SK: Wonder Ship of the North
An epic tale of wings over wilderness, starring SK, trail-blazer extraordinary of northern airways
SPEAKING of airplanes, do you know SK?
You probably don’t. Few people do.
Everyone knows the Spirit of St. Louis, the DO-X, the Columbia, and a hundred ships of greater or lesser importance that have, at some time or other, tipped over the red ink. But no one knows SK.
With no intended tinge of sarcasm, cynicism, or call it what you like, the only answer seems to be, “SK is Canadian.”
Canadian pilots, during the Great Squabble, rode in nobody’s rumble seat. Because comparatively little is heard of them in world flying today, it does not mean that they have relinquished the top rung on the ladder of achievement. And the fact of their ships not being tagged Breath of the West or The Snowball Baby does not lessen their performance. It does, however, detract from that thing that has made planes and pilots of other countries better known to us than our own —publicity.
Half the fault lies with the flying concerns themselves. For many reasons, publicity is avoided. Northern newspaper boys know all about this. When the head of an important expedition is approached before hopping off into the wilderness with two months’ supplies, the interview in most cases is confined to the query, “Whereaway?” and the clipped reply, “Places.”
Mineral exploration and various types of Government flying is hush-hush business; and the greater part of Canadian air achievement, commercial and mail-flying included, rests upon either of these bases. The result is, for the most part—deeds and silence.
There are other reasons why publicity is frowned upon by commercial concerns. One, put
forward recently by a Western pilot-executive, was accompanied by not a little of what might be called “gusto,” with a capital “Dis” in front of it.
“The curse of commercial aviation today is publicity,” he snapped. “An air journey should not, at this stage of things, be played up as an adventure. There’s no more romance in flying than in driving a car, and there’s less risk. If writers would cut out all this romantic stuff we could get down to business.”
Which is partly why SK is still SK instead of being known as The Igloo Queen, Dawson’s Dearie, or some other such distinguishing, if not distinguished, appellation.
There may be planes that have sky-written more Canadian history than SK. If so, the writer and SK herself herewith make deep obeisance. Those others must be good.
An Aerial Pinch-Hitter
-CASK, to give her full monogram, has always been what, in hockey circles, is known as a “loafer.” During periods of humdrum activity and hard work she stalls around and lets the others do it. But when it comes to a pinch, something spectacular, she beats them to it, so to speak; perpetrates the grandstand stuff, and grabs the glory, if any. Call it fate, call it luck, or simply “the breaks.” Whatever you call it, SK has had it, or them.
In August, 1928, two identical Super-Fokker
machines, powered with 425 h.p. motors, were delivered to Western Canada Airways, at Winnipeg. One was SK, the other her twin sister, SL. Up to December, 1930, SL had flown 1,400 hours with a total mileage of 134,400. During the same period SK had accomplished only 680 hours, with a mileage total of 65,960, or less than half.
But, in half the mileage, SK, the child of fate, blazed mote new air trails, and was the cause of more headline ink than any other Canadian plane, which partly accounts for her scant mileage. Eleven months of SK’s life were spent perched on a bleak Arctic island where, with a companion ship, she was first made comfortable, then abandoned, by the MacAlpine party.
The fact that SK was not originally slated for the trip but had been rushed from Winnipeg to Churchill to replace a damaged ship already a thousand miles on its way, does not bolster up the “no romance in flying” claim. But subbing on an important venture was nothing new for SK. With her it had long since become a habit, more through being a favorite of fortune than of the company pilots. For, although flown by possibly every pilot in the organization, it was never through choice. While not exactly a “lemon,” SK’s mechanical performance, as compared with sister ships, has not been outstanding.
In August, 1928, she started her career by blazing the first air trail from Hudson Bay westward through the Barrens, at that time an amazing exploit. From Winnipeg the trail of SK led to The Pas, Churchill, Chesterfield Inlet, Baker Lake, and on down a thousand miles of rivers and lakes, across a desolate expanse and through an age-old silence never before disturbed by a motor’s roar, to Lake Athabaska; a jaunt that later was highly instrumental in winning for her pilot, “Punch” Dickens, the coveted McKee Trophy. A fair start.
On this, her maiden trip, SK showed first signs of the intimacy with Lady Luck that marks her career. Besides her pilot, and Air Engineer Bill Nadin, she carried an important mining man. A meeting with another mogul at Stoney Rapids, a spot now well-known, had not materialized. After several days wait the disappointed expedition hopped off for Fitzgerald. Enroute, SK drained her last swig of fuel, and the party was forced down many miles from any habitation or gas cache.
Then it happened. Less than half an hour after their having landed in a country where “just around the corner” means a land
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journey of from two weeks to a month, the S.S. Echo, on its annual trip, rounded the point. In her hold was a consignment of aviation gas. And not only that, but on her tiny deck stood the mining man whom they had so diligently sought. For SK— beginner’s luck.
Landing on Snow Hummocks
TN OCTOBER, 1928, a survey was made
of the now-operating prairie air-mail route. It was a ticklish and laborious mission, locating future ’dromes and emergency landing fields over 1,500 miles of country in the rough. Although the job might have gone to any one of a dozen I capable ships, SK got the call and made the survey. In November, with other machines, she carried out trial runs, and on December 10, 1928, under the veteran touch of Pilot W. J. “Buck” Buchanan, SK again somehow managed to nose out her hard-working mechanical mates for the honor of ferrying the first air mail west, from Winnipeg to Regina, with the inauguration of a month’s experimental service.
In January, on a charter trip to Oxford Lake, far north and east of The Pas, she gained further prominence, at least in bunkhouse circles. With the weather forty below and the closest settlement some 150 miles distant, her storage battery gave a last grunt and succumbed. The absence of a hand-starting crank, a formerly unknown omission in a Northern flying kit, made the weather seem suddenly colder and the country more bleak. Then it happened again.
An Indian told an unbelievable story of a prospector’s shack nearby, which, on investigation by Pilot Andy Cruickshank, proved true. Only two miles distant, in a territory where one might walk for days without finding even a rough shelter, they discovered a primitive blacksmith’s forge. Luck supreme! The oil-screen wrench underwent a painful but successful operation at the hands of a desperate pilot, and the triumphant roar of SK’s motor soon was leading them homeward.
After several months livery-horse jogging from the Cranberry Portage base, we find her in April, 1929, headed, with a capacity load, north of Churchill to Eskimo Point, with Major Tommy Thompson at the stick, and Engineer Don Goodwin listening for motor stutters. Considering the possible changes in the terrain and questionable landing areas brought about by months of Arctic winter, the trip was admittedly a gamble. The 700 desolate miles from Cranberry north were negotiated without incident, except for navigation difficulties. The plan was to follow the shore line of Hudson Bay: but even the veteran planners had fallen short in their estimation of sub-Arctic rigors. There was no shore line. Land, sea, and dividing line were one expanse of ridged and rigid snow hummocks that guaranteed sure disaster in case of an attempted landing. At long intervals they sighted narrow streaks of open water that might have meant the shore line or might have meant anything.
They circled at last the tiny past at Eskimo Point. They circled and circled. It was impossible to stay up indefinitely, and it appeared equally impossible to get down without smearing machine and contents over a stretch of Eskimo land. The snow was formed like gigantic waves ! tipped with hooklike overhangs. An I empty ship might have landed safely, but ; with such a load
It had to be done, and it had to be done I down wind to avoid the hooks on the ! wave crests. The landing was necessarily made at terrific speed, the skis of SK just touching the rock-hard tips. Gradually the speed was lessened, and all hands held their breath as the ship settled. There was a series of staccato thumps and
violent pitches as the tortured ship’s tail struck each snow wave, then a blast of power to steady her, a quick sideways twist to avoid a depression— and silence.
The mechanic was first out—to check the ship.
“Holy Daigan !” he ejaculated when the undercarriage was found intact. He went over her expertly. “Just the tail skid smashed,” he announced, and added as fervently as only a mechanic 700 miles from a base can add: “You’re a darned good crate, Old Girl !”
On her return from Eskimo Point, with bandaged tail feathers and her motor purring on gas that had been tunneled from a cache buried under twenty feet of concrete-like snow, SK spent a summer rolling gently on the swells of Lake Athapapuskow, or negotiating the odd exercise run that was outstanding in 1929 but might be considered commonplace in these enlightened days. During the “Great Cranberry Fire” she ferried women and children to the safety of adjacent islands; but it was not until August that she again blundered into a big time jaunt and earned a solo spotlight.
Marooned For Eleven Months
SEVERAL Department of the Interior officials, with Operating Chief Leigh Brintnell at the controls, left Winnipeg for the Northwest Territories. At Cranberry Portage, their first breather, a slight motor roughness developed. They decided to take a stand-by ship. The stand-by ship that happened to be groomed and on the spot was—you guessed it—SK.
From Cranberry the party hurdled Saskatchewan and rested at Fort McMurray, Alberta; then followed the Athabaska, Slave, and Mackenzie Rivers down north to Aklavik on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, altogether a matter of several thousand wilderness miles, not including side trips on Slave and Great Bear Lakes. From the Mackenzie Delta, the world’s greatest muskrat country, SK was swung west, through the passes of the Bell and Porcupine, into Alaska, then south up the Yukon to Dawson, the first plane ever to complete the hazardous journey from Aklavik.
Sounds simple; just from here to there, like moving your finger over a map. But when one stops to consider the hundreds of miles of rugged terrain, towering peaks, green glaciers, myriad misleading tributary valleys, jagged cliff faces, abrupt mountainside slashes, churning rivers— the whole patched and smothered by a treacherous, ever-shifting blanket of grey fog—it appears less and less as a picnic outing.
A page ripped from the moving diary of Bill Tall—SK’s nursemaid on the trip, who knows his prairie, lake, Arctic, and mountain flying, and has never been known to bat an apprehensive eyelash— hints at the story:
“Ceiling getting low. Guess we’ll have to crouch. Here we go. Winding river channel. Could nearly scoop a drink. Jagged cliffs hemming us in. Kind of hazy. Here she comes—fog. Plenty of it. Glad Leigh’s a good guesser. Too rough to land. No chance of getting over it. Too narrow to turn in here, but it certainly is a great country. I like it a lot—when the sun shines.”
Ten minutes of dodging invisible mountainsides while belly-dragging over frothy, rock-strewn waters at a hundred miles an hour, would seem like eternity. Several hours of it must have been about as enjoyable as one might expect in the fire and brimstone sector of the same. But SK galloped triumphantly through, hand in hand with one or the other of the Fate sisters.
From Dawson the trail led south to Whitehorse, Carcross, and Skagway, wuth
every forty seconds a mile and every mile a separate wonder book; then on down the coast to Prince Rupert, inland to Hazelton, Prince George, Jasper Park, Edmon ton, and again Winnipeg, completing a 9,000-mile merry-go-round jaunt of wilderness and mountain flying, not a small part of it trail blazing.
(May I here offer an apology to readers, and the plodding SK, for crowding such a lifetime as that Dawson-Winnipeg flip must have been, into one short paragraph.)
After her strenuous 9,000 miles the check-over department claimed SK, and it was with her fuselage in a sling that she was forced to view the departure of a sister ship on the now famous MacAlpine exploration trip. It looked as though Dame Fortune had at last cut her acquaintance. The following day SK was ready for work, motor tuned, all revved up and no place to go.
Then came the radio message. The sister ship, a raw youngster in the game of bucking the Arctic, had broken her moorings, wandered off, and disappeared beneath the angry waters of Hudson Bay.
An hour later SK, under the guidance of Pilot Roy Brown, was humping Arcticward to assume her rightful place. From The Pas north, the country was smothered in that worst of flying atmosphere — smoke haze, rising mist, and pouring rain. The ceiling was, as the boys have it, “ten feet below ground.” It was getting late in the season for Arctic flying. There was no time to wait for good visibility. Leaving The Pas, Brown took a sight on the Hudson Bay Railway, held SK—equipped for water flying—a hundred feet above the shiny rails, opened her wide, and waited for Churchill. Five hundred and ten miles later they met.
SK was delivered to Major Tommy Thompson, and, accompanied by a Dominion explorer’s ship piloted by Stan McMillan, pushed on north. The events that led up to her being skidded on the beach at Dease Point, and the subsequent MacAlpine search, need no re-hashing, except to note the fact that, before being forced down, gasless, the party covered nearly a thousand miles of unknown territory. More trail blazing.
With an ordinary engine cover her only protection from Arctic blizzard, seafogs, corroding salt spray, and later the blistering heat of endless Arctic summer sunshine, she spent eleven months marooned. The official report of the pilot who, last August, made the long trip to reclaim the derelict, is astounding:
“Apart from a little rust, there were no signs of damage. Even the floats were in perfect condition. The engine was checked over, and, after being thoroughly satisfied with the condition of the ship, the engine was started up without any difficulty and the machine taxied into the sea wdthin two and a half hours of our arrival. She was anchored overnight. On the following morning the floats were inspected for leakage. They were found dry. On attempting to start the engine, the battery was found to be in perfect condition.”
Over the Magnetic Pole
BACK in harness, SK made the 1,500mile hop to McMurray, slated for a complete overhaul. During her southward stroll she encountered a sister ship heading north with another Arctic expedition, that of Major Burwash, in search of the North Magnetic Pole. The possibility of nosing out the chosen conveyance on this important errand was less than a possibility. After her long exposure SK was due for a thorough grooming. She continued on to McMurray, and the expedition pushed on northward.
But at the shops Lady Luck was waiting to present SK with the prize glory
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package of her career. While mechanics marvelled at the splendid condition of the veteran ship’s every part, there came a radio flash. Work on SK, the only available plane, was revved up with three shifts working feverishly. The completed job was hyper critically checked, and an hour after she had received a renewed certificate of airworthiness, SK was roaring back down north.
At Hunter Bay, on Great Bear Lake, she took over the Burwash Magnetic Pole Expedition from an asthmatic younger sister, and, with Pilot Walter Gilbert settled in her well-worn saddle, again challenged the Arctic wastes.
The full report on the Burwash Expedition must come from Ottawa. Some
details concerning bad weather, fog, days of silence, and the frantic race of a floatshod plane against approaching freeze-up, were released to, or ferreted out by, the press. Readers of MacLean’» were told recently of the part played by Major Burwash himself.
On September 15, after conquering many obstacles, members of the Burwash Expedition flew over the North Magnetic Pole, and were safely returned to their base, and ultimately civilization, by GCASK, the first airplane ever to make the trip; powered by a motor that had not been changed since before the commencement of her 9,000-mile Arctic, Alaska, Yukon grind of the previous year.
As this is written SK, slick and shining, is loafing in Winnipeg after an inspection
scamper around the prairie airmail emergency fields she once helped survey. By the time this appears in print, should she continue her close friendship with Lady Luck, she may be almost anywhere or on her way back. For it is the ship itself that seems to be favored with luck. No one pilot can lay claim to having galloped SK to glory. No one air engineer can take credit for her mechanical performance in the pinches. A noticeable feature is, that on each of her history-making journeys SK has had a different crew.
Her exploits have accomplished much for aviation; but, although a consistent sensationalist, SK has been given a close run for honors by other Canadian planes. By multiplying the detailed accomplishments of a lone ship by the hundreds of
commercial, exploration, and Government Service planes that have outstanding performances to their credit, some slight idea of Canadian air achievement since the war may be derived. Theirs is a record, quietly compiled by unknown ships and comparatively unknown pilots, that lacks nothing other than a proper recognition.
But a call for more appreciation of our Canadian birdmen, their chariots and exploits, is not meant to create a national leaning toward cushy jobs for the boys and museum stalls for their aerial steeds. Even if we had the jobs or the museum to offer, neither men nor ships would want them. Following a particularly good piece of work, they, like Old SK, prefer a quick trip to the cleaners, a brisk overhaul, and the exhilaration of hitting for more.