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Trans-Canada Flight Centennial:

100 Years Ago – The First Trans-Canada Flight , by J. Allan Snowie

 

The flying era 1919 to 1939 began with slow, fabric-covered, wooden biplanes that developed over twenty years into high speed, aluminum-skinned, monoplanes.  Dubbed the Golden Age of Aviation, this period saw many flying ‘Firsts’ accomplished initially by aircrew veterans with surplus aircraft of the Great War. 

 

In the annals of these pioneering achievements, the year 1920 stands out for the first trans-Canada flight.  Spurred on by the idea of demonstrating just such a feasibility and to stimulate an interest in aviation by the public, the nascent Canadian Air Board directed its Flying Operations Branch and the Canadian Air Force to carry out just such a mission.  It was a 5,350 km coast-to-coast operation that involved intensive pre-flight planning and fuel cache placements.

 

Tomorrow, the 7th of October 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the takeoff on this air venture.  The chosen aircraft for the first leg, a non-stop from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Winnipeg, Manitoba, was a Fairey IIIC ‘Transatlantic’.  The long-range, 345 horsepower machine had been modified to compete for the first crossing of the Atlantic.  However, in June 1919, the British crew of Alcock and Brown won that contest in a Vickers Vimy bomber.  The Fairey flight attempt was abandoned and the float plane presented to Canada.

 

The reputed range of the Fairey seaplane was 30 hours at 60mph, permitting a non-stop to Winnipeg across the formidable barrier of forest and lakes in northwestern Ontario.  From Manitoba, a relay of three  DeHavilland DH9A aircraft would complete the run to the West Coast.  A planned start was to have been in late September 1919.

 

For the initial leg across the nation, two of Canada’s most experienced naval aviators are the designated crew.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert Leckie and Major Basil Hobbs had flown with the Royal Naval Air Service and later the Royal Air Force.  During the War Leckie had shot down two Zeppelin marauders and Hobbs had the distinction of both bringing down a Zeppelin and sinking a U-Boat.

 

In the event, test flying of the Fairey proved that it was unable to lift off the water with a full fuel load.  Prudently, fuel stops at Ottawa and at Sault Ste. Marie were added to the flight plan.  Weather and other maintenance issues further delayed the departure but now all was set for the 7th of October...  (to be continued).

7 OCTOBER 1920-Not an Auspicious Start

 

 100 years ago, the ambitious Trans-Canada flight finally launches out of Air Station Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  The airmen are carrying letters to various authorities en route  – One of the aims of the flight is to prove a rapid means of postal delivery.  In addition to pilots Leckie and Hobbs, a third crewman is Air Mechanic C.W. Heath, maintenance foreman of the Fairey IIIC aircraft.

 

The flight plan for today is to be airborne at 0800 from Halifax, arrive at Rivière-du-Loup by 1250; onward to Ottawa for a 2050 ETA; then depart to arrive in Sault Ste Marie at 0600 the following morning.  A continuation to Winnipeg for an 1830 landing will complete the arduous 36 hour journey.

 

The launch goes as scheduled.  Passing over St. John, New Brunswick, Leckie drops a message reading “Am bucking a forty-mile northwest wind; machine and engine OK.”  Shortly after that an engine cowling breaks away carrying off a fuel pump and rupturing oil lines.  The crew are soaked in the lubricants and a forced landing on the St. John River ensues.  Touchdown is successful but proves too much for the overloaded aircraft.  One float strut folds and the wooden propeller hits and shatters.

 

On receiving news of the accident, Major Shearer, superintendent of the Dartmouth air station launches in a Curtiss HS-2L flying boat and fights the turbulent weather over the Bay of Fundy to land alongside the crippled Fairey.  Ten minutes later, Leckie & crew have transferred bag & baggage to continue the trip onward. 

 

They alight at Fredericton for refueling and then get as far as Rivière-Du-Loup to land on the St. Lawrence River.  It is a stormy night with high winds and driving rain.  Hobbs is flying this leg and in a remarkable feat of airmanship touches down near an improvised marker consisting of a single lantern on a make-shift raft.  With weather worsening, the wet and beleaguered crew call it a day. 

(to be continued)...

G-CYCF, the ill-fated Fairey III C, taxiing for take-off.

Location unknown but possibly Montréal.  CASM-08274.                                                    

7 Oct 1920  (This image has no credits and the location is unknown – but possibly Whelpley’s Point on the Great Reach of the Saint John River. )

 


Telegram - 7 October 1920 - Leckie to Air Board reporting accident to G-CYCF- Trans-Canada Flight File - Library and Archives Canada

08 OCTOBER 1920 - Flight Plan Flex

 

With all good aviation planning, alternates and flexibility are considered.  For this first Trans-Canada flight substitute aircraft are written into the orders.  When the initial testing of the Fairey IIIC proved it to be an aircraft of limited abilities the original intent of a non-stop Halifax to Winnipeg leg was scrapped and a possible fueling at Rivière-du-Loup implemented.  Additionally, a twin-engined Felixstowe F3 flying-boat in Montreal was assigned to fly east to this point as backup in case of mechanical problems with the Fairey. 

 

Assigned pilot Captain H.A. Wilson flew the F3 standby aircraft out of Montreal on the 3rd of October to pre-position in case of such an eventuality – As has now occurred with the Fairey crash landed on the St. John River – and the continuation in a slower Curtiss to Rivière-du-Loup.  Wilson had his own adventures enroute with weather and maintenance issues but arrived intact.  As there are no meteorological forecasts and only telegraphed weather reports, Wilson sends the message “Very strong north-west wind and heavy sea running.”  He adds (as pilots have done since the Wright Brothers) “Please advance some money.”

 

This morning, with Leckie, Hobbs, Heath and their precious mail cargo aboard the Felixstowe replacement aircraft a departure is tricky with “Waves breaking over the top plane of the F3...”  They do wrestle off safely at 0620 and progress up the St. Lawrence.  Under clouds as low as 300 feet, Quebec City is passed at 0820.  Reaching Trois-Rivières at 0940 the weather begins to improve and by overhead Montreal at 1055 the sun is shining.  Landing the big flying boat in the Ottawa River at Rockliffe is uneventful.  Had they departed Rivière-du-Loup as originally planned it would have been a night landing at Ottawa with the somewhat limited assurance that “All deadheads removed from the river with the exception one tree on which a red light will be hung.”

 

Due to an unserviceable engine further flight westbound is postponed until tomorrow morning and the crew has a well-earned rest.  Mindful of his role to deliver the first ‘air’ mail, Lt Col Leckie takes the letter from the Mayor of Halifax to the Mayor of Ottawa and makes railway arrangements for postal delivery to the officials of Fredericton, Quebec and Montreal for their letters that had not been ‘air-dropped’.

(To be continued...)

09 OCTOBER 1920 - Navigation Exercise

 

 Leaving the Canadian capital at 0830 this morning is the beginning of a lengthy and hitherto unflown route to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The trip also includes a fuel stop before crossing the vast stretch of Lake Superior.  For assistance, Captain G.O. Johnson, a trained Observer (Navigator), is aboard to augment the crew.

 

The Felixstowe passes over North Bay, Ontario, at noon.  Pilot Leckie will later recount that the section of the flight from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay presented the greatest difficulty because “the innumerable small lakes and islands, all of a similar size and character, made it difficult to maintain the correct course...”

 

Landing at Sault Ste. Marie at 1630, the F3 is met by Air Mechanic J.E. Davies who has pre-positioned by rail to arrange refueling and re-launch of the twin-engined flying boat.  A departure out of the Soo is scheduled for about midnight to ensure a daylight arrival in Winnipeg; but a dense fog envelops the area and forces a delay.

(To be continued...)

10 OCTOBER 1920 - Winnipeg ...Almost

 

At Sault Ste. Marie, Sunday morning 10 October ninety-nine years ago, the Great Lakes fog lifts sufficiently for a 0730 launch across Superior.  Some eight and a half hours later Felixstowe G-CYBT reaches Kenora, Ontario. Here a leaky radiator on one engine delays departure until evening and the aircrew now face the prospect of a night landing at Winnipeg.

 

For Navigator Johnson, this next leg is straightforward.  A course is set along the Winnipeg River and followed to Lake Winnipeg.  From that shoreline the mouth of the Red River is located and the flying boat turns south to chase the reflection of the sky on the water.  However the rise of obscuring mist makes it evident that the Manitoba capital cannot be reached and the aviators have to revert to keeping course by the stars.  A night water touchdown is made at Selkirk and disaster narrowly averted when they just miss a large dredge anchored midstream.  The precious letters are taken onwards by electric railway in order that the wheel undercarriage aircraft for the second half of the Trans-Canada venture can roll down the runway at dawn.

 

This concludes the extraordinary efforts by pilots Lt Colonel Robert Leckie, DSO, DFC, (later Air Marshal and Chief of Air Staff RCAF) and Major Basil Deacon Hobbs, DSO, DSC&Bar, (later Group Captain RCAF).  Foreman Air Mechanic Charles W. Heath has certainly earned his bread and butter striving to keep things serviceable throughout the flight.  Of note, Captain George Owen Johnson, MC, CdG(F), is himself no slacker having navigated this first ever aircraft crossing from Ottawa to Winnipeg.  Johnson had served as a fighter pilot on the Western Front with a creditable score of 11 enemy aircraft destroyed.  An Air Marshal in World War 2, he will command the RCAF Overseas in the late stages of that conflict.

11 OCTOBER 1920 - Prairie Relay

 

At 0430, an hour before dawn, Air Commodore Arthur Tylee, Commander of the Canadian Air Force (CAF), and his pilot Captain J.B. Home-Hay are airborne out of St.Charles aerodrome near Winnipeg in a DeHavilland DH 9A, G-CYAJ.  The Canadian Pacific Railway tracks serve as their guide westbound.

 

While Lt. Colonel Leckie and his Canadian Air Board team were struggling through the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario, Tylee and his CAF crews had set up fuel caches and maintenance contacts for a relay of DH 9A aircraft across their assigned half of the continent.

 

Waiting for G-CYAJ in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is G-CYAN with Captain C.W. Cudemore.  At Calgary, Alberta, Captain G.A. Thompson is standing by with G-CYBF for the Rocky Mountains crossing to Vancouver tomorrow.  Tylee is slated as passenger for the entire route.

 

Their mounts for this aeronautical ‘pass-the-baton’ are from the dozen  DeHavilland aircraft that the British Government donated to Canada as a portion of the Imperial War Gift.  The former bomber aircraft are based at Camp Borden, Ontario, and five have been shipped by rail to Winnipeg with two sent onwards to the CAF Airfield at Morley, Alberta.

 

Following erection at Winnipeg, G-CYAZ crashed during a test flight and at Morley, G-CYAD was written off as the result of a flying accident.  It is on the three remaining machines that the efforts of the new Air Force will rely.

 

After passing overhead Regina, engine trouble causes pilot Home-Hay to about turn and land at the Saskatchewan capital.  A telegram is sent to Moose Jaw and Cudemore launches east to the rescue.  He picks up his commander Tylee, the mail, and resumes the flight to a planned refueling stop at Medicine Hat, Alberta.

 

Tylee is taking no chances and has also contacted Thompson to fly east and join them in ‘The Hat’.  Both aircraft are serviceable when they meet and depart together for Calgary, arriving shortly after 5:00pm.  All is in place for the the final run through to British Columbia.

 

11 October 1920: G-CYBT, Felixstowe F.3, flew from Rivière-du-Loup to Winnipeg (Selkirk) with stops at Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Kenora.

Seen here at Selkirk, MB.  Of note, the aircraft is still wearing RAF markings. CASM -24381

RE 20776-19  Cudemore and Tylee arrive Calgary 11 Oct 1920

 

12 OCTOBER 1920 - Mountain Obscuration

 

The Canadian Air Force plan to be in Vancouver within 48 hours of taking off from Winnipeg is postponed in Calgary.  ‘Snow, rain and fog in the mountains’ necessitates the next lap delay.

 

As a bit of background, the idea for a trans-Canada flight was first proposed in 1919 by Major Clarence MacLaurin, DSC, then Acting Director (and only remaining pilot) of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service.  That aviation branch was closing down as redundant with the War’s ending but MacLaurin’s paper was passed along by the Navy to the new Canadian Air Board. 

 

The pioneering effort is now only one day from completion.  The Flying Operations Branch of the Air Board have completed 1,999 miles to Winnipeg at an average speed of 61mph over 32.4 flying hours.  The CAF have reached Calgary in 10 hours of flight at 82mph in the faster DeHavilland aircraft.

 

Of the CAF pilots involved at this stage all are reservist officers who take an annual flying refresher course at Camp Borden.  J.B. Home-Hay, from Wadena, Saskatchewan, had an active War as an artillery cooperation observer winning a Military Cross then as a DH9 bomber pilot was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Shot down in August 1918, he survived to The Armistice as a Prisoner of War.  C. W. Cudemore, who emigrated from England after the War, is a fighter pilot with 15 victories and is also an MC and DFC recipient. 

 

G.A. Thompson of Vaudreuil Station, Quebec, will carry out the final leg – When the weather permits.

To be continued...

Cap Badge: Royal Canadian Naval Air Service, from "Eagles Recalled", by Warren Carroll, Schiffer, pub. 1997. Badge worn by E.J. Marsh, Fl/Cadet, RCNAS.

Cap Badge, CAF, from "Eagles Recalled" by Warren Carroll, Schiffer, pub. 1997.

Badge from the Carroll collection.

13 OCTOBER 1920 - Across the Selkirks.

 

Just before noon today, DeHavilland DH9A G-CYBF finally gets a weather break out of Calgary.  Pilot Thompson and passenger Tylee route along the Bow River Valley, over Banff and through broken cloud in the Kicking Horse Pass of the Rocky Mountain Range.  After Golden, British Columbia, they successfully negotiate the first aerial crossing of the Selkirk Mountain Range.  Dense clouds and heavy snowstorms now close ranks and they are forced into a 180 turn to land at Crowe Ranch three miles south of Revelstoke.  Here they are again grounded, this time by ‘excessive fog’ and ‘weather must unfavorable for flight’.  There is no sense in continuing the final leg to Vancouver this afternoon.

 

Not that Thompson is one lacking in courage.  During the summer of 1917, German Gotha bombers began raids on London.  On the 7th of July, then Lieutenant Thompson of 37 Squadron RFC, took off to engage some twenty attackers.  He had engine trouble with his Sopwith Scout during climb but nevertheless clawed his way up to nearly 17,000 feet over the ‘nerve center’ of the British Empire to fire at the Gothas from below.  This presented the enemy tunnel-gunners in the belly of the bombers with an easy target.  Thompson breezily reported that his aircraft had been sprayed with bullets, ‘one in the seat, others just round about...’

 

There are no bullets being fired now; but weather realities have prevailed bringing matters to a halt.  Even so, the Trans-Canada Flight has now reached the westernmost province.

To be continued...

"Crossing the Selkirks", Canadian Air and Space Museum, Artist Robert Bradford collection.

Photo: The Selkirks, from "Canada's Flying Heritage", by Frank H. Ellis,

University of Toronto Press, 1954. Credit: Tylee

 

 

Photo: Captain G.A. Thompson,

from "Canada's Flying Heritage", by Frank H. Ellis,

University of Toronto Press, 1954.

 

14 OCTOBER 1920 - Another Weather Intervention.

 

Yesterday’s about face decision had been forced on the DH9A crew when they lost visual reference to the ground.  Their engine throb could be heard by the citizens of Vernon BC as the aircraft banked around for the almost blind flight return to Revelstoke.

 

Today remains dismal as storm clouds encircle the valley in which their host community lies.  There is no getting airborne but as has happened at other Trans-Canada stops, planned or unintentional, Tylee and Thompson are well looked after and the aircraft a spectacle of high interest.

 

Air Commodore Arthur Kellam Tylee, OBE, was born in Lennoxville, Quebec, and studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  A lieutenant in the Canadian Militia, he joined the Royal Flying Corps in August 1915.  By 1917 he was made a squadron commander, given the temporary rank of major and sent back to Canada to command the flying training scheme at Camp Borden, Ontario.  Created a Lieutenant Colonel in the new Royal Air Force on April 1st, 1918, he served as the Inspector of Training in Canada and was invested as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for valuable war service.

 

With his command and staff experience, Tylee was selected to be the first Air Officer Commanding the Canadian Air Force.  Overseen by the Air Board he set up a small headquarters at Ottawa.  Here, both budget and recruiting posed certain problems.  The Air Board wanted men not only as aviators but as administrators.  This was not a dual qualification that most military pilots held.  It was the Imperial War Gift of aircraft that assisted the budget and moved a decision to form a non-permanent ‘militia’ air service.  Former officers and airmen were invited to enlist for active duty of no more that five weeks in any two years.  Costs were thus lowered and employable flying skills somewhat maintained.

 

Constituted in June 1919, the Air Board’s main task in these early post war years was to market aviation through public relations; persuading Canadians of the variety of ways in which aircraft are practical.  The operation of a Coast to Coast flight was seen as an ultimate test of potential.

To be continued...

 

 

G-CYBF, DH 9A.  Flew from Calgary to Vancouver via Revelstoke and Merritt.

Air Commodore Tylee with some of his fans.  Revelstoke Museum & Archives Image 973.



15 OCTOBER 1920 -  Airborne Once More

 

Just before noon today, pilot George Thompson lumbered the DH9A off the uneven field at the Sam Crowe ranch near Revelstoke.  Once airborne, Thompson and Tylee are cheered to find that there is no head wind and they reach a ground speed of 98mph - The fastest attained on the entire Trans-Canada flight. 

 

Such rapid travel comes to naught when they attempt to fly through the Coquihalla Pass to the Pacific Coast as clouds close ranks once more.  At risk of being trapped in a cul-de-sac of rocks, trees and mist, the aviators have no recourse but to once again reverse heading.  They land at Merritt after a short adrenaline-filled hour and twenty five minutes in the air.

 

The mountainous regions of British Columbia are proving to be difficult flying country.  It will take aircraft with higher climb abilities together with better ground-based meteorology reports to overcome this ‘cumulo-granite’ barrier. 

 

Between July and September 1920, the British government gifted over one hundred war surplus aircraft to Canada. They consisted of 24 flying boats, 23 DeHavilland types, 62 Avro 504 trainers, 2 Bristol Fighters, 12 SE5a Fighters, and 2 Sopwith Snipes.  Along with ground equipment such as armament, spare parts and trucks were 12 Airships and 6 Observation Balloons.  Additionally, the United States Navy had presented 12 HS2L flying boats from their costal patrol stations in Nova Scotia during 1919.  None of these machines were suitable for both high altitude and long range flights.

 

The Trans-Canada airmen and ground crews have certainly proven suitable and it is a tribute to their courage and efforts that they have won through thus far.

To be continued...

Sopwith Snipe, from the collection of the Canadian Air and Space Museum.

Photo credit: J. Allan Snowie.

 

 

Avro 504, from the collection of the Canadian Air and Space Museum.

Photo credit: J. Allan Snowie.

 

 

SE5a from the collection of the Great War Flying Museum.

Photo credit: Eric Dumigan Photography for the Great War Flying Museum.

 

Fokker D7 from the collection of the Great War Flying Museum.

Photo credit: Eric Dumigan Photography for the Great War Flying Museum.

 

 

Canadian Museum of Flight, Sopwith Pup and C-17.

Photo credit: J. Allan Snowie (in France, 2017)

 

 

 

16 OCTOBER 1920 -  Hebrews 13:8 KJV

 

“...the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” 

Bad weather frustrates a second attempt along the Coquihalla Pass through the Cascade Mountain Range. 

It’s discouraging, the planned four hops across Canada in 40 flying hours and three days is now at twelve landings and a whole ten days.  Total airborne time thus far is over 47 hours. 

Vancouver is less than two hour’s flight away, but...

To be continued...

Merritt Misery. Image taken from "Early Canadian Military Aircraft",

by Griffin & Stachiw, published by SkyGrid, 2010. Photo credit: K. Molson.

 

 

CASM-04444 G-CYBF Merritt BC Probably 16 Oct 1920.

 

 

17 OCTOBER 1920 - A Mari Usque ad Mare

 

“For the third time in as many days, the two weary men pointed the nose of their small single-engined aircraft to the west and under the lowering cloud in the Coquihalla Pass.  Twice before the roof of the cavern formed between cloud and the tree tops descended until, at last, the flight had to be broken off ...”

 

These are the opening words of a paper to the Canadian Geographical Journal by Wing Commander R.V Manning, DFC, CD, Director of Air Force History.  Published in the September 1964, Volume 69, Number Three (p. 78-87) edition of the Journal, this first paragraph continues:

 

“Today, the cloud appeared less dark and occasional breaks where the sun shone through gave promise of better things ahead.  The base of the clouds still rested low on the hills however and it was not until the low-flying aircraft came out over the silvery trail made by the Fraser River in its narrow valley that the two men could let themselves think that their historic flight was nearing its end.”

 

A beautiful description and indeed it had reached an end.  At 11:25 am, Captain G.A. ‘Tommy’ Thompson set his DH9A down on Minoru Park, Vancouver, ten and one half days after the start of the Trans-Canada Flight and a total flying time of 49 hours and 7 minutes.

 

In 1793, Alexander Mackenzie and his intrepid team of explorers had reached the Pacific ‘by land’ for the first recorded crossing of the continent north of Mexico.  In 1886, the first Canadian Pacific train had rolled into British Columbia from the east.  Now air travel can be added to the cross Canada accomplishments of foot and canoe, rail and steam.

 

Summing up his comments on the western part of the flight, Air Commodore Tylee wrote;

“The flight has thoroughly convinced me that trans-continental flying can be successfully undertaken.  At the same time the following ground organization will be necessary;

– Well marked aerodromes every 50 miles,

– Wireless communication on the machine, and,

– Wireless directional apparatus on the ground to guide the machines as they are flying.”

He went on to state that weather forecasts are indispensable.

In 1921 Tylee proposed that the Royal Air Force Ensign be adopted with a maple leaf at the centre of the roundel as a suitable flag for the Canadian Air Force.  Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, the British RAF Chief of the Air Staff, rejected the proposal on the basis that "the sentiment of unity between the Air Services of the Empire" ought to be maintained. Canada may have become a nation at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 but it was still colony-minded.  When the Canadian Air Force was granted the title of Royal by King George V in 1924 the distinctive uniform, cap badge and pilot wings were cast aside in favor of RAF tailoring.  Tylee's proposed Ensign was not adopted until the 1940’s.

Image from Google Maps.

Image taken from "Early Canadian Military Aircraft", by John A. Griffin & Anthony Stachiw.

Published by SkygGrid, 2010. CF RC1596

 

Image taken from "Early Canadian Military Aircraft" by John A. Griffin & Anthony Stachiw.

Published by SkyGrid, 2010. Illustration by Andrew Tattersall.