The Search For The Magnetic Pole: Air Force, Part 41

October 24, 2010 by Hugh A. Halliday
Cansos were also used  in support of other Arctic surveys. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES]

Cansos were also used in support of other Arctic surveys.

On July 19, 1947, a Canso aircraft took off from Royal Canadian Air Force Station Rockcliffe on a quest to define the unsteady location of the North Magnetic Pole. The Arctic mission, which would encounter everything from gales to menacing ice to unchartered terrain, was called Operation Polco.

The RCAF had a history of survey flying in the North, but general cartographic photography over Canada had been suspended during the Second World War. Instead, work of that nature had been focused on immediate wartime aims connected with routes supplying aircraft to Britain, Alaska and the Soviet Union. During this same time, Canadian sovereignty was scarcely exercised in the Arctic.

By the time Polco began, Canada had taken steps to restore a national northern presence. Indeed, several measures had been taken that ensured the operation’s success. The May 1945 Aries flights (Legion Magazine, January/February 2004) had certainly defined a problem: “The North Magnetic Pole is not where it was believed to be; where is it?”

Operation Musk Ox in early 1946 demonstrated the feasibility and importance of mechanical mobility in the North, and Operation Investigator that summer had identified possible bases for operations along the Arctic coast and northern archipelago (Arctic Investigations, July/August). Thus, considerable spadework had been performed before Canso 11060 left Rockcliffe on the outskirts of Ottawa.

Nevertheless, it was a British proposal that stung the Canadian government into action. In the spring of 1946, Dr. Nicholas Polunin of McGill and Oxford universities proposed through the Air Ministry that an ambitious survey be conducted in the Canadian Arctic. Its aims would be diverse, but one of its goals was to “fix” or record the position of the North Magnetic Pole.

Flying Officer J.F. Drake in the Canso used for northern magnetic survey work. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL38488]

Flying Officer J.F. Drake in the Canso used for northern magnetic survey work.

It is useful to understand that unlike the North Geographic Pole which wanders in a circular path of less than six metres per year, the North Magnetic Pole is constantly moving greater distances and this is largely influenced by convection currents in the Earth’s core and electric currents in the Earth’s ionosphere. Scientists have determined that the North Magnetic Pole has—since 1831—moved northward at an average rate of 10 kilometres per year. Its presence and variations has always complicated northern navigation, particularly in the era before satellites and global positioning systems. Anyone equipped with a dipping compass—a compass that allows the needle to move in a vertical plane—would notice the needle pointing straight down while at that location.

Aerial navigation was especially sensitive for aircrews whose positions are constantly changing relative to the pole. The Aries flights had marked the beginning of a program to locate precisely the North Magnetic Pole and subsequently track its movements.

The British proposal for a survey was first shown to Squadron Leader John A. Wiseman, commanding officer of No. 7 Photo Wing at Rockcliffe. No stranger to Arctic surveys, Wiseman had reconnoitred Greenland in 1941 in search of Royal Air Force Ferry Command sites, and had subsequently flown surveys on behalf of the Northeast Staging Route. He was struck by the extent of the British plan, as well as the fact that its British sponsors were very knowledgeable about some subjects and terribly ignorant about other aspects of Arctic flying.

Wiseman reported the project to Group Captain D.A.R. Bradshaw at Air Force Headquarters, and in a memo to his superiors, dated March 8, 1946, Bradshaw complained bitterly about British intrusiveness. He concluded his remarks with a stinging paragraph: “The tenor of the proposals would indicate…that this is entirely a United Kingdom idea and that the Canadian government has been invited to participate. It is respectfully suggested that Canada should have been doing the inviting to our country, rather than the United Kingdom inviting Canada to a British exploration party in Canada.”

The British proposal went no further; its sponsors apparently lacked backing at home while the Canadian government was uncertain as to how it would participate. Some thought was given to chartering a Canadian Pacific Air Lines machine to transport scientists to the North. Meanwhile, the United States was indicating its interest in northern magnetic surveys. Clearly, Canada must show a willingness to chart its own backyard.

Operation Polco consisted of one aircraft with a pilot, navigator, co-pilot, wireless operator, flight engineer, electrician, instrument mechanic, and airframe mechanic, accompanied by four government experts: geophysicists Paul Serson and Jack Clark, geologist Dr. Y.O. Fortier and his assistant H.R. Steacy. At Cambridge Bay, N.W.T., the team was joined by botanist Polunin of McGill and geographer J.L. Robinson.

The aircraft’s captain was Flight Lieutenant J.F. Drake, assisted by navigator Flying Officer John E. Goldsmith, DFC. Joining them were FO Gerald W. Allen, FO Kenneth A. McKoy and Sergeant A.B. Hillman.

Polco was an operation beset by complications. Fortier and Steacy were to have been dropped off in the Arctic and brought out by ship. When the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Nascopie was wrecked, the two men were attached to the expedition for its duration. Fog was worse than expected and coastal ice choked so many intended anchorages that the expedition often resorted to landing on uncharted inland lakes. Plans had called for 14 survey or observation stations in the Northwest Territories, but bad weather and ice reduced these to nine: Allen Lake, Jolly Lake, Point Lake, Yellowknife, Greely Haven, Guillemard Bay, Aberdeen Lake, Tasekyoak Lake and Agnew River.

Flying Officer John E. Goldsmith (left) is awarded the Air Force Cross. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL50212]

Flying Officer John E. Goldsmith (left) is awarded the Air Force Cross.

The initial party flew from Rockcliffe to Kapuskasing in northern Ontario and then on to Churchill, Man. On July 21, after delivering mail to Baker Lake, they flew to Aberdeen Lake where a landing site was found. The scientists were dropped off and the Canso returned to Churchill for fuel, returning on the 22nd. The next day, unable to find suitable landing sites on Aylmer, MacKay or Courageous lakes, Drake flew to Yellowknife.

The party had hoped to take readings of the magnetic pole at Bathurst Inlet on the 30th, but dense fog forced them to fly to Cambridge Bay. July 31 was spent finding a suitable beach for the aircraft, then rescuing it when a gale swept the area. The high winds loosened the Hudson’s Bay Company buoy to which the aircraft had been moored.

On Aug. 1, course was set for Denmark Bay. From there they followed the coast of Victoria Island to Greely Haven. The anchorage was free of ice, but most of the coastline was frozen. The team landed, but shortly after commencing their observations the pack ice began drifting towards the inlet. This forced the scientists to emplane and depart before completing their readings.

The Canso backtracked to Denmark Bay which was ice-free, then headed for Collinson Inlet on King William Island. This proved to be ice-bound and so they began searching inland for a suitable lake. Tasekyoak proved large enough with a good beach for unloading and reloading equipment. The team remained there until Aug. 3.

Gjoa Haven was the next objective on King William Island but ice prevented a landing so they returned to Cambridge Bay, completing observations that had been cut short by the gale. By this time supplies were running low so Drake emplaned the group on Aug. 4 and headed for Yellowknife. En route the observers would be dropped off at Point Lake, but once again bad weather intervened.

At Yellowknife, the Canso underwent a thorough inspection and it was discovered that the hull had been damaged, evidently during their departure from Greely Haven. Drake and his crew flew to Calgary and returned to Yellowknife on Aug. 8. That same evening they headed back to Cambridge Bay to resume operations.

Weather interrupted the plan again until Aug. 12 when the party flew to Prince of Wales Island, hoping to take readings near Cape Swinburne. Once again, ice was everywhere and so they diverted to Guillemard Bay which was clear enough for a touchdown. By the following morning all necessary observations had been taken. The day, however, would prove frustrating.

Leaving the bay, the party headed for the north end of the island, looking for an observation site, but fog and ice prevailed wherever they searched and so once more they returned to Cambridge Bay. They tried again for a Prince of Wales Island landing on the 14th, but they eventually gave up on account of heavy fog. Course was set for Point Davidson on the Boothia Peninsula, after which they reconnoitred the coast, searching for bays or lakes that would permit landings. Pasley Bay looked promising; in the meantime they pressed on to Agnew River where new magnetic measurements, were taken. Two days later they found Pasley Bay choked with ice; once more they had to settle for Cambridge Bay.

Observations on Prince of Wales Island were crucial to the success of Polco, but nature seemed determined to prevent a landing. Attempts on Aug. 18 and 21 were blocked by fog. At last, on Aug. 22, defying a snowstorm, Drake landed on a lake in the north of the island. Right away, the spot was named Allen Lake for the co-pilot. The most important observations of the expedition were made here; compass readings showing a dip of 89 degrees 56 minutes indicated that as of that moment the North Magnetic Pole was only 16 kilometres distant.

The party took off again on the 23rd, intending to reach Somerset Island, but weather once again forced a diversion to Cambridge Bay. Held there for two days—with freeze-up expected within a week—they were anxious to get going. On Aug. 26, the group tried again for Somerset Island, but most of the coast was hidden by fog and after a day of reconnoitring they returned to Cambridge Bay.

The frustrations of encountered ice and fog continued into September, interfering with plans to drop observers at Bathurst Inlet. Observations taken at Jolly Lake were only partial compensation for their troubles.

Operation Polco ended Sept. 5, 1947, when the party left Yellowknife for Edmonton; the Canso reached Rockcliffe on Sept. 10. Although follow-up work would be needed in subsequent years, including Operation Magnetic in 1948-49, Polco was pioneering in nature and immensely successful in outcome. It was the first time in Canadian aviation history that a flying boat had been flown and based for an extended period amongst the treacherous and barren islands surrounding the North Magnetic Pole.

Drake and Goldsmith were each awarded the Air Force Cross for their roles. Flying Officers Allen and McKoy, together with Sergeant Hillman, were commended for their valuable services. Goldsmith later navigated for the 1948-49 operation.

Excerpts from the award citations describe some of the challenges the men faced. Drake’s citation read, in part: “Flight Lieutenant Drake was responsible for taking off and landing his aircraft at numerous hazardous points in the Polar area for the purpose of making scientific observations. In spite of fog, icing conditions, uncharted terrain and unknown currents he pressed the operation with such skill, resourcefulness and courage that it was possible to reposition the Magnetic Pole with greater accuracy than hitherto known. On several occasions he displayed a complete disregard for personal safety in order to save his aircraft from destruction by gale and ice.”

Goldsmith’s achievements were also described eloquently: “The navigator, Flying Officer Goldsmith, was responsible for successfully guiding the aircraft through dangerous and uncharted areas in the Arctic Islands. In order to reach observation points surrounding the Magnetic Pole, it was frequently necessary to fly above the overcast for many hours. With the minimum of normal meteorological and navigational aids, and in unreliable compass-reading areas, this officer invariably directed the aircraft to its destination, often necessitating a let-down through clouds in the vicinity of high hills or dangerous waters. He did not have the assistance of accurate maps and his own sketches of important areas have been accepted for incorporation into official Dominion Government charts.”

Although Hillman, the flight engineer, was accorded only a commendation, it was clear from the citation that he had been called upon to perform extraordinary work: “An extremely high standard of technical maintenance was required in order to avoid disaster and this was achieved largely by the single-handed efforts of this outstanding non-commissioned officer. Without any normal facilities he worked tirelessly on the aircraft in remote inlets and lakes under the most extreme physical handicaps. He risked his life on two notable occasions at night to save his aircraft from destruction during gales which had torn it loose from anchorage and brought the menace of ice floes. Sergeant Hillman laboured continually to avert any delays in takeoff which would risk the detachment. His efforts, far beyond the call of duty, were responsible for the readiness of the aircraft and consequently the most successful outcome of the expedition.”

Honours for distinguished services by Canadian civilians had been suspended after the Second World War and would not be resumed until 1967 when the Order of Canada was instituted. As of 1948, when securing formal honours for its own personnel, the RCAF felt rather self-conscious. Squadron Leader K.A. Ball, chairman of the RCAF Honours and Awards Committee, declared they were merited: “This was a historic flight and the awards seem quite warranted.” But Ball was also uneasy. “My only concern is that the civilian observers will not receive any recognition.”

A half-hearted effort was made to have Polar Medals issued to all participants, but the conditions of eligibility were too strict and so the civilians were accorded no formal honours at the time. Dr. Fortier, however, was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1980.

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