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Air mail across the prairies — Western Canada Airways started a trial service in December 1928
Dec 06, 2012
by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
At 9:10 a.m., a Fokker Super Universal monoplane piloted by W.J. Buchanan, lifted off from the Western Canada Airways (WCA) field in Winnipeg. The airplane carried four bags that held a first-of-its-kind cargo bound for Regina that would inaugurate a new service for the Prairie Provinces. Buchanan reached Regina at 11:15, behind schedule by 15 minutes. His landing was eagerly anticipated by the pilots of two other aircraft, who were prepared to relieve him of the Fokker’s cargo and complete the final two legs of the first air mail delivery from Winnipeg to the west. Once the airplanes were loaded with their respective bags, one aircraft piloted by C.H. “Punch” Dickins took off bound for Edmonton and Saskatoon, while the other piloted by A.H. Farrington headed for Calgary. As soon as the two aircraft departed, pilot A.N. Westergaard landed in Regina with air mail from Calgary. 
“At 7 o’clock mountain time, pilot P.B. Calder, the fifth pilot to handle the ‘sticks’ of a western airline plane that day, hopped off from Edmonton. He reached Regina at 12 o’clock, just in time to connect with pilot Buchanan who picked up Edmonton, Calgary and Regina mail and landed it in Winnipeg at 4:30 o’clock” (Manitoba Free Press, December 11, 1928).
By using aircraft, approximately 24 hours had been shaved off from the regular delivery of mail using trains.
“This, according to postal officials, proves the feasibility of permanent adoption of air mail service,” the Free Press declared.
But, it wasn’t a permanent service, as it was a trial scheduled to last for just another 19 days; after which, the Canadian government would determine whether or not to award a long-term air mail postal service contract.
The history-making flights on December 10, 1928, carried 50,000 letters and initiated the Prairie Air Mail Route, which linked five cities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Canadian Post Office Department commissioned Western Canada Airways, which was founded just two years earlier in Winnipeg by James Armstrong Richardson, to undertake the experiment. 
Although not himself a pilot, Richardson had in 1926 recognized the potential of using aircraft to carry freight and passengers to distant locations. Speeding mail to farflung destinations was yet another use the Winnipeg businessman foresaw for his fleet of aircraft.
Richardson was not the first to recognize the ability of airplanes to fulfill these purposes, nor was he the first to use aircraft in these roles, but he was a pioneer in the creation of a commercial enterprise in Western Canada devoted to the many aspects of aviation’s potential.
To commemorate the inauguration of the first official air mail service in the Prairie Provinces, “special cachets were used on the stamps. For example, a letter being sent to Regina from Winnipeg had a stamp marked Winnipeg-Regina, while a stamp going from Winnipeg to Calgary would be marked Winnipeg-Calgary.”
Although greeted with much fanfare, many felt the Canadian Post Office Department (now Canada Post) had been unfair in initiating the experiment during the depth of winter. A report by the young men’s section of the Winnipeg Board of Trade (forerunner of the chamber of commerce), prepared by William “Bill” A. Straith, suggested the post office department had at first ignored the west as a site for an experimental air mail service, and when the post office finally agreed, it was initiated at the worst time of the year. The shortness of days, the possibility of storms and the lack of navigational facilities made the test unfair, concluded the report by the managing director of the Canadian Aircraft Company, who in 1928 designed, built and flew the first aircraft to be constructed in Winnipeg.
Another fear expressed was that a U.S. entrepreneur would take up the cause of air mail in Western Canada, if the Canadian post office didn’t step in.
“The far west and the east of Canada is now connected with the United States air mail service and there was evidence that the United States was endeavouring to tap Canada at Winnipeg and at other points between here and Vancouver” (Free Press, December 11, 1928). “Air mail might be delivered to the south that might make it difficult to establish a Canadian prairie service.”
A suggestion contained in the report was for improvements at the Winnipeg municipal airport (Stevenson’s Field, established in 1928 in memory of Captain Frederick Stevenson, a First World War and bush pilot who died in a plane crash at The Pas in 1928), such as a beacon to guide night flying aircraft, that would be recognized by the Canadian customs department.
By the time the experiment ended, WCA aircraft covered 272,475 miles (over 440,000 kilometres) in 2,070 hours, carried 3,704 passengers, 547,388 pounds (248,812.7 kilograms) of express and baggage and 105,622 pounds (48,010 kilograms) of mail (Free Press, March 3, 1930).
Four Fokker Super Universals and one Ford Trimotor were used to transport the air mail during this period. At the time, WCA had 28 aircraft performing various roles for the company.
At the end of the trial, WCA and the Canadian Post Office Department entered into a long series of negotiations to commence a permanent air mail service for Western Canada.
The 1928 experiment was proceeded by two other trials to test the viability of air mail delivery. A semi-official air mail delivery was made on June 1, 1927, when WCA’s Captain Stevenson flew mail on a circuit between Lac du Bonnet to Bissett, Wadhope, Slate Lake. The post office department authorized the first official delivery in Manitoba when 85 pounds (38.6 kilograms) of mail, including 300 letters, were flown by WCA pilot W.L. Brintnell  from Lac du Bonnet to Bissett and Wadhope on October 4, 1927.
Meanwhile, in January 1929, WCA pilot Punch Dickins flew the first mail in a Fokker Super Universal G-CASN from Fort Simpson to Aklavik in the Northwest Territories, making 10 stops in between, proving the viability of northern air mail delivery. Despite the WCA pilot being the trailblazer for this route and having spent years trying to convince post officials of the benefit of air mail service in Canada’s Far North, the postal department decided to award the contract to Commercial Airways, which was formed by famous bush pilot Wilfrid “Wop” May, who was born in Carberry, Manitoba. Later, when Commercial Airways was on the verge of financial collapse due to the Great Depression, it was swallowed up by Canadian Airways Limited, which until 1930 had been called Western Canada Airways.
To ensure WCA would not become another bystander in the rush for air mail service, Richardson headed to the nation’s capital to lobby the federal government for a prairie contract. The House of Commons had already voted in favour of setting aside $1 million for the contract to launch the service. During the negotiations, Richardson proposed a rate of $1 per flying mile (1.6 kilometres), while the department countered with 75-cents.
There was a delay in initiating the necessary federal order-in-council after representatives of two “small airplane companies in Calgary and Regina” expressed a desire to share in the contract. “These companies were not consulted by the post office department because they were not considered strong enough to discharge the obligations required by the government and because the post office officials were under the double obligation of getting a low price and of giving the contract to a company which had ample resources to carry it out,” according to the May 4, 1929, Free Press.
The concensus was that only WCA had the wherewithal to fulfill the contract. The delay caused by the interjections of the two small companies was more of an irritant to the WCA bid than a real threat.
But the newspaper commented that the delay would have an adverse effect on the proposed air mail service, since “until the contract is awarded can the work of preparing the organization and installing guide lights be got on with. A delay of three weeks now may result in the postponement of the service for two months, and if unduly prolonged might result in the service being held over till 1930.”
The last prediction turned out to be correct. 
Postmaster-General P.J. Vealot had in mind a trans-Canada air mail service with Winnipeg linked to Toronto and from there to Vancouver.
An April 19, 1929, editorial in the Free Press called it an ambitious plan with the government showing considerable enterprise in undertaking.
“Other countries have advanced further in the matter than Canada has,” continued the editorial, “it is true, but none of those countries is in Canada’s position. The United States service has been losing money since it was established, in spite of the many large centres of population served by the air mail. With the smaller population of Canada and the long distances between its main centres of population, it may lose a considerable amount of money for some years.”
Despite the prospect of air mail in Canada being a money-losing proposition, the editorial claimed it was a justifiable expense as it would bring together “the far-scattered sections of the Dominion,” and benefit the business and social life of the Prairie Provinces.
It wasn’t until the first days of March 1930 that Richardson and his company were prepared to fulfill the obligations of the contract that was awarded to them by the Canadian Post Office Department.
The preparations were extensive as airfields across the prairies had to be fitted with navigational aids for night flying and emergency fields had to be established.
But first, WCA purchased six aircraft in November 1929 that were specifically suited to air mail service. By the time that the service was launched in 1930, WCA had a fleet of six Fokker F.14 and three Boeing 40B4 aircraft to deliver the mail. When WCA was launched in 1926, it had only a single Fokker Universal open-cockpit airplane to its credit.
(Next week: part 2)