by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
The perils of early aviation in Canada’s Far North was made abundantly clear just two days after two
airplanes lifted off from Winnipeg on
August 24, 1929. The eight men aboard the aircraft, with the exception of a newspaper editor, were either employed or hired for the trip by Toronto-based Dominion Explorers Ltd. The
explorers were in search of a northern El Dorado in what is today’s Nunavut, which was then a part of the North West Territories.
“It was intended to be a complete reconnaissance of the outposts of the Dominion Explorers and a survey of what had been accomplished, as well as to
obtain accurate information on which would be based plans for the future,”
reported the Manitoba Free Press on November 5, 1929. “Because of the importance of the knowledge to be gained, Colonel (Cyril D.H.) MacAlpine (the president of the company) decided that he should make the trip.
“It was also to round out and complete information gained by him on his previous trips of exploration and to maintain personal touch with the prospectors and other members of the Dominion Explorers Company, who are holding down the outposts.”
Thirty-five-year-old Major G.A. “Tommy” Thompson piloted G-CASP, a Fokker Super Universal leased from Western Canada Airways (WCA) for $1.75 per mile and $75 per day. Since it was to be a 32,187-kilometre (20,000-mile) expedition starting and ending in Winnipeg, it was quite an
expensive undertaking for Dominion Exploration (Domex).
Thompson was accompanied by 25-year-old mechanic, Don W. Goodwin, and 36-year-old Richard Pearce, the editor of The Northern Miner. J.R. Baker, 36, a Domex mining engineer was also aboard the airplane and was slated to be dropped off at Bathurst Inlet to take over the company’s operations at the outpost.
The second aircraft, a Fairchild FC-2W2 with the call letters, CF-AAD and owned by Domex, was piloted by 28-year-old Stan MacMillan. The others in the Fairchild were 43-year-old Col. Cyril D.H. MacAlpine, the leader of the expedition under the auspices of Dominion Exploration mining company, of which he was the company president, 25-year-old mechanic Alex Milne and 28-year-old E.A. “Brodie” Boadway, a Domex mining engineer and spare pilot.
Thompson and Goodwin were based in Winnipeg and worked for WCA, the airline founded by wealthy Winnipeg grain merchant James A. Richardson in 1926, who was the first businessman to foresee the potential for aircraft to open up mining in Canada’s northern hinterland.
“(Many believed) the opening of the rich Canadian North was impossible,” said Canada’s most successful First World War flying ace, Billy Bishop. “Then the bush flier came along and wrought a miracle.”
Experienced pilots had warned MacAlpine that it was too late in the season to make the trek northward, but he ignored them, as Domex was not the only company taking part in the rush for northern riches (Four Degrees Celsius: A Story of Arctic Peril, by Kerry Karram, 2012). To accept their advice, MacAlpine would have risked losing valuable mineral claims to rival companies.
Arriving at Churchill, Manitoba, along the shores of Hudson Bay, on August 26, the expedition received its first indication of the dangers involved when the crew of the Morso, its supply ship, rowed into Churchill Harbour aboard a lifeboat. The Morso had been accidently set afire and sunk.
Their problems were compounded when at night on August 28, the expedition’s Fokker single-engine float plane was swept out into the bay by the current and lost. The Fairchild also pulled away from its anchorage a day later, but was successfully recovered.
But this was just the beginning of the expedition’s troubles. After another Fokker Super Universal, with the call
letters G-CASK, was flown up from Winnipeg by WCA pilot Francis “Roy” Brown to replace the airplane lost at sea, the two float planes now comprising the expedition, set off on September 7 for Chesterfield, which was 360 kilometres north of Churchill. After an evening spent in celebrating their successful arrival in the settlement, they set off inland for Baker Lake, where they landed on September 8 and then took off between 5:30 and 6 p.m., heading toward Bathurst Inlet where they expected to land on September 9.
A telegram was received in Winnipeg on September 24, 1929, informing the world that the expedition had failed to arrive at Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut, triggering the first massive air search in Canadian history. It is estimated that 200 airplanes had been volunteered for the search. In the end,15 of Canada’s most renowned bushpilots took part, including Roy Brown, a First World War pilot who was born in Stockton, Manitoba, and educated in Winnipeg, as well as Clennell H. “Punch” Dickins, another wartime pilot, who was born in Portage la Prairie and educated at the University of Alberta. Both men were employed by WCA.
The search in the barren lands of Canada was regarded as such a perilous adventure that it was widely reported in newspapers and radio broadcasts around the world. It should be remembered that it occurred just 26 years after the Wright Brothers made the first heavier-than-air airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1929, aircraft were still regarded as awe-inspiring technological novelties by many. The then-modern Fokker Super Universal, with its enclosed cockpit — the preceding Fokker Standard Universal had an open cockpit — had a wing made almost entirely of wood with two main spars and light ribs covered in thin sheets of plywood. The fuselage was built up from welded steel tubes, primarily cross-braced with wires
Before taking off for Bathurst, MacAlpine’s instructions were that no relief planes should be dispatched until 10 days after no communications had been received from the party.
“This is zero hour at Stony Rapids (the supply depot and base along the shore of Lake Athabaska in northern Saskatchewan),” wrote Richard Pearce, one of the missing men of the MacAlpine party, in his diary on September 20. “We were due there today and there is quite a lot of talk as to how our absence will be dealt with. If Bathurst wireless station is working we have no doubt planes are searching for us ...”
But, there was a problem.
“A radio station at Bathurst was relied upon to keep officials of the company informed as to progress, but Operator Fontaine had mechanical trouble with his radio instruments and was unable to send out word as to the non-arrival of the party until September 21” (Free Press, November 5, 1929).
As early as September 16, company officials had become concerned about the fate of the missing men and asked WCA to send planes along the Mackenzie River and back track along the route the MacAlpine party was to have taken, but the searchers found no trace of the men or their aircraft.
Meanwhile, company officials began arriving in Winnipeg from Toronto. They were joined by other mining company and federal government officials, as well as managers of WCA, all of whom would assist in organizing the rescue effort.
“Tentative plans for the aerial hunt for the MacAlpine mining party missing in the sub-arctic revolves about one of the most forsaken areas in the Northwest Territories, namely, the region between Bathurst Inlet and Coronation ...,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on September 25, 1929.
Following the advice of veteran pilots, the newspaper speculated that, if the two airplanes had been forced down due to weather or mechanical problems, it would be in the barren land between Bathurst and Coronation.
“The first search base was established at Stony Rapids at the easterly end of Lake Athabaska ... planes and provisions being hurried there as fast as possible,” reported the Free Press on November 5. “There was no dearth of planes, for every private company operating, as well as the Dominion (federal) government, placed its resources at the disposal of the searchers. ...
“With planes and men mobilized for the assault on the north, bases had to be established, food supplies taken in, gasoline, the lifeblood of the airplane, also had to be cached wherever it was felt it would be most useful, and all this against time, for in the great reaches of the north, across the widespread tundra, winter’s winds were already sweeping down from the Arctic, bringing temperatures which made the freezing of the lakes, particularly the smaller ones, a matter of days.”
Frozen lakes were a definite problem as most of the initial rescue airplanes were equipped with floats, as were those of the MacAlpine expedition, which
required open water to land. Only
ski-equipped aircraft could land on ice.
Aviators from Winnipeg first flew to The Pas and then made the 740-kilometre trip to Stony Rapids. An official statement issued by Dominion Explorers stated that “all the available airplanes in the United States and Canada, suitable for northern flying, would be concentrated in the search. An even dozen planes were already in the field.”
The ice-breaker, Ocean Eagle, charterered by the company, was sent from Chesterfield Inlet to Bathurst Inlet where supplies from the ship would be moved to Baker Lake for use by airplane and ground crews.
The braver pilots, such as “Punch” Dickins, continually flew in hazardous conditions that imperiled their lives. In fact, a telegram was received from Fort Smith on October 7 announcing that Dickins, who had been missing for five days, arrived safely in that community.
Dickins explained that he had been stormbound for three days at Fort Reliance and was unable to communicate his whereabouts.
The Free Press on October 8 reported that “Dickins has just accomplished another of the sensational flights with which he has thrilled a continent for the past two weeks.”
During his “epic flight,” Dickins had covered about 2414 kilometres by air, but turned out no new information on the missing MacAlpine party. By October 8, it was estimated that Dickins had covered 6,920 kilometres by air in his quest to find the eight missing men.
Dickins had a personal connection with the missing party, as he had flown with MacAlpine and Pearce in the summer of 1928 to drop off prospectors and visit Domex bases, “so he
was familiar with the area ...,” wroteKarram.
Actually, MacAlpine was well known in Winnipeg beyond his connections to mining and aviation in the Far North. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he attended the Manitoba Law School, practiced law in Winnipeg from 1910 to 1914 and served with the Cameron Highlanders of Winnipeg during the First World War.
“They are,” said Alex MacKay, a Northern Ontario prospector with Dominion Explorers (Canadian Press, October 9, 1929), who had returned to North Bay from the search area, “all experienced, red-blooded men of the north, who would not become panicky just because they found themselves landbound. In all probability, they have already adapted themselves to the conditions as they found them, where they were forced to land. Knowing the north and how to meet its challenge they certainly would not attempt to move from the place where they came down.”
“There is absolutely no chance of the men mushing through to civilization,” MacKay continued, “for the simple reason that the distance to be travelled is too great to be accomplished between now and the summer break-up. Even then the feat would
almost be impossible because of the large number of lakes and rivers that would be encountered and the fact that the men have no means of travelling by water. The country is barren of timber and it would be impossible for the party to construct canoes with no wood available.”
(Next week: part 2)