Article: Rene, Vic and the Moose Glue Prop

  • BoysOwn1940-640x250

    Nobody at Fort Simpson, Northwest Territory had ever laid eyes on an airplane before the snowy morning of March 30, 1921, when two ski-equipped Junkers JL-6s descended from the sky above them.  These two planes were the first to operate in the Canadian Arctic, having been purchased earlier that year by Imperial Oil to service their well sites along the Mackenzie River. May-Gorman Aeroplanes Ltd. of Edmonton was hired to operate the Junkers, and company co-owner George Gorman personally took charge of the project. The two planes, registered G-CADQ and G-CADP, were christened by the wife of Imperial Oil’s Vice President with the affectionate names René and Vic, respectively, before Gorman and second pilot Erwin Fullerton departed north for Fort Simpson.

    Seeing that the ice on the Mackenzie was too rough, the pilots instead decided to land on a smooth snow covered field at the edge of the settlement. Fullerton landed Vic safely but as Gorman touched down René broke through the deep crusted snow, damaging the propeller. The residents of Fort Simpson rushed to the site, shocked by the doubtful performance of the new flying machines. They told the pilots about a smoothly iced tributary nearby where the planes could be safely parked for repair. After flying Vic to the tributary, Fullerton returned with the propeller so that René could be moved as well. As Gorman brought René to speed the plane struck a hummock, the axle gave way and the good propeller smashed to bits against the ground. The crew was now stranded; it was an eight-week journey by dogsled to the nearest aerodrome on the Peace River.

    Fort Simpson resident Walter Johnson, the Hudson Bay Company handyman, suggested that he could build replacement propellers. He would use some extra dog-sleigh boards from the Hudson Bay Company store and laminate them together using glue made by boiling moose hides. The aviators had little option but to accept the unlikely offer. The laminated planks were clamped together and cured in a stove stoked to 80°F for 36 hours. Johnson used the unbroken blade from one prop to make a template out of tin, which he then used as a guide for carving the moose-glue blocks to shape. Fullerton tested the propellers on some short flights. The new propeller showed no sign of wear or damage at all.

    As the crew rested for their return trip, they were awakened one morning by shouting. The ice on the Mackenzie was breaking up and with it, the tributary where the two planes were parked. Fullerton later wrote that, “… the length of our runway was decreasing almost every minute.” Fullerton narrowly managed to pilot Vic off the end of the ice sheet in time. René had to be hauled away by oxen to prevent it falling into the water. Once in the air, landing was impossible due to the thawing ice. This meant a six-hour, 402-mile push for the Peace River aerodrome over unexplored terrain. Against all odds, a moose-glue propeller had saved the airmen nearly half a years’ travel. Gorman kept the propeller and in 1945 his widow donated it to the Canada Air and Space Museum in Ottawa, where it remains today.

Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required