René and Vic
(Source: Northward Into the Bush and Snow 1919-1929; notes of Elmer G. Fullerton one of – Pioneer Flying in the Canadian Sub-Arctic, one of the pilots; files of the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre)
As promised, this second in the series of René (G-CADQ) and Vic (G-CADP) – two versatile German Junkers all-metal monoplanes will feature the plight of pilots Elmer G. Fullerton and George Washington Gorman; mechanic William Hill; engineer S. (Pete) Derbyshire and others they met along the way.
We left the newly-named René and Vic and their crews on the tarmac of the Municipal Airport in Edmonton prior to their initial flight north to the sub-Arctic in 1921. The town of Peace River was their base.
Fullerton writes in his notes that they decided on a route along the Peace River to within 40 miles of Fort Vermilion – north-north-westerly across country to the Upper Hay River; along the Hay River to Great Slave Lake; across the south-western portion of Great Slave Lake to the mouth of the Mackenzie River; thence along the Mackenzie River to Fort Simpson and Fort Norman. The total distance was a little more than 800 miles.
The availability of fuel was in question. Thus, no advanced arrangements could be made for refueling. There was, however, credible information to suggest that trading posts along the way would have an adequate supply of motor-boat gasoline and oil. The concern, though, was for the first part of the route as far as Great Slave Lake. Consequently, the crews established a fuel cache about midpoint on the Upper Hay River.
As they were about to take off, an RCMP officer approached them with a note from Imperial Oil’s head office to take Sgt. Thorne, who had “mushed” out by dog team with a prisoner and was not looking forward to mushing back. He hitched a ride with them as far as Fort Simpson.
The two planes and crew took off from the Peace River aerodrome at 9 a.m., March 24, 1921, for ‘points north’. The day looked promising, but about 100 miles out it began to deteriorate. This meant a route change, which took them to Fort Vermilion. A short while later, they landed in a field near the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post where they were able to fill the planes’ tanks, but were unable to take off because of a blizzard. They were forced to stay the night.
A couple of days later they continued their journey, eventually making it to Fort Providence where they encountered snow so deep they could not gain enough speed to take off. After a couple of attempts, they returned to their starting point from which the five men and some locals on snowshoes tamped down the snow sufficiently to support the aircrafts’ skis. They were off now for Fort Simpson.
“Here, real trouble was encountered,” writes Fullerton. The violently uneven ice on the Mackenzie precluded their landing on that surface. They sought an alternative on a field at the edge of the settlement. “The Vic landed satisfactorily, but as the René was landing, one of her skis suddenly broke through the heavy crust of snowdrift, smashing the skis and breaking the propeller.”
No one was injured.
The pilots and crew later confirmed that about a mile south on a small subsidiary channel or “snye” of the Mackenzie, the ice was free of hummocks and would likely afford better landing conditions. They flew the Vic there to take off for Fort Norman alone with René out of commission. But, on the way, the Vic did not sound quite right. The conclusion – she would need a major overhaul before continuing.
The situation – the René had a broken propeller and ski – the Vic had engine problems. Plan – transfer the propeller and skis from Vic to René and fly René to Fort Norman. Changes were made – aircraft loaded – ready for takeoff – on their way. No! The René stalled at about 50 feet in the air. Crashed. People aboard were shaken.
The René, on the other hand, was damaged – broken propeller, slightly damaged wing and damaged undercarriage. “By an amazing bit of luck, the Vic’s ski was found to be the only part of the undercarriage which was practically undamaged.”
What to do?
The next in the series will tell about how the men and planes escaped from this dilemma.