by Davide Montebruno
Winter, 2013, Altitude
Approaching by air from the south, the sinuous course of the Red River at Winnipeg at once attracts the notice of the strange pilot. In its meandering, it skirts the fringe of the business section and it is in this section that most of the bridges are located. Immediately before reaching this point the river takes a wide sweep round the Norwood Golf Course and it is almost at the centre of the sweep that the Brandon Avenue Base is located.
—William Burchall, pilot trainer, writing in a 1930 issue of The Bulletin, the magazine of Western Canada Airways Limited.
In 1926 James A. Richardson founded Western Canada Airways Limited (WCA), with headquarters in Winnipeg and himself as president. The company started small, operating from a tent at Hudson, Ontario, with a single Fokker Universal airplane, but quickly expanded. In 1927, a slipway and five acres of land were rented in Winnipeg for the firm’s new pontoon- and ski-equipped Fokker airplanes at the city’s only seaplane base, which was at the foot of Brandon Avenue on the Red River.
At first WCA shared the Brandon Avenue base with its original renters, the Royal Canadian Air Force, which soon moved its floatplane operations to Lac du Bonnet. By 1930, Brandon Avenue was abuzz with more than 30 engineers and mechanics, working in five permanent buildings; it had grown into one of the largest civilian air services in the British Empire.
The first WCA pilot to arrive at Brandon Avenue in the spring of 1927 was Frederick Stevenson, a First World War ace who had been a WCA pilot since February of that year. Stevenson investigated the area around the air base looking for a comfortable place to do his paper work and found the Wardell family at 403 Brandon Avenue. Stevenson rented part of the family’s closed-in veranda and the lady of the house, Mary Jane Wardell, offered to cook Stevenson breakfast and lunch at a nominal fee. Her support of those working at the Brandon Avenue air base expanded in November when the first permanent building, an engine repair shop, was erected near the slipway. Planes which previously operated year round at Lac du Bonnet or Sioux Lookout were now flown to Winnipeg for their annual overhaul and maintenance. Accordingly, Mrs. Wardell’s meal service expanded to eight sets of dishes, four waitresses and a kitchen helper. She even began sewing fabric for wing and fuselage coverings, eventually buying four sewing machines and hiring as many helpers.
Richardson’s rapidly expanding air service attracted the best and brightest pilots, engineers and mechanics from around the country. One such engineer was T.W. (Tommy) Siers, who later became world famous for the way he revolutionized cold weather engine-starting procedures. Siers was named maintenance manager for WCA’s entire fleet and reported to the operations manager, Leigh Brintnell. Brintnell brought along his former air engineer from the Ontario Provincial Air Service, Albert Hutt, who became chief mechanic at Brandon Avenue. In 1928, Hutt moved his young family to Winnipeg from Halton, Ontario, and into Brandon Court, an apartment building a short walk from the airbase. “Under Hutt’s direction, the Brandon Avenue overhaul shops became the most highly rated aircraft maintenance organization in Canada,” pilot Rex Terpening once wrote of his friend and co-worker.
By 1930, Brandon Avenue was the most extensive civilian float plane base in Canada. “At Brandon Avenue we had to stock all of the engines, instruments and accessories – it would take three weeks to a month to get the stuff from the factory,” Hutt recalled in a 1974 interview. The facilities at Brandon Avenue were not intended to simply keep planes up to airworthy standards, but rather to enhance them to the point of greatest efficiency. Wood, metal and cloth workshops were added to the engine overhaul facilities at Brandon Avenue, so that wings and even whole planes could be rebuilt when necessary. This meant WCA engineers had to be jack-of-all-trades. Hutt explained, “… you have to read the book but you’ve got to use a lot of common sense too.”
The busiest seasons at Brandon Avenue were the spring break-up and autumn freeze when dozens of planes from around the country would arrive for annual overhauls and to be switched from floats to skis or vice versa. Once departing Winnipeg most aircraft stayed outdoors. This meant that much of Hutt’s time during the peak flying seasons was spent traveling between other major WCA aerodromes, such as Lac du Bonnet and Sioux Lookout, to service grounded airplanes. Engine breakdowns, however, were the least of Al Hutt’s headaches. “We had trouble with the plywood airplanes. Water, moisture, mildew, cracking, chipping in the sun – gee whiz – the things pilots weren’t worried about when they were going from A to B.” In 1931, Western Canada Airways amalgamated with a number of small air services and was renamed Canadian Airways Limited (CAL). That same year Richardson introduced a whole new type of aircraft to Canada, an enormous German-built Junkers JU-521M, nicknamed the “Flying Boxcar.” Registered CF-ARM, it was the largest plane on the continent. From Al Hutt’s perspective, “… the Junkers was the best. It was foolproof insofar as looking after it when it was away – there wasn’t any fabric or wood on it!”
Canadian Airways’ reputation for efficiency and adherence to regulations was a valuable incentive for prospective customers. Around Brandon Avenue, Tommy Siers was known for his staunch observation of each regulation. However, his colleague, Al Hutt, did not always feel bound by the rules. Hutt believed instead that in order to get the most out their machines, a little experimentation was sometimes necessary. “A good engineer has to be a good gambler,” Hutt explained, adding that regulators, “…didn’t have any imagination whatsoever.” Once an airplane was repaired or upgraded, a pilot was needed to test it, a task which often fell to eager young mail pilot, Roy Brown. “He was an easy fellow to get along with and you could convince him it was a good idea. A lot of things you didn’t ask him because he would always want to do it,” Hutt recalled with a laugh.
During the Second World War, Siers was contracted by the RCAF to oversee cold weather aircraft conversions in Ottawa. Hutt continued to do his part by keeping Canada’s civilian bush planes flying. His responsibilities were increased in 1942, when CAL once again amalgamated with other bush flying services into Canadian Pacific Air Lines. Hutt and his family moved to the new company headquarters in Vancouver, where he was eventually named director of maintenance and engineering for the newly expanded national fleet. After Hutt left, much of the activity at Brandon Avenue was curtailed and most major operations in Winnipeg were moved to the large company hangars at Stevenson Field. By 1944, only ski and float repairs were still being conducted at Brandon Avenue and the company bulletin reports it had become, “a peaceful place to work.”
Canadian Pacific Air Lines finally ceased its operations at Brandon Avenue in 1947. In 1955, the cornerstone of Churchill High School and the increasing number of power lines across the river had pushed the remaining floatplane activity out of the city. The docks were eventually taken over in the late 1960s by the Redboine Boating Club, which occupies the site today. Hutt continued with Canadian Pacific until his retirement in 1966, after 49 years at the cutting edge of Canada’s aviation industry. He died in 1991. Hutt Lake in Northern Ontario was named in his honour to commemorate his substantial role in opening Canada’s northern skies.
This story originally appeared in the Winter, 2013 edition of Altitude.