HE’S A FLYING NOMAD
A portrait sketch of Walter Gilbert, F.R.G.S., airman-explorer, whose log records a remarkable story of aerial adventure
FREDERICK B. WATT
WHEN Major L. T. Burwash, F.R.G.S., returned from his 1930 expedition to the North Magnetic Pole and the old camp sites of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, he had a good many pleasant things to say about Walter Gilbert, the man who had flown him in and out from that jagged Arctic coastline. Gilbert, he said, was a splendid pilot, a perfect companion and a first-rate man for work of an exploratory nature.
For a time the flying man shared with his distinguished leader a prominent place in the daily newsprint, his slight, parka-clad figure appearing in rotogravure sections throughout the continent. Then, as a seeker of geographical knowledge at least, he dropped from the public eye. He was reported, quite correctly, as having gone back to his job of running an aerial taxicab along the icicled rx>f of Canada.
Despite outward appearances, however, Walter Gilbert didn’t lose his enthusiasm as a geographer when the Burwash three-man expedition packed up; nor, for that matter, had the expedition been responsible for that enthusiasm. Prior to 1930 the authorities at Ottawa had been receiving sketch maps, drawn to scale, of uncharted portions of the North. They had come, unsolicited, under the signature “W. E. Gilbert.” They are still constantly being added to. Whenever G-CASK that history-making Fokker, drones across some unexplored territory in its varied undertakings, another map takes form to bring joy to the Topographical Survey at Ottawa. That his efforts in this direction arc appreciated is proved by the fact that last December he received, as a Christmas box, the right to add the significant letters F.R.G.S. to his name.
It isn’t a fad with Gilbert; it’s a passion. When he was mustered out of the R. A. F. at the end of the war he went to the Canadian Government Exploratory Surveys for nearly six years. From 1922 to 1925 he footslogged his way with a party that covered 3,(XX) square miles of British Columbia mountains. In 1921 he had taken a flying refresher course at Camp Borden, but it was not until 1927 that he seriously assumed wings again as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force forestry patrol in Northern Manitoba.
The strenuous years on the ground had left their mark on him. He could no more fly over unknown territory
without mapping it than a cat could turn its back on a bowl of cream. His ability for such work being soon recognized, 1928 found him on aerial photo survey in Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In December of the same year he went to the Canadian Airways. He has been with them ever since.
Regarding his past record, it is not surprising that he entered commercial aviation with the soul of a topographist, nor is it hard to understand why Major Burwash found him such a useful and congenial companion.
A Race For Life
TN THE summer of 1929 Gilbert was flying on the North-*■ ern British Columbia coast. In the interior, at Emerald Lake, a mining engineer by the name of William Hughes had the misfortune to engage in a hand-to-hand tussle with a grizzly bear. Dangerously mauled, he was brought to Burns Lake, and a call went out for a plane to rush him to Vancouver for the medical attention necessary to save his life. Gilbert got the job.
Taking off from Stewart, on the Alaskan boundary, the pilot landed at Burns Lake and picked up the patient. Instead of cutting back to the coast, he mapped out an inland course that would take him to Vancouver in better time. Quesnel, Seaton Lake and Squamish saw him roaring south on his mission of mercy, in the accomplishment of which he flew 1.000 miles.
It was not an enjoyable trip, the temperature being over
100 degrees most of the way and the air being bumpy in the extreme. Nevertheless Hughes reached Vancouver safely and pulled through after a lengthy stay in hospital. It was a splendid news yarn, and the papers made much of it. Gilbert was the hero of the hour. For his part, he was very pleased that he had been able to render the injured engineer assistance, but it was not the publicity that brought a secret grin to his lips. What was tickling him was the fact that in the urgency of the occasion he had pioneered a new air route through the “interior;” a route which would serve admirably when the “outside” was under one of its frequent blankets of fog. All the time he had been racing for a man’s life he had been methodically storing away a wealth of new topographical detail.
Gilbert’s intense interest in the North American continent is not unnatural. It has been the habitat of the Gilberts for a long time. The family, a Devonshire one, moved to Montreal in 1780 on becoming displeased with the country to the South, which had been their previous home. “Gil,” who made his bow at Cardinal. Ontario, thirty-two years ago, therefore feels reasonably safe in classifying himself as a Canadian.
He grew up in Cardinal, took his senior matriculation, and went direct to the R. A. F. as soon as he had accrued the necessary eighteen years of age. Previously he had tried to get into the army but had been turned down. For the last two years of the war he laid the foundation of his flying career in a hard, hectic school, flying S.E. 5’s with the 56th and 32nd squadrons. The latter outfit, a corps squadron, was constantly on the move from one section of the front to another and provided the young flying officer with a variety of experiences.
In April, 1918, Gilbert picked up an anti-aircraft shell splinter with his left hand while flying over the Somme, but the damaged member was repaired without permanent damage. During Germany’s last desperate bid for air supremacy he was taken down with ’flu and consigned to England. Less than a week after he left the squadron, the 32nd squadron was cut off over enemy territory by a German circus of between eighty and ninety ships. Of the eighteen planes that had set out, two returned.
The years immediately following his discharge in 1919
have been lightly touched upon up to his appointment to
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the Canadian Airways. His first commercial work found him in a newly developed mining country centring on The Pas. where, for the ' first time, the airplane was demonstrating its ability to crack open the outlying mineral fields of the continent.
March, 1929. saw him transferred to the Pacific Coast. It produced what he considers to be the hardest flying of his career. Even the Arctic in its most frigid mood is preferable to the fog-smothered mountains and steep swells of the British Columbia coastline, he declares. Nevertheless he made no complaints. The job brought him aerial exploratory surveys and photographic reconnaissances of major proportions, and the tougher the assignment the better he liked it.
One bit of work he did is still clearly remembered at Prince Rupert. There had been an insistent demand for a highway i between that port and Terrace, B.C., a j claim having been made that an easy route 1 lay through certain low passes in the mountainous country that intervened. The matter became a political issue and aroused a great 1 deal of interest and bitterness, so much so
that the Surveyor-General of British Columbia sent Gilbert in on a photographic Í reconnaissance.
‘‘It was terrific country,” says Walter, j “Never saw anything less promising for a ; forced landing. We had to fly between : 17.CXX) and 18,000 feet a great deal of the j time and the lowest pass we found was 7,(XX) ! feet high. When our photos were promin-1 ently displayed in Rupert the proposed ; highway suffered a natural death.”
Even more uncomfortable than explora' tory trips, however, was his work with the 1 fisheries patrol. Carrying an inspector, he moved up and down the coast on the lookout : for poachers. The job entailed constant landings, often on steep swells. The average flight was not longer than fifteen minutes, which meant a succession of hazardous landings and take-offs in the course of a single busy day. Always, too. there was the fog and the constant menace of the mountains that reared themselves straight from the sea.
"The deuce of it was that we could expect no assistance on coming alongside a fishing
vessel about to be placed under arrest. The crew of the teat, not unnaturally, was in no welcoming mood and we had to secure our own lines before coming aboard. It was no fun with the plane and the teat bobbing merrily in a chop.”
One annoyed fisherman almost deprived Canadian aviation of Gilbert's further services. The boat had been caught redhanded and, following the custom, had been ordered into the nearest jxirt boasting a magistrate. Gilbert had just cast off and was slowly drifting across the tews of the motionless vessel when he heard the order ‘Tull speed ahead.” Instead of attempting to taxi clear of the boat’s path he put his seaplane directly alongside the tew and, by skilful handling, was swung clear by the fishing craft’s forward motion.
"The skipper claimed it was an accident,” Gilbert grins, "and it certainly would have been a proper one if he'd had a decent run at us. The inspector told him to tell it to the magistrate. He did and it cost him an extra $200.”
In January, 1930. he reported to Fort McMurray and became the team-mate of "Punch” Dickins on the Mackenzie River run. It was fitting that his first chartered trip carried him far into the little known Nahanni mountains northwest of Fort Simpson. The Nahannis are objects of respect and no little awe to the Northman, for they have teen found practically impenetrable on foot or by canoe. This suited Gilbert perfectly. He decided then and there that he was going to enjoy his new job.
Piloting Major Burwash
THE highlight of his career from the point of view of accomplishment came in August of the same year with his being chosen to pilot Major Burwash. His mechanic-photographer for the expedition was Stanley Knight and the ship was G-SASK. the strenuous comings and goings of which have already formed the theme of an article in Maclean s. SK had just been flown out of the far North under her own power, after having lain for months at the mercy of the Arctic, following her abandonment during the MacAlpine search. It spoke well for the mechanical staff of the Airways that the plane was declared fit to undertake the Burwash expedition without having come any farther South than Fort McMurray for its final tuning up.
Due to one cause ana another, the project was late in getting under way, and a less enthusiastic party would have postponed operations until the following season. MidAugust is not the ideal time for setting out on an aerial trip in the region of the seventieth parallel. Nevertheless, from August 15 to September 10, SK covered 4,000 miles; this in spite of an entire week in which she lay stormbound.
What the expedition accomplished has already been given to the world. Scientific observations, relics of the Franklin expedition and such like are the details which have held an appeal to the layman. What warmed the heart of Walter Gilbert, however, was the sight of 1,500 miles of Arctic coastline unfolding below him, and the knowledge that Stanley Knight’s camera was methodically recording every shoal, island and inlet. Much of the survey was carried out under hazardous ice conditions, but that was beside the point. The important thing was that an extensive coastline had been charted; one so little known, so perilous, that even the deep sea captains test acquainted with it had never risked steaming along it after dark.
The course followed was from Bernard Harter along the south coast of Victoria Island, across Queen Maud Gulf to King William Island, then along the west shore of Boothia Peninsula to the North Magnetic Pole. From this point the expedition cut back to the west shore of King William Island, travelled south to the Canadian mainland, then westward to the Coppermine River. In all, some 1,800 miles of coastline had teen covered and the great majority o'" it aerially photographed.
"It was a long way. from being the hardest trip I’ve experienced.” Gilbert says, “but it was the most satisfying. On a couple of occasions we had trouble with ice forming on the wing, but the only really uncomfortable time we spent was the week in Bernard Harter. The wind blew for seven full days, ranging up to fifty-five miles an hour, and usually it could be counted to make a complete circuit of the compass twice in every twenty-four hours. The result was that we never knew exactly where to anticipate trouble. We’d just get SK nicely put to bed under shelter when the weather would come roaring down from the opposite direction. Nobody slept very much that week.”
At Great Bear Lake
nPIIE year 1931 was notable in Canadian 4mining circles for the great activity in the Great Bear Lake district at a time when other fields were suffering a severe slump. Gilbert and SK made the initial trips into Echo Bay in the months of February and March which resulted in the development of the Eldorado discovery of pitchblende. It was not a job for a novice, involving 8,000 miles of flying in temperatures ranging from thirty to fifty-five degrees below zero. The trips were accomplished without incident, however, and "Gil” was presented with the opportunity of becoming better acquainted with that great body of water straddling the Arctic circle.
A week after the last Great Bear flight had been completed, he was off on an exploratory trip from Edmonton into the Rocky Mountains. Winging to Fort George, B.C., he swung north for 400 miles over Sifton Pass to a tributary of the Upper Liard River. Of the 1,700 miles he flew by the time he returned to Edmonton, 1,000 were over territory that had not previously echoed to the drumming (T an airplane propeller. His log says that “much useful corrective data was secured, to be added to existing maps;” which would indicate that he had enjoyed himself immensely.
Early in August he piloted a commercial passenger flight from Edmonton to Aklavik, to Fort Yukon, Alaska, to Lapierre House, Yukon Territory, and return. It was a 4,500 mile jaunt, covering much new territory and offering Gilbert an opportunity to garner a great deal of fresh topographical detail.
Just to round out a satisfactory month, the end of August found him across on the other side of the continent, engaged in transporting white fox trappers from Fort Reliance to jxfints on the Thelon River. It was on the Thelon that Jack Hornby, most famous of twentieth century Northmen, had his dream —and died of starvation with two companions. Gilbert flew over this wholly unmapped section during the ferrying of the fur bringers to their trapping grounds, and shortly afterward the Topographical Survey was presented with a satisfactory sketch map constructed on a scale of 12 miles to the inch.
As may be gathered, Gilbert travels over a large area. Also, when the opportunity presents itself, he travels at a clip that reminds one of cross-continent record breakers. Last winter he drove from the Coppermine, on the Arctic, to Edmonton in ten hours and forty minutes of flying time for the 1,340 miles. Daylight being at a premium at that time of year, it required two hops for the trip, but it set a record for winter travel that is liable to stand for some time. In the summer of 1931, he knocked all figures for the McMurray-Aklavik run on the head by doing the 1,465 miles in fourteen hours, twenty minutes elapsed time. This included stops at Fort Norman and Hay River. His flying time was just five minutes under twelve hours. This was a trip that used to take two months by dog train.
When Gilbert Met Lindbergh
VXT'ALTER explains that there is nothing ** remarkable in making fast time providing the wind is in the right direction and the ship and mechanic can be depended on. In the last two respects he considers himself
the most fortunate pilot flying in the North. There are newer, flashier planes than SK no I doubt, but he holds for the veteran Fokker an affection that nothing can shake. As for his mechanic, he had "inherited” Lou Parmenter from "Punch” Dickins.
l^ou is the dean of mechanics down the Mackenzie. Everyone knows him. He has j established an almost legendary reputation ' as the result of his ability to make an engine turn over under circumstances where it has absolutely no business to do so. Also he is the possessor of an inexhaustible store of dry, and sometimes earthy, humor, which makes him a first-rate travelling companion. No one will gainsay Gilbert’s claim that he has been singularly blessed as regards the mechanic of SK’s Pratt and Whitney power plant.
When Lindbergh returned from the Orient he found time, before commencing his crosscontinent flight to the bereaved Morrow home, to write Walter Gilbert a letter thanking him for the assistance he had volunteered when the Lindbergh monoplane had put in at Aklavik on its eastward journey. During the several days the big monoplane had been held up in the Mackenzie delta, Gilbert and Parmenter had offered the distinguished American pilot their mechanical assistance as well as many useful tips on flying in that section of the world.
Gilbert sums Lindbergh up neatly.
“He’s the sort of fellow you’d go out of j your way to help because he’s the last fellow j who would expect you to do it.”
He is equally enthusiastic over Mrs. j Lindbergh. That isn’t unnatural for, like I the “F'lying Colonel,” Gilbert possesses a j wife who is a licensed pilot. Mrs. Gilbert j was the first woman to get her "ticket” in i British Columbia more than two years ago.
I Walter claims that she’s a better hand at the stick than he is, and, what’s more, he means it.
“I’ve encouraged her to keep up with the game,” he declares, “because she’s a natural pilot, and because close association with flying keeps her from unnecessary worries when I happen to take on a more or less ambitious show.”
To meet Gilbert personally is to meet the popular conception of a birdman. He is fair, slight, wiry, and never, apparently, at rest during his waking hours. He is a denial of the assertion concerning clothes and the man. Whether you find him in an immaculate dinner jacket or buried in an Eskimo parka, there is always the impression of his being poised for instant flight.
A year ago I decided that this article should be written. Encountering my subject at Government House in Edmonton as he made his New Year’s call, I told him I wanted his story.
"Any time you wish,” he said, and vanished in the crowd.
He proved a most elusive fellow. I flew to Fort McMurray with the direct purpose of ending the pursuit once and for all. When Gilbert breezed in with a Barren Lands trapper and a cargo of live white foxes, he found me occupying the bunk above his in the Airways shack.
We were room-mates for two days. At the end of that time he headed North—and 1 still didn’t have the story. I really didn’t know how it had happened. During the day he’d be hopping from one job to another; at night he’d crawl unobtrusively into his sleeping bag and be dead to the world before a chap could get a word in edgeways. As I stood watching his plane vanish in the cold mist down the Athabaska Valley I examined my conscience unflinchingly. There hadn’t been an opportunity during those two days in which I could have tied “Gil” down to a conventional interview without making an open nuisance of myself.
So it went for nearly a year. Finally two things came to my assistance. The first was the “in-between” season in the North, when neither ski nor pontoon is offered the landing surface it requires. The second was the necessity of SK going to the shops for its annual overhaul. Deprived of his North and his ship, the pilot had no choice but to come out into the open and give himself up.
For the most part he referred me to his logs. When we were finished he said, hopefully I thought: "I don’t see how you’re
going to make a story out of that.”