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Air mail across the prairies — every evening at 9 o’clock the mail left Stevenson Field bound for Regina
Dec 13, 2012
by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
It wasn’t until the first days of March 1930 that James Armstrong Richardson was prepared to fulfill the obligations of the contract that was awarded to Western Canada Airways (WCA) by the Canadian Post Office Department (now Canada Post) to deliver air mail across the Prairie Provinces.
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 40B-4 aircraft to deliver the mail. When WCA was launched in 1926, it had only a single Fokker Universal open-cockpit airplane to its credit.
The Fokker F.14 was a parasol-type aircraft with its single wing held above the fuselage by struts. The pilot sat in the rear of the fuselage behind the passenger cabin. According to a March 3, 1930, Winnipeg Free Press description of the aircraft, it was “equipped with the latest air mail accessories, including brakes, tail wheels (many planes of the era used a metal skid instead of a wheel at the rear), etc. The cabin is furnished to provide comfortable seats for five passengers, the total useful load being 2,895 pounds (1,315.9 kilograms). The engine is a (Pratt and Whitney) Hornet 525 h.p., giving a cruising speed of 110 miles an hour and a landing of 55 miles an hour. The cruising range is about 830 miles (1,336 kilometres).”
The Boeing aircraft was a biplane (two wings) that was called “a fast combination four-passenger cargo mail plane” with a “welded steel body construction, and its steel-lined cabin, with deeply upholstered comfortable seats, is sound proof, and has an even temperature by forced heating and ventilation.”
The aircraft was also powered by a 525-hp Pratt and Whitney Hornet engine, giving it a cruising speed of 105 mph and a landing speed of 57 mph. It could carry 1,253 pounds (569.5 kilograms) of freight over a distance of 800 kilometres (500 miles).
Pilot Francis “Roy” Brown in an article for the Manitoba Historical Society (MHS Transactions, 1957-58 season) wrote that because the passengers in each aircraft used for the air mail service were all seated in a cabin ahead of the pilots, “in the event of an accident, the passengers were all in trouble before the damage reached the pilot. In looking back, one finds it difficult to believe that the public were brave enough to patronize the service — only one engine, questionable weather reports and no such thing as a radio.”
The WCA pilots assigned to the flights were:
• Winnipeg to Regina — W.J. Buchanan and G.A. Thompson.
• Regina to Calgary — Francis “Roy” Brown, A. R. Harrington, A.E. Jarvis and H. Hollick-Kenyon.
• Regina to Edmonton — M.E. Ashton, W.E. Cumming, C.M.G. Farrell and D.R. McLaren.
In order to make night flying possible, beacons were placed every 10 miles (16 kilometres) along the route from Winnipeg to Calgary, and powerful beacons capable of being seen as far as 90 miles away were placed at seven locations.
Emergency fields between Regina and Winnipeg were established at Squirrel Hill, Wolseley, Burrows, Broadview, Calmount, Arrow River, Rivers, Petrel and MacGregor. Intermediate fields east from Calgary in Alberta were located at Namaka, Bassano, Brooks and Alderson, while in Saskatchewan the intermediate fields were at Cummings, Piapot, Webb, Swift Current, Herbert, Valjean and Mortlach.
“The route from Winnipeg through to Edmonton via Calgary was equipped, more or less, for night flying,” wrote Brown, a WCA pilot who participated in the first prairie air mail service (MHS Transactions, 1957-58 season), “with a rotating beacon and an emergency landing field every thirty miles and part of the way, additional gas blinkers every ten miles. The latter were not very much help, but the landing fields with the rotating beacons were very handy. They did not have any night landing aids but there were at least boundary lights to give some guidance. The fields themselves were strictly the grass type, but serviceable enough.”
During the night between Winnipeg and Calgary, 20-minute stops were scheduled at Regina, Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat (later Lethbridge was added to the route). An airplane was scheduled to leave Winnipeg each night at 9 p.m., arrive at Regina at 11:30 p.m., spend half an hour in the air to reach Moose Jaw and leave for Medicine Hat at 12:30 a.m., arriving there at 2:55 a.m., and depart for Calgary at 3:15 a.m. where it would arrive at 5 p.m. In total, the time scheduled to complete the mail delivery was eight hours with an hour of stoppages, and covered 1,239 kilometres (770 miles).
On the return trip originating in Calgary, which left at 2:15 a.m., the air mail plane would reach Stevenson Field in Winnipeg at noon the next day, and would take 15 minutes less time than the flight westward.
The air mail route between Regina and Edmonton had stops at Saskatoon and North Battleford. The route between the two cities was scheduled to take five hours and five minutes flying time and cover 800 kilometres. In total, there were 25 minutes of stops along this route, including 15 minutes in Saskatoon and 10 minutes at North Battleford. 
Newspaper advertising from WCA proclaimed that: “Every night at 9 o’clock the big plane is loaded with mail, the motor is idling, the pilot is waiting at his control watching his clock. Then at the scheduled time the motor roars, the plane moves down the field, gains speed and leaps into the air and darkness — the air mail is on its way.”
The same advertisements noted that a day was saved delivering the mail by airplane when compared to a train.
Brown wrote that occasionally the mail was delayed, as the airplanes had inadequate power to increase speed in order to overcome a strong headwind, which could cost half an hour of flying time between Winnipeg and Regina. “Schedules were set up on a 100 m.p.h. basis and the aircraft were mostly doing their best cruising at 110 m.p.h. ...”
One of the unique features of the new air mail service was the erection of a “big beacon” atop the Hudson’s Department Bay Store in downtown Winnipeg to aid the aviators.
According to a March 3, Free Press article, the credit for the beacon’s erection was due to the efforts of C. Gibson Ford, the general manager of Western Claude Neon Lights Limited, who negotiated a deal with P.J. Parker, the manager of the Hudson’s Bay Department Store. Following talks with HBC Governor Charles V. Sale in England and Richardson in Winnipeg, the two men were able to sign a contract between their two companies for the installation of the beacon.
“No one can doubt the importance of this great beacon to the community and the prestige it will give Winnipeg from an international advertising standpoint,” said Ford. “And also no one can discount the responsibility assumed by the Hudson’s Bay Company in entering into a contract of this magnitude. To light and keep lighted an airport beacon on which the night pilot depends for his location, is an important and endless duty, as the failure of this light at any time may result in serious mishaps and the loss of human life  ...”
According to the newspaper, the “great beacon” promptly “at 8:45 p.m.  on March 3, 1929, cast “its friendly glow” 100 miles (160 kilometres) “in every direction (later, WCA pilots would say that it could be seen 122 miles away in Forrest, Manitoba), “at the same time ... the 2,000,000 candle power direction light will throw its piercing white arc upon Stevenson’s Field.” The beacon was lighted by “Claude Neon Luminous Tubes,” and was at a height of approximately 200 feet (60.96 metres) above the ground, 160 feet (48.77 metres)  higher than the beacon at Corydon “that world-famous air-port, London, England.” The two-million candle-power directional light pointed at Stevenson Field was part of the lighting system atop the HBC store.
To celebrate the occasion, a special banquet was held in the store. All the speeches were broadcast by CJRC (CKY), a radio station located just north of Winnipeg in Middlechurch  established by Richardson that was part of a pioneering network he created in Western Canada.
“After the banquet was over and the speeches finished in the dining room,” according to the March 4 Free Press, “a group representing the guests of honor and officials ... filed up on the roof to witness the ceremonial of lighting the beacon ...
The switch lighting the largest aerial beacon in the British Empire was thrown by Acting-mayor Ernest T. Leech. 
“All eyes were turned on the beacon. At first they were only aware of the rich orange glow of the neon lights — looking like a gigantic glow worm standing on end. The whole town seemed luminous in the soft yet vivid glow — a veritable tower of light standing high above the city.”
After the beacon flashed on and the cheers from the thousands gathered in the streets below and the 600 invited guests at the banquet had died down, the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Band broke into O Canada.
In order to promote the event, a few days before the beacon was turned on,  WCA manager Lee Brintnell flew over Winnipeg scattering circulars containing lucky numbers for prizes valued between $5 and $45.
The latitudinal and longitudinal position of the beacon was registered with the Department of National Defence in Ottawa. As a result, it was recognized as an aerial navigation aid by aviation authorities around the world.
Not surprising, the HBC store used the “great beacon” in its advertising. March 3 was declared “Monday Beacon Day,” with sales announced in all departments. Among the items being sold were “flying goggles and helmets” in the Optical Department. Helmets were priced between $1.50 and $7.50, while goggles sold for $1.50 to $25.
To mark the inauguration of air mail service, the department store had window displays of the various modes of transportation used over the years, including models of an ox cart, York boat, dog sleigh, railway train, steamboat, automobile and airplane. The airplane was decorated with neon lights, “a happy idea honouring two of the most important participants in the celebration, Claude Neon Lights and Western Canada Airways.” 
The great beacon would be quietly turned off a few years later when radio guidance for aerial navigation improved and make such a lighting system obsolete.
The initial flight to the east of the air mail service was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd at Stevenson Field in Winnipeg. As the red glow of the beacon atop the HBC store broke out in the eastern sky at 8:45 p.m. on March 3, and the white illumination of the directional light hit the airfield, hundreds of Winnipeggers were on-hand to witness the historic event.
The Boeing airplane to be used in the maiden flight of the air mail service was towed out of its hangar by a crawler tractor “for all the world like an ocean steamer being towed out of her berth into the channel by one of the busy, fussing little tugs so familiar to everyone who has lived at a seaport.”
A post office truck pulled up and air mail in 15 bags, weighing close to 500 pounds, was transferred from the vehicle into the airplane under the direction of W.F. Lough, inspector of postal services in Winnipeg, 
“The friendly directional beam pointed straight at Boeing CF-AIM. The staunch ship that was soon to fly away into the west with the first  air mail from Winnipeg, roaring as she lay there being warmed up for the epochal flight ... her yellow wings, and her smart blue fuselage imposingly decorated with the arms of Canada and the badge of Western Canada Airways.”
As pilot Buchanan fed more fuel into the engine, it roared in reply and the throng parted to allow the aircraft to make its way down the grass runway. After making a complete circuit of the field to build up speed, the airplane returned to its starting point and with the momentum gained, lifted off into the night sky.
“Making altitude quickly, pilot Buchanan swung her around in a wide circle over the city’s western outskirts, and then pointing her nose into the west she vanished speedily out of sound and sight into the darkness,” reported the Free Press.
“Into the prairie darkness tonight a mail plane from Winnipeg darts towards the Rockies on the first westward trip over the main line route” (Lethbridge Herald, March 3). “In the twilight before daybreak tomorrow, its cargo will have been delivered in Calgary — delivered in time to catch a westbound train that had left Winnipeg a full day ahead of the fleeting mail craft.”
The next day the Lethbridge newspaper in a report from Regina said the mail had been delivered “well on time.”
“The prairie air mail settled back to the routine work on Tuesday after its inaugural of the previous day, and the north and the east mail out of Regina, the pivotal point of the service, went off without any special observances and practically on scheduled time.
“About 7:40 o’clock on Tuesday morning pilots W.J. Buchanan and Con. Farrell landed at the Regina municipal airport practically together, taxied across the snow-covered field and they were met by a small crowd of citizens and postal officials ... Buchanan brought with him over 150 pounds of air mail from Moose Jaw and points west for Regina.”
On March 3, Buchanan brought to Winnipeg eight bags containing 500  pounds (227.3 kilograms) of mail from Calgary and other centres along the eastward loop of the air mail service. Piloting a Fokker aircraft designated CF-AII, he reached Stevenson Field at 11:30 a.m., “clipping ten minutes off the scheduled time allowed for the flight” (Free Press, March 4). “Nine minutes after his land(ing) the load of mail had been transferred to a post office truck and speeding down Sackville Street on its way to the post for distribution in the city.”
At the HBC store, when addressing the 600 guests, Richardson, who was also a member of the Canadian committee of the HBC, said many years earlier, the first group of the “Company of Gentlemen” sailing into Hudson Bay had to deal with the problem of transportation over a vast area. “For nearly three centuries, with dog team, canoe, sailing vessel, ox cart, railroad and steamship, the Hudson’s Bay Company has maintained an unbroken line of communication between its posts — an enviable record of accomplishment in the history of transportation. And now, with the full realization of the future development of the country, a new means of transportation is necessary, and the Hudson’s Bay Company moves forward and associates itself with aviation. It is the purpose of the company to make use of the airplane ...”
Richardson said the beacon was an example of the HBC’s faith in the future of aviation in Canada.
An editorial in the March 4 Free Press said the advent of air mail service meant the distances separating the prairie centres were being shortened and drawn closer together.
“The experimental service in December, 1928, was not particularly successful in securing the support of the public. Nevertheless the Government is proceeding to establish a permanent service, confident that the benefit will justify it and counting, no doubt, upon the progressive character of our western population to recognize the value of the service, to use it freely and hasten the time when the service will pay its way.”