Article: The Long Night

  • Image of a Fairchild 24 aircraft in flight.

    Long-range radio was already standard equipment for aircraft all over the world by the 1960s, but for pilots flying out of northern communities such as Churchill and The Pas, Manitoba, it remained largely unavailable. Even for experienced bush pilots, like one of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada’s founders, Gordon Emberley, flying without a radio can be extremely dangerous, especially in remote Arctic locations. Emberley and his wife, Verna, faced such a danger one fateful night while flying north to The Pas.

    Gordon flew a pontoon-equipped Fairchild 24 for Starratt Airways transporting fish to market in southern Manitoba. On his return trip north to The Pas, Emberley was carrying a more precious cargo, his wife Verna, and their two young sons, aged four and two. Without warning, the engine lost power and Emberley was forced to put down in the north end of Lake Winnipegosis.

    Emberley was able to beach the small bush plane on the lake shore so it would not drift away while he repaired the engine. That’s when a storm rolled in. The repairs would have to wait as the Emberley’s hastily prepared their boys to weather the storm inside the fabric-covered plane. Verna Emberley recalls that they were unable to call for help because, “… in those days there was no connection, no radio, nothing. Nobody knew we were missing all night.” The couple sat sleeplessly in the cockpit through the night, hoping the wind would not blow the plane off shore into the lake, while their small boys slept on a pile of cloths in the back. All the while, the plane rocked uneasily up and down with the swelling waves.

    In the morning, the Emberley’s found their pontoons had taken on water, sinking into the sand on the bank. Gord Emberley, like most bush pilots, was used to doubling as a mechanic and set about bailing and patching the pontoons. Fortunately, the engine trouble turned out to be a quick fix. The carburetor leverage had become stuck in full hot, “All I had to do was flick the thing up,” Emberley recalls. That afternoon, the family shared a grateful meal at the hotel in The Pas, but as the Emberley’s recall, the ground beneath their feet was still “going up and down.”

    Image of a Fairchild 24 aircraft in flight.

    Today, the very same Fairchild 24, which Gord and Verna Emberley came to know so intimately, can be found on permanent display in the bush gallery of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.

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