December, 1941, Canadian Aviation
by Ronald Keith, Editor
The route from Edmonton via Grande Prairie, Fort St. John and Fort Nelson to Whitehorse, Yukon, has not changed much in the past three years, even with the present expenditure of millions on airway construction along the strategic route. There has been a lot of hewing, gouging, scraping, levelling and even paving in progress. Flat expansive airports have suddenly appeared to scar the bush-and-rock wilderness.
But all this effort hasn’t changed the route much because it would take another glacial age or a cosmic eruption to lift the face of northern British Columbia and Yukon.
There has been a remarkable transformation in the air operation, however, since the writer first flew over the Yukon route. Then it was a bush route. Now it is an airline. In 1938, the flight was an adventure. Today it is routine.
On that earlier flight to Yukon we had a sturdy, reliable but single-engine Noorduyn Norseman-BFR. Over the 760 crow-line miles between Grande Prairie and Whitehorse, the hop was non-stop. Failure of that single engine any place along that line would have meant many weeks in the wilds, in forest or muskeg.
Midway on the flight, we had poured fuel through a vent in the cabin floor into the belly tanks of the plane to step up its range.
There was a more casual procedure then, too. The pilots wore slacks and windbreakers; there was no snappy stewardess service. Somewhere over the Liard Valley, Ted Field had plugged his electric razor into a battery in the cockpit floor and spruced up in anticipation of a party at Whitehorse.
But this time it was a different story. Stewardesses, dainty lunches, tea in the air, Lockheed 14s, blue uniformed Captains and First officers; and, at the far end, Capt. Luck set her down on a paved runway more like a strip at LaGuardia Airport than a settlement in back of beyond.
We had a good look at the north this time, an especially good look at Whitehorse where the weather bound us in for 10 days instead of an overnight stop. In fact, the weather was not running on schedule at all at the end of the summer of 1941.
First we were ‘stymied’ for three sousing-wet days in Grande Prairie. Then the weather opened up in the west, so, determined to go someplace, we hopped over to Prince George, in to Vancouver and back to ‘Prince’ with Luck.
It was surprising to note the change in Prince George. As the main stop on the ‘inside’ route to Yukon and Alaska, it is seeing a lot of American traffic these days. The military aviation is most interesting but its discussion is not encouraged officially.
Leaving that to the imagination, it might be said that Pan American has set up excellent radio facilities at Prince George and at Whitehorse but is required to keep hands off all Canadian traffic. Lodestars are standard equipment.
Our flight plan at Vancouver had called for a jump from Prince over to Fort St. John to meet the Edmonton plane, then north to Yukon. But the sourest weather in three decades was still dominating the airways, so Sheldon Luck got orders to fly direct and, of necessity, non-stop over the crest of the Rocky Mountains to Whitehorse.
That stretch, as evidenced by the inadequate illustrations herewith, was more spectacular than hospitable. The seemingly endless seas of snow-shrouded peaks pushing up into the scattered cloud banks would completely bewilder an unfamiliar pilot trying to find his way about that country by ground contact.
There’s plenty of gold in those hills but the rocky barricades defy men to get it out; which is a pretty sound argument against forced landings. Pilots claim the best maps of the area are ridiculously inaccurate. So when they are freight-hopping northwest of Fort St. James and on up through the Telegraph Creek country, they just have to know the territory, every crag and canyon, like a great big backyard.
There has been a lot of untrumpetted pioneer aviation in the mountainous hinterland of the Pacific province. The Yukon Southern pilots know its formidable terrain quite intimately.
But the radio compass plus the virtual infallibility of twin engines has reduced the significance of landmarks. Early next year the installation of radio beam stations along the line will also banish the still-existing bogey of bad weather.
Just comfortably at sunset we touched down on the high plateau of Whitehorse airport. The weather followed right in and settled down behind us and there we were!
The sullen ceiling during the next 10 days was stuffed down into the bowl of the Yukon Valley as solidly and firmly as a cork in a bottle. When the on-signal hum of the radio beam comes to the Yukon, such weather will be no more than another topic of conversation, instead of a stoppered bottleneck on air travel.
On the southbound flight with Don Patry in another Lockheed 14 we saw the string of defense airports every 250 miles to Edmonton. They will all be in use this winter, with weather-delayed hard-surfacing completed next spring.
Slogging through fly-infested muskeg or pushing through unending miles of waist-deep snow in sub-zero weather would be better than riding in an airliner for an appreciation of the incredible airport building which has been going on for the past nine months across the northeast corner of British Columbia.
The two ‘superman’ jobs were at Fort Nelson, 300 miles north of Steel and Watson Lake, just under the B.C. / Yukon border. It was done by trailblazing dog team, by tractor train, by scow and by human portage. These two airports were scraped from the wilds in double-quick time and despite almost every conceivable natural obstacle.
The early result will be a paved, lighted, radio-guided airway clear through to Yukon and Alaska. Probably beyond.
This article was originally published in the December, 1941 edition of Canadian Aviation.