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Air mail across the prairies — the post office announced that the service would end on March 31, 1932
Dec 20, 2012

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
A March 4, 1930, Manitoba Free Press editorial pointed out that five-cents an ounce would allow a letter to be sent to any point in Canada or the U.S. by air and rail. A letter could be sent from Edmonton to Winnipeg and from there by train to Minneapolis and then onward to New York. 
It would be another year before there was a direct air mail link with the United States between Winnipeg and Pembina, North Dakota
“With the prospect that opens from the inauguration of the western service yesterday, the citizens of Winnipeg will be able to see more clearly the destiny of their city as one of the great air centres of Canada,” continued the editorial. “Located at the geographical centre of Canada, it will be on the main airway across the country and is one of the chief airways connecting Canada and the United States. As Winnipeg was the gateway of the West when rail transportation was established, so it is the gateway to the West and to the great north country with regard to transportation by air. The new mail service is helping to put Winnipeg prominently on the air map.”
Days after the inaugural air mail flight, Stevenson Field was reported to be a “hive of industry.” Connie Johanneson, the manager of the Winnipeg Flying Club, which had established the 135-acre airfield in St. James in 1928, said the increased traffic in and out of the airport necessitated some changes at the grass, clay and loam airfield, which was 3,400 feet (1,036 metres) long north to south and 2,600 feet (792.5 metres) wide. Within a week, construction was to be started on lighting equipment, consisting of a revolving General Electric beacon on the top of the 35-foot (10.7-metre)  steel tower. Two 10-kilowatt flood lights would be erected to illuminate the entire field. Boundary lights were to be placed every 300 feet (91.44 metres) along the length of the field and 150 feet (45.72 metres) apart at the corners, Johanneson explained.
Following the successful launch of air mail service, Mayor Ralph Humphreys Webb congratulated James Armstrong Richardson for creating Western Canada Airways (WCA) and having its headquarters based in Winnipeg. He said Richardson “more than all the rest put together, has made the air mail routes possible and an accomplished fact, and I am sure, that all Winnipeggers will take off their hats to him today (March 3, 1930) and to his splendid management and organization as a whole.”
The mayor said that Richardson had “brought the whole of the commercial world and the north country to the door of our city ...”
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, according to Webb, aircraft were a rarity in Winnipeg, “and I am quite sure that if anybody at that time made a statement that Winnipeg in years to come be one of the greatest aviation centres in Canada and of North America, he would have been looked upon as a freak. In fact, even today it is difficult for most people to realize the enormous possibilities of aviation, and Winnipeg’s strategical position from that point of view.”
At the time, Winnipeg possessed the second largest airport facility on the continent, after Chicago.
“Unquestionably, the more one considers Winnipeg’s position, and its central position in Canada as one of the main arteries of the trading world, one cannot help but realize that the future of this city as an aviation centre is absolutely assured,” added the mayor.
The central location of Winnipeg led to the establishment of an air mail link with the U.S. On February 2, 1931, Northwest Airways (now Northwest Airlines) inaugurated a passenger and mail service between Winnipeg and Pembina, North Dakota, where a connection was made with the American air mail service.
While the Prairie Air Mail Service operated, Winnipeggers were justifiably proud of its accomplishments, but always lingering in the background was the financial constraints imposed upon the federal government by the Great Depression.
The first inkling of trouble came in rumours in late-February 1932 that the air mail service was to be abandoned by the federal government due to fiscal considerations. The Conservative government of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett announced it was cutting air mail funding from $5.4 million to $1.7 million as a money-saving measure. Since such a small sum of money could not be spread around, it was inevitable that some air routes would be cancelled.
The official announcement of the closing of the prairie routes on March 31 came from the post office on March 23, 1932. The air mail contract was cancelled with two years remaining on the original four-year contract.
“This left the company in a most embarrassing position,” according to an obituary about the life of Richardson that appeared in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune on June 26, 1939, “with equipment and property leases contracted for four years. The company had to bear this burden for the next two years without relief.”
According to the official statement announcing the closure, the air mail service had been a useful business aid, but public support had been insufficient to make it a profitable enterprise. 
An editorial in the April 4, 1932, Free Press called the abandonment of the air mail routes an “ill-advised decision” to deal with the federal government’s economic difficulties.
The editorial said the discontinuation was a serious blow to the western business community, “which would have been prevented by reasonable discrimination in affecting government economies.”
The newspaper added that the loss of the air mail service also dealt a death blow to passenger and freight services across the prairies.
“The Prime Minister R.B. Bennett,” wrote Brown, “took an extra look at the postal budget in 1932 and decided we were a luxury, so the air mail stopped on March 31, 1932 ...”
“The last batch of mail was flown out of Winnipeg at 8 p.m., Wednesday (March 30), by pilot Will Irvine flying the Boeing machine CF-AIM,” reported the March 31 Free Press. “Pilot Irvine flew to Moose Jaw, where his mail load was taken on to Regina by another pilot. He carried also two passengers. Mail from the west will be brought to Winnipeg this morning (March 31) for the last time.”
In the wake of the end of the air mail service, 20 pilots and an equal number of ground personnel were given their termination notices by Canadian Airways Limited (formerly WCA), although it was understood that some of the long-term pilots and employees would continue in other operations with the company.
Brown said some of the pilots “scampered back to the bush,” some went to the Mackenzie River District, “and the rest scattered between there and Sioux Lookout.”
Some of the pilots had even contemplated flying warplanes for the Chinese government. At the time, China was under attack by the Japanese, who had already invaded and taken the Chinese province of Manchuria and were besieging Shanghai. Canadian Prime Minister Bennett ended this scheme when he announced that anyone attempting to fly for China would be subject to imprisonment with hard labour.
When the air mail service was in operation, well over 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles) was flown daily and “97.5 per cent of the trips were completed over the two years and one month it was in effect,” according to Brown.
Even a spectacular fire on March 4, 1931, that destroyed WCA’s one-year-old hangar, which cost $20,000 to build, at Stevenson Field and seven of its aircraft — a Fokker Tri-motor, two Fokker Super Universals, a Fokker F.14, an Avian and two Lairds (an airplane owned by the Fairchild Company was also consumed by the blaze) — could not delay the mail. CF-AII, the Fokker F.14 used in the first day of the air mail service from Winnipeg on March 3, 1930, was among the WCA aircraft destroyed by the fire.
“It was just a sudden flash of flames that quickly ignited the entire hangar,” one WCA employee told the Free Press, “without giving us a chance to stem their onrush. Even with the help of the fire extinguishers we could not stop the flames.”
It was estimated that the blaze, fuelled by gasoline and oil stored in the hangar, caused $200,000 in damages, which was a considerable sum of money at the time. Fortunately, all the damage was covered by insurance.
Despite the loss of so many aircraft, WCA still had more than enough airplanes to make sure that the mail got to its destinations across the prairies without interruption.
In commenting on the success of the air mail service, Brown added, “It is also worthy of mention that we had only two serious accidents which unfortunately cost five lives.”
One such accident claimed the lives of Dr. R.E. Alleyn of Winnipeg and George E. Lewis, a Regina insurance company branch manager. They were passengers in an air mail plane that left Winnipeg at 7:30 p.m. on February 20, 1931. While passing over Portage la Prairie, pilot N.G. Forrester encountered heavy fog that was so thick that he decided to make a forced landing. 
With his vision obscured by the night fog, Forrester was unable to safely land and crashed his Fokker F.14 near Bagot, 24 kilometres west of Portage la Prairie. After its impact with the ground, the plane flipped over and burst into flames. The two victims were trapped in the passenger cabin and unable to escape the flames. Forrester did make it out of the airplane with just minor cuts about his head. 
As Brown explained in his Manitoba Historical Society article, the passenger cabin in front of the pilot’s cockpit was always the first to receive the full force of a deadly crash, while the pilot was relatively protected in his rear position in the aircraft.
Despite the loss of the government air mail contract, Richardson managed to keep Canadian Airways aloft by sinking $3 million of his own money into the struggling airline. But as a result of the cancelled contracts and government indifference, Canada almost lost the impetus already in place for a homegrown aviation industry to the Americans.
“In 1937, the bottom started to drop out of the aviation business” (Tribune, June 26, 1939). “Lack of government assistance, a general mining slump (carrying a mining company’s supplies and men exploring for minerals was a major contributor to an airline’s bottom line) caused by unsettled world conditions and increased competition between airlines operating in the ‘bush country’ brought the industry to its knees.
“James Richardson was among the first of the aviation leaders in Canada to recognize how critical the situation was and how it might be remedied. He spoke out without restraint, admitting how much of the crisis could be laid at the door of the industry, but sharply criticized the government’s indifference and pointing out what should be done immediately to save the industry.”
Air mail service on the prairies was not restored until the formation of Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA, now Air Canada) in 1937. The new airline was created by an act of the federal government and was placed under the control of Canadian National Railways (CNR), a federal Crown corporation. It was a crippling blow to Richardson’s ambition to create his own private airline company spanning the nation. It was also a surprising turn of events that had not been anticipated by aviation observers or the print media.
Actually, Richardson had a chance to participate in the government scheme for a national airline as a director of the privately-owned Canadian Pacific Railways (CPR); albeit, in a much smaller way than would have been the case if Canadian Airways became the national carrier. One of Howe’s proposals was that half the shares of the new national airline would be owned by the CNR and the other half by the CPR. When the CPR board of directors balked at the combined private-sector and public-sector deal, due to the terms of the governance and capitalization of the proposal, the government opted to place the new airline entirely under the control of the CNR as a state subsidiary.
The backroom deals made in 1937 that cut Canadian Airways out of the trans-Canada routes were said to have “broken his (Richardson’s) heart.” 
Author Shirley Render in her book, The Inside Story of Double Cross: James A. Richardson and Canadian Airways (1999), wrote that Richardson was betrayed by the Canadian government, which received a comprehensive blueprint from him for a trans-continental airline that was then used behind his back to provide the basis for TCA’s operations. 
For Richardson, it was an unexpected outcome, as he had the support of Prime Minister Mackenzie Kings’ Liberal government to buy several bankrupt Eastern Canadian airlines in order to keep them from being bought by American investors, who wanted to dominate the skies above North America. In return for his assistance, Richardson was repeatedly promised that Canadian Airways would become Canada’s sole national airline. 
A decision was quickly expected as the government received pressure from the British and U.S. governments to establish a cross-Canada airline to provide an air mail link with their nations. The British had already named Imperial Airways (now British Airways) and the U.S. had named Pan-American Airlines (now defunct) as their national air carriers.
Continually, editorials across Canada claimed the logical choice for a national airline was Canadian Airways Limited. According to an October 1, 1936, Lethbridge Herald editorial: “The wiser choice is not difficult to make. Canadian Airways Ltd. is known as a national company, reputable and experienced ... Canadian Airways pioneered flying in the far north where danger lurked every moment their machines were in the air. Their pilots, not without some loss of life, became thoroughly experienced in meeting all emergencies.”
Another editorial in the January 23, 1936, Free Press, asserted Canadian Airways had “led the way in Canadian aviation. It can advance the claim that it bore the burden and suffered the losses inescapable from pioneering in commercial flying in Canada. It has, too, the added advantage of already embracing the railways within its financial set-up. This factor, with the participation of the (Canadian) government, would provide an already completed operating company distinctly national in character and interactive of transport interests.” 
Richardson consolidated the eastern-based airlines into one company that became known as the Aviation Corporation of Canada. In November 1930, WCA and the Aviation Corporation were merged into Canadian Airways Limited with Richardson serving as the new company’s president. The CPR and CNR also became shareholders, as mentioned in the Free Press editorial, investing a total of $500,000 in 1930, which resulted in each having positions on the firm’s board of directors. 
Canadian Airways operated air mail routes from St. John to Moncton, Montréal, Québec, Toronto, Detroit, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton, among other stops in Western Canada added in 1931, including Vancouver. In effect, Canadian Airways had become the largest aviation company in Canada and possessed the genesis for a national and international mail and passenger carrier.
Under these circumstances, Richardson believed Canadian Airways would become Canada’s sole national and international airline, which was the recommendation made to Prime Minister King by Chief of Staff, General Andrew McNaughton. King told McNaughton to contact Richardson and confirm Canadian Airways as his choice, but McNaughton inexplicably procrastinated. 
As a result, perhaps Richardson’s best opportunity to form a government-backed national airline was effectively lost, since the file was subsequently  turned over to newly-elected cabinet minister C.D. Howe, who initially professed faith in Richardson and Canadian Airways, but later developed his own divergent concept for a national air carrier. 
In 1935, King and Minister of Transportation Howe, a wealthy Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay) businessman, assured Richardson that his aviation company was the “chosen instrument” for a national airline. But within two years, a different viewpoint arose.
Ken Spratley, a pilot and aviation writer, in Canadian Homebuilt Aircraft News, a publication of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, wrote in the 1980s about the scheme that changed the course of Canadian aviation history. He  related that Richardson had sent 10 copies of the blueprint for his national airline to Ottawa. The plan contained information about an over 4,800-kilometre air carrier system that entailed the use of12 Lockheed Electra aircraft.
“It became apparent that Canadian Airways made a mistake in working so closely with Ottawa,” wrote Spratley. “Richardson had, in every respect, assisted the minister in drawing the dimensions of the new airline and in addition, supplied a comprehensive report based on tens years of hard-won experience ... (when) Canadian Airways requested the return of the ten copies of its report covering the proposed system for a national airline, nine were returned in late September 1937. The tenth was not forthcoming for several days. When it did appear it had the impression it had been copied.”
In his book, It Seems Like Only Yesterday — Air Canada: The First Fifty Years (1986), Phillip Smith wrote that Richardson had helped the government by purchasing a new aircraft and leasing it to Ottawa for experimental work to set up navigational aids.
Afterward, Richardson received a 1936 telegram from Frank M. Ross, a friend of his and of Howe: “Returned from fishing trip with Howe who stated arrangements should be made for your company for service from Winnipeg to west this fall and next spring arrangements would be again completed with you from Halifax to Winnipeg stop. States definitely nobody else will be considered as had no intention of creating another railway competitor. In addition states government under obligation to you which has to be recognized.”
But Howe was prepared to establish “another railway competitor,” although the twist was that the CNR would control its new competition. 
Howe began to favour a Crown corporation model similar to Britain’s Imperial Airways). As such, the Canadian government would subsidize the airline’s capitalization and operations — any deficit incurred it its first two years of operation was covered by Ottawa under the terms of the Trans-Canada Airlines Act. On the other hand, Richardson’s proposal let Canadian taxpayers off the hook, as he stipulated that his airline would cover capitalization costs and any operational deficits, as well as limit any potential profits realized to protect consumers from price gouging. It was a extremely generous proposal in difficult financial times that the federal government for unexplained reasons chose to ignore.
Smith suggested in his book that it was actually the post office, which had a valuable air mail contract to award, that preferred to deal with another Crown corporation rather than a private company. According to Smith, it was the result of the post office’s urging that Howe changed his mind. 
With the creation of TCA, 21 pilots and mechanics were hired from Canadian Airways. The company then bought two Electras and a Stearman from Canadian Airways. Spratley wrote that when TCA began its service, the pilots were still wearing “Richardson uniforms.”
“What had happened was that Canadian Airways had assisted the government in drawing the dimensions of a new national air carrier and, when it lost its personnel, had in effect supplied Trans-Canada Airlines with the information, the trained crews and the mechanics needed to begin service” (Fred Cleverley, Free Press, December 18, 1987).
Richardson had prepared, but did not send, a letter to Howe accusing him of misleading Parliament about the minister’s dealings with Canadian Airways.
“On the basis of assurances given to me by you many times that Canadian Airways were to be the keystone of the transcontinental service it is very difficult for me to understand the conclusions finally arrived at ... I am sorry that you have seen fit to eliminate us,” wrote Richardson in the unsent letter.
Richardson, a pioneer in Canada’s aviation history, died unexpectantly from a heart attack on June 26, 1939.
In 1941, Canadian Airlines was purchased by the Canadian Pacific Railway and merged with other airlines to form Canadian Pacific Air Lines Ltd.
“In the annals of this nation’s flying history, no businessman gave more of himself for less reward to the everlasting benefit of Canadian aviation,” reads the inscription on his plaque in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
Richardson’s important contribution to local aviation was acknowledged when Winnipeg International Airport was renamed in 2006 as James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. In its earliest incarnation, the airport was called Stevenson Aerodrome, the airfield where WCA’s first experimental prairie air mail service was based in 1928, and where the delivery of the mail in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta by airplane continued under the auspices of WCA and then Canadian Airways between 1930 and 1932.