In 1927, Western Canada Airways landed a contract to move men and approximately eight tons of equipment to Churchill, Manitoba as part of a survey to determine the location of a northern seaport. The company purchased two open-cockpit Fokker Universals for the contract. To ensure that the aircraft would perform as advertised, Fokker sent one of its test pilots, Bernt Balchen, to join the project. Balchen was a multi-talented aviator – pilot, navigator, aircraft mechanic and specialist in cold-weather flying. During the airlift he serviced, repaired and tested the Fokker Universals, took his turn flying cargo to Churchill, and participated in at least one search and rescue.
The airlift to Churchill was a success – there were 27 round-trips over 30 days from Cache Lake – the end of the railway – to Churchill, 280 miles away. Flying open-cockpit aircraft in anything less than perfect weather is not for the faint-hearted, let alone Churchill’s winter weather conditions where biting cold, blowing snow and sea fog were normal.
Nevertheless, the 1927 airlift was the first of its kind in Canada, and probably the world. It was successful at a time when aviation and northern flying were far from mature, and when communication and navigation aids were primitive at best. It’s therefore a tribute to the determination and skill of all concerned.
At the time, the Department of National Defence said: “the decision during 1927 as to the selection of Fort Churchill as the ocean terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway was made possible by these flights. There has been no more brilliant operation in the history of commercial flying.”
The completion of this project established the usefulness of aircraft in remote areas, not only in mining and geologic surveys, but also in servicing distant communities. Equally important, it established Western Canada Airways as a pioneer in northern aviation.
Balchen’s involvement with the Churchill airlift earned him a place in at least four major books on Canadian aviation, and he is the subject of a 1999 biography published by Smithsonian Books. He is also honoured in three aviation halls of fame – the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in San Diego, the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum in New Jersey and the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.
The Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame citation reads: “His extraordinary aeronautical ability directed towards the exploration of unmapped regions, the Fort Churchill airlift and the linking of this nation by air to Scandinavia, despite adversity, have been of outstanding benefit to Canadian aviation.”
The spring 2011 issue of Altitude Magazine contains a much broader biography of Balchen, distributed exclusively to members of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.
The photo is of J.R. Ross and Bernt Balchen and was taken on April 22, 1927 after a flight to Churchill during the first-ever airlift. The aircraft behind them is named City of Winnipeg and was an open-cockpit Fokker Universal. About half of the 44 Universals built between 1926 and 1931 were used in Canada.