Wings to the Rescue

A thrilling true story of the triumph of wings over wilderness

TOM WAYLING December 1 1929

Wings to the Rescue

A thrilling true story of the triumph of wings over wilderness

TOM WAYLING December 1 1929

Wings to the Rescue

A thrilling true story of the triumph of wings over wilderness


NOW this is a story of the Royal Canadian Air Force and of the gallant tradition it is weaving into the flying annals of Canada.

It is the story of a solemn pact made “for ever” between the Indians of the Ontario hinterland and His Majesty the King.

It is the story of a silver-haired federal commissioner who consummated for the government of Canada the new treaty with the Indians, and who ranged over forest and stream in a great R.C.A.F. seaplane, carrying a black bag stuffed with $50,000 worth of one and twodollar bills, paying out treaty money.

It is the story of an Ontario commissioner who, when forced to land with his pilot in a tiny seaplane off his scheduled course, fell desperately ill but fought down terrible pain and suffering through a dreadful night in his forest bivouac in a vain effort to recover and “carry on” with his job; while a hundred miles away, a fleet of rescue planes led by the federal commissioner’s R.C.A.F. machine searched for him over 10,000 square miles of territory.

It is the story of a plane crash on the glassy, dusky

waters of a northern lake, of a Hudson’s Bay Company’s cook who perished in it, and an R.C.A.F. pilot and Hudson’s Bay factor who were injured.

In the main, however, it is the story of another R.C.A.F. pilot who with his mechanic was called at dead of night to take up the broken thread of the treaty expedition in a new plane; who successfully completed his task in the face of many difficulties; who traversed seven thousand miles over the storm-swept wastes and shoal-infested waters of the north; and who carried winged mercy to a dying missionary and a sorely wounded Indian lad up on the shores of Hudson Bay.

It is a story of fact, not of fiction; of Commissioners H. N. Awrey and W. C.

Cain, of Flight Lieutenant F. C. Higgins and Sergeant S. A. Greene; of Flying Officer R. K. Rose and Corporal John Shaw; of Dr. Gordon Bell and Dr. H. K.

Mitchell, of W. R. Maxwell, and others as may appear. Back in 1850, certain agreements known as the Robinson treaties were signed by the Red Man and the White. By these the Ojibways ceded to the old province of Canada a large tract of country lying between the Height of Land and Lakes Huron and Superior.

In 1873, by the Northwest Angle Treaty the Salteaux Indians gave up to the new Dominion of Canada a large tract east of Manitoba, part of which now falls within the extended Province of Ontario.

In 1905, by Treaty No. 9 an area of 90,000 square miles south of the Albany River was taken over. This left 128,000 square miles north of the Albany to Hudson Bay. It was a new treaty covering the extinguishment of the Indian title to this last area that was made on the Treaty Flight this year.

Ontario being directly interested, an Ontario commissioner, W. C. Cain, was appointed to take part in the signing of the Treaty, which took place at Trout Lake.

In addition, Federal Commissioner H. N. Awrey visited nine other posts to pay treaty money due on the former treaties.

Under all these treaties the Indians give up their rights, titles and privileges in the territory, but the government guarantees the right to hunt, trap and fish, and reserves one square mile of land for each family of five. Medical attention and educational facilities are also undertaken by the government.

A cash payment of four dollars is paid to every treaty Indian, man, woman and child, with four dollars to be paid annually. These payments are to be made “for ever,” so that every child born into the tribe becomes a treaty Indian and receives treaty money from the year of its birth.

Thus the reason for the Treaty Flight. Mr. Awrey has been paying treaty money for the past fifteen years, but for the last five years he has been travelling by plane to do it.

This year the R.C.A.F. provided a powerful Fairchild “71” cabin seaplane, big enough to carry pilot, mechanic, medical officer and both commissioners. The Ontario

Government, however, decided to send its own machine for Mr. Cain, and Roy Maxwell, head of the Ontario Government Air Service, piloted a Moth seaplane for this purpose.

The machines rendezvoused at the provincial air base at Remi Lake. Flying Officer R. K. Rose, with Corporal Shaw as mechanic, piloted the federal plane which carried Mr. Awrey and the medical officer Dr. Gordon Bell. Mr. Cain’s place in the Fairchild was taken by an Ontario cameraman, George Rutherford.

The machines rose from Remi Lake on June 28. They could not travel together while in the air, for the powerful Fairchild had double the range and speed of the Moth. Rose took off early in the day but at the outset ran into thick, low-lying fog, and only skilful handling got the machine through to English River safely.

The Moth had better luck, starting later in the day when the fog had lifted. At English River the Indians had assembled to receive their annual treaty money, which was paid by Mr. Awrey from his black bag.

The First Disaster

'T'WO days later the expedition pushed on to Osnaburgh House, another treaty-paying post, then north to Trout Lake. Rutherford was left at Osnaburgh on this hop to make room for a big load of medical supplies. Rose returned the following day to pick him up.

Approaching Trout Lake the drone of the planes called out the Indians, who yelled and cheered. A wedding was going on in the little church arfd had reached the “I will” stage. The minister was propounding the age-old questions when the roar of the planes filled the church. Immediately the entire congregation decamped, with the groom well in the lead. The minister and the bride were left “waiting at the church.”

Rose returned to Osnaburgh to pick up Rutherford, but after landing safely he decided to make a test flight. Leaving his mechanic aground he took off with H. B. Hooker, the Hudson’s Bay factôr, and Sandy Morrison, his cook. After a flight of ten or fifteen minutes Rose glided down for a landing.

It was a calm evening and just at sundown. The waters of Lake St. Joseph were “glassy,” the dusky, smooth, mirrored surface which throws no refracted light and so is most dangerous for landing. As the big Fairchild slipped down to the water something happened.

Instead of straightening out at the right moment the machine smashed into the lake. The pilot was knocked unconscious, Hooker was also injured and poor Sandy Morrison was knocked out and pinned in the wreckage.

Flying Officer Slemon, of the R.C.A.F. photographic detachment at Osnaburgh, dashed out with his men. They got Rose and Hooker out but Morrison was jammed in the sinking machine.

The rescuers were still hacking desperately to free him when the heavy machine took its final plunge. The gallant little cook had ended his first airplane flight by going down with the ship.

That same night, hundreds of miles away in Ottawa, Flight Lieutenant F. C. Higgins was awakened abruptly from sleep. His telephone rang unceasingly. Sleepily he answered; then jerked into wakefulness.

Squadron Leader Godfrey speaking. Rose had crashed. The Treaty Flight must go on. The reputation of the service was at stake. Higgins was to take off for Trout Lake at once. He was to take the new Fairchild “17,” sister ship of the lost machine, and carry on where Rose left off. Godfrey was definite: no second failure.

Higgins jumped into activity. He phoned his mechanic Sergeant S. A. Greene. Before dawn, Higgins was poring over his maps while the sergeant was drawing up his list of spares and emergency equipment. By daylight, the Ottawa aerodrome buzzed with activity. The big machine was thoroughly tested and the pilot busied himself with his compass. Before he got back to Ottawa he was going to need it, and need it badly.

Soon after noon the great machine rose from the waters of the Ottawa river and was soon headed westward at 100 miles an hour. Sudbury was reached and the machine refuelled. The next day heavy rainstorms swept down and pinned them to the ground, but the following day they were off at daybreak. Lake Superior, Lake Nipigon, and then Caribou Lake were raised and left behind amid storms

and fog. At times the world was blotted out by the storm and the pilot had to fly by compass.

Osnaburgh House was reached and Higgins picked up the story from Slemon. Rose was still in hospital at Sioux Lookout. The treaty commissioners were at Trout Lake. Higgins lost no time in taking the air northward. By three o’clock that afternoon, July 9, he had joined the commissioners; on the very day the expedition was scheduled to move on. Not an hour had been lost.

Within an hour both the Fairchild and the Moth were in the air heading southeast for Lansdowne House where the next stop was to be made. Before starting, Higgins siphoned five gallons of gas from his tank into Maxwell’s to ensure the Moth having enough gas to make Lansdowne, 125 miles to the south. A cache of gas had also been previously placed at Summer Beaver Lake, halfway between the two points.

The Fairchild, travelling 125 miles an hour with a helping wind, soon left the Moth far behind. Having lots of time Higgins swung off to Fort Hope, fifty miles farther on, wher.e Dr. Bell sent off a radio message. The Fairchild then returned to Lansdowne House expecting to find the Moth had arrived. But the little machine was missing.

To the Rescue

rT"'HE next few days saw one of the most dramatic episodes of the flight—the search for Cain and Maxwell. Higgins and Greene took off next morning and retraced the journey to Trout Lake and back, but there was no sign of the Moth.

The situation began to look serious. Dr. Bell was especially anxious. Mr. Cain had been suffering severely from a duodenal ulcer. He was in no condition to face exposure in the bush, granting the machine had been forced down.

Higgins felt sure the Moth had gone off the route somewhere. A systematic search was the only hope for the missing men. Commissioner Awrey had completed his business at Lansdowne, so the party took off for Fort Hope.

Dashing to the radio station Higgins sent off urgent messages to R. E. Nicol, officer in charge of the Ontario Air Service base at Sioux Lookout, asking that all available aircraft be rushed to Fort Hope to aid in the search.

Nicol jumped into action at once. By evening of the next day a fleet of five planes had assembled at Fort Hope. Higgins had not waited for them but had gone on searching over a wider and wider area around the route between Trout Lake and Lansdowne. No sign of the Moth.

From dawn to dusk the next day the whole fleet was in the air and. the search continued. Over 10,000 square miles of territory had been covered, involving more actual flying time than the entire treaty flight eventually required.

Slemon was called on, and he prepared his two R.C.A.F. machines for the next day’s search, making seven planes in all.

Just before midnight of July 12, however, a radio flashed in from Sioux Lookout, announcing the rescue of Cain and Maxwell by a Western Canada Airways pilot, N. Westegaard, who had spotted them by chance far to the westward, out of gas.

As had been feared, Mr. Cain had become critically ill during his exposure in the bush and had to be rushed to the hospital at Sioux Lookout for an operation. This forced the Ontario party out of the expedition.

From Fort Hope the expedition, now consisting of the federal commissioner, the medical officer, the pilot and his mechanic, all in the Fairchild, took off down the Albany River. The landing at Ogoki brought a new danger. The water in the river was unusually low. Rocks in sight and rocks submerged menaced the machine as it circled and searched for a landing.

The commissioner, seeing the rocks and shoals below, leaned forward and grimly wished the pilot luck. It was needed. The big machine came down on the water and slid to a stop with little enough room to spare. When it came to take off there was not nearly enough water to give it room. The pilot had to get his machine across to the other side of the river, first seeking out a route by canoe and marking it with flags. It was an anxious time, but the machine finally rose up over the trees and headed down the river to Fort Albany on James Bay.

To Hospital by Air

NO SOONER had the machine come down at Fort Albany than word was given that the Anglican missionary, Reverend P. A. Northam, was at death’s door. He had been ill for three weeks and pneumonia had developed. Father Sanidou, of the Roman Catholic mission, had taken him into the mission hospital, and Sister Marie Elmire by constant devotion and care had kept the spark of life alight.

An operation was imperative. Dr. Mitchell, who had succeeded Dr. Bell as medical officer of the expedition, prepared the patient for the journey which lay before him, having decided that Mr. Northam must be taken to hospital at Sudbury by air. Empyema had developed, the same ailment which attacked King George last spring.

The missionary was taken aboard the Fairchild next day. The machine could not get inshore, so the stretcher was balanced on a canoe which was carefully paddled out. The sick minister was transferred to the cabin, the doctor climbed aboard, and a few minutes later FlightLieutenant Higgins and Sergeant Greene took off in their race with death.

ft was 450 miles to Sudbury but the airmen won out. Three and a half hours later the machine was alongside the dock at Sudbury. The patient was rushed to hospital, operated upon that night, and by morning was resting quietly. He is now well on the way to recovery.

On Saturday the Fairchild returned to Fort Albany, dropping down to Remi Lake for gas. The weather was bad and the lake rough, and in taking off the machine struck a submerged buoy, ripping a big gash in the pontoon. The cut was I clean as with a knife and it was not until the next day the airmen knew they had struck anything.

Sunday, therefore, had more unpleasant news. The airmen woke up to find the plane down at a serious angle. A wild dash out to the beach and over to the moored machine. An attempt was made to pump out the damaged pontoon, but the gash was too big. They had been trying to pump out James Bay with squirt guns.

The airmen were hundreds of miles from their home base. The pontoon had to be repaired before the machine could continue. Higgins remembered Godfrey’s injunction, “The flight must go on.” Hastily building a platform on the

beach at low tide—for the shore was soft mud and the machine could not be beached in the ordinary way—Higgins and Greene floated the Fairchild over it at high tide and tethered it there. From the spares in the plane a duralumin sheet was taken and bolted over the gash during the next low tide and as the water rose again, the plane was refloated. The repair proved perfect, the pontoon remaining bone dry, and the “71” was. ready again for its work.

Beating the Telegraph

PREPARATIONS were made for a con-.

tinuance of the treaty flight. All climbed aboard next morning for the flight to Attawapiskat, fifty miles farther north. It was at low tide, with shoals, seemingly everywhere; so the old-timers were consulted as to the best place to take-off where there were no rocks. Their advice was followed but it proved a weak reed to lean upon. As the machine roared over the water for the take-off, there was a. nasty thud. A pontoon had struck a. submerged rock.

Greene hastily jumped down to the pontoon and found its side smashed in, hopelessly beyond repair. The water was rushing in and the pontoon settling into the sea. It was a time for quick thinking.

There was a chance the machine might, still get off the water. Hastily signalling ashore for pumps and more gasoline, Higgins decided to make a forced flight back to Ottawa, 650 miles away, where a new float could be fitted. He explained the situation to Mr. Awrey and the medical officer, who were then taken ashore in the boats hurried out by Mr. Horne, Revillon Frères’ manager.

Drums of gasoline and pumps were ferried out and while the pumps were set: to keeping the pontoon afloat Higgins, filled his tanks with gasoline. He was going to need every drop of gasoline he could carry for the long jump.

There was no stopping on that trip. It. was all through or nothing. If the machine came down en route she might never get up again. Passing over Cochrane the pilot dropped a telegram to be sent to Ottawa. He beat the wire in by hours.

That night the machine came down on Lake Deschenes, just outside Ottawa, under the same conditions which had caused Rose’s crash—the glassy calm water at sundown. Higgins, however, got down safely as night fell. The next day a new pontoon was fitted to the machine at the Victoria Island depot and the plane was ready to take up the flight again.

More Grief

r"PHEN into Moose Factory came whispers of another tragedy. Up at Fort George on the east side of James Bay an Indian lad had shot himself in the leg five weeks before. Gangrene had set in, and the Anglican missionary, Rev. J. T. Griffin, sent an imploring call for means to get the boy to civilization and a hospital. If no help came the boy’s life would be forfeit to his terrible injury.

Another mercy flight for the R.C.A.F. There was no hesitation. The last of the treaty money had by this time been paid out and the black bag was empty of its $50,000. The expedition flew down to Remi Lake and Ottawa was notified. Without delay the National Defense officials sent Higgins authority to make this long and dangerous flight. Mr. Awrey and Dr. Mitchell went home by train and the Fairchild was groomed for the most desperate race of all, 500 miles north to Fort George, 700 miles south to Ottawa.

Dawn again, and on August 1 the Fairchild rose up from the waters of Remi Lake. The airmen had been out before daybreak, sitting in their machine to wait till the first grey light appeared in the east. The second there was light enough to see, the engine roared, the pontoons hissed over the water and the machine rose up with her nose pointed north and east into strong head winds and lowlying fog. By eleven o’clock the drone of her engine startled the Indians at Fort George and died as she swooped down to the seashore.

Flight-Lieutenant Higgins, before leaving, had consulted Dr. Mitchell about the injured lad. As a result he knew just what to do. The missionary and the airman made a wooden box in which the lad’s leg was placed to prevent further injury by motion. Sergeant Greene swung the plane’s tail on to the beach and the boy was placed aboard.

A wail of woe arose from the lad’s father as he saw his boy put aboard the “Giant Bee,” but his faith in the white

man overcame his fears and he let the boy go.

A 1,200-mile Mercy Flight

'"THE Fairchild took off. Down the coast of James Bay it sped; past the mouth of the Eastmain River and into the mouth of the Nottaway. Beside the boy on the cabin floor Sergeant Greene sat, soothing his pain, and worrying about the trick pushrod in the engine.

Rainstorms came up to blind the pilot;

visibility was bad, and the world a mass of grey. At times the guiding river was blotted out and the pilot had to fly by compass. Here it was that his long training in navigation bore fruit. Without it he would have been lost. With it he sped on, in spite of storm and wind and rain.

Over Sonneterre a streamer was dropped with a telegram to Ottawa, asking for an ambulance to be ready at the Rockcliffe aerodrome. Again the machine beat the telegram in by hours.

It is 700 miles from Fort George to Ottawa and the machine made the flight in six hours. Even Sergeant Greene’s trick pushrod seemed to realize the urgency of the job in hand and stood the gaff.

At long last, the Gatineau River was sighted and the plane came over the Gatineau hills and down the river just before darkness fell. Between dawn and dark 1,200 miles had been covered in twelve hours of flying.

There was no ambulance at the aerodrome, which itself was deserted. The R.C.A.F. had not expected Higgins could get to the top of James Bay and then down to Ottawa in a day.

Group Captain Gordon however, home for the evening, heard the drone of the plane. Grasping the situation he jumped into his car and raced out to Rockcliffe. Within a few minutes he had telephoned the city and an ambulance was on its way.

So another life was saved. The Indian lad was rushed to hospital and the city’s most skilful surgeons operated. Not only had the airmen cheated death but their prompt action enabled the leg itself to be saved.

So ended a notable flight. The R.C. A.F. undertook the flight; its airmen saw it through. They had done 5,000 miles of treaty flying and 2,000 miles of mercy flights. There had been one day’s flying of 1,200 miles; a non-stop flight of 700 miles; two non-stops of 650 and three of 500 miles.

They had flown in the face of storm and darkness. They had flown without landmarks to guide them. They had traversed the; unknown by map and compass; they had finished their job; they had kept the pace.