Port Radium, NWT
In the late 1920s, Eldorado Gold Mines Limited owned a uranium oxide mine at Port Radium, NWT and a refinery at Port Hope, Ontario for radium. The biggest challenge the firm faced was the distance between the mine and the refinery – a water and railway combination of nearly 4,000 miles. The waterborne segment of the route (1,450 miles) not only had limits to its capacity, but for the bulk of the year, the lakes and rivers were frozen. Eldorado’s owners sought an all-season transportation mode to bridge the gap between mine and railhead.
The world price of radium, which was extracted from uranium oxide, was sold on the world market for US$50,000 per gram or, taking inflation into account, about US$500,000 today.
The Golden Age of Bush Flying
By the 1920s, exploration in the north began to open up rapidly with the use of bush planes, which were capable of flying great distances and landing on both water and ice. In the early days at Port Radium, the uranium oxide concentrates were sufficiently rich to justify the use of aircraft to supplement the water route. For this purpose, the Bellanca Aircruiser was selected.
The Bellanca Aircruiser was a high-wing, single-engine aircraft built by Bellanca Aircraft Corporation in Delaware. The aircraft was built as a “workhorse” intended for use as a passenger or cargo aircraft. It was available as a land, sea or ski plane. A total of 23 aircraft were built. It was originally powered by a water-cooled engine, but this was changed to a more reliable, air-cooled engine. The final version of the Aircruiser was the most efficient aircraft of its day and with the air-cooled, supercharged engine, it could carry 4,000lb payloads at speeds up to 155 mph. It was easily identified by the characteristic “W” appearance, derived from the aerodynamically shaped, triangular lifting struts, which extend down from the bottom of the fuselage then up to a point outboard of the main wing.
Introducing the Eldorado Radium Silver Express
CF-AWR was built in 1935 and was the first of five of its type used in Canada. It was operated for Eldorado by Mackenzie Air Service Limited of Edmonton, Alberta, and it was the second largest aircraft operating in Canada at that time. The aircraft was named the Eldorado Radium Silver Express. In August, 1939, ownership of the aircraft passed to Canadian Airways Ltd. of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It remained in the service of Eldorado until the mine was closed in 1940. In January, 1947, while carrying a shipment of uranium concentrate, CF-AWR crashed in northern Ontario after running out of fuel. It was so badly damaged that the company abandoned it.
CF-AWR’s cargo, engine, instrument panel and other easily removable bits and pieces were salvaged for use as spares for surviving Aircruisers. In subsequent years, other parts such as doors, windows and fairings became furnishings in local trappers’ cabins.
The wreck lay abandoned until 1973, when it was retrieved by the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, assisted by a helicopter from the Canadian Armed Forces. At that time, most of the woodwork had rotted away, steel parts were badly rusted and trees had grown up through the skeletal remains.
The Road to Restoration
From 1990 to 1998 restoration work was limited, but since then steady progress has been made. The Museum has prepared a virtual tour of the cockpit of the Bellanca to give an ‘inside-out’ view.
CF-AWR is one of only two aircraft of this type known to exist today. The second aircraft, CF-BTW served into the 1970s and is presently located in a museum in the United States.