by Rev. H. R. Rokeby-Thomas, B.Sc, F.C.I., F.R.E.S., F.R.Econ.
Cambridge Bay, Victoria Island
March, 1936, The Beaver (now Canada’s History Magazine)
A dream of regular airlines over the top of the world, which may become reality within the next decade.
The barren rock surface of southeast Victoria Land, with its many frozen lakes and negligible undulations, hardly lightened by a white mantle of snow, lay almost invisible in the darkest hour of arctic winter. At Cambridge Bay alone gleamed a single light strong and penetrating.
In a room beneath the great light, a radio operator sat speaking before a microphone: “VKZ answering Imperial LZ; bearing direct on course two; time, nine hours seven minutes Greenwich Mean Time: Standing by.” He pressed a button and a moment later someone entered the room. The operator, without turning, said: “LZ’s on time.”
A moment later a blaze of lights illuminated the square of ice, and at nine hours fifteen minutes precisely, the four-engined fifty-passenger Handley Page, G-EBLZ, owned and operated by Imperial Airways, came to ground.
On board, the navigator made the final entry for the section of Ice Cap, Greenland, to Cambridge Bay, N.W.T., “On schedule, routine as usual.” The night steward observed only three passengers were up to view the port of call.
Someone holding a nozzle of a pipeline away up on the centre section of the upper wing shouted, “Ready.” Then, with the throwing of a switch, the pump, connected with the huge gasoline storage tank, sprung into action, sending the pulsating fluid of internal combustion life to the reservoirs of the powerful engines that would carry passengers and Royal Mail through hardships to the stars.
Snow began to fall, at first in casual but large flakes, then more thickly. The airport meteorologist, preparing a weather memorandum for the navigator, entered visibility international scale No. 2, which in plain British units signified 550 yards.
At nine hours twenty-nine minutes G.M.T. the four engines that had been silent for a brief space again came to life, still warm from their earlier exertions; and on the second of the half hour, almost bursting at full throttle, they roared in the mighty unity of a great crescendo, six thousand horse power shouting the call of Empire and Dominion against the frozen hinterland of the polar North, urging forward into an angry sky vanishing into a diminuendo of vision and hearing that left the senses tingling with the triumph that courage and science presented in tribute to the mind of man.
Far away on Canada’s western seaboard a radio operator was intoning, “Calling Imperial LZ, calling Imperial LZ, Imperial LZ stand by for your bearings.”
High up in the snow clouds of the night the Morse key in the radio room of the giant plane flickered out an answer.
At fifteen hours Greenwich Mean Time (8 a.m. Cambridge Bay; time of the 105th meridian) the bedside alarm clock coughed and sputtered and the chilly atmosphere inside the house gave a reminder that the banked fires of the previous evening had reached their lowest ebb. Sleep was gone and with it the vision of mighty wings, but the memory lingered and the thoughts that not as yet saw reality gave promise of tomorrow and the years to come.
This article originally appeared in the March, 1936 edition of The Beaver magazine (now Canada’s History). The images are of a smaller, two-engine Handley Page aircraft operated by Imperial Airways and are from the museum’s library archives.