A heroic rescue in the wilderness of northwestern Ontario

Felixstowe F.3 was a WWI-era British military flying boat, one in a series designed by Lieutenant Commander John Cyril Porte at Royal Naval Air Station, Felixstowe, Suffolk for long-range maritime patrols[1]. Following the First World War, in 1920 Britain presented Canada with an Imperial Gift of 100 surplus military aircraft, including eleven Felixstowe F.3s. During the summer of 1922, four of these Felixstowes were being operated in Manitoba, the largest number to operate in any province of Canada.[2]

One of these Felixstowe was G-CYBT, which famously carried the first treaty annuity payments delivered by air. This is the story of how Felixstowe G-CYBT ran into trouble after landing on Pikangikum Lake one summer day in 1922 and the story of its inventive rescue and repair using tipi poles and tongue-in-groove floorboards. It is also an early example of how aviators partnered with and received invaluable aid from members of the Indigenous communities they flew into.

Piloted by Major Cecil J. “Doc” Clayton[3], G-CYBT left Victoria Beach, Manitoba on July 28, 1922, with A.D. Dowell, air foreman mechanic, as engineer and two passengers: Major W.A. Steel[4] and J.R. Bunn[5]. Major Steel was dropped off at Norway House; from there, they proceeded to Berens River to refuel and then to Grand Rapids to pick up H.O. Latulippe of the Department of Indian Affairs.

Safe Landing, Rocky Waters

Due to adverse weather conditions, the party stayed a couple of nights on an island before continuing on to Pikangikum, Ontario[6], landing on the lake on July 31 at 9:04 a.m. Immediately after landing, the aircraft struck a submerged rock, which tore a large hole in the bottom of the hull so they taxied to the nearest island in a sinking condition.

The rock that was hit was at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest shore and, according to the local Indigenous people, was the only rock in that part of the lake capable of doing any damage. With the help of the local Indigenous chief and his band, the crew and passengers were taken off the aircraft and the Felixstowe was gingerly pulled up on the beach.

An initial examination of the hull revealed a hole at least six feet long, extending from beneath the starboard fuel tank to behind the cockpit. The rush of water through the hull while taxiing also damaged the bulkheads and tail fabric. After making the aircraft secure, Clayton decided they needed to return to Berens River, as no materials for repairs and no food supplies were available at Pikangikum.

Clayton and his party left Pikangikum by canoe on the morning of August 1 and, guided by members of the Pikangikum First Nation, arrived at Berens River on the afternoon of August 6. After the mandatory three-day waiting period, the Air Board sent a search party to attempt a rescue of G-CYBT. They were reported found by Leigh Stevenson[7], an Air Board pilot based in The Pas who had conducted the search[8]. They were then picked up by Major B.D. Hobbs in Felixstowe F.3 G-CYEN and flown to Victoria Beach[9].

Pikangikum to Berens River – No small feat

It was no small feat for Pikangikum community members to take Clayton and the other passengers by canoe from Pikangikum down river to Berens River. Traversing Berens River requires approximately six to eight portages between Pikangikum and Little Grand Rapids and, once there, that’s where the real hard work began. Between Little Grand Rapids and the community of Berens River, there are approximately 52 falls and rapids (depending on water levels) and most of them required portaging[10]. This voyage would have taken a tremendous amount of work and they would have paddled long days!

All hands on deck! Raising the G-CYBT

A salvage crew, led by Leigh Stevenson, flying officer, along with Adam Brown, air foreman mechanic, and H.L. (Harry) Savinon, air rigger[11], were flown to Pikangikum in Felixstowe G-CYEN with materials and equipment to raise and repair G-CYBT. Materials for repair included axes, saws, and an assortment of small tools, along with varnish, brushes, screws, and wood (oak for flooring and ash for cross members and ribs).

Upon landing, Stevenson hired a canoe and took their equipment and supplies to a camping point on the mainland, in the vicinity of G-CYBT, as the island the aircraft was on was too small to camp on and had no wood supply. Stevenson then hired six Indigenous men at the of $1.50 per day to assist with the repair. According to a report to the Air Board, “valuable assistance was rendered by an Indian chief and his band living in the neighbourhood in saving the machine and making the necessary repairs”.[12]

G-CYBT was lying with her nose about 10 feet over the shoreline and her tail in about five feet of water. Stevenson sent the indigenous men for sufficient timber, which they retrieved from their own supply of already peeled and ready-to-use wood and poles. With this, they erected two sets of shear legs, one over the front of the cockpit and one about three-quarters of the way along the fuselage.

They then raised the aircraft until the lowest point of the heel was approximately 20 inches above the water and raised the tail until the main plane showed no angle of incidence. They proceeded to tie down and brace it from every possible angle to protect it from the wind and heavy gales. They constructed a raft under the hull to allow the crew to work without getting wet and floated a few logs at some distance behind to keep the waves from breaking on the raft.

The field repair – creativity on the fly[13]

The hole in the hull was larger than it first appeared: around 12 feet long and six feet wide, extending from the keel to the fin edge and from just ahead of the front centre section bulkhead to just behind the rear door. When the aircraft struck the rock, the rock carried away all the cross members but left the longeron, heel, and fin undamaged.

The carpentry work was performed by Adam Brown and Harry Savinon[14]. They cut away the ragged edges, built new cross members, and planked the hole with half-inch dressed oak floorboards, sealing the joints with varnish and covering them with strip copper. The step that had been torn away was found, practically undamaged, by a couple of the Indigenous men.

When the flying boat had started to sink, Squadron Leader Clayton had put both engines full on to get the aircraft close to the shore as quickly as possible; the action of the water rushing to the rear had pulled the top of the fin planking away from the fin edge. By the time of the repair, the planking had been in the water for some time and had swollen to such an extent that it was necessary to cut thin strips from it and nail them down and cover it with balloon fabric.

The tail of the aircraft had been so low in the water that the elevators and the lower half of the rudder were submerged and the fabric on these portions was in better condition than that on the main tail; although, the internal wood members were possibly becoming damaged from the water. The rear half of the fuselage canopy had been torn away by the water rushing to the rear and the lower half of the fin also had to be removed.

The engines were apparently in good condition, as they had been carefully covered up with balloon fabric when the flying boat was left on the island. Stevenson overhauled the engines, baking parts in a limestone stove he had made. After reassembly, while he was cranking, one of the self-starting magnetos kicked back, breaking a bone in his hand.[15]

With the help of members of the Pikangikum community – who prepared poles and cribbing and assisted with cooking and camp chores – repairs to Felixstowe G-CYBT were completed in three weeks[16]. The final work was carried out by Flight Lieutenant J.R. (Rod) Ross, another Air Board pilot who arrived from his base at The Pas.[17] He reportedly experienced little difficulty building a cradle to lower the Felixstowe before launching it.

End of a brief era

Both Felixstowe F.3s, G-CYBT and G-CYEN were able to fly out of Pikangikum the third week of August and return home to Victoria Beach. Unfortunately, this was G-CYBT’s last flight. As valiant as the field repair effort had been, the damage to the hull was deemed too great. According to an interview with Ross about the aircraft’s arrival home, the field repairs to the hull “…lasted [just] long enough – it sort of gave away when we landed at Victoria Beach.”[18]

At Victoria Beach, an inspection of G-CYBT confirmed that the damage was too extensive and, on August 29, 1922, G-CYBT was written off charge at Victoria Beach.[19]  Then, on September 8, Felixstowe G-CYEN was seriously damaged at its mooring offshore at Victoria Beach in rough seas, when it was dragged at anchor by the wind in a severe storm.[20]

The 1922 season was the last one when the giant Felixstowe flying boats operated in Manitoba. The many problems of maintaining these large flying boats in the field had been demonstrated over a full operational season, and the need to acquire smaller flying boats was becoming evident and acute.  A September 29 letter from Canadian Air Force headquarters in Ottawa authorized the Victoria Beach air station superintendent to write off charge all Felixstowe F.3 machines, which were to be dismantled to component parts and returned to stores if serviceable or otherwise destroyed.[21]

Giving names to those who helped

Photos of and reports on the Felixstowe repair have been in RAMWC’s collection for almost 40 years and, on July 28, 2022, the museum launched a collectable medallion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this incredible story of teamwork. However, our account of this event lacked diverse perspectives as the identities of the Indigenous men were unknown – until recently.

With the development of its new facility, the Royal Aviation Museum committed to taking meaningful action on Truth and Reconciliation and to forging lasting partnerships with the Indigenous communities affected by the rise of aviation in western and northern Canada.

RAMWC will continue communicating with Pikangikum First Nation, facilitating access to these and other photographs, the oldest photos of their people that this community knows to exist.

This project is just one step in RAMWC’s larger initiative to identify Indigenous people in photographs and records the museum holds, providing awareness of and access to these records, and moving toward decolonizing the archival and museum collection.

TL;DR On July 28, 1922, a Felixstowe F.3 flying boat carrying treaty annuity payments to Pikangikum First Nation in NW Ontario suffered major damage upon landing. Indigenous members of the Pikangikum community were vital in guiding the crew to their rescue and aiding the subsequent field repair of the aircraft, which took three weeks to complete.

[1] Felixstowe F.3 was a bi-plane built of wood and fabric, 49’, 2” long, with a wingspan of 102’. It could reach a maximum speed of 91 mph at 2,000 feet and was powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII water-cooled V12 inline piston engines, 345 horsepower each.  It had a six-hour flying range when fully loaded with a crew of four, four machine guns and under-wing bombs, and 2000 lb of fuel and oil. Source: J.L. Bruce, “Windsock Datafile No. 82: Felixstowe F2a”, Albatros (2000).

[2] John Griffin, “Felixstowe F.3”, unpublished manuscript, RCAF 17 Wing Archives.

[3] Dr. Cecil John Clayton, D.F.C., born 1892 in Virden, Manitoba, and raised in Victoria B.C., was a pilot of fighter aircraft and flying boats for the Royal Naval Air Service, ending the war as deputy commander of Royal Air Force Station Felixstowe and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  He piloted Air Board flying boats in the early 1920s, then became a dentistry student at the University of Toronto and, during summers, piloted fire protection patrols in Quebec and Ontario for the Laurentide and Ontario Provincial Air Services.  He practiced dentistry in Rainy River, Ontario, and Victoria, where he died in 1965. Sources: Obituary, Victoria Daily Colonist, Jan. 1, 1966; Barry Gough “From Classroom to Battlefield: Victoria High School and the First World War” (Heritage House, 2014).

[4] Major Steel was an officer of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals who, that summer, was installing the first radio communications system in northern Manitoba (linking Winnipeg, Victoria Beach, Norway House, and the Pas) for use in reporting forest fires detected during patrols conducted by the Air Board’s flying boats, like the Felixstowe F.3 that was damaged at Pikangikum.

[5] John R. Bunn was Inspector of Indian Agencies, Lake Winnipeg Inspectorate, Department of Indian Affairs, based at Clandeboye, near Selkirk. Source: Library & Archives Canada: Indian Affairs Air Board files (RG10, Volume 4090, file 531,062)

[6] The Pikangikum First Nation is an Ojibwe First Nation (and a Treaty Five First Nation) located on the Pikangikum 14 Reserve, in Unorganized Kenora District in Northwestern Ontario. The main centre is the community of Pikangikum on Pikangikum Lake on Berens River, which is part of the Hudson Bay drainage system. It is approximately 100 km north of the town of Red Lake and 229 km north of Kenora. Source: Wikipedia.

[7] Leigh Forbes Stevenson, C.B., born 1895 in Richibucto, N.B., moved to Roblin, Manitoba in 1910, and served during WW1 in the infantry in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, before he became a flying officer in the Royal Flying Corps.  In 1921, he joined the Forestry Service of the Department of Interior as a forest ranger at Winnipegosis then served as liaison with the Air Board at Victoria Beach.  He joined the Canadian Air Force later in 1921 as a flying officer and later rose to senior ranks within the Royal Canadian Air Force, including as commander of RCAF Winnipeg in the late 1920s, and Air Vice Marshal, Western Air Command, in Vancouver during WW2.  After retiring in 1945, he was elected a member of the legislative assembly in British Columbia and became involved in Ducks Unlimited, which made him an honourary director. He died in 1989 in Vancouver. 

[8] RAMWC Transcript # AFT149, AVM (Ret.) Leigh Forbes Stevenson, interviewed by Ted Mayo, Winnipeg, September 8, 1984, p.9.

[9] Clayton’s report to Air Station Victoria Beach, August 7, 1922

[10] Water Resource Paper No. 4, Progress Report of the Manitoba Hydrometric Survey for the Calendar Years 1912-13-14

[11] Stevenson transcript.  Air Board ranks: 1923 Report of Auditor-General of Canada.

[12] Report of the Air Board, page 41.

[13] Report of the Raising and Repair of Machine G-CYBT at Pekangekum, Ontario

[14] Stevenson transcript, p.9

[15] Stevenson transcript, p. 9.

[16] Report of the Air Board, p. 41.

[17] John Roderick (Rod) Ross (b. 1893 Ottawa, d. 1984 Surrey, B.C.) Raised in Winnipeg, he served during WW1 as a pilot of seaplanes and flying boats in the Royal Naval Air Service, ending the war with rank of Captain.  He flew Air Board Felixstowe and Curtiss HS-2L flying boats from Victoria Beach in 1921 and The Pas in 1922.  From 1923 to 1926, he piloted and supervised fire protection patrols in Quebec and Ontario for Laurentide and Ontario Provincial Air Services. He became one of the first pilots of James A. Richardson’s Western Canada Airways where he led the Churchill airlift of 1927.  Sources: Ancestors.familysearch.org; Auditor-General of Canada Annual Reports 1922 & 1923; Allan Snowie, “Collishaw & Company: Canadians in the RNAS” (2011); K. A. Molson, “Pioneering in Canadian Air Transport” (1970); RAMWC Ross transcript. 

[18] RAMWC Transcript AFT052, Rod Ross interviewed by Gordon Emberley and B.A. Simmons, Vancouver, November 23, 1981, p.13

[19] John Griffin, unpublished manuscript, “Felixstowe F.3”

[20] Letter dated September 12, 1922 from Squadron Leader B.D.Hobbs, Air Stastion Superindent,  to Director, G.S. & A.G. Canadian Air Force, Ottawa. From Griffin Archives, RCAF 17 Wing.

[21] Letter dated September 29, 1922 from E.W. Stedman, Asst. Director (Q. & T.) Canadian Air Force, Ottawa, to Air Station Superintendent, Victoria Beach, Man. From Griffin Archives, RCAF 17 Wing.


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