Aviation had come late to the Peace, measured by technical advances in the rest of the world, but not late in actual years. It was great good fortune to have the air-minded city of Edmonton as our geographical and economic capital. Edmonton was from the first far ahead of the rest of Western Canada in air development.
Only six years after the Wright Brothers flew the first heavier than air machine at Kitty Hawk, young Reginald Hunt of Edmonton, in 1909, put a self-built engine on his glider. He designed a propeller using an idea based on the shape of the electric fans that kept flies agitated in restaurants, put bicycle wheels under the wings and actually flew the thing for a record thirty-five minutes. When it crashed nobody would finance another such toy so Hunt turned to boat building for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was the second Canadian and first Westerner to fly.
In the next five years, several Edmonton boys nourished the burning ambition to fly. A couple of young Americans brought a Curtis biplane to the city as an attraction at the Spring House Show. From a kitchen chair in the cockpit the pilots put on a two-day show in “the fastest plane in the world”. When someone suggested that they fly across the Saskatchewan River valley between Edmonton and Strathcona they reluctantly agreed. But when the newspapers advertised the adventure and the crowds assembled next day, the “intrepid” flyers had departed and the newspaper headlined the story “STUNG”.
Edmonton boys proceeded to lay the foundation for the bush pilot saga that stirred the imagination of the world. Much of the action took place over the Peace River country and the North, but not until after World War I. The boys had to enlist in the Canadian Army then somehow get transferred to the British Royal Air Force. Two of the great aces of that war came from Edmonton — Roy Brown, and Wilfred (Wop) May. They were world famous as the two that brought down the German scourge of the skies, Baron Von Richthofen. On Wop May’s first combat flight the Red Knight got on his tail. His old friend Roy Brown, the squadron leader, came to the rescue. Using the brilliant dare devil tactics that had nearly got May “washed out” for insubordination on his first solo flight, Brown kept the Red Knight so busy that Richthofen did not see the fighter who downed him. Brown and May both came home with the Distinguished Flying Cross at war’s end.
Several others had enviable war records — “Punch” Dickens, Jimmy Bell and George Gorniaw, Wop’s friend and later partner. The list included Pete Derbyshire, a genius-mechanic and former Lesser Slave Lake farmer who was later an instructor of instructors. Some such was “Punch” Dickens, who had grown up with May in Edmonton, gone to the same school and played on the same hockey team stayed on in the new R.C.A.F. Punch Dickens and Wop May were often referred to as the “twins of the air”, although no two were ever more different in physique and personality.
When the war ended all of the other young pilots were unemployed. May, of course, could go to work in his father’s garage with Court, his lame older brother who had learned to manage the business because he could not fly. All of the boys together did not have enough money to buy a plane. The last thing anyone could dream of was that these boys were to be the bush pilots who flew by the seat of their pants to open up the North. They could not have done it without the Edmonton airport that had developed from nothing but enthusiasm.
In 1916 when World War I was in its darkest phase, the Edmonton Exhibition Board planned a fireworks show, but no gunpowder could be spared from the war effort. One air-show replaced another. Katherine Stinson, twenty years old, slim, tiny and pretty, was teaching flying in San Antonio, Texas. She would come via Calgary to give exhibitions of the kind of maneuvers described in the accounts of dogfights over Europe. Three years in succession she appeared, on the last occasion carrying a sack of first-class mail from Calgary. Those of us who were teenagers at the time remember her as the first woman we had seen in leather jacket, helmet, goggles and pants. “Nice” old ladies even condemned jodhpurs designed for horseback riding astride. Mixing with the crowd in such indecent attire made her automatically “that hussy” to those who pursed their lips in disapproval, but girls in the ankle-length sloppy dresses of the day envied her grace and freedom as much as the boys and men did her flying — and figure. Nobody could forget her. How many crashes she survived is not recorded.
When World War I ended, Edmonton received practical recognition of money raised there to buy Curtis “Jennies” (J N 4’s) for training Royal Air Force pilots. One had been named “Edmonton” and she was presented to her namesake city. At the same time a Canadian war-hero came back home to Edmonton — Wilfred May, known to everyone as “Wop”. His father, a garage owner, expected Wop to settle down, but with a plane in town and three other overseas flying buddies to fly and service it, that was too much to ask. The boys persuaded the city council to rent the plane to them for twenty-five dollars a month plus insurance, instead of storing it in the Exhibition building. Wop’s brother, Court became business manager of “May Airplanes Limited” when two other Curtis Jennies were brought in from the United States. The pilots had ideas for freighting airmail and doing aerial photography, but the market was not ready yet. Their main moneymaking use was stunting and selling rides to thrill-seekers at fairs and celebrations. A new word came into the language — barn storming — because the airfields were frequently some farmer’s level field. The airmen kept in practice and country-fair goers were entertained or scared half out of their wits. Old ladies said that if men had been intended to fly they’d have been born with wings and young girls worshipped a “genuine war ace” stunting over the grandstand.
May had demonstrated a new use for the plane — a search for a gunman who had shot down a city policeman. Wop flew Detective James Campbell out over the rough country around Edson, and just barely got back safely. It was a preview of another and more desperate search for the “Map Trapper” Albert Johnson who terrorized the vicinity of Fort McPherson and shot three policemen before he was spotted from the air and tracked down. That was an exploit that should make TV Wild Westerns look like bedtime stories! In 1919 May did a more spectacular but less useful stunt — flying under Edmonton’s High Level Bridge.
Besides his war fame, May already had a reputation for daredevil stunts when the whole Peace River turned out to see him in 1920. He brought the old Jenny to Spirit River, Grande Prairie and Peace River Sports Days. On the way back to Edmonton the plane developed engine trouble near Whitecourt. In the rugged and thickly wooded terrain, Wop brought the “City of Edmonton” down in one of the few small, cleared spaces. The plane was damaged. There was impossible muskeg all around.
In a deserted cabin on the edge of the clearing he and his mechanic found a can of flour, part of which they ate with some bacon they had with them. The rest they mixed to a paste reinforced with silky fireweed seeds, to patch the radiator. Meanwhile Wop brought down two fool hens (partridge) to eke out rations for three days. With wire and tape mechanic Pete Derbyshire patched up the fuselage and wings. Then they chopped out a take-off runway. The plane just made it, but carried some branches tangled in the undercarriage. Near Sangudo they ran out of gas and were forced down again. Bad news met them in Edmonton. Court had to tell his brother and partners that the company was nearly bankrupt.
Then oil was discovered a thousand miles North of Edmonton near Fort Norman. A stampede to stake claims seemed about to reenact the old trail of ‘98, but the Mounted Police remembered that series of tragedies and refused to let anyone but experienced and well-equipped parties start out. An Imperial Oil executive in Toronto wanted to be on the spot early. He heard that there were unemployed airmen in Edmonton, and a primitive airfield. Wop’s job in the garage was short. He and his friend Gorman were hired to fly two Junkers planes in from New York. It was a hazardous winter trip. May arrived in 50 below weather.
The Junkers were built for skis, wheels or pontoons. On February 27 they flew off with seven men and a thousand pounds of freight for Peace River Town where a landing strip was laid out almost on the site of Alexander Mackenzie’s wintering post before his trip to the Pacific.
Two dozen homing pigeons were aboard in case they were forced down in the wilderness. The two planes met nothing but trouble. Both props were smashed. To get them out a cabinet maker employed at a trading post at Fort Simpson successfully crafted a new prop from oak boards intended for sleigh runners, laminated together with glue made by boiling moose hides and hooves in water. The Imperial Oil Company decided that the North was not ready for air transport. Aviation slumped again. One airman was asked, “What is the hardest thing about flying?” He answered, “Keeping from starving to death”! Commercial aviation in Edmonton came almost to a standstill. Only May tried to carry on.
It was Grande Prairie that gave May Airways a new start. The old “City of Edmonton” Jenny was almost beyond repair. May had not enough money to get the airfield mowed. Worst of all, his lame brother Court, in the safe business manager’s position, fell one night on the MacDonald Hotel staircase and was instantly killed. The two brothers had been inseparably close from childhood. Wop’s heart was no longer in his work, but he held on to his summer barn-storming, took a selling job in winter and kept up a constant pressure on Edmonton’s economy-minded citizens and council to build a city-owned and operated airport, since other air-traffic was increasing.
Now Grande Prairie offered a new opportunity. A wealthy farmer-rancher, Harry Adair, had a four-section spread north of Lake Saskatoon. He decided to buy a new Curtis Jenny in the states and have it flown to the border. As a licensed Canadian pilot, May got the job. Adair joined his efforts to get a proper municipal airport in Edmonton.
The new Edmonton and Grand Prairie Aircraft Company had a brief life, for in attempting to lift the heavily-loaded Jenny off an inadequate runway at Grande Prairie the plane struck a telephone wire and crashed. May, Adair, and a fur buyer from Hudson’s Hope climbed out unhurt. The company lost so much money that Wop, married now, gave up flying and tried selling National Cash registers. He made a living, but it was not his kind of job.
Meanwhile Grande Prairie was still conscious of aviation. The R.C.A.F. had not left the field. The famous “Punch” Dickens and other armed forces men were still in the employ of the Canadian government, doing aerial mapping, forest-fire spotting and exploring in the Far North. “Punch” Dickens reported optimistically on the value of the plane base for wilderness communications. Grande Prairie made a float plane base on Bear Lake, and cleared a grassy quarter near the present modern air terminal. A load of mail was landed on Bear Lake in 1925.
Wop May, out of flying, still kept prodding the reluctant city fathers to build some facilities for an industry that was growing all over the rest of the continent. Finally they agreed to put up $400 (Imagine $400!) for a city aerodrome. Little as it was, it gave Edmonton “Air Harbor License #1” for the first municipal airport in all Canada.
Flying Officer “Punch” Dickens was stationed to test planes in cold weather conditions. As someone said, “When the temperature goes down, Punch goes up.” He began demanding heat in the planes, which were than all open-cockpit! Once that was accomplished, winter flying he said would present no great difficulties. He pressed also for the formation of a flying club and Wop May was the first President. Action was slow, but it came in 1928. Edmonton became eligible to receive one of six light Gypsy Moth training planes which the British Government was donating to Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Edmonton had made the first application – it got two planes instead of one. A ground-school was started and ninety pupils were registered. Professor Robb of the University of Alberta helped with the scientific instruction, as well as the donation of old planes for study purposes. Captain May left his business connection and qualified to be the first chief instructor. All of this, only a few air-miles away, was important to the Peace River and North Country, which suddenly was the “Far North” no longer.
Grant McConachie was in one of the early classes. He soon became the Peace Country’s own bush pilot.
Just ten year’s after Katherine Stinson’s visit, Lieutenant Spradbrow, R.C.A.F., led the two new Forestry Gypsy Moths onto a rain-sodden field. A week later the Mayor of Edmonton went up with Instructor May. Coming down from a 7000 foot ascent he noted with alarm the neglected condition of “Blatchford Field” and as he made his way from the plane through the weeds he decided to advise city council that their #1 field should at least be mowed!
Suddenly aviation came alive again. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic alone. A trans-Canada flight by a wealthy American, Dalzell McKee and Squadron Leader Major Godfrey, motivated the former to put up the McKee trophy for the greatest contribution to aviation each year. Later May won the trophy.
With help from friends, May launched another Commercial Airways with a stout little British plane, the Avro Avian, $6,000.
Many of the events that followed in quick succession were of interest mainly to Edmonton and vicinity. Winnipeg based Western Canada Airways pioneered plans for a huge air-mail-express and passenger network with the financial backing of millionaire James S. Richardson. A private commercial Yukon Company began flying airmail from Whitehorse via Dawson City to Mayo, in four and a half hours covering a distance that took twelve to fourteen days in good weather by land.
Edmonton’s own “Punch” Dickens made a historic flight from Winnipeg across the Barren Lands, Canada’s “blind spot”, four thousand miles, over nothing but lakes and rocks. It was “Punch” Dickens who flew the first regular airmail flight in a Fokker aircraft from Regina to Edmonton. But Edmonton citizens voted not to spend something less than $24,000 to develop an airport, so small that a woman-farmer was suing the city for damages to her oat-crop by wind from ascending and landing planes. Too many of the general public of Edmonton still thought of flying in terms of stunts at fairs for entertainment, and rides at a dollar a minute for those who had nothing better to do with their money.
Within a month some had a change of heart. Dr. H.A. Hamman of Red River sent a wire — the Hudson’s Bay Factor had a bad case of deadly laryngeal diphtheria. The whole settlement to two hundred Indians had been exposed. Diphtheria had been known to wipe out whole tribes. Among white people, the word was more feared than leprosy, because scarcely a family but had memories of the dreadful death before antitoxin was known. The telegram was dispatched from Peace River Town. It had taken Louis Bourassa twelve days to get there by dog-team. If sent by train, the antitoxin would be another two weeks getting back to Red River, fifty miles beyond Fort Vermilion, and six hundred and fifty altogether.
The Medical Health Officer called Wop May. Could his Avian, with its open cockpit, and as yet no skis, be able to make the mercy flight? It was the last day of the year and 32 degrees below zero. Wop and Vic Horner volunteered to go, following the railway line to Peace River Town, then the river to Fort Vermilion. The radio station broadcast messages to the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay and Revillon Freres and the provincial police to watch for the little plane.
Peace River townsfolk marked out a safe landing strip with spruce branches on the ice but in the short winter day head winds and icing conditions kept the plane under five hundred feet and forced it down fifty miles short at McLennan. A charcoal burner at their feet kept the antitoxin from freezing, but they had to drain the oil from the engine and take it inside before they warmed themselves up.
After a brief refueling stop at Peace River the next day, a snowstorm blew up. The plane refused to rise over the railway bridge. At the last moment Wop dipped under it, between the piers. CJDC got a wire, asking police at intermediate points to have dog teams ready to come searching if the plane fell far behind schedule.
Wop and Horner arrived at Vermilion, quite unaware that people all over Canada were glued to their radios waiting hour after hour for news. Vic Horner was so stiff with cold that he could not bend so the police pulled him out. Wop’s hands had to be pried finger by finger from the controls. The Doctor, his first patient dead, had “mushed ” fifty miles to take the serum back.
There was some poor fuel at Vermilion. On the way back the engine kept spitting and spluttering. To be forced down was certain death. At Peace River again they slipped under the bridge, all controls frozen except the oil gauge, and again with only a gallon of fuel left. The next day they ran into a blizzard. The men had emergency rations now, and even the plane was padded, but twice fire threatened in the cockpit. Again, almost out of fuel, they made it home.
The Peace River Country had hit the news of the world, and Commercial Airways owners could now get financing. They escaped from all the dinners and speeches and went off to Los Angeles to buy a new Lockheed Vega, with an enclosed and heated cabin, capable of carrying four passengers or six hundred pounds of payload. Punch Dickens came back with his Fokker for Western Canada Airways to inaugurate a regular air service from Waterways, Chipewyan, Smith, Resolution, Hay River, and Simpson a thousand miles North of Edmonton. The postal inspector went along on “the toughest flight in Dickens’ experience” to investigate the possibility of a regular mail route.
By 1928 Western Canada Airways had in one year carried more passengers and express than any other air transportation company on the continent. Competing with this giant enterprise May had to look for business nearer home. In 1929 he got a contract to fly mail weekly to Grande Prairie. Then he got the mail contract to the Arctic Ocean. The huge brokerage firm of Solloway Mills financed the fuel caches, runway clearance, and nose hangars. Edmonton’s poor facilities were being snubbed.
All of the activity was passing over the eastern fringe of the Peace River Country, except for Grande Prairie. Flying Officer Spradbrow in a forest patrol plane was based there keeping the image before the frontier settlement where Wop May was often seen, but it was Officer Spradbrow who carried out the first local mercy flight. Dr. L.J. O’Brien was flown out to Sturgeon Lake to attend a young boy who had been shot in the stomach while riding horseback. It was a grim trip in the two-seater plane, where the pilot had to stand up to fly, while reaching back to keep the boy’s head from falling over into the slip stream, meanwhile hanging onto the blankets to keep the patient warm. Death won the race. Then the flyer returned to pick up the doctor. The tradition of the “bush pilots” was building up.
Hundreds of stories came out of the North — the search for the Mad Trapper, carrying the Christmas mail, finding downed airmen, mercy flights, ferrying out ore, gold, pitchblende and uranium, innumerable exploits out of Edmonton and McMurray on the Athabasca River where May lived for six years. Wop became superintendent of Canadian Airways. Then he lost his left eye and was grounded.
Shortly afterwards, he received the Order of the British Empire for his antitoxin delivery. Louis Bourassa, the courier-de-bois, was decorated also, as was Punch Dickens for his epic flight across the Barren Lands.
During World War II, May was in charge of Number 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton. He organized survival techniques and the Para Rescue Squad. Before he died of a heart attack in 1952, at age fifty-six, he was decorated with the high American honor, the Medal of Freedom. To many Peace River people his passing was a deep personal loss. Grande Prairie especially felt they had lost one of their own. There were many air-minded people in the Peace by 1932. In twenty years northern aviation had come a long way.
Grande Prairie began to catch the air-fever about 1932. A pilot named Craig and Jack Neyes, a garage man of the nearby village of Sexsmith, built a plane — a three-seater American Eagle. Neyes began flying it to Dawson Creek, landing on the hilltop where Grandview subdivision is now. Then Phil Esswein, a trapper a few miles beyond present-day Chetwynd, cleared a landing strip, and set up a dude ranch for hunting parties flown in by Neyes. The John Hart Highway cut through this pioneer airstrip which can still be distinguished if you know where to look.
For a year, Summit Lake, Moberly Lake and Hudson’s Hope became seaplane bases for the two Junkers that mapped the great Rocky Mountain Trench in preparation
for the P.G.E. railroad. Then High Prairie became the base for the surveying of a new highway into the Sturgeon Lake area, and eventually Grande Prairie.
Percy Tooley, mayor of Grande Prairie, began working on an airport for his town, and eventually saw his dream come true in 1936. The year 1935 had made Peace River people appreciate the benefits of air service. During spring and early summer continual and cloudburst rains created phenomenal floods. Along Lesser Slave Lake a mile of N.A.R. track was completely washed out. The village of Lesser Slave Lake was flooded. On June 25, the Edmonton city papers headlined, “North Country Cut Off From Outside World”. Two things were critical — the non-delivery of mail, including medicines and the shortage of baker’s yeast. On July 3, the Fleishman Company sent a shipment of yeast by chartered plane. The Post Office sent a big seaplane with first-class mail to Bear Lake, near Grande Prairie the next day, continuing to do so during the crisis. Second-class stuff accumulated to a record mail car tonnage. The kids had to wait to catch up on the comics until the first train arrived! Those who could afford batteries for their radios got the only news service from Edmonton or Calgary.
Meantime a new pilot had come on the Peace River scene; destined to be president of one the world’s great airlines. Grant McConachie made his name and his fortune in the Peace River country. Fort St. John became his “home base”. In a way he was our most famous flying ambassador, and a Father of the Alaska Highway.
War and its aftermath brought fringe benefits to the Peace River Country in the form of modern airports, built by the American Army.
Yukon Southern Airways was operating in Dawson Creek in the same general area as the present city airport, but nearer the road. It was too short a take-off for the huge transport planes ferrying men and supplies to Alaska and even to Russia. The Department of Transport and American Airforce needed a strip 6000 feet long. This required two quarter sections of land, so they bought the level farmland that lay south of the village and west to where Old Dawson Creek was situated until the rails came in 1931. It was said to be the longest takeoff strip in Western Canada. Overhead for a long time was tethered a huge silver balloon for communications broadcasting. The citizens were relieved it had been removed from the hill southwest of town when one of our strong prevailing winds tore it loose to drift with dangling cable over the buildings, snagging off a few chimneys.
Peace River, Fort St. John and Grande Prairie got full airport facilities, courtesy of U.S.A. and Canadian Joint Defense Commission. The Northwest Staging Service ferried great transports bearing the Red Star of Russia with whom we were then allied. After the war, the old airstrip south of Dawson Creek later became part of the Distant Early Warning System (The DEW LINE). This was the anchor of the Pine Tree Line, one of its sections. There was the makings of an international incident when a confused civilian pilot set down his helicopter by mistake in the tight-security section in the midst of the administration area. When the system became obsolete the long airstrip was subdivided into town lots and many homes are on its old surface. The buildings were purchased from the War Assets Corporation for the present campus of the Vocational School.
Dawson Creek purchased the quarter of land of the original airstrip in 1956, and graveled the runways in 1957. In 1966 it was paved and in 1968 a terminal building was constructed. A modern maintenance garage was finished in 1970.
Dawson Creek has a unique feature. The city’s sewage lagoons lie alongside the airfield. Bob Trail the mayor at the time, had a seaplane, for which Saskatoon Lake or Charlie Lake, miles away were the only bases. Why not extend the lagoons a little further to accommodate pontoon landings and takeoffs? The city council agreed. Engineer George Gunn found it feasible. Result – the only man-made seaplane base on the continent of North America.
The stories of the other airports are covered in the local histories of those towns, to be found in their public libraries. Fort St. John holds a special place. Over $2,500,000 was invested to accommodate the oil-drilling boom, making it the air headquarters of the north, Grande Prairie, Fort Nelson and Beatton River being considered satellites. It is the hub of many services from east, west, north, and south on worldwide flights.
Probably the most distinguished party to use its facilities was Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and party in 1967, Confederation Centennial year.