Swan River for the night. After making the plane snug for the night and staking it down, they hiked to the hotel.
Saturday morning was cold and blustery, with heavy clouds and a low ceiling, take-off was delayed until 2:30 pm, when the weather looked fit enough, though far from good. They had intended to head straight across the lakes and muskegs in a direct air route from Swan River to The Pas, but the weather was against it, so they continued with the railroad as their guiding angel, hoping to fly non-stop to The Pas by way of the village of Hudson’s Bay Junction. The wind and the weather became worse with severe snow squalls but they managed to keep the nose over the railway tracks, sometimes a little too close for comfort.
Low on Fuel
They swung due west after the Porcupine Mountains and ‘crabbed’ along to prevent being blown to the south. Ninety minutes after leaving Swan River, although only 109 air miles, they caught sight of Hudson’s Bay Junction. With fuel half gone – the tanks only held 30 gallons – safety called. After circling the village several times in the buffeting storm, the crew found no large cultivated spots or clearings of any size fit for landing. Bush, trees, and muskeg were everywhere. The trio had their fingers crossed. Frank Ellis recalled “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 in 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.”
It was 4 pm and all 50 inhabitants of the village quickly arrived and helped to extricate the machine and to clear a runway through the bush to nearby rising ground. Darkness settled, and they adjourned to the local ‘hotel’, where an impromptu celebration was held to honour the first arrival of an aeroplane.
Sunday dawned fine and clear, with a strong southwest wind, but it was not until afternoon that a makeshift runway was cleared for the take-off. The owner of the only café and laundry in the village sold them his whole supply of eight gallons of gasoline (there were no automobiles or roads). By 3:30 pm they were prepared to leave. Ellis recalls: “Dougall’s expert handling of the controls did the trick all right, 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.”
The 87 miles between the Junction and The Pas passed below them in 40 minutes and without incident. They landed in a cattle field south of The Pas Lumber Company’s yard, a few blocks east of the town.
Elapsed Time: 53 Hours; Distance: 625 km
The elapsed time of the flight from Winnipeg to The Pas was slightly over 53 hours. The actual time in the air was six hours and 12 minutes. They had expected to fly the machine back again to Winnipeg, but severe winter set in and the machine was not equipped with skis. The machine was therefore dismantled, and she rode back to her home port by freight.
Avro G-CABV will go down in history as having valiantly served her purpose.
Looking westward, showing Pasquia Lake and The Pas, Ellis took the first aerial photograph of Canada north of the 53rd Parallel, October 17, 1920.