Fred Stevenson was a pioneer of Canada’s North. During the 1920s, he flew unheard-of distances with tonnes of freight into completely uncharted regions. His outside-the-box thinking helped to prove there was usefulness for the airplanes of his day – beyond aerial combat. An icon even in his own time, Stevenson inspired an entire generation to dream of taking to the skies. That is, until his tragic death during a test flight in 1928.
Stevenson grew up a Prairie boy, living with his traveling father in various communities across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. When he was 20, Stevenson enlisted as an infantryman with the 196th Battalion and was sent to England and then off to the trench war of continental Europe during World War I. He was injured the following year. As he lay recovering, he was captivated by the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps stationed nearby. Once he was back on his feet, Stevenson joined the Royal Flying Corps and was assigned to the newly formed 79 Squadron, flying Sopwith Dolphin fighters in ground-attack operations in support of British troops fighting in France. Despite the Squadron’s lack of emphasis on air-to-air combat, Stevenson distinguished himself by shooting down 18 enemy aircraft. He finished his military career as Captain Stevenson, with decorations including the French and Belgian Croix de Guerre.
When Stevenson returned home to Canada in 1920, he discovered that his reputation preceded him. He quickly found work – at the Canadian Aircraft Company in Winnipeg – performing aerobatic routines at local exhibitions. Stevenson’s career as a commercial pilot was launched in 1927 when he took a job with James A. Richardson’s newly formed Western Canada Airways.
Stevenson’s first assignment was to fly an exploratory drilling team and its equipment to Fort Churchill. The engineers were constructing a harbour that would become the railroad terminus. Over 30 days in March and April, Stevenson flew nearly 10,000 kilometers and carried more than eight tonnes of equipment in 27 round trips. This work was accomplished with the open cockpit Fokker Universal G-CAGE. There were no hangar facilities or radio communications as part of the adventure.
In the same year, Stevenson flew several other missions covering ever-greater distances with ever-increasing quantities of supplies. The success of these unprecedented endeavours firmly established the role of aircraft in discovering the Canadian North.
On January 5, 1928, Stevenson was killed during a test flight of his newly repaired G-CAGE at The Pas, Manitoba. Later that year, Stevenson was honored with the naming of Winnipeg’s first airfield, Stevenson Aerodrome.
The confidence and daring of the first flights into the North by Stevenson, and other pilots, firmly established the airplane as Canada’s foremost means of transportation.