Article: Arctic Operations

  • Western Canada Airways Fokker Standard Universal, c. 1920

    by W.N. Sherlock
    November, 1937, The Aeroplane

    For several years I was a commercial pilot in the Canadian Arctic both on mail routes and others. At present there seems to be an increase of interest in Arctic flying, combined with a certain vagueness about it, and I should say various parts of the globe before I went to the North, I never really learnt to fly until I had done a winter and summer in those most interesting and rather dangerous latitudes. In the summer most of the flying is done on pontoons or floats, although some flying boats are used. As petrol is so costly in those undeveloped parts, single motors with low petrol consumption are favoured.

    The period of greatest activity amongst mechanics, overhauling motors and machines, changing from skis to pontoons etc., is break-up, when the frozen rivers and lakes are thawing. The pilots take their vacations then. A similar period also comes at freeze-up, but the winter is considerably more hazardous and daylight is very short, so the flying season proper is in the summer.

    To reduce the dangers of competition among so many companies there is, or was, in Canada an understanding that no machines would venture into the Arctic before a given date. The idea is that everyone should get a fair start, and no pilot find himself flying on pontoons over frozen rivers and lakes.

    The companies generally go for old pilots who know the tricks of the trade and can take off a large load. A mistake may easily mean a crash and possibly several weeks out of action hundreds of miles from the nearest depot. The companies cannot afford to lose flying time in so short a season. Wireless stations are few and other communications by canoe or dog-sleigh are very slow. Furthermore, a pilot out there has to turn his hand to practically anything, including filling-up, cooking, shooting for the pot, and even valuing furs, which are sometimes taken instead of cash for a passenger fare.

    The summer can be very warm, and particularly from midday to three or four o’clock there is very little lift in the air. There is seldom any difficulty in taking off a decent load early in the morning but this cannot always be arranged, so the late start is what greatly concerns the pilot to lose his temper and the company some freight or a passenger or two.

    Another hazard is that of “dead heads”. A “dead head” is a waterlogged log which floats vertically and may hardly protrude from the water at all and can easily cause serious damage and perhaps a crash. There are always hundreds of them in the Arctic rivers left over from the previous logging season.

    On a still day the lakes are often just like mirrors and marvellously clear. Often machines have come to grief through glassy water, either flying straight in, or stalling anything between 50 and 100 feet up. An extraordinary and well-known fact is that even the very oldest pilots have come to grief through stalling, and the Arctic is the most treacherous place I ever came across this too-frequently fatal mistake.

    By a curious coincidence there is a letter in the Correspondence page this week about alighting on glassy water. Why smoke-bombs, which need only weigh a few ounces, are not carried by all water-planes is only explained by the fatuous fatalism which is common among aviators.

    This article originally appeared in the November, 1937 edition of The Aeroplane magazine.

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