“Punch” Dickins

July 1 1929

“Punch” Dickins

July 1 1929

“Punch” Dickins

An intimate sketch of the man to whom "farthest north” flying is a mere matter of routine


IT WAS mid-April and “Punch” Dickins had just returned to Edmonton following a winter of supplying the Mackenzie river basin with its first regular air service. While he had been absent he had been awarded the McKee trophy, given to the aviator contributing the finest performance of the year to Canadian aviation. Also, according to the scattered reports that trickled from the erstwhile silent north, he had experienced more thrills in one winter than the ordinary man runs into in a lifetime.

At right: “Punch” Dickins, pilot of the Mackenzie river air express, who has been awarded the McKee trophy for a 4,000-mile flight over the Barren Lands.

At extreme left: The air express meets the dog express at Fort Simpson, 1,025 miles north of Edmonton. Above: Warming up in a temperature of 62 below.

“This is where I trade on my twenty years of friendship with Punch and grab me a Teal yam,” I promised myself.

At that, I knew him well enough to appreciate that it would not be a simple matter to draw Mm into any stage of enthusiasm over talking about himself. I had yet to learn how he won his Distinguished Flying Cross with the K.N.A.S. over the Belgian coast. I am still in the dark—and so are his parents.

However, out of a clear sky,

Punch gave me a call on Ms Tetum and announced:

“I’ve got a bit of a story if you feel like tackling it.”

Talk about luck! Visions of cannibal Indian tribes, wrecked planes, Northern magie, frozen motors, Barren Lands, wraiths and what not encountered in those 95,000 miles that young DicMns had flown in 1928! It seemed too good to be true that such a treasure was to be handed to a confirmed romanticist.

It was.

A Surprising Comparison

"XÆETHODICALLY, with the briskness of a business executive in Ms office, Punch produced some papers with a list of facts and figures.

“I don’t think the general run of Canadians are aware of what is being done in the way of commercial aviation m their own country,” he began. “I’ve been checking up on figures for last year given out by the biggest American companies and comparing them with our own. Are you interested?”

I nodded assent, comforting myself that the straight business end of the yam would automatically lead up to the hair-raising personal element.

“I think it ean safely be said,” declared Punch, warming up to his subject, “that interest in aviation— materially, I mean—has increased tenfold in Canada during the last year. In our own outfit, the Western Canada Airways, we flew 531,517 miles between December 1, 1927, and the same date in 1928. We carried 9,018 passengers, 1,192,057 pounds of express, and 122,170 pounds of mail.

“The firm with the greatest mileage in the United States, the Boeing Air Transport with head offices at Seattle, had 2,178,365 miles to their credit for the same period and carried 986,279 pounds of mail. That’s their business, and their contract calls for the mileage to be covered as regularly as clockwork with their air mail feeders from Seattle to San Francisco and Salt Lake City. As far as passenger carrying is concerned, their figure of 1,863 is more than 7,000 behind us. They give no figures for express.

“Western Air Express, operating on the Elko, Los Angeles and San Francisco run, is the first commercial air company in the United States to pay a dividend. They top us in mileage and mail carried, the figures being 1,000,000 and 458,231 respectively. They are more than 2,000 behind us in passengers carried, however, and their express figures, 13,502, are negligible.

“Only one American outfit, the Colonial Air Transport, operating in the densely settled portions of the East coast, outstripped us in passenger carrying. They transported 9,487 to our 9,018. In mail and mileage they are also slightly above us but they give no express figures. As regards the latter, none of these three leading companies approached our record.”

This modest but definite young business man was getting the best of me. For the moment I had forgotten that I was pursuing a yarn of danger and daring. For once there was romance in bare figures—numerical, of course.

“In this comparison, naturally,” continued the man who had just received the highest award in Canadian aviation, “one must remember that the Americans operate largely under conditions much less rigorous than we do on this side of the border. They have the advantage of well-settled territories, government-built landing-fields, air beacons and so forth. When the air mail was instituted in the United States it was purely a government affair and millions of dollars worth of improvements were handed over to the private companies when the change was made.”

“Just a Straight Business Proposition”

TVECIDEDLY different to what you were forced to LA face when you took that trip over the Barrens last year and won the McKee trophy?” I suggested hopefully. “Four thousand miles over the dreariest portion of the continent, away from fuel bases and ...”

“Oh, we were able to pick up fuel when we needed it,” interrupted Punch. “We have depots, you know, though it sometimes takes a year to lay them.”

“And it just happened that there were some . . .” I started.

“Nothing ever 'just happens’ in the commercial flying business,” Dickins corrected me. “Those gasoline dumps aren’t laid haphazardly. Put your pencil on any point in the map of Canada and we’ll get you there—if you can afford it.”

It was a big statement but simply put. There was drama in it, yet it was not dramatic in a theatrical sense.

. “What exactly happened in this trip that won you the coveted McKee trophy?” I pressed.

“The head of a mining company wished to investigate his holdings and to look over the northern mining situation generally,” stated the airman. “He took a companion and I had a mechanic along. We flew 4,000 miles, utilizing fuel dumps on both Hudson Bay and the Mackenzie River. He saw what he wanted and we came home after twelve days of flying. That’s all there was to it. It was a straight business proposition from his point of view and ours.”

“Nothing out-of-the-way happened?”

“We slept beneath a roof every night we were away,” answered Punch laconically.

There the matter rested. However, the men who award the McKee trophy know what they’re about, and the fact remains that Dickins received the award in a year that was productive of many outstanding feats in Canadian aviation. Also the Dickins family silverware was augmented shortly after the flight in question, by a magnificent silver tray on which are engraved the reasons for presentation. It was a gift of the passengers on that twelve-day jaunt over the little known North.

“There’s the question of you having been the first flyer to cross the Arctic circle in Canada,” I commenced, on a new tack.

“That was ]ust for the company records,” came the matter-of-fact explanation. “I was at Fort Good Hope early this year on regular work. The Arctic circle passes twelve miles to the north, so I flew over it merely as an item for the log.”

Punch was not reticent about talking of the service he instituted on the Mackenzie this year, any more than a railwayman would be diffident in admitting that his trains had run on scheduled time.

The Arctic Air Express

T3ASED at Waterways—better known, •*-' perhaps, as Fort McMurray—at the end of steel, 300 miles north of Edmonton, Dickins inaugurated the first regular air service on the great northern waterway on January 23, 1929, a service that was maintained until the middle of April when the rotting ice made it necessary to suspend operations until the water was clear of ice and allowed pontoons to be substituted for the skis used by the great Fokker monoplanes in winter.

During that period weekly trips were made between McMurray and Fort Resolution, 400 miles to the north. Every three weeks, on an average, the Fokker made the round, trip to Fort Simpson, 725 miles beyond McMurray. On top of these fairly regular runs were a number of special commissions. What the service meant to the Northerners may be gleaned from the fact that in a few hours they were enabled to cover a winter trail between McMurray and Fort Resolution that under favorable conditions would have taken sixteen days by dog team.

The most spectacular of the special flights was the run to Fort Good Hope for a cargo of fur to be rushed to Edmonton. Good Hope lies 1,200 miles north of McMurray, yet the furs were flown to Edmonton, 1,500 miles south, in a day and a half. Fifteen hundred miles is a healthy distance to cover in that time under any conditions. Multiply that by the fact that it was accomplished in the hinterland of the continent—in a temperature where the ordinary thermometer would fail to register—and use your own adjectives. No superlatives will be supplied here, for there will be more yarns forthcoming from Punch and we’re keen to preserve his friendship.

Here’s his description of the trip:

“It was 62 below zero at the Fort on the morning we left and I imagine it must have been a bit colder on the river 200 feet below. We had four native helpers to assist us in warming up the engine but they laid down on us, claiming that it was no temperature to work in. So Parmenter, my mechanic, and I did it by ourselves. Incidentally, it was Parmenter’s first winter in Canada, which explodes the myth that a newly arrived Englishman is little suited to our rigorous climate.”

This English mechanic is one of Punch’s few enthusiasms. In his complaints that Parmenter has received all too little credit in the newspapers, is a loophole through which one is able to see that the story back of the winter’s flying is not all one of beer and skittles. The pilot uses a few adjectives himself in describing what his assistant accomplished. But, to get on with the story:

“There was no particular difficulty in managing under severe weather conditions. We merely drained the oil off at night and replaced it in the morning. A canvas cowl was put over the engine so as to retain the heat generated by a couple of plumber’s lamps. It was from the use of these lamps, apparently, that the story was circulated to the effect that we went over the engine with blow torches before being able to start it up.

“It took us two hours to get her turning over nicely. Then we took off, flew the twelve miles north so as to cross the Arctic circle, came about and headed for Edmonton.”

That’s the tale. Supply your own trimmings if it doesn’t sound thrilling enough.

“I have recollections,” I supplied, “of spending several anxious days when you were reported missing on your first trip. You had a crack-up, didn’t you?”

Dickins snorted disgustedly.

“I’ve seen some of the stuff that was run then,” he said. “All about our taking our lives in our hands and that sort of drivel. There wasn’t anything to it. We damaged our landing gear coming down on the ice at Fort Resolution and were held up for a short time while we made temporary repairs. Communication’s a bit slow in that country and our being late in getting back to McMurray apparently started the usual rumors. However, we fixed things up ourselves, flew back to McMurray and Captain Buchanan brought in new parts in one of the company machines.

“The ice on the Mackenzie is terrible for the most part, especially below Simpson. Dog teams often accomplish only a very few miles in a day on the worst parts. Most of our landings were made on the side streams or lakes, of which there is a fairly plentiful supply. That one rough landing was the only thing that approached an accident during the winter.”

No Lack of Passengers

T)UNCH is not so hard a business man that the scenic beauties of the Mackenzie escape him. The view of the mighty stream winding its way between two mountain ranges is magnificent, he claims. It’s an impressive statement coming from a man who has flown ships over Europe, patrolled the Rockies with the forestry aviation branch and brought his planes direct from New York to his northern airways.

The inhabitants of that vast, lonely territory have taken easily to air travel. Among his passengers Dickins numbered a month-old baby. Women were quite as keen to fly as the men. One of the most consistent travellers and, perhaps, theq most elderly, was Bishop Breynat. In fact, Catholic clergymen, passing from one mission to another, were constantly to be found aboard the Fokker. As for the natives, Punch is still in the dark as regards their opinion of the “big bird.”

“The Indians aren’t in the habit of letting the white man know their minds on the new wonders that are introduced,” he says, “and what they have to say among themselves about the plane is still a mystery. Most are decidedly curious but there are some who regard it in awe and suspicion.”

Colonel Jim Cornwall, well-known Northerner, tells of one old native couple who heard the roar of the Fokker one day. They looked outside. It was a clear day in mid-winter and they were considerably disturbed over hearing such unseasonable and unexplainable thunder. Then they spotted the plane, swooping down to land on the river.

“Oh, the big bird,” declared the man, who had heard of the plane over the mocassin telegraph.

“No, no,” said his old wife defiantly, gazing at the Fokker with vindictiveness. “It’s not true.”

When the plane had landed, the man examined it with curiosity, while his spouse, standing at a safe distance, screamed at him to keep clear of the monster that had positively no right to exist. Finally, when the engine began to roar again for the take-off, she dashed at her husband and dragged him away by brute force, apparently badly worried that the bird would grab him in its talons and carry him away. To this day she insists in the language of her race that “there ain’t no such animal.”

Trapping From the Air

ONE shrewd trapper charted the ship to go over his trap line. It was not the easiest thing to locate the thin trail from a height that safety demanded, but once it was picked up it was followed from end to end. The man’s object was not, as might be imagined, a lazy inspection of his traps but to spy out the land in his territory. On the ground it was possible for him to pass a sizeable lake only fifty yards distant and know nothing of its existence. From the air he was enabled to chart every hill, dale and waterway. The lynx travels on the necks of land between sheets of water, the fox on the ice itself. Other animals have their favorite trails. When the flight had been completed the trapper knew exactly where he should go to look for the fur he desired.

Other special trips were made in matters of illness, rushing patients from the solitudes to where they might obtain the necessary aid. A small child was whisked from Fort Chipewyan to McMurray. An adult, whose life depended on the highest medical skill, was flown to Edmonton. They were all workaday details of the service.

“Do you mean to tell me,” I shot, inspired by a new idea, “that you were never forced down by bad weather in remote spots and forced to wait out a blizzard?”

“There was no need for it,” Punch assured me. “It was possible to spot snow well in advance and in plenty of time to turn back to the nearest post. Fifty miles or so represents a lot of work on the ground but it’s only half an hour in the air. There’s nothing to be gained by bumping into conditions over which you have no control.”

That, you will find, is the theory of the present-day airman. Turning back from foul conditions is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a cardinal rule of common sense aviation. The men who duck for shelter most readily are the ones who, when the occasion demands it, have an utter disregard for personal risk. I have never seen Punch stunt a ship, though I have seen him aloft on numerous occasions and in different types of planes.

Cold No Deterrent

"pRIGID conditions are an old tale to this pioneer pilot. Several years ago, when he held His Majesty’s commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he spent a winter at Edmonton testing out a couple of Siskin planes under winter conditions. It was part of an extensive trial of that type of ship under low temperatures. Daily he would take the air, with no particular destination but merely to regard the performance of the ship with an expert eye. The colder it was, the better it suited his purpose and, with regularity, he sought the ten thousand foot level where he could count on the mercury disappearing in the thermometer. This is an open cockpit. Believe it or not, he seemed to enjoy himself.

A remarkable thing about Punch is the general knowledge of the North he has acquired despite his being a new-timer there. Nights spent about the fires of fur posts and trappers’ cabins have not been wasted. An easy-mannered, sociable chap, he has drawn a store of information from his bluff, generous-hearted hosts and packed it away in a capacious brain with the skill that he utilizes in making use of every cubic foot of cabin space in his plane. Fur markets, mineral deposits, native psychology, animal lore and the history of the country are at his fingertips. It’s all part of the business and, judging by the eager way he talks of it, a highly enjoyable part of it.

“To the mining prospectors goes a great part of the credit for the recent development in the air,” he declares. “They have and are spending millions in a coldblooded, well-thought-out scheme to locate the mineral wealth. Much of it will not, perhaps, be touched for another decade or so, but they will know where the ore is to be had when it is required. Straight commercial aviation is following in their wake and is in some instances keeping pace with them.

“What it amounts to is a new era of exploration, comparable in many ways with the first thin wave of white men who struck out into the North. It is a more thorough method and one calling for only an infinitesimal amount of the hardships through which the first pioneers went. Far from belittling such men as Mackenzie, Herne and the rest, it has tended to glorify them more than ever. No one who has flown over the North West Territories has been able to do so without marvelling at the courage and inspiration of the men who fought their way to the Arctic practically foot by foot.”

Plans a Service to the Arctic Ocean

T)UNCH’S plans call for the extending

of his beat as far as Aklavik near the mouth of the Mackenzie as soon as the river is clear of ice. In an average season the steamers are able to make the round trip to this post twice; in an exceptionally favorable year three times. A man “coming out” from the Arctic is compelled to make certain of his train and boat connections, even though he is to stay only a very short time “outside,” if he is not to be faced with remaining in civilization for another year or taking the long winter trail home by dogs. What an air service requiring only a matter of days will mean to such an individual is not difficult to conjecture. As many ships will be put on the run as business demands.

To say that the air has held no thrills for Punch Dickins is not entirely true. It happens that he has a partner—not a business one—who grew up in Edmonton with him. She has flown in a bus from New York to Northern Manitoba with him, has lived in a log cabin in the gold fields where the only expeditious means of transportation has been via the air. As a result she has long since ceased to worry when Punch’s plane roars into the wilderness.

Shortly before the McKee trophy holder set out to establish the Mackenzie River service last winter, I stood on the Edmonton aerodrome one evening, my back braced to a chilly wind. Punch was expected in that night from Winnipeg. There was a very good reason why he should make the trip. The short winter dusk crept in and still no speck appeared in the sky to the east. It was past the time when he was accustomed to keeping a plane in the air, and finally I left the drome, convinced that caution had sent him to earth en route.

He came in that evening, nevertheless. Next day he was shaking hands with the regularity of a Prince of Wales and, between broad grins, was announcing: “Well, if I say so myself, he’s the huskiest little devil I ever hope to see.”