Sky Mail

A dramatic recital of the space-devouring achievements of Western Canadas four-months-old air mail service

JACK PATERSON July 15 1930

Sky Mail

A dramatic recital of the space-devouring achievements of Western Canadas four-months-old air mail service

JACK PATERSON July 15 1930

Sky Mail

A dramatic recital of the space-devouring achievements of Western Canadas four-months-old air mail service


DURING the past several months there has been a noticeable shrinkage in the prairie provinces. The city of Winnipeg has been moved a full day nearer Calgary. Edmonton has become close neighbor to Saskatoon. In Moose Jaw there is talk of absorbing Regina as a fifteen-minute suburb; and in Regina double-hot vice-versa. Moose Jaw and Regina business men run up to Saskatoon for lunch, talk business or golf, and are back home in time to close the office vault. Cities are fast becoming better acquainted and business is revved up.

The reason is the recently inaugurated “TransPrairie Air Mail Service.”

Over a vast territory that fifty years ago was the wilderness home of Indians, buffalo, and a few isolated traders and settlers, there hurtles today a mile-devouring demon of speed and power, to link rail-tied cities even closer; accomplishing between the hours of darkness and dawn a journey that, within the memory of many airminded citizens, required months of travel and hardship.

Winnipeg to Calgary Overnight

A THIRTY-HOUR train trip from Winnipeg to -**■ Calgary has, through the agency of night flying, been slashed to an overnight jaunt of seven or eight hours for the eight hundred odd miles. Mail, posted after office hours in Winnipeg one evening, decorates the mahogany in a Calgary office bright and early next morning. A reply posted that night up until midnight is in Winnipeg at noon next day. You post a letter Monday night; you have your reply Wednesday noon; while allowing your Calgary correspondent a full office day to think up something suitable.

On the other hand, ordinary mail dropped in Winnipeg Monday evening is delivered in Calgary Wednesday morning, and the reply reaches you in Winnipeg not until around noon Friday, at about the same time you are receiving your air-mail answer to the sizzler you wrote in reply to the one you received Wednesday. Two round trips for one.

This service, inaugurated March 3, extends over the three Prairie Provinces, embracing the cities of Winnipeg, Regina, Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, and Calgary, on the main stem; and a branch service touching at Saskatoon and North Battleford, with terminus at Edmonton. But not only to these cities is the speeding up of the mail important. Eastern cities benefit by the twenty-four hours saved on eastbound mail, while air-mail leaving Winnipeg at 9 p.m. overtakes in Calgary the westbound train that left a day earlier, and is carried on to West Coast cities with a full twenty-four hours saving in time.

After some four months operation, during which time pilot, mechanical and executive staffs have worked without thought of time or personal comfort, the organization has been pounded into a safe and sane business machine that functions on regular schedule, in spite of weather, mechanical, or physical setbacks, to deliver mail and passengers on the dot of time.

The inauguration of this service was made possible only through the untiring efforts of

Dominion Government officials, the carrier company, and Western Canadian citizens.

With the contract awarded to Western Canada Airways, the Government undertook the location of air-ports, emergency landing-fields and beacon sites, and the supply of every known aid to safe night flying. Western cities, all anxious to receive the new service, co-operated in putting fields and civic air-ports in suitable shape. How they have succeeded may be judged from the statement of airmail pilots, who, when quizzed as to what in their opinion has been the most noticeable feature in four months of operation, state unanimously: “The remarkable improvements carried out on landingfields.”

To fulfill their share of the contract, the carrier company procured ten giant mail planes with a cruising speed of two miles a minute, manned by Canadian pilots—honor graduates of war and wilderness flying—and serviced by a squad of air engineers measured with only one yardstick, mechanical ability.

To swing into full operation from a standing start was in itself a big undertaking, but they attempted, and accomplished, even more. Without doubt the most important factor in air-mail carriage is weather; and, as iftoswallow all obstacles at one gulp, the great machine was thrown into gear during the West’s toughest weather month. March— the month of terrific equinoctial gales, snow smothers, fogs, thawings, freezings, bad landing-fields, uncertain and patchy weather—witnessed, and did its best to prevent the start.

Like his railroading brother, the air-mail pilot has his schedule.

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Sky Mail

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Under favorable conditions he may reach a port of call ahead of time, but must hop off on time and not before. A certain leeway is allowed in the schedule for unavoidable loss of time, but mechanical or bad weather delays must be made up if possible. For the first several weeks, with the weather at its worst, schedules were maintained only through the wholehearted efforts of the personnel. Mechanical staffs worked night and day. Pilots were ready to take off at a moment’s notice. Ships were forced down, stand-by ships shot into the air, and the mail shoved through. Personal comfort or convenience was ignored. From senior pilot to youthful greaseball, “the mail” was the thing.

Blazing a New Sky Trail

IT WAS this writer’s privilege to accompany the first air-mail plane over the Edmonton-Moose Jaw-Calgary loop, at a time when the weather was on its worst behavior; and to see first-hand some of the obstacles the air-mail pilot must face as part of his routine. On a thousand mile cross-country flip, many atmospheric changes may be encountered.

With the installation of beacons and landing-fields complete only on the main Winnipeg-Calgary line, the EdmontonMoose Jaw hop was accomplished mostly by daylight. When the great Fokker F14, our first-lap steed, had been wheeled from Edmonton’s spacious new hangar, gassed, tuned, and officially pronounced airworthy, Pilot Milt Ashton strolled to the office in the tower for a final weather report.

The teletype machine, standard equipment at mail ports, rattled a typewritten story along its paper ribbon, bringing last minute details regarding storms, ceiling, and visibility over the length of the route. Moose Jaw and Regina reported snow flurries, Saskatoon was enjoying a snowy smother, and North Battleford operators looked in vain for a cloud rift. At Edmonton a warm sun was shining from a cloudfree sky.

A throaty roar, a quick race, and the pilot, seated in his open cockpit far back on the fuselage, oozed the great monoplane into the air. Gracefully she banked; and looking from the cabin window I was amazed at the climbing capabilities of so huge a ship. A sweeping circle of the field, a levelling off at two thousand, and Edmonton with its crawling trolleys, matchbox buildings, winding river, and toy bridges, was passing below us.

We headed southeast, following the

main line of the Canadian National, shoving behind us a panorama of lakes, patchwork farmlands, pencil-mark roads, and squatty towns clustered around groups of grain elevators. A freight train appeared, smoke plume flattened over its back and drivers churning frantically j in a comical effort to prevent our passing. 1 Our 525 horsepower Hornet motor pushed it back as though it were a part of the scenery.

For more than a hundred miles we lazed our way through brilliant sunshine and a cloudless sky; then, far ahead, a smoky smear crawled to meet us. At closer range it developed into a low-lying fog bank, as white and fleecy as newly washed wool spread over a dark counterpane. Writhing and crawling, it enveloped the countryside, moving steadily westward.

As we crossed the fog line and flew over the dense white mass, all sign of there being a world beneath us disappeared. For minutes we floated in a weird ocean of wool-upholstered scenery, turned with the eye-dazzling brightness of sunshine on moist whiteness into millions of swirling rainbows.

Paddy Garrett, youthful Irish mechanic grimaced wryly. “Thot stuff’s not half so soft as ut looks,” he shouted in my ear.

Apparently the pilot was of the same opinion. We banked, turned, and floated back over the wool pack toward the blueblack area that represented something more solid. Somehow the sight of even a rough, ravine-slashed portion of terra firma was a comfort. We crossed the dead-line, and with motor idling scooted toward the ground. Making a wide circle on the downward course, our conveyance cut through a corner of the blanket, leaving us for the fraction of a second in an atmosphere denser than that of the oldtimers’ compartment in a Finnish steam bath.

Close to the ground we flew, ducking and dodging the reaching fog fingers; then suddenly, diving through a gap we were under the cloud and over a string of oil derricks that looked close enough to touch. The town of Wainwright flashed beneath us and faded into twin ribbons of railway steel that led into a territory grey and glowering, but navigable.

Flying at two hundred feet, the great ship caused a stir in the towns we passed. People rushed from buildings and watched for the expected landing. Station, store, and elevator names were easily recognizable, although one quick glance was all our two-miles-a-minute gait allowed. Children poured from rural schools, skin-

j ners humored their teams, and barnyard ! fowl taxied speedily to shelter as the roar from the double exhaust echoed in the oppressive stillness.

i Gradually the ceiling became higher until, after two hours and thirty-five ' minutes flying, we circled at two thousand : feet over North Battleford, five minutes j ahead of schedule.

There we found snow, crusted into sloping banks, but our widespread and heavily built wheels ploughed through great drifts without a stagger. Mail sacks I were checked out, others in, and signed for.

Twenty minutes for gassing—-on this trip verbal only— and we were again in the air headed for Saskatoon, which cleancut city we reached on schedule fifty minutes later. Snow was piled to the fence tops. We took gas, met postal and city officials, visited the smart little headquarters of the Aero Club, made the discovery that our Edmonton spring temperature had changed into somewhat lusty winter, and took the air.

Triumph — and Trouble

"D ETWEEN Saskatoon and Moose Jaw we traversed a country devoid of waste land, and cultivated to the very edges. Great bands of horses moved over the fields, behind each horse a long winding trail that represented a day’s snowpawing for fodder. At sound of our motor each isolated equine raised his head, stared, and bolted for the protection of the herd.

The complete schedule had been moved back two hours for experimental reasons, and it became apparent that we would have a taste of night flying on the daylight run. Lights began to twinkle in the farmhouses, and miniature figures appeared in lighted doorways as we roared past through the gloom. Ahead, a cluster of lights developed into a town, and we veered slightly to follow the railroad. Mile after monotonous mile we ground our way through a murk deepened by low-hanging clouds, the earth a maze of darker or lighter shadows with here and there a glowing spark.

Again the ship swung left, and close ahead appeared the lines of lights that meant Moose Jaw, crowned by the flashÍ ing flame of a three million candle-power revolving beacon. Far beyond was a glow against the sky, the lights of Regina— Regina brought within a few short hours of distant Edmonton.

As we circled the drome, unmistakable with its myriad boundary, runway, and hangar lights, the great landing light was turned on, flooding the field with a brightness seven times as powerful as full moonlight, and making the use of our underwing landing lights unnecessary. The great plane swept over a row of twinkling boundary lights, settled lazily to the ground, bumped, steadied, and was ! halted by the firm application of wheel brakes. Across an expanse of feathery snow the newly erected hangar, brilliant and open-mouthed, beckoned invitingly.

The pilot swung his rudder, loosed a blast of power, and headed for the barn. Traversing a slight depression, there was the mullled crash of shattering ice, a jar, und the panting skip came to a dead stop as the motor was cut.

Water appeared in the wheel tracks and spread over the snow. Mild weather, accumulated water, frost, and a snow camouflage, had worked together to shoot a last minute stagger into our five-hundred-mile jaunt. Our pilot had from sheer ill-luck encountered a blemish on the complexion of un otherwise faultless field —a shallow basin not thirty feet in diameter. Twenty-four hours earlier the spot had been bone dry. Twenty-four hours later it was drained, tilled, and levelled.

A plane that can pitch away from Mother Earth with a ton pay-load requires some handling on the ground. The pilot signalled the hangar, and with eight of us twisting the moody monster’s tail he gave her the gun and guined dry ! ground, leaving a puffing squad, foot-

geared In anything from low shoes tc | mukluks, paddling round and exchanging greetings in a foot of icy water.

At the hangar, after our paddling-pool frolic, there gathered a group of Eskimoclad figures. The Northland is well represented on the mail run. Pilots and mechanics padded around in mukluks and caribou what-nots, while on occasion a flow of Eskimo expletives filled the frosty air—the newly acquired slang of the Airways mechanical staff, none the less effective because of its vagueness to the average outsider and many of themselves.

Downtown we found the nerve centre of the mail run in the persons of Dale S. Atkinson, assistant operating manager, Western Canada Airways, and A. D. McLean, inspector of Civil Aviation for the four Western Provinces, who laid out the entire mail route. Telegraph kids came and went, bringing perpetual weather reports and operating advices. Discussion focused on. weather, beacons, and flying uniforms.

That night’s programme included a Moose Jaw - Calgary hop by Roy Brown, and a meeting at Medicine Hat with Harold Farrington, a fellow Northern veteran, coming eastward from Calgary. We arranged to tag along with Brownie, scheduled to leave at 12.30 a.m.

Through Midnight Skies

MIDNIGHT found a small crowd at the field to witness the departure of the first night flight between Moose Jaw and The Hat. Government, postal and Airways officials, and a group of citizens idled in the shelter of the yawning hangar while the engineering force went over every inch of the mechanical sky monster. The motor was checked, started, idled, and opened wide, the ship straining and jerking at the brake-locked wheels while its tail twitched and quivered like a thing alive.

In the tiny office the pilot smoked a last cigarette, donned caribou pants and parka over bulky wool foundation garments, drew on his seal mukluks, grabbed helmet and goggles, and squinted out at the weather. “Shine, you pretty little stars, shine,” he grinned, and added, turning back, “See one, anyway.”

One was all. Above, the clouds drifted by like smoke, with here and there a break in the blackness. Dale Atkinson, accompanied by A. D. McLean ,who was making the trip, offered a last weather report. “Looks tough beyond Swift Current. Stormy, with snow.”

Brown hoisted his bulky frame into the cockpit, tested controls and motor, exchanged okays with the chief engineer, and motioned us inside.

Down the field we scurried between two rows of runway lights, jostled gently, and curved upward into the inky blackness. A climbing hank, and city lights clustered below us. A half circle, and the drome appeared in the swimming sparkle, beacon swishing, flashing, swishing on its high pedestal, pigmy figures framed in the lighted hangar mouth.

Coming in, five hours earlier, the lighted field had been a friendly sight. Now, leaving it behind, and heading out into the black void, it seemed doubly so. Behind us were brightness and warmth; ahead loomed a black nothingness, oppressive, uninviting.

Then, as our eyes became accustomed to the darkness, things began to take shape. The clouds appeared less black; below us, light and dark patches developed into snow-covered fields and wooded areas; sparks winked from shadowy farmsteads. We were again a part of Mother Earth.

On the left wing there was reflected a light. Again and again, measured leisurely, the flash came and went, broadcast by | the first of the revolving gas beacons that Í dot the entire route at ten mile intervals. Swinging, flashing on its tw’enty-foot tower, it passed below us, pointing our pilot toward the next one ahead by an auxiliary guiding beam.

One by one we passed them, some brilliant, others requiring adjustment, but all busily “beaconing.” From time to time A. D. McLean would switch on the cabin light, consult his blueprints, and make a note of anything that was not functioning perfectly. Diamond-brooch towns, sparkling squares of brilliants, loomed up and faded in the distance as our shadow ship roared its way westward, changed by the darkness from a thing of steel and fabric to a living, fire-breathing monster, shooting sparks and flame from red hot motor and chortling exhausts.

Swift Current came to meet us and slid away east, its glow gradually fading from the underside of our wings. We passed the first beacon and found it disappear abruptly as a writhing cloud bank swept between us. The ship lurched like an empty canoe. Ground lights disappeared. The wind buffeted screaming struts and wings as we ground our way onward. Lighter or darker shadows were missing now. Glowing exhausts reflected from the inky cloud masses that enveloped us. I pressed my nose against the window, wondering what pilots thought about in their spare time.

Suddenly the ship tilted, swung, and swept back over our route in search of beacons that had failed to penetrate the gloom. Five minutes—ten miles—and through a cloud rift we saw the welcome glitter of lights. The whistle of the wind on undercarriage rose to a higher key as we banked, turned, and swept earthward. A hundred feet from the ground, we dodged the last ragged cloud edge and straightened again on our western course, passing over a rugged country of shadowy breaks and bush that promised no suitable spots for a landing. The motor settled to her usual roar, whisking us through the air at a speed that, with the close proximity of the ground, appeared terrific.

The Last Lap

AT MEDICINE HAT we were still J bucking the storm. We passed over the town and directly above the air-port ran smack into a great cloud. Our landing lights, suddenly switched on and off, gave us a glimpse of the snow smother driven past the windows by the force of the slip stream—a blinding blizzard that the pilot in his open cockpit had been facing for miles.

We circled, dived to meet the lights, and made a jarless landing on a field that would be a credit to any city. Only one noticeable spot remained to be filled and levelled, a spot that emphasized the rapid changes in our West. As we taxied toward the field office in the brightness of the flood light, our pilot suddenly swerved the ship and skirted a buffalo wallow, a lonely landmark of the not distant past that must be sacrificed for the safety of things present.

Although it was three a.m., citizens were out to welcome the first night-mail plane to arrive from the East. In the new office building a restaurant owner dispensed free sandwiches and coffee in honor of the occasion. Outside it snowed heavily. Inside, the teletype emitted a tangle of unfavorable ribbon reports on the weather west, pepped up with personal chatter between the Calgary and Winnipeg operators, bunkies during the early days of Northern flying.

Testing the local machine, A. D. McLean inserted a few offhand remarks and was hailed by the gossipers as “Brownie.” A lively string of conversation galloped over the wires, our temporary operator endeavoring to convince the others that he was not Brown. At last he pounded out: “This is A. D. McLean speaking.” The statement was received with many teletype guffaws, and the Calgary operator shot back, in part: “Can’t kid me. No government officials flying on a night like this.”

Civil Aviation Inspector McLean—who flies anything with wings—chuckled and handed the keyboard over to Brownie, who, after identifying himself, grinned as

he pounded out : “That was McLean all ! right. Seems very anxious to meet you when we hit Calgary.” At the other end of the private wire there was sudden and continued silence.

Harold Farrington, stiff and heavyeyed, dropped from a leaden sky into the brilliantly lighted square and flopped beside the gas heater during his twenty minutes recess. West, the sky was clearing. Again we took our cabin places, and a moment later were started on our final one-and-three-quarter-hour lap to Calgary. Bucking a head wind, diving through local snow flurries, and flying low, we crossed a country of flat, open stretches — a perpetual landing-field — broken only by occasional areas serrated by irrigation ditches. As snow drove by with pitiless force, I felt the warm blast from the cabin heater and involuntarily shivered at thought of our pilot out in the cold.

Rolling foothills, a winding river valley, and Calgary floated below us. A swing low over the river, a few gentle jolts, a scurry toward another up-to-date hangar, an exchange of greetings—including the hearty and good-natured meeting of inspector and operator—and journey’send.

Rain, Hail, or Snow —the Mail Must Go

JUST one journey; one to be remembered. Since that time a pilot has made the same jaunt nightly, nonchalantly heading out into fair weather or foul. On bright moonlight nights it must be fascinating; during thunderstorms doubly so. Even for the old-timer in the flying game night-mail transportation must hold the odd thrill.

But four months of careful and efficient service has inspired the confidence of canny John Public. Few ships, whether night or day, now leave the ground without passengers. Commercial men fly between cities. Westbound passengers drive to the Winnipeg air-port at nine p.m., and are in Calgary, 800 miles distant, at five next morning with breathers at Regina, Moose Jaw, and Medicine Hat.

Strangely enough, more than fifty per cent of air travellers have been of the fair sex, the oldest a woman of seventy-four, and the youngest a babe of two weeks— both Saskatoon-Regina passengers.

A rate of railway fare-and-a-half has brought air travel in Canada within reach of all; and with none but the best available men in the shops and at the controls, passengers are assured of the maximum in air-travel safety.

Every aid is made available for, and every precaution taken by, the pilot. Besides the system of beacons, illuminated emergency landing-fields at thirty mile intervals, and fully equipped air-ports in the larger centres, each ship carries two giant parachute flares for forced landings. Dropped from a height of 4,000 feet one of these flares will light up the country for miles around, allowing the pilot time to choose a suitable landing spot.

At present a radio guidance system is being installed over the route. This consists of a mile-wide radio beam acting on two vibrating reeds before the pilot. Should the.ship veer left off the course the reed on the right rises above level, and vice versa. For blind flying in bad weather these will be of inestimable value, but with every aid of science on the job, night flying for the pilot remains a hazardous proposition.

Passengers may pick and choose their flying weather; they have that privilege —to fly or not to fly. But each and every night these young Canuck pilots must ride the darkened heavens, guided by a slender thread of winking lights or invisible radio fingers, clipping days off former mail schedules to speed up the business of our country; ready, no matter what the weather, to take the air; governed by that slogan that is the pilot’s law wherever the post is flown: “Hail, Rain, or Snow—The Mail Must Go!”