by Bruce Cherney
On display in the Western Canada Aviation Museum, 958 Ferry Rd., is a Fokker Super Universal monoplane with a storied career in Canadian aviation history that spans the decades from the 1920s to the present. It’s first brush with history came in 1929 when the aircraft with the call letters CF-AAM was used in the search for the missing eight-member Colonel Cyril MacAlpine expedition (see Real Estate News, November 9 and 16, 2012).
The October 4, 1929, Manitoba Free Press reported that Ken Dewar piloting Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company’s Super Universal had arrived at The Pas after taking a party of company prospectors to Island Lake. Dewar remained in The Pas awaiting the arrival of mechanic Bob Niven before heading north to take part in the rescue attempt.
Dewar used CF-AAM to fly out members of the missing party, who, with the help of Inuit guides, had made it from Dease Point to Cambridge Inlet, where they sent out the radio message from the Hudson’s Bay Company post on November 3 that they were safe after their two-month ordeal in Canada’s Far North. The members of the MacAlpine party aboard the Super Universal flown by Dewar reached Winnipeg on December 6, 1929.
The Fokker Super Universal with its enclosed cockpit was the first aircraft suited to Canada’s harsh northern climate, although at the time of year of the search for the MacAlpine Party, it was reaching its performance limits under such adverse conditions.
“In my 45 years flying in the north, at ten or fifteen thousand feet, in a warm, comfortable cockpit, with modern instrumentation, GPS navigation, long-range radio communication and dependable turbine engines, I often thought of those early pioneers ... I would look down at the featureless, snow-covered tundra below and wonder how they endured the hardships of those early days,” said Al Nelson, the director of restoration at the WCAM. “Those guys were giants.”
Still, for its time, bush pilots regarded the Super Universal as state-of-the-art technology and a reliable and trustworthy aircraft.
The only remaining flying version of the aircraft touched down in Winnipeg in 2005 to take its place as a permanent display at the Richardson Gallery of Flight in the Western Canada Aviation Museum (WCAM) in Winnipeg. Its pilot, Clark Seaborn, a member of the WCAM, had lovingly restored the aircraft over the course of 17 years and then for seven years after its restoration flew CF-AAM across North America.
“It's a historically significant aircraft,” said Shirley Render, the executive director of the WCAM when the aircraft was first put on display. “It was the workhorse of the North for its time.”
Pilot Seaborn, a native of Calgary, said one of his most rewarding flights over the course of his seven years of flying CF-AAM was returning to Dawson City, the site of the aircraft's abandonment in 1937 where it had crashed upon takeoff.
On December 5, 1937, pilot Les Cook with six passengers on-board were attempting to lift off when a wheel broke off and the plane crashed into the bush at the end of the runway. Although there were no serious injuries, CF-AAM’s career came to an end and it was stripped and left in the bush to languish until Seaborn was asked to undertake its restoration in 1974.
Seaborn and crew members Bob Cameron and Don McLean, also Calgarians and pilots, from June 7 to 13, 2001, travelled the route CF-AAM flew during an earlier era, touching down in the communities of Whitehorse, Fort Selkirk, Mayo, Atlin, Carcross and Dawson City. He also delivered airmail — actually envelopes known as covers to collectors — a task that CF-AAM had performed 65 years before. He said by delivering the mail he felt he was duplicating the experiences of an early Canadian aviator.
That experience also entailed the less pleasant aspects of early flight, such as a Pratt and Whitney 420-horsepower radial piston engine whining at an eardrum-shattering 142 decibels (90 decibels is considered dangerous), sitting on a seat above a hot oil tank which reaches temperatures of 200°F (93.3°C) and struggling with difficult-to-reach instruments.
“The engine’s like a stove, it gets very, very hot in the summer,” he explained.
“As an airplane, it’s a horrible thing.”
“But, you have to remember it was built in the days of the locomotive. And, you don’t restore antiques because they're practical, you restore them as a piece of history.
“You also have to realize the choice to fly 90 years ago was very appealing. You could fly to a destination in two hours, otherwise it took two weeks by dogsled and two months by canoe,” he added.
For its day, the Super Universal was the height of pilot comfort. It’s most important feature for travel in the snowbound expanses of the Far North was its enclosed cockpit. Prior to the Super Universal, early bush pilots flew in open cockpit planes and were exposed to the ravages of bitter cold and freezing rain and snow.
To fly in the north, mechanics also employed an ingenious method of heating the cockpit to provide some, but not complete, relief from the Arctic chill.
“The heat was achieved through an ‘Intensifier Tube’ externally affixed to the end of the exhaust pipe. The heater unit itself was a little over thirty inches of length. It consisted of a long metal tube that provided an annulus around the exhaust pipe through which fresh air was heated. Using a control valve, hot air was delivered to the cabin” (Four Degrees Celsius: A Story of Arctic Peril, by Kerry Karram, 2012).
The Super Universal was first brought to Canada by James A. Richardson of Winnipeg, the founder of Western Canada Airways which was the forerunner of Canadian Airlines. WAC was formed in 1926 for mineral and mining expeditions in the North. The Richardson company owned 15 of the 28 Super Universals used in Canada.
The Fokker Super Universal was developed in 1928 from the earlier open cockpit Fokker “Standard” Universal and remained in production until 1931.
Because of its versatility, it could be equipped with either wheels, skis or floats, which were all landing gear required for northern exploration, depending upon the season.
The monoplane Super Universal had a wing span of 50-feet-8 (approximately 15.5 metres) and a length of 36-feet-7 (approximately 11.2 metres) and at a gross weight of 5,150 pounds (around 2.5 tonnes) could fly at maximum speed of 138 mph (223 km/h) and had a cruising speed of 118 mph (189 km/h) without skis and a cruising speed of 105 mph 9169 km/h) with skis (162 km/h). The Super Universal had a fuel capacity of 150 imperial gallons, which gave it a range of approximately 700 miles.
Fully equipped with floats at the factory in the United States, its price was $22,450. In comparison, a Ford car cost $275 in 1928.
The restored aircraft now at the WCAM came off the production line in Teterboro, New Jersey, in January 1929 as Fokker Super Universal SIN 827, and later received the registration CF-AAM. The aircraft was purchased in Winnipeg from WCA by the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (Cominco), based in Trail, B.C., in 1929. In its first two years of operation, the Super Universal piloted by Dewar was used primarily in northern Manitoba by Cominco prospectors searching for new mineral deposits.
Seaborn joked that CF-AAM stands for “Currently Flying Arctic Aviation Machine.”
Although, the registration was first given in 1929, by the rules of Transport Canada, the registration stays with the aircraft throughout its flying life; thus today, it is still designated CF-AAM, despite being a static display in the aviation museum, since it is still capable of being flown.
After its stint with Cominco, CF-AAM was purchased for $9,800 by Northern Airways Ltd. in Carcross (Caribou Crossing), Yukon, which started operations in 1934, hauling freight, mail and passengers to remote regions of the Yukon and northern British Columbia.
After its 1937 crash, the airplane was rediscovered by Bob Cameron and Tony Hanulik, who worked for Trans North, and played among the airplane’s remains in their youth — at least, the rear end of CF-AAM. The rear portion of the airplane had become separated from the front end while laying abandoned in Dawson City. It was speculated that the front end, which was found in the bush at Granville Forks near Dawson City, had been intended as the framework for a gold mining sluice-box, according to a report in the Klondike Sun on August 3, 2001.
In 1974, the two men located the front end and reunited it with the back end. Cameron then approached Seaborn to undertake the restoration, knowing that the Calgary pilot had earlier experience restoring a 1933 Waco biplane which had been in worse shape when its restoration was begun.
Two Canadian Armed Forces Hercules were used to transport the parts of the plane south — an indication of the historical importance of the aircraft.
Seaborn was joined in his Calgary shop by Don McLean, who had also helped with the restoration of the Waco. Seaborn spent six months doing research on the aircraft, including a stint at the Federal Aviation Administration archives in California, before attempting the restoration.
Then the two men searched for the plane which were salvaged across Alaska, Canada and the lower 48 States.
Throughout the restoration process, Seaborn kept WCAM members informed of his progress with a series of articles in the Aviation Review, the WCAM’s publication.
For example, in the June 1989 issue, he explained that when fitting the wing to the fuselage, he first tried a “trial marriage.”
“This step meant a very nerve wracking, close tolerance ... no mistake allowed ... process of precisely aligning and drilling bolt holes and aligning the attachment plates so this end is achieved,” he wrote. “This trial marriage meant trucking the spars on a lengthened utility trailer from the wing assembly ship on southeast Calgary 20 miles (32 kilometres) down highways and backroads to my home where the fuselage was located.”
It took Seaborn 10 days of work before he would even try the complete alignment of spars and fittings. “For over six hours that day five of us grunted, lifted, pulled and hammered to put the airplane components together, tighten bolts, check alignment, take photos of the assembled plane, then disassemble, put the fuselage back in the garage ... and trailer the spars back to the wing shop.”
Seaborn said he and McLean toiled about 500 hours each year for the 17 years they worked on the restoration. In the end, they were using parts gleaned from six aircraft — mostly airframe, but many of the parts had to be fabricated from scratch.
“There were a lot of things missing,” said Seaborn.
Some parts were even taken from a Ford Model- T, such as door handles and a rearview mirror.
The engine was not the original, but a factory-made Pratt and Whitney copy as was the propeller.
An example of the flying characteristics using the Pratt and Whitney engine comes from George Shaw in a report for Aviation Review. He wrote about his experiences as a mechanic with Fokker Super Universal CF-AJB at Channing, Manitoba (near Flin Flon), in 1942 when he worked for Arrow Airways.
Shaw said by 1942, “JB” was nearing the end of its useful days. “The engine on JB was a nine-cylinder radial model of 420 horsepower. As it was an old design, the value operating mechanism had no forced lubrication. Both of the 18 valve rocker arm shafts had a grease nipple on it and twice a day on bust days I had to attack each of these!! with a hand grease gun ...
“By the summer of 1942, although she looked in good shape, JB was definitely a senior citizen. Since her purchase in 1934, she had flown just over 7,000 hours, an average of 900 hours a year, which was an excellent record for this type of flying (freight and passenger}.”
Because of its age, JB could only receive 30-day extensions of Certificate of Airworthiness.
JB was scrapped in the fall of 1942, the last Super Universal to fly in Canada until Seaborn took to the air in 1998.
The engine mounting ring used in the restoration of CF-AAM came from a Super Universal Virginia used by Admiral Byrd in the Antarctic that was wrecked during a hurricane-force snowstorm.
Parts had to be fabricated from old photos or drawings — there were about 300 to 400 drawings available from across North America. It was a difficult process, but Seaborn said, “Something was guiding us to put this aircraft together. It became a passion and an obsession.”
The restorers also had the expertise of C.H. “Punch” Dickens, a Manitoba native, to rely upon. Dickens flew Super Universals with Western Canada Airways and became the first pilot on the prairie airmail circuit between Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton. He also can claim to have been the first person to fly across the unmapped barrens of the Northwest Territories. In total, he logged nearly two-million kilometres flying across the Arctic. Dickins died on August 3, 1995, at age 96.
On July 24, 1998, CF-AAM took off for the first time, but that wasn’t before the plane had went through a year-long process of airworthiness testing by Transport Canada to certify it for flight in the modern era.
Proceeding his first flight, Seaborn took the plane through its paces.
“'I'm very careful about things in my life,” he said. “I took the airplane down the runway at half power to feel it out on the ground. I did this a number of times. At one point, I had it six feet off the ground.
“When I gave it full throttle, my mouth got dry and my knees starting shaking, but it went up perfectly.
“I never thought I would see the day, 90 years later that the plane would actually fly,” added Seaborn with pride in his accomplishment of returning an historically significant aircraft to the skies above Canada.