Friday, February 27, 2009

René and Vic
Part 1
(Source: Northward Into the Bush and Snow 1919-1929; notes of Elmer G, Fullerton, one of the pilots; files of Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre)

This is the first in a series of articles compiled by Beth Wilkins, Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre, pertaining to the two Junkers aircraft, which pioneered flight in Alberta’s North

The saga of two German-built Junkers and the Canadian North begins in 1920. One author wrote about the personal affinity – pride and affection ‘you might even call it love’ airplane pilots have for the aircraft they entrusted with their life. ‘For all I know, it might have worked both ways. Certainly there were some machines in the early days that seemed to have a personality – even a soul of their own,’ the writer surmises.

The 'Rene' and the 'Vic' at Edmonton PRMA71.400.2c

The wife of the vice–president of Imperial Oil Company Ltd. christened the two large monoplanes René and Vic – call letters (G-CADQ) and (G-CADP), respectively. The oil company obtained the aircraft to more expediently reach its experimental oilfield on the fringe of the Arctic Circle. They were especially necessary during the winter months. At the time, the only means of transportation from Edmonton to a site 60 miles north of Norman (later Norman Wells) on the Mackenzie River was by railway to the end of steel at McMurray. Then in the summer it was by steamboat on the Athabasca River, Lake Athabasca, Slave River, Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River, approximately 1,200 miles. Usually, the ice on Great Slave Lake did not depart until July and started its return in October. The navigation window was, at most, three months. This, coupled with the fact that the journey took two to three weeks, including an 18-mile portage from Fitzgerald to Smith meant irritating delays. Following freeze-up, travellers used dog teams on this route, extending travelling time to up to six weeks.
With the rapid development of oil resources, it was imperative Imperial Oil reached the fields as expeditiously as modern equipment would allow. Thus, the purchase of the two all-metal Junkers, which could be adapted to wheels, skis or pontoons. As well, a 175 h.p. engine powered each plane, which could carry five people or an equivalent weight.
The agent for the German-manufactured planes was in New York. That necessitated the contracting of pilots and crews to ferry them to their base in Edmonton. The company chose as pilots Captain Wilfrid R. ‘Wop’ May and Lieutenant George W. Gorman and S. (Pete) Derbyshire as engineer. The men journeyed by train to New York at the end of November 1920. By the time the three started back to Edmonton, winter was well on its way making it a long, cold flight.
When May arrived in Edmonton, Jan, 5, 1921, the temperature was -50F. Gorman’s plane, however, succumbed to the icy conditions and was forced to land at Brandon, Manitoba, where he and his plane remained for several weeks before being able to continue to Edmonton.
The author says, ‘the flight of the two machines across two-thirds of the North American continent in mid-winter drew little publicity or tribute, but it was a great achievement.’
On his return to Edmonton, ‘Wop’ May ended his association with the oil company. In his stead, it retained the services of Lieutenant Elmer G. Fullerton and mechanic William Hill. The new arrivals joined Gorman and Derbyshire to fly to the well sites. It was prior to the flight north from Edmonton that the Junkers were formally named.
The next in the series will feature the plight of Fullerton, Gorman, Hill and Derbyshire and others they met along the way.

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