Yellowknife’s First… Airplanes

Punch Dickins ’ Plane that was the first to land in the Yellowknife area , 1929. (Glenbow archives , PD-356-824)

Weathered claim markers and flooded pits left behind by enthusiastic Klondikers near Yellowknife became monuments to their frustration. If minerals in the Northwest Territories were to be more than just a curiosity, they needed to be of such rich grade that their isolation could be overlooked.

 The early 20th century was an exciting time for mine hunters in Canada. A frenzy of exploration due to robust metal prices following the First World War enticed prospectors to keep searching for the next ‘mother load’.

 The first true rush into the NWT was in response to the development of oil below Tulita on the Mackenzie River by Imperial Oil in 1920 and 1921. Hopeful parties came from all directions. The rivers were then the highways, with the waters dominated by the romantic shallow-draft, wood-burning sternwheelers. As useful as these boats were, prospectors were still handicapped by the shear size of territory they wanted to explore. New techniques allowed them to expand the search into the most distant places; most important was the use of the airplane.

 Invented to satisfy human intrigue of the prospect of flight, the plane was soon fashioned as a weapon of war, finally emerging as an instrument for global exploration and travel. After the First World War, Royal Air Force veterans sought peace-time careers in the burgeoning commercial aviation business, carrying mail and providing logistical support to resource projects. Imperial Oil was drilling its petroleum leases in the NWT, and purchased two used German ‘Junker’ biplanes, commissioning Lieutenants George Gorman and Elmer Fullerton to fly them from New York to Edmonton, and thence northward into uncharted aerospace.

 The feat was all the more harrowing considering it was February 1921 when the two planes departed Edmonton. Unproven in arctic weather and navigation conditions, the journey was a hopscotch between refueling posts with days of careful planning between takeoffs. Even the best preparations were not enough. A hard landing in Fort Simpson’s deep snow snapped off a propeller, and the mechanic glued together scrap wood to make a new one. Despite the challenges, and the people who said it couldn’t be done, Imperial Oil proved that flight across the 60th parallel was practical.

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 The airplane could go anywhere, faster than anything else of human ingenuity. When the oil rush at Fort Norman died out, attention switched back to the search for gold and silver during the ‘roaring 20s’. In this economic milieu, bush flying found a start in the gold camps of northern Ontario and Manitoba. Commercial aviation grew in its wake. Western Canada Airways was formed in 1926 with regular routes across the country. C.H. “Punch” Dickins was their chief pilot. With his trusty Fokker Super Universal monoplane, Punch flew on many important landmark flights. On January 23, 1929 he delivered the first airmail across the NWT border. He was the first pilot to fly along the Arctic Coast, the first to fly over the sub-arctic plains, and the first to fly the full length of the Mackenzie River. Holding important mail contracts, a wide variety of modern machines and ace pilots, Western Canada Airways had a near monopoly on aviation. Other operators included Commercial Airways Limited, based in Edmonton, the brainchild of Wop May, but these two companies were amalgamated into Canadian Airways Limited in 1930.

 Fokker Super Universals and Fairchild 71Cs were popular models for northern use. The Fairchild was a high-winged monoplane allowing for excellent visibility. Its air-cooled engine (as opposed to liquid-cooled) eliminated the hazard of freezing mid-flight. The pilots were national heroes and carried social honors like any explorer would. The daring acts of bush pilots were just as sensational as the pilots of the war. Many of them, including Wop May and Punch Dickins, were air force veterans. Bush flying may not have been as exhilarating as a dog fight, but it was still a dangerous venture. There existed no aerial charts; the landscape was their flight guide. Lakes, rivers, and landmarks were etched into their memories and provided all they would need to reach a certain destination, provided the incremental weather of the arctic cooperated.

 Commercial aviation was not limited to scheduled freight and passenger flights. Well-financed entrepreneurs offered aerial exploration and prospecting services. The aircraft eliminated the weeks and months of field travel. Promising mineral discoveries could now be supplied in hours rather than days.

 The Consolidated Mining & Smelting Company of Canada (Cominco) was prospecting around Great Slave Lake in 1929. It was a very aggressive, adventurous and revolutionary mining company, the first to truly embrace the aircraft. Cominco was partnered with Atlas Exploration Company to explore lead and zinc at Pine Point, and in 1928 the joint-venture sent prospectors by canoe to Yellowknife Bay. Their most interesting find was in the Walsh Lake area.

 In Ted Nagle’s book “The Prospector North of Sixty” we learn that the first plane to land in the Yellowknife area was on April 11, 1929. Pilot Punch Dickins flew the historic plane, his Fokker Super Universal G-CASQ outfitted with skies, carrying the Cominco-Atlas prospectors to set up a base camp on the ice of Walsh Lake. From here the Cominco crews spent much of the summer prospecting the country between Yellowknife Bay and Behchoko. But they were not alone.

 The ambitious Colonel C.D.H. MacAlpine, a leading mining magnate at the time, was planning an incredible aerial survey of the Northwest Territories, with his company Dominion Explorers Limited (Domex). They had a grand scheme – to build a base high in the arctic as a platform for a new wave of copper exploration. It was a pivotal mobilization: four airplanes, 15 men, tons of gasoline, equipment for several bush camps, and provisions capable of supporting the crews for five months. In 1929, this amounted very much to an arctic invasion, with tools and inventions that Samuel Hearne could only have dreamt of during his pursuit of minerals 150 years before. Sheltered Yellowknife Bay was a stop-over fuel cache for Domex on their way to the arctic coast. They chartered the first two float planes to land on the bay, piloted by Stan MacMillan and Bill Broatch on July 1, 1929.

 It was around this time that a group of Dene in this area first witnessed an airplane. Fred Sangris, cultural curator with the Yellowknives Dene, says it was a very clear and beautiful day as families were collecting wood and blueberries. From the south, they were aroused by a roaring noise and something big soaring towards them in the sky. “Then one of the older elders said, ‘There is a giant mosquito coming our way! Everybody run!’ The women believed them, and they grabbed their children and ran into the bush and they were hiding… So when the first plane came around people were a little afraid. They finally realized it’s not a creature that’s going to go after them, like a giant dragonfly, it’s actually an Englishman who flies in this thing. That’s when they came out with a word. ‘Ts’eèt’a’ means ‘something that flies’ in our language.”

 According to the memoirs of both Ted Nagle and Donovan Clark, a prospector with Domex, the summer of 1929 was a busy time with prospectors combing the Precambrian rocks of Yellowknife Bay and up the river. Quartz veins could be spotted on the west side of the Bay but these were, ironically, a mere observation. Had they been more focused, perhaps they would have found the gold that led to the Con or Giant Mines. The stock market crash of October 1929 guaranteed that nobody would return the following summer to pick up the search again.

 That motherlode was a certainty. Billions of years of geological evolution had exposed the gold-smeared quartz veins on either side of Yellowknife Bay, and it was only a matter of time until outsiders stumbled across them. The next staking rush would be one of speed and efficiency, led by versatile airplanes and the adventurous pilots behind the controls.

 With thanks to Fred Sangris

Ryan Silke is a Yellowknife historian.


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