Flying the Hudson Strait: Air Force, Part 10

July 1, 2005 by Hugh A. Halliday

PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES

PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES

Adjustments are made to a Fokker Universal in the frigid waters of the Hudson Strait in the late 1920s.

In 1922, the Canadian Air Force dispatched Squadron Leader R.A. Logan on the CGS Arctic during its annual cruise of the Eastern Arctic Islands. Though he had no aircraft, Logan unfurled an Air Force ensign in the Arctic and subsequently compiled a report on possible air operations in the North. Nothing came immediately of his study. The Royal Canadian Air Force concentrated on forestry and photo work far from the northern frontier.

However, events transpired to spur subarctic aviation. The Hudson Bay Railway—a product of railway optimism and overbuilding—had been started in 1913 and pushed to The Pas, Man., before WW I. It would probably have never been restarted but for the politics of the 1920s. Prairie organizations, resentful of the power wielded by the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways, argued for an alternative outlet for grain exports. Their voice in Ottawa was the Progressive Party, which for much of the 1920s held the parliamentary balance of power. Prime Minister Mackenzie King courted them with various inducements, and by 1926 work had been restarted on rails to Churchill, Man.

It was then realized that the government was running a rail line to the Bay, rehabilitating an old port—yet nobody knew how long Hudson Strait was navigable each season. Planning for an aerial ice survey expedition began in December 1926 under the auspices of an interdepartmental Hudson Strait Committee.

Several aircraft designs were considered for the operation. The type finally selected was the Fokker Universal, a sturdy single-engined monoplane manufactured in the United States and powered by a 200-h.p. Wright J.5 air-cooled engine. Six were purchased, as well as a De Havilland 60 Moth.

Although commanded by Squadron Leader T.A. Lawrence, the Hudson Strait Expedition was not exclusively an RCAF affair. Of the 41 persons taking part, only 17 pilots and mechanics were drawn from that force. Three RCMP constables and three members of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals were included, while the Department of Marine provided the majority of civilians (cooks, doctors and radio specialists).

Personnel received intensive training at Camp Borden, not only in flying but also in meteorology, navigation, engines, first aid, seamanship, snowshoeing, skiing, shooting, dog-handling (this with RCMP instructors), welding, carpentry, rigging, photography and instrument servicing. Attention was paid to emergency supplies and even to the smoking and reading needs of the men who would be living in isolation for six months.

The CGS Stanley and SS Larch commenced loading at Halifax on July 4, 1927, and sailed for Hudson Strait on July 17. Ten days later, at the eastern entrance to the Strait, the Moth float plane was lowered from the Stanley and Sqdn. Ldr. Lawrence, accompanied by Flight Lieutenant A.A. Leitch, reconnoitered the first base site.

The initial task was to choose base locations and erect the necessary buildings. A construction party had come with the Larch. The Moth was lost on Aug. 26 when it was caught in a storm while moored. The little machine demonstrated its seaworthiness by riding out the tempest for some 12 hours before capsizing. The incident was unfortunate, but the Moth had already served its purpose in reconnoitering for the ships, noting ice conditions ahead and assisting in selecting the base sites.

On Nov. 11, 1927, the ships left the Strait, leaving the expedition alone. Construction of the buildings had not been finished and the air force personnel were occupied for some time with putting the final touches to their temporary homes and workshops. Three bases had been created, each with two Fokkers. Base A was at Port Burwell and commanded by Flt. Lt. F.S. Coghill. B was at the southernmost corner of Nottingham Island, commanded by Flt. Lt. A.A. Leitch and C was at Wakeham Bay, midway between A and B, with Sqdn. Ldr. Lawrence in charge. Thus, air patrols reported conditions from one end of Hudson Strait to the other.

A system of normal and special patrols for all three bases was drawn up before flying began. During certain periods of the year, routine sorties would be flown daily (weather permitting) by aircraft of all three bases. Aircraft from different bases rendezvoused at selected points to ensure that information for a particular time period was collected throughout the Strait. Special patrols were laid on only when they were considered essential. Photography was conducted using hand-held oblique cameras that achieved 60 per cent overlap from frame to frame. Pilots filed detailed reports on ice conditions on completion of each patrol. Air-to-ground radio communications were maintained, using both voice and key methods. Crews on patrol communicated with their bases every five minutes.

Operations on Fokker float planes were limited during the late summer and autumn. Weather was a factor, but in addition the flying staff were involved in assembly of the bases. In any case, their principal task was ice reconnaissance, and ice did not appear until Nov. 16 in the vicinity of Nottingham Island.

Regular patrols began Sept. 29 from Wakeham Bay, and a total of 53 days elapsed before freeze-up at that station forced the abandonment of floats. Patrols were conducted on 10 of those days; fog, wind, snow and dangerous shore ice prevented flying on the other days. For three weeks, conditions were unsuitable for either floats or skis, but on Dec. 12 routine patrols resumed with the Fokkers on skis. This situation prevailed until June 18, 1928. Again there followed a period when ice conditions prevented the use of either floats or skis, but on June 29, 1928, flying from Wakeham Bay resumed on floats and continued until the expedition completed its work.

Regular patrols from Nottingham Island began Oct. 11, 1927, and continued until Nov.16 when freeze-up set in. It was much colder there than at the other two bases and the interval between float and ski operations was short, with regular flying resuming Nov. 23. At the end of May 1928, the ice breakup forced conversion back to floats.

At Port Burwell, the regular patrols on floats began Oct. 23 and continued for 31 days. Flights on skis began Dec. 13 and the aircraft reverted to float operations May 23, 1928.

Ice conditions during initial freeze-up were particularly trying for the expedition. At Nottingham Island, the problems were not acute owing to the rapid freeze-up. Elsewhere it was a different story, as Sqdn. Ldr. Lawrence explained in his final report:

These…conditions made the launching and removal of aircraft to and from the water impossible, and previous experience had taught us never to leave machines at their moorings for more than a few hours and then only in cases of necessity and under continuous watch…

Eighteen days passed from the time of Wakeham Bay freezing over until it was possible to get a machine on to the bay ice and commence flying, using skis. A combination of weather and ice conditions hampered flying during this period. Some idea of the conditions to be contended with in eventually getting a runway over the rough shore ice to the bay ice can be visualized….Tons of ice and snow were chopped down, filled in, levelled off and packed into a runway, using the tractor as a roller. At each change of tide, this runway, which extended across a beach about 200 yards long, would heave up and crack until eventually after much labour it became a solid bridge of ice, rising and failing with the tide, but immune to serious damage.

Throughout the expedition meteorological observations were recorded (in Fahrenheit degrees, of course) and these give some indication of the hardships involved. At Port Burwell sub-zero temperatures were regularly reported from Dec. 8, 1927, until April 9, 1928, and low temperatures were frequently accompanied by high winds. On Feb. 9, 1928, for example, the minimum and maximum temperatures recorded were -14.1 and -2.8 while the winds varied from 12 to 27 miles per hour (20-45 km/hr). The lowest temperature recorded there was -23.6 on Feb.17, 1928. Temperatures were more severe at Nottingham Island, which records lows of -30 or colder on 11 days in January and February 1928. Conditions at Wakeham Bay resembled those at Port Burwell.

Routine patrols continued to be flown on all possible occasions until Jan. 25, 1928. By then it was apparent that there would be no significant changes in ice conditions for many weeks. On instructions from Ottawa, fortnightly patrols were instituted. After Feb. 21 even these were limited to specific routes which would enable the Fokkers to glide to the coast if in trouble. On May 10, 1928, with spring breakup approaching, it was recommended that regular and frequent patrols should be reinstated; this was approved on May 12.

On three occasions aircraft became lost and people feared for the safety of their crews. The first incident was on Dec. 15, 1927. Flt. Lt. Leitch was returning from Erik Cove (Cape Welstenholme) to Nottingham Island. About halfway back to base he encountered a snowstorm and lost his way. Not sighting land, he alighted on an ice floe until the storm passed. He succeeded although the ice was only six inches thick. He drained the engine of oil and the crew made themselves as comfortable as possible. That night the temperature dropped to -16 and the men suffered minor frostbite.

The following day Leitch calculated his navigational error. Using emergency equipment aboard the Fokker, the fliers warmed their oil, poured it back into the engine and started up. They reached base with barely a quart of gasoline left in their tanks.

The second incident occurred Jan. 8, 1928. Sqdn. Ldr. Lawrence had set out from Wakeham Bay en route to Nottingham Island. He ran into heavy snow about 20 miles (33 km) east of Cape Digges. Lawrence turned back and landed at Suglet Inlet. He tried to reach Nottingham Island next day but met further snow storms, so he put down at Deception Bay.

For nine further days, Arctic storms battered the area while Lawrence and his crew camped in the Fokker with their survival rations. On Jan. 16, Flying Officer B.G. Carr-Harris proceeded from Wakeham Bay, located the missing airplane, and landed alongside. The rest of the day was spent digging Lawrence’s machine out of the snow and making it airworthy. Both Fokkers stayed the night at Deception Bay and returned to Wakeham Bay on the 17th.

The third incident came dangerously close to having a tragic ending. On Feb. 17, Flying Officer A. Lewis took off from Port Burwell. He was accompanied by Flight Sergeant N.C. Terry and an Inuit named Bobbie. Having flown to the vicinity of the southeastern end of Baffin Island, they were en route back to base when the engine began to vibrate and miss. Visibility deteriorated and Lewis feared that if he descended too soon looking for landmarks he might be unable to regain altitude. At last he spotted a piece of land which he thought he recognized and laid on a course which, in his mind, would lead him back to Port Burwell. It did not and he eventually ran out of fuel.

Lewis finally touched down on rough, hummocky ice which he believed to be in Ungava Bay. The Fokker sustained only minor damage. Abandoning their aircraft, the three men began walking eastward with their emergency kit. After a day they realized that they were actually on an ice floe in the Atlantic off the Labrador coast, and they doubled back. For the next seven days they travelled westwards, frequently crossing stretches of icy water using an inflatable raft that was part of their kit. Their emergency rations ran out and they resorted to eating raw meat from walruses shot by Bobbie.

Having slogged westwards for a week, suffering much privation, they struck the Labrador coast. Over the next four days they saw no signs of life whatsoever— neither birds, animals or humans. The fuel for their primus stove was gone and the trio were suffering from hunger, cold and exposure. The weather was foul; search aircraft looking from Port Burwell were actually grounded by the elements for much of the period.

On the fifth day after reaching the coast, the party met an Inuit hunter and his wife. Through Bobbie they made known their needs. Food was provided, as well as transportation by dog team back to Port Burwell. They regained their base on March 1, 1928.

In the meantime the Canadian government had been pondering the future of the expedition. On March 2 the Hudson Strait Committee recommended that the operation be extended for one or two years to obtain more detailed information. The Department of Marine and Fisheries was satisfied with the results hitherto obtained, however, and informed the Department of National Defence on March 10 that there was no need to prolong the expedition.

Ice observations ceased after Aug. 3, 1928. Thereafter personnel packed and prepared to evacuate their bases. It was intended that aircrew and aircraft would fly to Ottawa and fuel caches were laid down at Cape Smith, Povungnituk, Port Harrison, Great Whale River, Fort George, East Maine River, Rupert House, Moose Factory, Remi Lake and Trout Mills. The five surviving Fokkers rendezvoused at Erik Cove and attempted to leave Aug. 25. Three became airborne, one failed to take off due to engine trouble, and the fifth, piloted by Flt. Lt. Coghill, crashed with a pontoon broken. FO Carr-Harris immediately landed and rescued the three occupants of Coghill’s machine. Sqdn. Ldr. Lawrence then radioed the SS Larch and CGS Montcalm for assistance. The other four aircraft were examined closely. Undercarriage mounts and pontoon fittings on two Fokkers were deemed very weak. Evacuation by sea was clearly more prudent; the Fokkers were disassembled and stowed aboard the ships.

Aircraft from all three bases flew a total of 269 hours 44 minutes on 227 patrols, and took 2,285 photographs. The RCAF contributed valuable information on ice conditions, the potential length of a shipping season in Hudson Strait and ice-breaker requirements there. In addition, the force learned much about winter flying, Arctic clothing, and establishing semi-permanent bases in an extreme climate. Generally, the equipment and supplies issued had proved to be appropriate for the conditions met; Lewis’s ordeal and Lawrence’s nine days in isolation proved that. The final reports noted, however, that the messing had been deficient in fresh meat; one had to acquire a taste for seal, white whale and walrus. A 21-day expedition by Constable J. Murray from C Base in search of game had been a dismal failure; the policeman and his Inuit companion had travelled inland for 200 miles, yet never once fired their guns; they returned with only five fish.

If the Royal Air Force had been conducting the expedition, at least three of the 41 persons participating would have been decorated. Unhappily, Canada was then following a policy of no official awards, so none were bestowed. Nevertheless, several personnel did have distinguished careers, notably “Tommy” Lawrence, who attained the rank of Air Vice-Marshal.

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