by Davide Montebruno
In March of 1927, James A. Richardson’s Western Canada Airways undertook the high-risk delivery by air of critical survey equipment from the end of the northern rail line, over unmapped and virtually uninhabited terrain, to isolated Churchill, Manitoba, before the spring thaw. This Churchill airlift would mark Canada’s first major air transport operation into Arctic regions. Two nearly new, open-cockpit Fokker Standard Universal airplanes were selected for the mission, having been designed specifically for winter conditions. The company selected two expert pilots, First World War ace Fred Stevenson, of Parry Sound, Ontario, and Fokker test pilot Bernt Balchen. Balchen had played a key role in designing the Universals and had trained Stevenson in winter flying only days before. Keeping them aloft would be the company’s most experienced mechanic, Silas Alward (Al) Cheesman, hailing from St. John, New Brunswick. Balchen and Cheesman would later earn international renown as polar explorers.
Despite the best factory planning, the Universals were plagued by climate-related problems. In his autobiography, Balchen describes, “… being so cold at times, I could barely stand on my feet. We were flying open-cockpit airplanes with no heater. Our airspeed indicator would freeze up as would our bank-and-turn so we had very little to judge either the condition of our engine or the altitude of our ship in the air.” On two occasions in as many weeks, Stevenson would experience a rupture of his oil scavenger lines, (which returns engine oil to the tank), forcing him to land in uncharted terrain.
It Was Still Winter in Northern Manitoba
It was the last week of March, and while Winnipeggers were seeing the first signs of spring thaw, temperatures in the Churchill area hovered around -50°F. Stevenson was returning from Churchill in his Universal, G-CAFU, to the makeshift company base at Cache Lake, 200 kilometres south on the Nelson River at the end of the rail line. Suddenly a spray of oil erupted from the engine. Stevenson managed to make a forced landing before his engine seized, but without the necessary tools he was forced to snowshoe the remaining 20 kilometres to base. Along the way he discovered a small motorised rail car, and the unfazed pilot was back at base before morning.
Meanwhile, Balchen had noticed the downed plane from the air, and dropped Cheesman off to make the repairs, then took off again in search of Stevenson. Although not a licensed pilot, Cheesman was not keen to wait for Balchen to return for him in the morning, and flew the plane back to Cache Lake himself. As they awaited sunrise, eating breakfast in their cabin, Balchen and Stevenson were stunned to hear the unmistakable whir of a radial engine. They rushed outside to see their second Fokker wobble down to a perfect landing before them.
During the first week of April oil once again erupted on Stevenson’s windshield, this time forcing him down nearly 100 kilometres north of Cache Lake. The following morning, Balchen and Cheesman were becoming concerned with the absence of their comrade and took off in search of his plane. In the middle of a frozen lake Balchen noticed a tiny island where there had not been one the day before. As they descended closer, the island proved to be the lost Universal. Once again Stevenson was absent, his snowshoe prints leading off into the vast, empty country. Stevenson had drained his remaining engine oil into the snow where it froze. The resourceful Cheeseman melted the oil in his cook pot and made swift repairs to the scavenger line so that the two planes were able to take off together.
For three days and nights Balchen and Cheesman continuously searched the featureless snow-covered country without success. Around 4:00 AM, while resting after a long days search, they were awakened by cursing and shouting from outside the cabin. With the aid of a local trapper, Stevenson had returned once again, this time less stoic upon the discovery of his abandoned aircraft standing before him in the twilight. After a hot meal and a good sleep Stevenson took to the air again to complete the remaining flights.
Despite these perilous setbacks, the Churchill airlift was an unqualified success. An unprecedented 16,000 pounds of equipment and twelve men had been moved in 27 round trips over the course of only three weeks. The hardiness and daring of men like Stevenson, Cheesman and Balchen once and for all established the airplane as a critical tool of industry, far beyond its previous niche in war and amusement.
In the photo from the museum archives are (from left to right): Western Canada Airways manager J.R. (Rod) Ross, Fokker test pilot Bernt Balchen, air mechanic Silas Alward (Al) Cheesman, and company pilot Fred Stevenson. The plane behind them is Fokker Universal, G-CAFU, also named “City of Winnipeg.”