29,000 Miles Over the Artic
Repeated flights almost to the Pole itself have convinced this authority that airliners can fly the circumpolar shyway from America to Asia
AIR COMMODORE H. HOLLICK-KENYON
MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE for August 15, 1937, carrying an article in which I said that Polar air routes were feasible and would soon be in operation, was barely on the newsstands when, on August 16, I received a telegram from Sir Hubert Wilkins, asking me if 1 would fly him into the Arctic in search of the lost Russian pilot, Levanevsky.
After some, consideration, 1 telegraphed Wilkins I would lx* glad to go with him, and so found myself committed to a practical test of my own theory that Arctic flying with present-day equipment and proper radio aids to navigation, is no more difficult than is flying anywhere else. For the budding prophet to be called upon to prove his theories in I>erson and on such short notice, you will agree, was a bit unusual.
Sir Hubert, famous and bearded Australian, had been organizer and second-in-command for Lincoln Ellsworth on his Antarctic expeditions of 1933-34-35. Pre-War pilot and explorer, memlx'r of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913, war photographer, air explorer of the Antarctic and Arctic, he has probably a Polar experience wider and more varied than any living explorer.
Levanevsky, the man we were to search for, popularly called the “Lindbergh of Russia,” really was so. His flight was the culminating effort of years of study, training, organization and preparation, and followed two other flights from Moscow across the Pole to North America, both successful. Levanevsky left Moscow on August 12 to fly across the Pole to Fairbanks in Alaska, commanding a crew of five men and operating a large four-engined land monoplane. The flight made normal progress till it reached a point estimated to be about 200 miles on the Alaskan side of the Pole, when Levanevsky rejxirted trouble with one engine, and ice formation on the airplane. No further messages were received from the airplane. The Soviet authorities took immediate steps to start search parties to aid the missing airmen.
1 accepted the commission from Wilkins with pleasure, since I had had some experience of Polar flying in the Antarctic (making a flight of 2.250 miles across the Antarctic with Lincoln Ellsworth in 1935), and had visited the Canadian Arctic in 1928 as a member of the search party for Colonel C. D. H. McAlpine and party, and had also been in the Sub-Arctic in 1932 and 1933.
The expedition enabled me to see more of the Arctic in a few months than most men would see in a lifetime, since it resulted in our flying 29,000 miles over the circumjx>lar region. Twice we flew to within 200 miles of the Pole itself.
The detailed story of the search for Levanevsky has really little to do with this article, except that it was through Levanevsky that a great deal was learned about Arctic conditions. He set out to make one flight of 4.000
miles; in failing he accomplished much, for we now know much more of Arctic conditions than we should have learned in several years of normal progress had his flight succeeded. It may truly be said that his failure was a glorious one, for it has advanced the science of aviation greatly.
Three Continents Co-operate
Æ Y VIEW of the search was of necessity limited to my own little sector, for we saw nothing of the other aircraft engaged in the same work. Some were at Point Barrow in Alaska, others on the Russian side of the Pole at Rudolph Island. Occasionally our radio brought us word of them.
But in the interests of clarity, perhaps a summary of the search, principally as I saw it, and secondarily from its various aspects, should be recorded. It was a joint effort, involving co-operation of governments, commercial companies, and numberless individuals, on this continent, in Europe and the Asiatic Soviet Union. And I like to think that it was a demonstration of the real spirit of human nature, that these nations of varying outlook could so harmoniously work together, in so great a way, for so relatively small an objective as the rescue of six men !
The Eastern section of the search, of which we were a part, may fairly be divided into two phases, for convenience, which we may call summer and winter. I will not here discuss that part of the search which continues from the Soviet side of the Arctic.
For the summer search it was necessary, because of the lack of aerodromes at suitable bases in the Arctic, to use aircraft which could operate from water surfaces. Local searches of coast lines and some Alaskan areas could be, and were, conducted by land planes, but for all long-range search work flying boats were necessary. For the winter search, land planes equipped with skis for landing on snow and ice were necessary.
The last report received from Levanevsky was at a position estimated to be 200 miles on the Alaskan side of the Pole. For searchers from the Canadian coast, this meant that a flight of 1,400 miles was required to reach the farthest north portion of the search area. The same distance would have to be flown to return to the base, and if any zigzagging were to be done, this would increase the mileage. For example, three hours spent cruising in the search area would increase the required total mileage to about 3,250. Allow a reserve of twenty per cent for adverse winds or other contingencies, and the total figure rises to 3,900 miles. Say then in round figures that the aircraft selected must have a range of 4,000 miles. For comparison, it is interesting to note that the distance over Trans-Canada Airlines from Vancouver to Montreal is 2,460 miles, and from Montreal to London 3,270 miles. Such an aircraft, therefore, can make either of these flights without stopping and land with a reserve of fuel.
The immediate problem was to obtain aircraft suitable for this work. The two Soviet transpolar planes which had landed in North America had been dismantled for shipment to Moscow, and the large four-engined planes used for carriage to the Pole of the Papanin party, which established a base there, had insufficient fuel capacity, though easily able to carry the necessary load. The work of installing additional tankage in these aircraft was at once begun, and they joined the search as soon as they were ready, operating from Rudolph Island.
To meet the need for immediate action from the American continent, the situation could be met only by purchase of a suitable type of aircraft. Unfortunately, 4,000-milerange aircraft cannot be bought “over the counter,” but by the kindness of Richard Archbold, millionaire pilotexplorer, his 2,200-horsepower seagoing flying boat, intended for an expedition to New Guinea, was turned over to the Soviet Government, and early on the morning of August 21 we flew over the loose pack ice of Coronation Gulf, on the Arctic coast of Canada, to make our landing at Coppermine, our first base for the search.
This Consolidated flying boat, now registered as the Soviet civil aircraft L2, has a cruising speed, at economy power settings, of 155 to 160 miles per hour, carries a crew of five, and has a cruising range of 4,000 miles. It is equipped with all necessary radio and navigational instruments, and has ample accommodation for the crew to live on board, which we did much of the time.
Our crew consisted of Sir Hubert, who would function as leader and observer; S. A. Cheeseman, well-known Port Arthur personality, who justified his appellation of “Flying Alderman” by acting as first officer; Gerald Brown, a very fine young Australian air engineer; and Raymond Booth, American and a very capable radio operator. Operation of a large flying boat is by teamwork, and this crew showed their training and spirit by carrying out, without previous experience with each other, a most unusual operation in a faultless manner. In five weeks we flew this boat 13,000 miles over the Arctic Sea.
TO AID the Soviet transpolar flights, a forecast office had been established at Fairbanks, Alaska, and through the coast radio stations at Coppermine and Aklavik, N.W.T., and Point Barrow, Alaska, we were able to make the best use of the forecasts of Arctic weather they gave us.
This forecast organization in itself was remarkable, for, utilizing the high-speed communication given us by radio, our forecasters were able to receive the reports of lonely men stationed in the most remote Arctic points, as well as the ordinary reporting stations of the Northern Hemisphere. These names in themselves make one visualize romance, some of them bringing back memories of past tragedies and adventures—Wrangell Island, Ostrov Rudolfa, Spitsbergen. God’s Lake, Godhavn, Angmagssalik, Vestmarmaeyjar, Jan Mayen, Tsip Navolok, Mourmansk, Cape Jelaniya. Who can read such names as these, and not feel a stirring of the blood?
From Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faeroes, Norway, Denmark. Alaska, and all the Arctic Soviet stations, twice daily to Fairbanks came hundreds of reports— meaningless jumbles of figures to most of us. To the forecaster they meant, when translated, intelligence regarding temperatures, humidities, winds, pressures, and clouds, and under his skilful hands and watching brain a map took form. This covered about sixty per cent of the North Polar region, and from this amount of
known information there could be made a reasonably accurate forecast of the weather in the remaining forty per cent, of the area, the part we were interested in and wanted to fly over.
When we intended flying, this forecast service gave us twice daily a forecast for thirty-six hours ahead, specifying the weather to be expected in four or five distinct areas. We might be lying at anchor in a cove of Prince Patrick Island, 600 miles from the nearest settlement, surrounded by ice-filled seas, but our weather forecasts never failed to arrive.
To deal briefly with our section of the search, we made three flights from Coppermine, flying forty-eight hours and tw'enty-five minutes, and consuming all available fuel at this point. We then proceeded to Aklavik, near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, where further fuel was available, and from there made two flights to the search area, a total of forty-eight hours, forty-five minutes flying. The longest individual flight was one of tw'enty-tw'o hours, fifteen minutes.
The season being then far advanced toward winter, we flew the boat back to New York. The decision was then reached to equip a winter search from this continent, and suitable equipment was looked for and found in the Lockheed Electra 10E monoplane, which had been used by Richard Merrill to cross the Atlantic tw'ice. This was purchased from the owner by the Soviet Government, and after suitable preparation for Arctic winter flying, and fitting of skis at Edmonton, the party arrived at Aklavik on November 22.
Two members of our boat crew had had to leave us to rejoin Archbold and go to New' Guinea. To replace them, w'e were fortunate to secure Alan Dyne, of Winnipeg, whom I had known as a specially capable air engineer for ten years past, and W. R. Wilson and Robert Cooke, Marconitrained radio engineers, to look after our several radio stations.
To aid in the navigation of long flights, it had been decided to install radio transmitters, receivers, and direction-finding stations, at both Aklavik and Point Barrow. The reason for this was that the construction of the Electra was such that to obtain sights of the stars for navigation would be very difficult. The Canadian and American Governments gave the Soviet Government permission to install these stations, and I think it probable that this installation of foreign-owned radio stations in Canadian and United States territories was unique. Therefore, after arrival at Aklavik, some time was taken in erecting and testing these radio stations, which proved to be very' useful.
We had arrived in the Arctic too late to make use of the
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November moon. The sun set for the last time in 1937 at Aklavik in late November, and thereafter there would be no more than twilight till late in January. Farther north the twilight would become increasingly darker, till at latitude 75 it would be heavy darkness.
Now we encountered an interesting experience, for while flying to Point Barrow on December 6, at a height of 8.000 feet, we once more saw the sun rise for a few minutes, peeking over the snowcapped mountain tops. Since Barrow is farther north than Aklavik. the twilight there was even darker than we had become accustomed to, and therefore when on January 11. flying back to Aklavik at a height of 9.000 feet, we again saw the sun, we greeted it with cheers -even though it set again, slowly falling below the glistening peaks, in a few minutes, and we did not see it for some weeks, till it rose again, harbinger of spring, at Aklavik.
Owing to the fact that there is no full daylight in the Arctic regions in midwinter, and in the Northern Arctic there is not even twilight, it had been intended to conduct search flights by moonlight, using periods of full m<K>n for this purpose. The December moon found the search area lying under heavy storm clouds, and títere was therefore no search flight during this period. The weather at Barrow at this
time was fairly good. The January moon was similarly beset by storm areas over the region it was desired to search, although on January 14 a flight of nine and a half hours was made by moonlight to latitude 76 to test the accuracy of the forecast, as Aklavik weather was clear and brilliantly moonlit nearly every night. It was unfortunately quite accurate, as the light haze over the Arctic Sea thickened into increasingly heavy weather as the flight progressed northward.
An engine breakdown on the ground then occurred, which grounded the aircraft for a month. Two flights to search the Alaskan coastal mountains were then made, total flying time seventeen and a half hours, without success. On March 10 a further flight, mainly by daylight, was made, but encountered weather which rendered searching impossible, and was abandoned, eleven hours and ten minutes of flying being done.
The last and most successful flight of the winter search took place on March 14, when the aircraft proceeded to a point estimated to be latitude 87 north, longitude 150 west. 200 miles from the Pole, the return flight being made almost entirely by night, the total flying time nineteen and a half hours, the distance covered being estimated at 3.300 miles. A landing was effected at Aklavik at four fifteen
a.m., under a solid overcast and light snowstorm, aided by an improvised flarepath.
The search from this continent was then closed, it being considered likely from available information concerning the drift of the polar ice pack, that the missing party must have drifted out of reach of searching parties from the North American continent, the drift probably being toward the coast of the Soviet Union. The aircraft was flown back to New York and there dismantled for shipment to Moscow. The search continues from Rudolph Island, where four four-engined monoplanes are now based for this duty. One of them, commanded by Moskovsky, flew to the Pole on April 4, effecting a search in that area and returning to its base after a flight of more than eleven hours.
Hardships of the Arctic
T AM often asked to tell of my most
thrilling adventure on this search, and am compelled to disappoint my questioner by admitting that we had no adventure. Several experiences of interest, yes. Who was it that said that adventures are the result of poor organization? For the most part, flying over the Arctic Ocean is a succession of turns of watchkeeping, where for hour after hour one checks the course-
keeping of the automatic pilot, the readings of the engine and navigating instruments, and receives and dispatches reports by radio. Below one passes a drearyexpanse of ice, cracked here and there by tide and wind, or else one sees little but banks of cloud or fog. Above one by day the sun swings its course, at night the Aurora sports with Polaris. Along the Alaskan coast line magnificent views of the coastal mountains, sheer snow-clad peaks, can be observed in fine weather. They look much like our Rockies, and are well worth seeing.
The flying boat was large, and we lived and slept in it as one would on a small cabin cruiser, using Primus stoves for cooking. The quality of the cooking varied according to the crew member who did it. We were glad to be able to purchase some fresh reindeer meat while at Barter Island. On our long flights we would relieve each other for meals, and I can well remember the delicious reindeer steaks we enjoyed in flight at 10,000 feet not so very far from the North Pole! Embellished with fried onions, made savory by that best of all sauces, hunger, and helped down by large mugs of really good coffee, they were landmarks where there were no landmarks!
During the winter search with the Lockheed, there was not sufficient room to live on board, and we all lived in whatever settlement our base was located, accommodation varying, but hospitality of our hosts always overwhelmingly generous. Wilkins and I made up the crew for flights north, he doing the navigating and observing, and I the flying, engines, and radio operating. We had no space or time in which to cook, and had to be content with reindeer sandwiches and coffee from a thermos flask. Hardships of the Arctic!
Of course one gets tired on a nineteenor twenty-hour flight, and also if one flies at ten and twelve thousand feet for very long there is a fatigue induced by lack of oxygen. But we were usually busy, and as long as one is occupied incessantly, one does not feel sleepiness or fatigue.
That concludes the outline of our part of the search. Much of the detail, while interesting, has been previously told and does not bear on the subject in hand, which is the practicability or otherwise of commercial flying on Arctic airways.
When the transport pilot speaks of an airway, he means an air route which has been properly organized for commercial use; that is to say, it has airports at certain points which will have proper lighting for night operation, intermediate landing fields at short intervals also lighted, a series of highand medium-powered radio ranges, radio stations for telephone communication to and from the plane, a complete weather reporting and forecasting service, and certain other auxiliary services.
Obstacles and Mishaps
IN MY article of August 15, last year, I said that I believed Arctic air services to be feasible if proper airways were provided. You have read the brief story of the unique opportunity I enjoyed to test those theories, and I think that some remarks on what we learned would be in order. In them I will try to point out how the results might be expected to compare with flight operations on an established airway.
A summary of the flying times of the Eastern Section search party commanded by Wilkins shows the following, summer and winter included:
Flying on search flight, 152 hours, 40 minutes; fernand other flying in Arctic Circle, 30 hours, 15 minutes; a grand total of 182 hours, 55 minutes.
The aids to navigation available were negligible. In the summer it was possible to use successfully the aircraft directionfinding apparatus twice. In the winter operation, the ground direction-finding stations could be made use of on two occasions only. Improvised and very sketchily lighted landing paths were utilized on two occasions during the winter. Communication with the ground was available at all times from the aircraft, and the forecasts of weather which were received in flight were extremely valuable.
For the time spent in the Arctic, it would seem that the flying time accomplished was not very great. This is quite true, of course. Pilots in airline service expect to complete up to 100 hours of flying monthly, in normal service. But I have stated that we often encountered weather which made conditions unfit for searching, which means that our view of the ice surface became poor or was completely lost. On two occasions we encountered weather which made searching impossible but which would, in North American commercial practice, have been flown through on instruments. On the other occasions, the weather was of such a nature as not to offer any obstacle to normal flying procedure, though one could not make a search in it. Generally, this was caused by low-lying fog or clouds.
There were many days when we lay at our base inactive, although the weather there was perfect. In December, January and February there might be no moon, and therefore no light to search the surface by; or, alternatively, if there was a moon the weather forecast for the northern areas might be quite unfavorable. I have no hesitation in saying that, given proper lighting and radio aids to navigation such as there are on a commercial airway, we could have flown on four days out of five. But that would not have helped us to make the search any more effective.
Taking an average of the speeds of the boat and the land plane as being 160 miles per hour, which is a conservative estimate, we may say then that during the search operations I have flown some 29,000 odd miles within the Arctic Circle. This was done without the aids to navigation usually found on a commercial airway, though we had two-way communication and such weather forecasts as could be made.
The effects of this lack of aids to navigation showed in several minor ways. First of all, while taxiing along the Mackenzie River at night, with windows all heavily frosted, one propeller struck a wooden pole embedded in the ice and was slightly bent. On a second occasion, a tail-ski fitting was broken, due to carrying men in the rear end of the cabin, while taxiing over rough ice -this, being an improper distribution of weight, overloading the ski fitting. On yet a third occasion, the bottoms of the main skis were damaged on a gravel bar in a Yukon river, while approaching a fuel supply. The fourth and most inconvenient, an engine breakdown, occurred because we tried to hurry the pre-heating of the engine, standing outside in forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
None of these mishaps would have occurred in service on a regularly organized airway, and in only one case was more than a temporary delay suffered. And as a further proof that the conditions of the test were more severe than is to be expected in normal service, let me add that with both the flying boat and the skiplane it was our practice to take off at the commencement of a full-range search flight with an overload of 7,000 pounds. Note that an overload of even one pound is not permitted in commercial service.
And it would seem, too, that the difficulties of Arctic flying have been exaggerated, perhaps mistakenly, when we review the record. Two airships have crossed the Arctic wastes, and as far back as 1925
Amundsen and Ellsworth went within 120 miles of the Pole in two flying boats, lost one, and returned to safety with the whole party in the other. In 1928 Wilkins, in what we should now regard as an unsafe rattletrap, flew from Point Barrow in Alaska to Spitsbergen. Byrd flew to the Pole and returned, without incident. Last year the Pole was reached eight times, and this year at least once. Twice our search took us to within less than 200 miles of it.
Shortest Route to Asia
BUT THERE is a much more important aspect than merely reaching the Pole. Who really wants to go there? Not even the explorer now. because it is no longer unknown territory. Not the adventurer, because it is no longer an adventure. Not even the tourist, because there is only a vast level expanse of pack ice to see, such as we all see on our lakes each winter. But the man of science, eager to discover the drift of ice, the sea currents, the nature of the prevailing winds, the whys and wherefores of our perplexing weather, does want to go. Already the Arctic is dotted with radio stations, manned by patient men, slaves of the barograph, anemometer, and thermometer for what end? To the end that we may know from day to day the weather of our Arctic regions, make forecasts ahead, and thus go about our lawful occasions safely, should we desire to travel speedily to Asia or Europe.
Most of our maps delude us into thinking that our best way from Toronto to Shanghai is via the Hawaiian Islands, whereas actually we. can save about. 4,000 miles by going the shortest, way, which takes us over Northern Alaska.
This is a ]K»int that there is no need to
labor—that between our great North American centres of population and some of the Asiatic and European great centres of population, the shortest routes are through the polar regions. Not necessarily over the Pole, but skirting the Polar Sea.
The developments in modern aircraft and aids to navigation are such that it is quite possible to establish such circumpolar services today on a commercial basis, with speeds and safety such as we are now accustomed to, as soon as the necessary airports can be built and the aids to navigation installed. The necessary weather services can be obtained from the existing organizations maintained by the various nations, as was demonstrated during the recent search.
The airplane or flying boat, designed to carry forty to fifty passengers, riding comfortably in a warmed, supercharged, airconditioned cabin, flying in clear air above the clouds at heights of twenty to thirty thousand feet, is already in production for commercial service. It will fly at speeds approximating 250 miles an hour, guided on its way by new type, ultra high frequency radio range stations, the signals of which are not affected by mountains, snow static, or any other known agency. Several engines, and airports provided with means to guide the pilot in making a landing even in dense fog, will assure safe arrivals.
Ixmdon will be ten hours from Montreal, and Shanghai will be only thirty-five hours from Chicago. The traveller in midwinter will see the sunset as he passes the Arctic Circle in Canada, will pass over lands which see no sun in the winter months, and will see it. rise again as he proceeds southwestward over the vast expanses of Siberia. In summer he will follow the sun as it circles the Northern heavens, provid-
ing the continuous daylight of the Arctic summer.
Canada Not Isolated
WHAT effect will this annihilation of distance have on Canada? For long years we have considered ourselves isolated from our nearest neighbors, on the east by the stormy At lantic, on the west by the so vast and sometimes stormy Pacific, and have hardly realized that we actually have neighbors to the north, over the polar basin. We now have to realize that modern vehicles of commerce and war have reduced our barriers of isolation to mere matters of a few hours travel. Shall we, like Europe and its troubled nations, begin feverishly to arm against a day, problematical, which will bring unrelenting attack?
We know that our cousins to the south have military aircraft which will fly with full military load for 5,(XX) miles. What one nation can do, there is no reason to suppose cannot be imitated or bettered by another. Such weapons of attack can pierce our natural barriers with ease.
But I prefer to think that the people of this continent will wish to use such potent instruments for the advancement of peace rather than war. With the shortening of distances should come an increasing intercourse and a better understanding with our neighbors, east, west and north, some of whom already seem to be peaceably disposed toward their fellowmen. Our races, the North American, the AngloSaxon, and those of the Soviet Union, together wield great political power, and with a well-developed community of interest should be able to influence world opinion toward peace.
This year will see greater strides toward the inauguration of new intercontinental
airways (for South Atlantic, Pacific, and South Pacific routes already exist). We may expect to see British Imperial Airways start a North Atlantic service jointly with Pan-American Airways, while the Nazi Deutsche Luft-Hansa will renew its service via the Azores. In the Pacific, Pan-American Airways will commence a service from Seattle north to Juneau, from where, making use of present services operated by Pacific Alaska Airways (a Pan-American subsidiary), but a short distance across the Bering Straits to Asia remains to be organized, to complete a short route to the Far East. And we may expect to see the Soviet Union make further efforts to develop their projected routes to North America, probably skirting the Polar Sea.
Today, air commerce means more than mere increase of trade, it means survival in a struggle for existence; for now, as in the past, he who can command transportation routes can last longest in the world economic struggle. Lacking command of the sea routes, Napoleon lost Egypt, Wilhelm II lost Germany and world dominion. Today the nations of the world struggle, not for places in the sun but for places in the air.
Today is but the threshold of tomorrow. Ten years ago transatlantic flight was glamorous adventure, today it is but routine travel. Tomorrow’s aircraft, giants now on the drawing boards for construction next year, will make routine of what we now consider visionary and impractical.
The race is to the swift. Canada, by reason of its geographical position, should be a leader in world aviation. Let us take to the air in earnest and utilize the advantage with which geography has endowed us.