Ears of the Wilderness
EIGHTY PER CENT OVERCAST CIRRUS AND CIRROCUMULUS TO NORTH MOSTLY CLEAR OVER HEAD, CUMULUS REMAINDER. FIVE THOUSAND VIS EXCELLENT WIND SOUTH BY WEST EIGHT TEMP SEVENTY.”
A wilderness radio operator rips the message from a small portable typewriter and flicks it to a pilot who meanwhile has read it over the operator’s shoulder. The pilot again scans the yellow form, stuffs it into a hip pocket and announces:
“Weather okay. Let’s go,”
Pilot, air engineer and passengers file toward a moored plane. Timid or tough, as they take their places in the ship’s cabin they cannot help but feel an added glow of confidence from the recent dotting of nidio operators and short-wave stations throughout the plane-served areas of our Canadian North.
Particularly the pilot. Gone, for him, are the old days of weather-guessing. Today the WX or weather flash from a company operator 400 miles north tells him that the sky is overcast but with a high type of cloud; that his ceiling is 5,000 feet and visibility of the best; that he may expect an eight-mile-an-hour tail wind, and that the temperature at the point of report is seventy degrees.
For years he has handled northern freight and passenger loads with information on local weather only—and fond hopes for the rest. Today, thanks to the work of a small group of Canadian short-wave radio pioneers, he whirls into the ozone possessed of a definite weather report covering an area as broad as it is his wish to query. In the Northland such reports are free to all who care to ask.
True, radio in connection with flying is not new. Established airlines have their weather services and direct communication with pilots on the wing. But to do this they
must carry a large ground force, with cumbersome long-wave and short-wave stations at frequent intervals. The North, with its wide wilderness reaches, could not be so handled. Cost alone was prohibitive. Some new and economical method of long distance communication was needed.
Like the Canucks who earlier had pioneered in other branches of northern flying to produce skiequipped undercarriages, motor heaters and cabin heaters, nose hangers and many another gadget necessary to successful wilderness operation, Canadian radio engineers turned from the old and took a new line of attack. The solution to their problem was found in the then little-known and highly experimental short-wave radio telegraph field.
“Ham Ops” Have Their Day
ÜOR YEARS a scattered group of tousle-headed fanatics -L had strained and toiled and cursed and sweated the night hours through, endeavoring to land a cheep from Chili, a squaw’k from Auckland, or a message from some ship at sea, in attic rooms resembling a patch of Passchendaele wiring tossed into the used motor section of any city dump. Banished to wave lengths below the regular broadcast band, they worked on an international code and called themselves
amateur radio operators. To the general public they were “radio bugs,” and to the long-wave experts they were “ham ops” or just “hams.” They infested every country—Canada, it was thought, having rather more than her share.
Today these same “hams” are the experts handling northern air traffic on “ham-built” sets, operating on wave lengths discarded as useless for long-wave transmission. In a highly mineralized territory where shortwave radio was regarded as practically useless, these short-wave circuits are now working twice the distance of long-wave stations on one-fifth the power, and showing an actual operating capacity of ninety-nine per cent efficiency.
As in every new departure three elements were required—vision, facts, and financing. Prominent among visualizers of short-w'ave transmission possibilities in Northern Canada was Harry R. McLaughlin, formerly broadcast station and “ham” radio operator, and now', among other things, radio manager of the Dominionwide flying concern of Canadian Airways Limited. The financial backer of the experimental short-wave projects, clubbed by many radio experts a pipe-dream, was that company’s president, James A. Richardson, Winnipeg.
Today the stations of Canadian Airways that pioneered the North in the short-wave field co-operate with the combined long-wave and short-wave stations of the Royal Canadian Signals, and with several private stations operated by various mining companies.
At points where no R. C. S. station exists, Canadian Airways operators accept commercial messages for relay to the nearest Government station, work general traffic, receive news flashes and stock quotations. Telegraphic messages are handled from the Arctic to any part of the world through connections with land line and cable, and remote northern outposts are brought within minutes of civilization.
The value of such communication was sharply demonstrated during the ice break-up period when all forms of northern transportation are out of operation. At Great Bear Lake a mine employee suffered a severe injury. It was an urgent case, requiring the immediate attention of a specialist. A short-wave message was shot through to Winnipeg, direct. A prominent specialist picked up his bedside telephone at three o’clock in the morning, discussed the case symptoms with the patient across 1,800 miles of wilderness and made his diagnosis. Less than an hour after receiving the injury the patient was being successfully treated.
At God’s Lake, centre of Manitoba’s newest gold scramble, located 200 miles north and east of historic Norway House, short-wave radio plays as natural a part in business as does an office telephone. Designed and built, as was all Canadian Airways experimental radio apparatus, in its own radio department at Winnipeg, and weighing only 300 pounds complete with operator, motor and generator, the God’s Lake equipment was dumped by plane on June 5 on a rocky, scantily wooded shore. By June 7, the dinky outfit was housed in a log shack and in regular communication with other stations of the company circuit at Middlechurch (Winnipeg); Fort McMurray, Alberta; Fort Rae, N. W. T.; and Cameron Bay on Great Bear Lake.
With a weekly boat plying Lake Winnipeg’s 300-mile expanse and regular plane service connecting, fresh meat, vegetables, or any urgent supply or repair orders “wired” to Winnipeg on Monday noon may be delivered to God’s Lake camps early on Wednesday. Consulting engineers prowling the area may be in constant code communication with their sponsors west, south or east. Prospectors send their samples out by plane and receive their assay returns by radio-telegraph, saving weeks of time and, in some instances no doubt, the expense and trouble of staking.
An Airways operator is on duty fourteen hours a day, or longer if a ship is in the air, his primary duty being WX — international code for weather—and the dispatching of company traffic. Between schedules or “skeds,” he is the area’s handyman, servicing everything mechanical from radio receivers and outboard motors to the most intricate of timepieces. Like the telephone office in a small town, the radio shack in a mining camp is the centre of activity, a boon to business, and the first thought in case of emergency.
Beating Old Man Winter
4*gold prospect, Island Lake
Mines, located within a few
miles of the Northern Manitoba-
Ontario boundary, owes a full
year’s operation to radio. Dur-
ing the previous summer about
600 tons of equipment and sup-
plies for the installation and
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operation of a fifty-ton a day test mill had been moved by Selkirk Navigation Company steamer up Lake Winnipeg. The remaining 175 miles of alternate rock and muskeg, to be negotiated by winter tractor train, proved tough going. Time became short. If any part of the heavy mill equipment failed to reach the isolated property before spring break-up, another full year must elapse before it could arrive.
In the midst of the freighting scramble two heavy crushers, ten and four tons in weight, crashed through river ice into twenty feet of water. Equipment to handle such an emergency was entirely lacking. But there was available a lightning form of communication. A radio flash to W’innipeg brought a plane with heavy tackle and a diver. Two weeks work in forty degrees below zero, and the crusherswithout which ail other
mill machinery was valueless.....had been
But Old Man W'inter, that icicle-bearded ogre who guards the Northland from the onslaughts of gold-greedy Man. refused to accept defeat. All along the trail he placed his obstacles, laid his traps. Rock ridges he swept barren with the winds, muskeg areas he buried so deep in snow that a proper freezing of their treacherous depths could not occur.
How he must have chortled when one of the huge caterpillars, working twenty-four hours a day to complete a hauling contract already dangerously late, met such a surface, cracked through, and sank from sight for all time almost before its driver could scramble clear. And again when another tractor was caused to break a part that ordinarily would have left it useless, to lx marooned over the summer with its precious load in a muskeg wilderness.
But for once Man held the last trump in this gold game. A radio message fled south. A plane sped north. In exactly six hours the part was replaced and the train on the move. By midsummer, as scheduled, Island Lake Mines had its mill in operation.
The ultimate objective of radio engineers connected with flying is successful two-way communication with all ships in the air. The value of such a hook-up is evident. Very recently a ship carrying three passengers was forced down on a small lake within a comparatively short distance of its home dock. After the twenty-four-hour period allowed in such cases, search planes were sent out. The atmosphere was smoke hazy.
visibility poor, a plane speck on one of several thousand water patches not easily detected.
Following search flying to the extent of about $800 in cost, the missing pilot turned up at the base. In less than two hours a small motor part was flown out, installed, and the disabled ship flown in. A two-way wireless set would have saved its cost several times over in this one instance.
The natural inference would be that officials who hesitate about installing such
equipment in all ships must certainly lack common “savvy.” Such is far from the fact.
In Canada older forms of transportation are subsidized. The railways have their land punts; water shipping is aided by the building of costly Government docks, by the installation of lighthouses, charting of channels, etc; truck and bus operation is made possible, our railways complain, through the building of public highways and their upkeep at Government expense.
The airplane, a medium of transportation that has made possible the presentation to Canada of vast new territories, untold wealth, and additional sources of revenue, must bore its own way into these same outlying areas. It must be made to pay if at all possible. To do this requires strict and incessant guarding of each aircraft’s main source of income pay load.
On a 1,200-mile jaunt from Edmonton to Great Bear Lake with freight travelling at, estimating roughly, $1.50 a pound, a radio set weighing only sixty-five pounds w'ould displace $100 in pay revenue. Twenty such trips would run it into a truly prohibitive figure. Radio would appear to be definitely out.
But on the opposite scoop of the scale we have the possibility of cutting down on emergency rations and kit with the added safety of wireless-equipped craft, and the ability of radio engineers to devise an infinitely lighter type of apparatus for use in planes. Judging from the keenness and enthusiasm shown in this latter direction, and the results now being obtained, two-way communication between ground stations and all machines operating in the North is but a matter of months.
At least one northern aircraft-radio test paid for itself many times over. A gigantic Junkers freighter, capable of handling a 6,000-pound load, was slated for a job far north of Churchill, on Hudson Bay. It was decided to equip the “flying box-car” with short-wave telegraph sending and receiving apparatus.
On being introduced to the set in operation, the ship’s youthful mechanic shook his head. “Gosh,” he said dubiously, “the best I can hear is a flock of chirping.”
The instructor grinned. "That’s your signal,” he explained. “Now all you have to remember is . . . .”
What the embryo “op” was required to remember would crowd the ads from the back of this magazine. But he worked hard and remembered. In a very short time he had passed Government examinations and was “eating ’er up” to the open amazement of those seasoned old key-sweats who did their best to swamp him, being pals.
The freighting job north developed into a race with an early Barrenlands freeze-up. Working from Eskimo Point, open to hundreds of miles of inland sea,wicked weather was encountered. When every flying hour had become doubly precious in view of the dwindling open-water period, and with inland lakes already congealed, grief arrived
on the wings of a sixty-mile gale that snapped anchor chains and drove the huge freighter in a wild orgy of float-ripping far up the rocky shore.
The ship’s wireless, with its ultra-amateur “op” on the sending end, brought help from hundreds of miles south. After a week of ceaseless and heartbreaking work caused by continued high winds and ever-interfering tide, the floats were temporarily repaired with metal, canvas and sealskin, and the great machine, valued at close to $100,000, laboriously hoisted clear of clutching winter and certain destruction.
A Saving All Around
"DUT IF TWO-WAY communication with ■*-' smaller aircraft is still in the bag, at least the present wilderness dispatching system is proving itself daily. Besides time and money saved for various mining and trading companies, the actual saving to northern flying concerns themselves is enormous. To hoist a heavy plane load a hundred miles and then to be forced back by weather is a costly business now almost entirely avoided, while in many instances pilots are permitted to take off, knowing definitely that what looks like threatening weather is a strictly local condition.
Weather reports include the direction and velocity of upper and lower wind currents, allowing the pilot to climb or stay low and so make sure of them. In many cases planes are dispatched on errands that otherwise might require a trip in for orders and an immediate recovering of much of the same territory just flown. With definite reports on weather and ice conditions radio is noticeably prolonging the operating seasons. Following last spring’s break-up, a floatequipped plane was able to land at Cameron Bay on Great Bear Lake a full week earlier than would ordinarily have been possible. Volunteer workmen, using ice saws and dynamite, cleared a landing lane. The radio operator did the rest.
And last—but by many a long hop not least—there is the safety factor. Its value in a land centuries-famed for its travel dangers is incalculable. Already the airplane has established itself as the least hazardous of all modes of wilderness transportation. Combined with radio, its position as such becomes unassailable.
For this is no ordinary dispatching sys-
tem. To every “op” the pilot he directs or advises, and each of that pilot's passengers, is in all probability a personal friend. Even more than in the ordinary phases of northern life there is evident a spirit of close comradeship, always that added little personal touch. Witness a message from a pilot detailed to operate a winter base in Eskimoland, giving
the usual terse report on work, business and general routine and concluding:
“AM I TICKLED WITH THIS COCKEYED FUR UNDERWEAR TELL JOAN TO SHOOT ALONG MY WOOLIES FI RST SHIP. WITH COMPLETE OVERHAUL JOB AND SERVICED FOR BUTTONS.”