Spring, 2015, Altitude
Pilot lands Fokker Super Universal at Franklin site, flies to north magnetic pole and brings back aerial photos of unexplored territory
In the late summer of 1930, Walter Gilbert, of Canadian Airways Limited, was assigned to be the pilot of a government-sponsored aerial charter into the high Arctic, a trip that covered 5,000 miles.
Two others accompanied Gilbert. They were Major L.T. Burwash, explorer, engineer and scientist and the federal government’s investigator for the Northwest Territories, and Stan Knight, air engineer and aerial photographer.
“My assignment to Major Burwash’s charter flight came as quite a surprise. I had just returned from an early summer trip to Fort Simpson, when, upon arrival at McMurray, information was wired from Winnipeg to the effect that this journey was to be undertaken immediately,” recalls Gilbert in his autobiography, Arctic Pilot. According to a profile on Gilbert that was published
in the March 1, 1932, edition of Maclean’s magazine, this northern flight started on August 15 and ended on September 10.
The trip started in Canadian Airway’s Fokker Super Universal, G-CASM, and was finished in none other than one of Canada’s iconic airplanes: G-CASK.
The trio was on a three-part mission: One part of the assignment was to look for traces of the ill-fated Franklin expedition on King William Island; the second was to fly to the north magnetic pole and make observations of Arctic magnetic properties that might be applied to compass-dependent navigation; and, thirdly, to photograph the territory they
According to Gilbert in his autobiography, the route chosen was to fly 1,000 miles north from Fort McMurray to Fort Norman and then east 400 miles across Great Bear Lake to Coppermine with stops along the way so Burwash could make some routine inspections. From Coppermine the flight path went 80 miles north to Bernard Harbour on Dolphin and Union Strait (where an unrelenting week-long gale grounded them), then about 250 miles east across the south coast of Victoria Island to Cambridge Bay, then another 250 miles east to Peterson Bay/Gjoa Haven (where they picked up Richard Finnie, a journalist and northern adventurer who was a passenger on the annual supply boat), and finally north along the western coast of the Boothia Peninsula to Cape Adelaide, the site of the north magnetic pole in 1930.
Daring? Not really
This expedition by Gilbert, Burwash and Knight into the Arctic was an amazing achievement in that they were flying a Fokker Super Universal into a vast uncharted area guided only by a magnetic compass, a device known to be progressively unreliable when flying north. The Winnipeg Free Press published an article on August 8, 1930, under headline, “Aviator to Undertake Daring Trip to North,” that said the flight will go “over the forbidden Barrenlands, over ice-dotted channels of the Arctic Sea, and finally to the north magnetic pole, situated on the rocky coast of the Boothia Peninsula, a region never before visited by an airman. Pilot W.E. Gilbert, of Western Canada Airways, will undertake one of the most difficult flights in the history of aviation when he leaves the McMurray, Alberta, seaplane base on a special charter trip next Friday morning.”
Burwash and Gilbert both dismissed the danger. In an article published in Maclean’s about three months after the northern trip, the magazine says Burwash described it as “the least notable of six expeditions into the Arctic… it was a pleasure jaunt entailing little hardship, on which he enjoyed his grapefruit every morning, and yet 400 miles of the trip was flown over heavy, surging floe ice, where motor trouble would have meant death.” For his part, Gilbert was quoted in a 1932 Maclean’s magazine profile: “it was a long way from being the hardest trip I’ve experienced, but it was the most satisfying. On a couple of occasions we had trouble with ice forming on the wing, but the only really uncomfortable time we spent was the week in Bernard Harbour. The wind blew for seven full days…” In an understatement, Gilbert was quoted in the Edmonton Journal as saying that they had ventured into a region “where the accuracy of the best existing charts coupled with the fallibility of the magnetic compass, due to the proximity of the north magnetic pole, has hitherto rendered navigation extremely dangerous.”
The expedition was successful, meeting all three objectives, two of which were accomplished after picking up Richard Finnie at Gjoa Haven.
The quartet found at least one site on King William Island known to be related to the Franklin expedition and recovered some artifacts. Although there was nothing that helped solve the Franklin mystery, their find generated considerable interest in newspapers. It turns out that Gilbert, Burwash, Knight and Finnie were close to the site of the 2014 discovery of the remains of HMS Erebus, in the Queen Maud Gulf/Victoria Strait area on the west side of King William Island. (This area is easily found by extending the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border north to Queen Maud Gulf at 68 degrees north latitude.)
The second objective was to fly over the north magnetic pole. For Burwash this flight was his greatest scientific achievement. The Fokker Super Universal made the first-ever flight over the north magnetic pole on September 6, 1930. Although it did not land, Maclean’s magazine said that Burwash “made the first unhurried and scientific study of the north magnetic pole,” which in 1930 was located on the western coast of the Boothia Peninsula near Cape Adelaide. Gilbert writes in his autobiography: “Altering our course to the eastward we were able to cross Cape Alexandra on Boothia Penninsula and, in a rift in the fog banks, located and photographed the site of the north magnetic pole!”
The third part of the mission was to photograph the terrain. Maclean’s magazine said that “what warmed the heart of Walter Gilbert, however, was the sight of 1,500 miles of Arctic coastline unfolding below him and the knowledge that Stanley Knight’s camera was methodically recording every shoal, island and inlet. Much of the survey was done under hazardous ice conditions, but that was beside the point.”
After this part of the expedition, Finnie was dropped off at Gjoa Haven, where he rejoined the supply ship and overwintered in the Arctic.
Gilbert added: “I don’t know if I had ever tried to imagine the kind of country in which lay the north magnetic pole… All in all it gave one the impression of being the last created portion of the world, which, through a shortage of time or material, had necessarily been left uncompleted… I found myself wondering if—in some far distant future—human habitation might be found here; if man would find some use for even this waste in the ever- changing scheme of things.”
G-CASK replaces G-CASM
The Gilbert/Burwash/Knight 5,000-mile round trip expedition to the north magnetic pole and back was supposed to take place in Fokker Universal, G-CASM with Gilbert at the controls. The story of how the mission aircraft changed to G-CASK follows.
The plan called for Gilbert and Knight to fly from the Canadian Airways base at Fort McMurray to Coppermine via Fort Norman. While at Coppermine, Canadian Airways planned to send them 400 miles eastward to Dease Point to check on the condition of G-CASK, the Fokker Super Universal that was abandoned there when it ran out of fuel during the MacAlpine expedition search of 1929. W.J. (Buck) Buchanan went with Gilbert and Knight to Dease Point. It turned out that the Fokker was undamaged after an unprotected year exposed to the northern elements.
In his autobiography, Gilbert writes that after inspecting G-CASK “we found that the old bus seemed little, if at all, damaged. The salt air had rusted her control cables and the pigments in her ‘doped’ fuselage and wing had faded noticeably, but structurally she seemed as good as ever. Pouring in gas from the supply we had brought as cabin load, and refilling her tank with oil (her original supply had been used for fuel by her stranded crew), we removed the engine cover, primed the engine and, more as a matter of course than with any particular hope of success, cranked the starter. Much to our amazement the motor coughed, burst into a stuttering roar, and almost at once settled down to the full-throated song of the engine-of-engines that it was.” Buchanan flew G-CASK back to Fort McMurray via Coppermine the next day.
The trio of Gilbert, Burwash and Knight was set to take off from Coppermine on their three-part mission in G-CASM when it blew a piston. The exact date is not given but Gilbert writes in his autobiography “we taxied out into the gulf and tried to take off… The long takeoff run was too much for our power plant, and an overheated exhaust valve failed. Switching off the engine, we allowed ourselves to be towed ashore and examined the engine. Not only had the valve failed, but it had punched a hole clear through the aluminum-alloy piston of the engine… a hopeless repair job for our limited facilities.”
Initially it looked like the three men might be marooned at Coppermine until spring. Fortunately, the annual supply ship had not yet sailed from Coppermine “and by a quick dash out to her anchorage we were able to get a radiogram away by her Marconi station, through the government station at Hope’s Advance, at the northern end of Hudson Bay and thence to Ottawa where it was relayed back to our head office in Winnipeg.” The replacement airplane turned out to be the recently recovered G-CASK, repaired with a new set of control cables. The northern flight finally got underway on August 25.
The newspaper and magazine articles covering the northern flight of the three men make only passing reference to the ground logistics of the flight. The most important support component was provided by a Hudson Bay Company ship which in the course of its summer visits to northern communities also established fuel caches at strategic points along the planned route of the aerial expedition. This plan was a success in that there was no report of G-CASK being short of fuel or the fliers being without supplies.
After returning from its 5,000-mile odyssey, the Winnipeg Free Press reported in late September that G-CASK was at Canadian Airway’s Brandon Avenue base in Winnipeg. Referring to its recent recovery at Dease Point, the article said the airplane “responded to a swing of the prop when salvaged less than a month ago… The mechanics say that it is in ‘wonderful condition’ and quite ready for service.” The article also said that in other parts of the world, G-CASK “would be hung up in a museum, to record for safe keeping its exceptional experiences.” Canadian Airways sent G-CASK back to Fort McMurray where it stayed for the rest of its service life.
G-CASK was, by most accounts, an aircraft that was piloted most often by Gilbert. He was on hand when it burned in March 1933 at Fort McMurray during refuelling. According to reports at the time, the filling hose separated at a joint, spewing fuel over the aircraft. What caused the fuel to ignite was not known, although static electricity was the most likely explanation. No one was injured in the blaze that destroyed the aircraft and its logbook. According to Gilbert, G-CASK was “a crumpled skeleton of steel tubing, in the middle of the small lake she had melted for herself in the ice of the river.”
In reflecting on the loss of G-CASK, Gilbert says in his autobiography that the emotion “was quite as great as that felt when a tried and trusted friend ‘passes.’ Some day someone will write the saga of SK. And the story, when told, will be that of a contribution to the history of the North, quite as important as that made by any of her flesh-and-blood fellows of the Arctic brotherhood.”
The photo above is of the historic Fokker Super Universal, G-CASK, that carried four men on a historic flight in 1930 to the north magnetic pole, then located off the Boothia Penninsula, and two sites associated with the lost Franklin Expedition. Shown in this photo from the museum photo archive are, from left, Stan Knight, air engineer and aerial photographer, Richard Finnie, journalist and northern adventurer, Walter Gilbert, pilot, and L.T. Burwash, federal government explorer, engineer and scientist. Finnie was a member of the group for only the northernmost portion of the 5,000-mile trip; he joined the flight at Gjoa Haven.
The map shows the territory covered by Walter Gilbert, L.T. Burwash and Stan Knight in their historic 1930 flight to find Franklin Expedition artifacts, fly to the north magnetic pole, and photograph the terrain. Their flight into the high Arctic was an amazing achievement considering that they were flying a Fokker Super Universal without any of the navigation and communication aids that we take for granted in the 21st century.
This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2015 edition of Altitude magazine.