Article: Bill Rutledge Goes Over the Top

  • Image of Percy Payne (left), navigator, and Bill Rutledge, pilot, with the Curtiss Robin they flew “over the top” in 1930.

    W.L. “Bill” Rutledge is the first to fly over the Rockies

    Altitude, Summer 2008
    by W.L. Rutledge, A.F.C, M.M. as told to James McCook


    James McCook, born in Scotland in 1907, came to Canada as a youth where he quickly took up journalism. He worked as a reporter and editor in Vancouver, Regina, Calgary and London, England. He was later associate editor of the Ottawa Journal before retiring to Victoria, B.C. His interest in western Canadian history lead to numerous articles in various publications about the Prairies, the fur trade, the Arctic and early aviation. He died in 1983. A collection of his papers was donated to the Aviation Museum in 2007 by his daughter Sheila McCook. This is one of two of his articles from the McCook Collection that appear in this issue of Altitude. It was submitted to the Illustrated London News in March 1933. There is no evidence in the Collection as to whether or not the piece was published.


    When a down draft tugs at your wings on which ice is forming; when your motor at full revs does not seem to help a bit in pulling you up; when the fog is thick about you and you know you are in a valley between peaks soaring as high as 12,000 feet with not a landing place within 50 miles – then you begin to think of home and mother and whether this flying business is so very fine, after all.

    I know. I have been that way.

    The Canadian Rocky Mountains have always been something of a challenge to the flyer. Even before the war men owning “bird cages” said they could fly across them, but fortunately their plans never got so far as even attempting it.

    These mountains look too easy. The Pacific Ocean is only about 420 air miles from Calgary, one of the prairie cities. Any machine capable of rising 20,000 feet in the air – no unusual accomplishment these days – can soar over the highest mountain of them all on the direct route to the coast from Calgary.

    Yet every pilot of the six who made the first crossing said, either loudly and with emphasis, or silently and with inward self-condemnation, “Never again.”

    I used to wonder why. Now I know.

    The first crossing – or rather passing through – of the mountains was completed in an ancient Jenny, a relic of war-training days.

    The pilot was Flight-Lieutenant E.C. Hoy, late of the Royal Air Force. Early on the morning of August 8, 1919, he hoisted his wartime relic into the sky at Vancouver. Over 16 hours later he landed, exhausted, at Bowness Park, Calgary, in the light of flares, which troubled aviation enthusiasts had placed on a rough field for his guidance. Hoy intimated that he would never try it again but, nevertheless, he started off a few days later to make the return trip, but he crashed with about half the journey completed and the flight was abandoned.

    Mountain flights – all following passes – were made in 1920, 1925 and 1928 while the following year three separate parties made the journey by air.

    As a commercial operator in Calgary I had, of course, from time to time been interested in the possibilities of organizing an air service between Calgary and Vancouver – 420 miles, about four hours flying. It looked easy on the surface.

    Predominant in my mind was the thought that all the flights had been made with the pilots taking advantage, to some extent at least, of the mountain passes, thereby being forced to take a somewhat roundabout way of reaching their objective. The favoured route from Alberta was through the Crow’s Nest Pass, down the Columbia Valley and then on to the Fraser and down to Vancouver. This usually made the trip from Calgary to Vancouver nearer 800 miles than 420.

    “Hmmm,” I thought, “over the top for me – 420 miles – five hours at the outside.”

    It looked so easy that I really thought there must be a catch somewhere. Therefore I took no chances. Percy R. Payne, secretary-treasurer of the Rutledge Air Service, was an expert navigator with experience in flying during the Great War.

    He would be my passenger, although I believed his assistance would be little required.

    So I thought.

    Early one morning in February 1930 we received favourable weather reports. The plane, a Curtiss Robin with a 170 Challenger motor had been ready for days. As the first streaks of dawn appeared, we took off from Calgary, using a flashlight to illuminate the instruments, as the plane was not equipped for night flying.

    The weather was excellent. There was not a breath of moving air.

    Over the sleeping city we roared, the streetlights gleaming below. I put the ship in a steep climb and we sped westwards. Blazing the new trail, opening up the wilderness and all that sort of thing, we mused as we leaned back on cushioned seats.

    Vancouver straight ahead.

    Percy had checked the magnetic compass carefully and had given me a bearing on Vancouver. What was there to worry about? The motor was turning smoothly, we were climbing fast and the skies ahead, we had been assured, were clear.

    It was breaking day as we reached the mountains about 40 miles south of Banff. We crossed the first peaks. Ahead of us was an apparently solid wall of clouds. And there and then we decided that our weather reports were not so hot.

    Up we went. Better to go over the top. But there appeared to be no top. Up to 19,000 feet and still this wall of white. We circled.

    “How about it, Percy?” I called, “Shall we go back and wait for a brighter and better day?”

    “No, likely it’s only thick for a little bit. The weather reports from further on said it was ‘Clear; visibility good’ and surely they all can’t have lied. Let’s push through.”

    Now, it’s easy to ask right here why didn’t I take my compass bearing and shut my eyes and fly right through to Vancouver. That would have been very nice.

    But I hoped to escape this cloudbank. I hoped to get under, so down we went. Soon I began to feel we were below the level of the mountains as the down draft began to pull on the wings. I gave the engine full throttle and made several turns – tight ones, I assure you – to escape the trap into which we appeared to be sinking. There was nothing for it but to climb. Right up we went, hoping each moment we would strike clear air before we struck a peak. At last the altimeter showed 13,000 feet, a fair margin of safety in this vicinity.

    We appeared to be flying through a great wool blanket. It was impossible to climb over and dangerous to go under.

    There seemed to be but one thing to do. We rechecked the compass course from the point where we entered the clouds. Then the nose of the Robin went right forward for Vancouver.

    For two hours and 55 minutes we flew and saw nothing but clouds, except for one fleeting glimpse of rocks and some forestland that had been burned over, leaving sharp-skeleton tree stumps sticking into the air.

    Imagine our pleasure then, after all this flying, to find that ice was forming on our wings, the controls were becoming stiff and we were being forced lower and lower into what was anything but a pleasant haven.

    We decided we had better look and see if it really was as bad as we thought it would be. We knew approximately where we were, but the best estimates of speed and wind velocity are not always nearly correct. It was all very well, we agreed, to fly through the clouds for hours on end and feel sure that everything was all right, but we did not want to fly into the Pacific Ocean and we were getting within a few score miles of the coast if our reckoning was anywhere near correct.

    Back came the throttle and we weaved through 8,000 feet of thick clouds, keeping the ship at its lowest air speed of about 45 miles-per-hour so as to minimize the seriousness of a collision with a mountain – poor humans that we were, for the difference between the two speeds would not have meant any change in our condition.

    At 2,000 feet, I began to feel uncomfortable. There was no signs of the fog lifting. The down draft was bad. Just to test it, I gave the motor full revs but we did not lift a bit. Our maps indicated that the peaks in the district were about the highest on the whole route. We went down a little more.

    We got our glimpse of the ground at 800 feet – too close for comfort, we thought. There was nothing to see except three small streams in the bottom of a valley, trees, rain and patches of ground fog. In great unhappiness we flew as gingerly as a butterfly for ten minutes, the only spot of joy being that the British Columbia rain was doing something useful for the first time in history and was washing the ice off the wings.

    Every now and again I would try raising the nose and giving a few extra revs but it didn’t do a bit of good. The down draft was still there.

    At the end of the ten minutes I was so far down that I could almost hear the wheels of the plane rustling through the treetops. Just at the second when I was to really make a sustained effort to gain some height, we sighted a little garden set like a gem among a dense patch of trees.

    The Robin circled. The throttle, so anxious was I, was cut off for a brief second. Percy stuck his head out a window and bawled. Then I bawled. Then we both bawled together, although we had already realized that if there had been anyone in the cabin he or she would certainly have heard our motor. We thought, however, that if the worst came to the worst, and something went wrong with the motor, we would try and land in the garden. Just to prove that the thoughts of men are but futile things, I began to feel a lessening of the pull on the wings and when I pushed the throttle full forward and raised the nose, we began to get clear into the air.

    We flew prayerfully and painfully, peak-conscious for every one of the 15 minutes that passed, and then, glory of glories, we found a railway station about 100 feet below our chilly toes. Along the railway track we bumbled, passing a freight train that might have been going to Moscow or Vancouver. It looked just like any other train and could tell us nothing.

    But there was a larger station after all. A good one too. One of those where they paint the name of the place on the side of the waiting room. There it was, BROOKMERE. Only ten miles off our course.

    Like good little aviators, although it all seemed unnecessary now, we picked out several possible landing fields and checked our perfectly good course for Vancouver. Then we went up into the clouds once more and found they did not go right up to the moon.

    We found ourselves in a great lonely world, with a vast carpet of white spread below us. Away to the right a jagged peak cut through the cotton wool. Southeast was another mountaintop, with snow encrusting its spire. The sun shone brightly. We were very much alone.

    In 20 minutes we were over Vancouver, only there was no sign of that progressive city. There was just the same old mass of clouds below.

    Nevertheless Percy, somewhat acidly, had again informed me that we were over Vancouver.

    I said: “So I believe. (One must endeavour to be polite). Would you kindly tell me where I am going to land? Pick out a nice hard cloud and I’ll sit down on it and then we can get a ladder and go down and tell Mayor Malkin we have arrived.” All so simple!

    So we toddled over Vancouver, waiting for I don’t know what. Our gasoline supply dropped lower and lower.

    After a while, the people below heard us going away.

    Straight as a die, Percy guided the plane back to Brookmere – no mean feat when there was nothing but the old white blanket about us.

    We found Brookmere still clear of clouds at the lower levels. The landing fields were not so attractive however, so we carried on as far as the weather was clear and landed at Merritt. We landed in a ploughed field, but as Percy said when he left the machine, even a ploughed field felt nice.

    We had been in the air about five hours.

    That afternoon we tried again to reach Vancouver but the clouds were still with us. We remained in Merritt a week. One morning when everything was beautifully clear we started for home, with acres of height soon coming between us and the peaks. How nice it is to have clear air. But there are other things.

    There were a few bumps but nothing unusual. The prairies came in sight, away in the distance, and we were approaching them at well over 100 miles an hour. We were passing over the last range of mountains, with 20,000 feet of altitude and thousands of landing fields right ahead.

    I turned to Percy.

    “We’ll soon be out of the mountains.” And with that I turned to try and re-arrange a world in which everything had suddenly gone wrong.

    We had hit the most colossal bump I have experienced in 17 years of flying. The air had been so calm that we had not fastened our safety belts. Down went the ship and up went our bodies, maps and everything else. The cockpit was full of dust. The whole thing was so complete that I thought for a moment there had been a collision. I glanced at the wings. They were still there. The engine was just ticking over. I thought the bump had moved the throttle back but, when I jiggled it, nothing happened. I tried both magnetos and switched on all gas tanks with no result.

    Oh well, the motor was dead but we had 20,000 feet and the prairie to land on.

    I spared a glance for Percy. He was in a bad way. When the bump came, his head had struck and dented the overhead gasoline tank, and he had been practically stunned. He lay among the litter of his maps and other equipment.

    We glided down and down, with a strong wind easing us over the foothills. We picked, with great deliberation, a field on the Indian reserve at Morley and landed on it most daintily. Percy left at once to telephone for another machine to fly from Calgary with tools, while I explained the functions of an aeroplane to interested Indians. I found that the bump had jerked the float out of place on the carburetor and the gasoline was flowing on the ground. The engine makers could hardly be made to believe that such a thing was possible when I informed them later.

    The reporters were waiting at Calgary when we arrived. Their presence probably kept us from muttering, “Never again”, as we had to keep up the front of being blazers of the new trail and all the rest of the nice things we thought about when we started.

    But “Never again” would be as untrue in my case as in the case of all the others. Certainly, “again” will happen again. There is no real lasting barrier to flying the Rockies. A plane with a full range of instruments, two or three motors and a wireless directional service at command, could make its way despite rain, snow or fog. Bumps such as I have described were not encountered by any others who have flown in the mountains.

    Our plain commercial ship, built for no special efforts, was enough to do the job, but how much better will it be done by the machines, which have been developed since?

    In the next few years, with the rate of aviation development, the Rockies as a barrier to aerial progress will have ceased to exist.

    Image of Bill Rutledge with an Avro Avian

    This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2008 edition of Altitude.

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