Hot Pilots and Cold Weather Flying

An enthusiastic group of 42 Heritage Group members and spouses/partners were treated to an excellent talk and tour by presenter Gerry Suski at the Western Canadian Aviation Museum during the 2014 wind-up event on May 22. The tour was followed by a superb luncheon catered by RRC’s Food Services. Following are selected excerpts from the talk.

The challenge of adapting the fair weather bush planes of the 1920’s and 1930’s to our extreme climate launched many Manitobans to hero status.  Manitoba pilots, inventors, engineers and mechanics made countless breakthroughs in cold weather flying technology and innovations from Canada’s first helicopter, to advances in satellites, to rocketry and to Canada’s contributions to space exploration.

Spit and bailing wire

Early aviators had to innovate a lot.  The first thing they did in Western and Northern Canada was to put skis on planes.  This was done out of necessity, as there were few runways. However, skis do not have brakes.  There are stories about airplanes that would hit a rock or a log while landing and break 10 inches off the end of the wooden propeller.  As there were no radio communications in the north at that time, pilots would be stuck there with no communication with the outside world to order a new propeller.  To get home they would cut 10 inches of the other end of the wooden propeller to balance the propeller so the motor would run.

Another significant challenge was changing an airplane motor in -40° weather in the open—a difficult enough task even under ideal conditions in an enclosed shop. Even starting airplane engines in that kind of temperature was difficult. If these airplanes had to sit outside overnight, because they did not have heated hangars at that time, pilots had to drain the oil from the engine, take the oil inside where it was warm, then the next morning pour the warm oil back into the engine and hope it would start.  They also had a “blowpot”, which was a gas flame heater, which they placed under a “nose tarp” under the motor to help heat the engine.

Max Ward, from “Ward Air “fame, claims to have invented the first “muffler-shrouded” cabin heater. He would fly his Gypsy Moth in the North with the -40 degree weather freezing every part of his body and realized the heat from the muffler was going to waste into the air behind him.  He built a shrouding around the muffler, directed the captured heat into the cabin, enclosed the cabin and used the heat to keep warm.  This was a huge innovation for pilots flying up North.

Lamb Air

Tom Lamb in front of new Stinson SR-8B Reliant CF-BGW in Detroit (1935),
by ToddlambCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Lamb started his airline out of The Pas literally by accident.  In 1930 he was hauling a load of fish across 100 kilometres of frozen muskeg to the rail station at Cormorant Lake in Northern Manitoba, when his tractor unexpectedly sank into the muck.  Desperate to save his load, he signaled to the pilot of a passing airplane to land.  Tom Lamb hired the pilot of the Fairchild 71 to carry his fish the rest of the way, which the pilot quickly delivered.  That same year, Tom Lamb travelled to Winnipeg, bought his first airplane, a Stinson Reliant, and taught himself to fly.  Tom Lamb earned his commercial pilot’s license in 1935 and began making chartered deliveries.  He called his company “Lamb Air”.

By the 1970s, Lamb Air flew aircraft of every shape and size from helicopters to the Bristol Freighter.  Lamb Air eventually operated 25 aircraft and employed more than 80 people until their buyout in 1980 by Calm Air.  Most importantly, Lamb Air never suffered a fatality in its 46 years of operation.

As of today, Canada has one of the best aviation safety records in the world.  None of this could have happened without the courage and bravery of the bush pilots, who flew wood and cloth flying machines into the North, initially in open cockpits, without maps and without any communication, into uncharted, hostile, frozen environments.

The first flying machine in Canada was designed and built by Alexander Graham Bell along with three of his assistants: John McCurdy, Glen Curtiss and Casey Baldwin.  Most people know Alexander Graham Bell was a Canadian Engineer who invented the telephone, but few know that he was also an ardent aviator.  With financing from his wife, Bell, McCurdy, Curtiss and Baldwin designed and built the first airplane to ever fly in Canada–the Silver Dart.  The Silver Dart flew off Bras ‘d Or Lake’s ice in Bedeck, Nova Scotia on February 23, 1909.  It was ahead of its time; it had ailerons and tricycle landing gear.

From WAC to Air Canada

Lockheed Electra 10A “CF-TCC” in Trans Canada Airlines livery at the Western Canada Aviation Museum

In 1926, a 33-year-old businessman from Winnipeg named James A. Richardson, for whom our current International Airport is named, recognized the potential of an airplane.  James Richardson started a company called “Western Canadian Aviation” (WCA) with headquarters in Winnipeg.  One of the airplanes the WCA pilots flew was the Fokker Standard of which the company owned 11 and which Richardson positioned in towns in Western and Northern Canada.  Subsequently, WCA became the first national airline and changed its name to Canadian Airways in 1931.

Canadian Airways did well for many years despite the great depression, partly because they had the Royal Mail contract. In 1937, the Canadian Government started a company called “Trans Canada Airlines’ (TCA), which eventually became Air Canada in 1965. TCA took away the Royal Mail Contract plus other major contracts from Canadian Airways.  Canadian Airways was relegated to service Northern routes only, but they did survive.  Canadian Airlines changed to CP Air in 1941, went through several merges and purchases, but was eventually merged into Air Canada in 2000. Winnipeg was initially the headquarters for TCA, but it was moved to Montreal in 1964.

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