Up With Mail: Air Force, Part 12

November 1, 2005 by Hugh A. Halliday

PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES

PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES

A Vickers Vancouver collects mail at Havre-Saint-Pierre, Que., in 1932.

The first airmail flight in Canada was a military affair, organized by the Aerial League of the British Empire and the Royal Air Force. Captain Brian Peck, an instructor in the Canadian-based RAF training scheme, together with a mechanic, Corporal E.W. Mathers, had flown in June 1918 from Toronto to Montreal, apparently to promote recruiting but also possibly to fly some liquor from “wet” Quebec to “dry” Ontario.

The Aerial League used the opportunity to enlist Peck and his JN-4 aircraft in a publicity stunt–the transport of a mailbag with 150 letters from Montreal back to Toronto, complete with special envelope cancellations dating the flight June 23, 1918, and grandly announcing it as being an “inaugural service.”

Peck’s flight was delayed by weather until June 24, 1918, meaning the letters would have reached Toronto more quickly had they gone by train. However, the event drummed up enough press coverage to ensure it would become Canada’s most famous airmail flight. The “inaugural service” claim turned out to be a sham because there were no followup airmails between the two cities.

The Aero Club of Canada, which was a friendly rival of the Aerial League, promoted a more ambitious project, again using RAF instructors and JN-4 trainers. In August and September 1918 it arranged for three round-trip mail flights between Toronto and Ottawa, carrying approximately 500 letters; the one conducted on Sept. 4, 1918, was notable for being completed in a single day. The Ottawa terminus for these flights was the Rockcliffe Rifle Range–now the site of the Canada Aviation Museum.

Given the state of aircraft technology and Canada’s extensive rail system, airmails were a slow starter in the immediate postwar years. In 1923, the federal government’s Post Office department began considering the use of airplanes to carry mail to remote places. In August 1923, Squadron Leader Ambrose B. Shearer piloted an HS2L flying boat from Charlottetown to Grindstone Harbour on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands) as part of this investigative process. On his first attempt he had to return to base because of fog, but the second flight was successful. Nevertheless, no scheduled airmail service to those islands followed until 1928, when Canadian Transcontinental Airway began one.

Airmails were left to barnstormers and commercial companies; the air force had no wish to compete with the private sector. Occasionally, however, there were ad hoc Royal Canadian Air Force mail flights. In September 1924, forestry patrol aircraft based at High River, Alta., dropped mailbags to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and afterwards the Duke of Windsor), who was staying at his ranch nearby. Heavy rains had turned roads into quagmires, and the mail drops were made at the request of the prince.

Squadron Leader Albert E. Godfrey carried mailbags on his two Montreal-to-Vancouver flights in 1926 and 1928, but these were appendages to operations with multiple purposes. A more serious undertaking occurred in 1927 involving a novel use of aircraft and transatlantic steamers. The idea was that ships entering the St. Lawrence should transfer mails to aircraft which would then fly the mails to Quebec and Montreal, speeding delivery by up to three days. In turn, aircraft carrying late mails could rendezvous with outbound steamers and accelerate transatlantic deliveries.

The first attempt at this scheme involved Sqdn. Ldr. John H. Tudhope and a new type of aircraft, the Vickers Vanessa, still in the experimental stage. While waiting off Rimouski, Que., on Sept. 9, 1927, Tudhope and the Vanessa received 502 pounds of mail from the inbound Empress of France. After that, everything went wrong. While taxiing for takeoff, a strut ruptured and punctured the Vanessa’s starboard float. The aircraft dipped over to that side, the propeller lopped off half the float, and the machine broke up. Happily, the mail was rescued and reached its destinations by rail.

The Post Office wished to continue the experiment. Canadian Airways stepped in and completed eight connections with steamers, six with outbound vessels and two with inbound ones. Tudhope returned to the operation, this time with a Fairchild float plane. He connected with two ships, the outbound Megantic on Nov. 5, 1927, and the inbound Montnairn on the 11th.

Airmail services grew rapidly from 1928 onwards, thanks to contracts involving the Post Office and commercial carriers, large and small. Royal Canadian Air Force airmails reverted to ad hoc arrangements, usually conducted to isolated settlements by aircraft engaged in other duties such as forestry patrols. In 1931, photographic aircraft were used to deliver mails to points around Hudson Bay. However, in 1931-32, the Post Office cancelled almost all its airmail contracts as a Depression-era economy measure. There was thus no commercial “backup”, similar to that in 1927, when the government needed a special airmail service. Once more, the mails had to be flown by aircraft with roundels.

The occasion was a British Empire economic summit held in Ottawa that summer. The concept of aircraft connecting with inbound and outbound steamers was revived. This time the eastern rendezvous point was moved eastward to Red Bay, Nlfd., on the Strait of Belle Isle. Bases were selected, fuel caches laid down, and weather reporting arranged. The operation was extensive and complex, and resulted in a few failures as well as several successes.

The first operation occurred June 28, 1932. Soon after midnight, His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Festubert met the inbound Empress of Britain and took on 14 mailbags. These were transferred 90 minutes later to an RCAF Bellanca float plane piloted by Sqdn. Ldr. Roy Grandy who was commanding the overall operation. He took off immediately, but heavy fog hindered his progress. Grandy landed at Brador Bay, Que., secured a local weather report, and took off again. An hour later he passed the Empress en route to Havre-Saint-Pierre, Que., an interim stop in the operation.

At Havre-Saint-Pierre, a Vickers Vancouver was waiting, tail to the shore and engines running. Grandy taxied alongside and transferred the mail. Fifteen minutes after Grandy’s arrival, the Vancouver departed, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Neil C. Ogilvie-Forbes, an RAF officer on exchange duties with the RCAF. A two-hour flight took him to Rimouski on the south shore of the St. Lawrence and the next relay point. Sergeant John R. Bowker and a Fairchild 71 took the mails onward to Montreal and Ottawa.

Everything had gone smoothly, so much so that the squadron leader felt the conditions had been too favourable to provide a basis for intelligent suggestions. However, the early morning mists encountered appeared to preclude extensive flying at those hours. Indeed, the next flight, scheduled for the first week of July, had to be cancelled due to weather. Another flight, on July 12, was intended to rendezvous that day with an outbound steamer, but was set back by fog on the Rimouski-Havre-Saint-Pierre leg.

These flights had been experimental. The operation began in earnest July 17, 1932, when the Festubert and Empress of Britain met in the Strait of Belle Isle at dawn. Imperial delegates aboard the Empress watched as 34 bags of mail–weighing 800 pounds–were transferred to Festubert. An hour later the mails were at Red Bay where two Bellancas, piloted by Grandy and Flight Sergeant Frederick J. Ewart, took over. Three hours and 15 minutes later, at Havre-Saint-Pierre, two Vickers Vancouvers took on the task. Ogilvie-Forbes piloted one, Flt. Lt. Joseph L.A de Niverville the other. The precious cargo was forwarded to Rimouski where Flying Officer Ernest A. McNab and Bowker were waiting with two Fairchild monoplanes. At Montreal, the mail was sorted with some air items destined for the United States. The balance was delivered to Ottawa by FO Dave Harding who landed shortly before midnight in a Stearman biplane. In all, 24 bags or 596 pounds of mail reached the capital. Among the letters was one from King George V to the governor general which had reached its destination five days after leaving London.

The next flight in the series was intended to overtake the outbound Empress of Britain. It began just before midnight July 20 and went smoothly as far as Rimouski. Fog delayed departure from that base, but things were still going well until late morning on the Havre-Saint-Pierre-Red Bay run. Ewart, piloting a Bellanca, ran into such dense fog he had to put down at Natashquan, Que., for three hours. He took off again, but the fog persisted and he finally had to alight at Mutton Bay, Que., where he spent the night. Ewart proceeded to Red Bay on the 22nd. By then the Empress of Britain had long passed. The mails were put aboard the next outgoing steamer, the Duchess of Richmond.

Fog was proving such a problem that consideration was given to an inland route between Havre-Saint-Pierre and Red Bay. One of the Vancouver flying boats was fitted with a camera to survey the area, but the press of operations meant a choice between present tasks and future alternatives. The survey was perfunctory.

Meanwhile, Operation Belle continued. The flight on Aug. 3, 1932, was an unqualified success. Mail picked up from the Empress of Britain at dawn was in Ottawa at 3:35 p.m. A British delegate, Stanley Baldwin, congratulated the minister of National Defence for a feat that had brought mail from Britain in 98 hours.

A new Welland Canal was opened officially Aug. 6, 1932, and to add lustre to the occasion a special mail flight was laid on from St. Catharines, Ont., to Montreal, where the mail was merged with that coming from Ottawa. Further mails were added in Montreal. Early on the morning of the 7th the combined load, 314 pounds, was delivered by McNab to Rimouski. Flt. Lt. Frederick J. Mawdesley was to execute the next step–the Rimouski-Havre-Saint-Pierre run–in a Vickers Vancouver.

The weather was unfit for an immediate takeoff, but radio reports indicated the intended steamer, the Empress of Britain, was also delayed and not expected to pass Belle Isle before midnight. Under clearing skies, Mawdesley took off at 12:25 p.m. and reached Havre-Saint-Pierre at 2:45 p.m. Ten minutes later, Ogilvie-Forbes was airborne in a Bellanca, bound for Red Bay. He ran into heavy fog and put down at St-Augustin. More than an hour passed before his forced landing was reported to Rimouski. However, the Empress of Britain had been slowed by the same conditions and was not expected to pass Belle Isle until the morning of the 8th. Ogilvie-Forbes was instructed to stand by and fly to Red Bay at the earliest possible moment.

The skies did not clear until midday on the 8th, by which time it was too late to overtake the Empress of Britain. Ogilvie-Forbes backtracked with his load to Havre-Saint-Pierre and Mawdesley attempted to return it to Rimouski. He was forced down, first to Sept-Îles, Que., and then to Franquelin, Que. It was getting dark, and the mail eventually reached Rimouski by steamer, returned by rail to Montreal, and eventually was forwarded via New York by more orthodox means. Letters for Britain arrived one or two days late.

The next flight, involving an incoming steamer on Aug. 17, involved 34 mailbags weighing half a ton. The liner was late that day, and the flight from Red Bay, involving two aircraft, commenced only at 9:50 a.m. The mails reached Rimouski at 7:25 p.m. when it was growing dark. As the planes were not equipped for night flying the mail was put on a train to Montreal. Despite such delays the operation saved 15 to 20 hours in transport time.

Two more flights had been planned, but the rescheduling of steamer departures made it awkward to reach the Strait of Belle Isle on time, so on Aug. 20 the service was terminated. Aircrew were instructed to withdraw from their advanced bases while investigating alternate routes for similar operations in the future.

In his report, Grandy criticized the Vancouver flying boats for having poor handling qualities and the Bellancas as lacking proper locks and spray shields. Weather reports had been incomplete and often late. Nevertheless, he concluded that, given efficient radio equipment, suitable aircraft and skilled personnel, a Montreal to Belle Isle airmail service could be undertaken with 70 per cent efficiency.

To followup the experiment of 1932, the Post Office suggested investigations of a similar mail service from Montreal to Shediac, N.B., and the Cabot Strait, with aircraft based in southern Newfoundland. Such a survey would entail checking five factors–the scheme itself, suitable seaplane harbours, routes, bases and weather. The Ottawa Air Station was given the task of studying this project under the operational name of Found. A camera-equipped Bellanca departed Ottawa on May 5, 1933, with Flt. Lt. Arthur J. Ashton and Sgt. F.J. Ewart as pilots and Aircraftman J. Stanley as mechanic. They proceeded via Saint John, N.B., and Port aux Basques, Nfld., to Placentia, Nfld., where they established a temporary base May 9.

Reconnaissance flights were first made over southeastern Newfoundland with special attention paid to Mortier Bay, Burin Inlet and Trepassey Bay. Ashton flew to St. John’s to confer with officials on the 12th, and set about on the 14th to return to Placentia. After encountering heavy rain and low clouds, he decided to alight on Bay of Bulls Arm, a narrow stretch of water hemmed in by high hills. This forced him to land in a cross wind with limited visibility. Ashton misjudged distances, and although the Bellanca settled on the water, its momentum carried it onto the rocky beach, smashing the floats.

Two weeks were lost until a replacement set of floats arrived. Ashton resumed operations May 27, studying the inland routes across Newfoundland to Corner Brook. From there he flew to Shediac, thereafter returning to Ottawa. He was not optimistic about an air-and-steamer service in the area. Fog along the southern Newfoundland coast was very bad while the local harbours were narrow and cliff-bound. An inland route, though not susceptible to fog, would entail flying over mountainous and practically uninhabited country. The most feasible route for mail planes would be directly from Trepassey to Shediac, especially if a modern twin-engine flying boat was used.

The scheme of aircraft to meet incoming steamers and overtake departing ones never reached fruition. In any case, it would be rendered obsolete by direct transatlantic airmails within a decade. Nevertheless, the experiments and surveys of 1932-33 represented the first systematic studies of flying conditions and landing fields in Newfoundland and the lower northern St. Lawrence. Although private firms had pioneered aerial surveys there and in Labrador between 1919 and 1922, the region had thereafter been ignored by both service and commercial interests. Indeed, the RCAF gradually increased its work in the area, so that long before Newfoundland entered Confederation the Canadian government had assumed de facto responsibility for surveying the region.

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