Bush flying in the Canadian North has never been a vocation for the faint of heart. My uncle Howard Watt found that out the hard way during the Red Lake gold rush in Northwestern Ontario in 1926. In fact, he nearly died.
Flying an open-cockpit biplane, a “Jenny Canuck,” he carried one passenger at a time to the gold fields in sub-zero temperatures.
The gold rush
Gold had been discovered at Red Lake in 1925. Soon hundreds of prospectors poured into the area by train, all hoping to strike it rich. They mushed north from the rail line by dog team through 130 miles of snow-covered wilderness. At night they camped beside the trail.
But why endure the hardships of the trail if you could fly in?
Jack Elliot of Hamilton saw a golden opportunity. He already owned two Curtiss JN-4s, a type of aircraft used for training in World War I, so he crated them up and shipped them by rail to Sioux Lookout. There he and his crew – pilots Harold Farrington and Howard Watt, and mechanic Bob Hodgins – reassembled the Jennies and fitted them with skis.
As soon as Tom Cowley, the Canadian Air Board inspector, had given official approval, the two planes made their way west 12 miles to Hudson, Ontario, where Elliot had previously established a base. The date was March 2, 1926.
March 2 was also the day when Howard Watt received his Canadian commercial pilot’s license, making him one of only 38 pilots then engaged in commercial aviation in Canada.
On March 3, Elliot and Farrington were ready to set out on their first flight to Red Lake. But they faced a navigation problem. All they had to guide them were their compasses and a roughly sketched map.
The problem soon vanished once they were in the air – they simply had to follow the trail laid down by some 1,000 men and their 5,000 sled dogs heading up to the gold fields.
Cold weather glitch
A snap of extreme cold sent temperatures down to -30º F according to newspaper reports. On March 4, no planes flew, although Watt and Hodgins had stayed up all night to run the engines 10 minutes every hour.
The weather eased the next day, and Watt finally made his first trip to Red Lake on March 5, flying the Jenny registered as G-CADW. Farrington led the way in G-CAEI. A blizzard engulfed them as they reached Red Lake. Landing blind in the whiteout, Farrington went headlong into the undergrowth on the shoreline. The brush punctured 17 holes in the lower left wing of his plane, and severely dented its leading edge.
Watt had his own problems. His engine sputtered and died when snow got on the spark plugs. As he landed, the skis caught in a snowdrift, and the plane nosed over. Pilot and passenger were uninjured, but the aircraft had a cracked propeller and a broken undercarriage.
Luckily, they had come down close to the Dome mining camp on Howey Bay at Red Lake. A party from the camp went out with a work horse and towed the planes in, one by one. Repairs began at once.
On March 8, CAEI was in good enough shape for Farrington to fly back to Hudson. The next day he returned with Hodgins and a spare propellor and undercarriage strut for CADW. Normal service resumed two days later, on March 10.
Disaster on ice
Howard continued flying for the next two weeks with no major incidents until March 26. At 2:30 p.m., five minutes after he took off from the base at Hudson, disaster struck. The Jenny was caught in an almost lethal combination of updrafts and downdrafts that sealed her fate.
CADW hit the ice, shearing off both top and bottom wings on the right side, breaking off the engine, and severing the fuselage between the two cockpits. The plane was damaged beyond repair.
Both men suffered serious injuries. Watt was knocked out, and remained unconscious for 19 hours. Adding injury to insult, he also had a broken jaw and lost four front teeth. His passenger – prospector Jack Hill – broke his arm, leg and nose.
Watt later told the Toronto Star that after taking off, he climbed steadily over the frozen lake. When he reached the tree-covered north shore, a sudden current of air lifted his plane 200 feet straight up, then another fast current slammed him down, and that was all he could remember.
Luckily help was close at hand. The local Ojibway chief who lived nearby heard the engine quit, and went out to help. Three prospectors had already stopped their dog team to see what they could do. Together they freed the unconscious men from the plane, and doused a pocket fire started by matches the passenger was carrying.
Watt and Hill were taken by dog team to Hudson, where they received first aid in a railway dining car that had been set up as a Red Cross nursing station. A Canadian National Railways engine and caboose served as ambulance to take them to hospital in Sioux Lookout. Both later had surgery in Toronto.
Despite the horrific “crack-up,” Howard Watt recovered from his injuries, and spent another 15 years in commercial aviation as a company pilot and then as an owner-operator until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Sources for this blog: https://flightsofhistory.perfectdayfactory.com/sources-for-blog-narrow-escape-at-red-lake/