Article: Punch Dickins–First Flight Over the Barren Lands

  • ‘UNEXPLORED’.  These ten letters appeared between Hudson Bay and Lake Athabasca on ‘Punch’ Dickins’ map. It was August 1928 and Dickins was contracted to fly the desolate Barren Lands on an exploratory mission for the Dominion Exploration Company. Western Canada Airways had taken delivery of a new Fokker Super Universal airplane the previous week with the registration G-CASK. Boasting an enclosed cockpit and a higher horsepower engine than Dickins’ previous Standard Universal, the task ahead seemed no less daunting. If successful, ‘Punch’ Dickins and G-CASK would be the first to fly the Barrens.

    As important as a bush pilot’s skill, was his ability to inspire confidence in his passengers. Dickins gained his passengers trust with a calm disposition and keen sense of humour. As G-CASK was loaded with supplies for their journey, Colonel MacAlpine, leader of Dominion Exploration Company, asked ‘Punch’ Dickins how he would navigate the unmapped Barren Lands. Dickins replied, “I’ll follow the letters UNEXPLORED on the map. When you see them, tell me.”

    ‘Punch’ Dickins was confident as G-CASK lifted off from Winnipeg on August 28, 1928. Along with Dickins and the Colonel were Western Canada Airways engineer, Bill Nadin, and Richard Pearce, editor of the Northern Miner. The flight was going well until they approached the smoke of forest fires in the Mackenzie River Basin. A dark haze had obscured the sky, making it difficult to follow their course along the river. As a pilot, ‘Punch’ Dickins would never admit to being lost, instead, when he felt ‘temporarily misplaced’, he would put down for a cup of tea until he found his bearings. This trip would require many cups of tea.

    The Super Universal’s range was about 1,000 km, so in order to fly the vast Barrens, fuel caches had been established during the spring. As visibility improved, Dickins was able to navigate to the nearest cache. Planning to leave enough fuel for the return trip, Dickins checked his fuel gauge carefully, taking only enough to get them to Fort Smith. Unfortunately, as they approached the Slave River, the engine went silent. “I was out of gas,” Dickins recalled years later. “I landed and got out the tea pail again.”

    Dickins realised the problem… his fuel gauge had frozen and given a false reading. They had landed nearly 60 km short of Fort Smith. Fortunately, a steamboat was spotted heading up river. Dickins and his passengers waved the boat to shore. By a bizarre twist of fate, the boat was carrying 10 barrels of aviation fuel to establish a cache for, “… a fellow called Dickins.” ‘Punch’ Dickins was relieved by his good fortune, as Colonel MacAlpine commended him on his foresight.

    The expedition successfully mapped this previously ‘UNEXPLORED’ region. By establishing fuel caches along the Mackenzie and Slave Rivers, and all over the North, Western Canada Airways was able to open new permanent air routes. From then on, ‘Punch’ Dickins swore by his dip stick when refueling and never ran out of fuel again.

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