Article: “What if they lose their way?”

  • Image of a Curtiss HS-2L "H boat" in flight

    June, 1971, Canadian Aviation
    by J.C. Dillon

    George O’Reilly and Thomas Mahon, Erin’s salty but competent contribution to the pilot corps of the Ontario Provincial Fire Service, were patrolling for forest fires in an HS2L flying boat that day in 1924 when the inevitable happened.

    As many others had done before, the water-cooled Liberty engine in the flying boat threw a connecting rod. Sighing in resignation, O’Reilly and Mahon gingerly set the ship down on Lake Superior, not far from Michipicoten Island.

    Now, the old “H” class boat had been a tribulation to its pilots, aside from its habit of throwing con-rods. Pilots claimed the old machine took off at 65 knots, flew at 65 knots, and stalled at 65 knots. The panel was all but bare. No navaids, of course, just an erratic compass that had a nasty habit of taking off on its own. Radio communication was non-existent.

    This made the frequent forced landings all the more disconcerting. The unfortunate crews could do nothing but wait until another aircraft flew nearby and light a signal fire. But, some time before the fates fouled George O’Reilly and Thomas Mahon, an enterprising staffer at the Air Service’s main hangar at Sault Ste. Marie had happened on a novel idea. Why not, he suggested, train a flock of homing pigeons for use as message bearers from downed crews. His idea found merit, and before long a coop was a-building atop the hangar and a flock of fowl was being trained for its proposed task.

    At last, the trainers proclaimed the pigeons fit for duty. And, as luck would have it, George O’Reilly and Thomas Mahon were to be the first to tote the birds in their flying boat. The two pigeons were placed in a wicker basket in the cockpit, and the pilots took off on patrol.

    Their subsequent forced landing being a success, O’Reilly and Mahon grabbed the wicker basket and paddled to the shores of Michipicoton. A quick rescue was at hand, they reckoned. After all, they did have the two most dependable birds.

    Because the pigeons had not seen duty before, the two aviators figured to make history. It therefore became most important that all went well so they began to prepare both birds, in case one did not have adequate homing sense.

    It was while Mahon was writing down their location, preparatory to affixing it to the pigeon, that O’Reilly perchanced to peek at the emergency rations. The bacon was green, the pemmican over-ripe and the hard tack inhabited by weevils. Only the coffee, tea, sugar and salt were unspoiled.

    Not much to live on, they thought, and the chances of killing a fish or a rabbit with stones were negligible.

    The situation called for consultation.

    If the birds became lost themselves, the men decided, rescue may never come. On the other hand, there were a couple of plump emergency rations strutting around in the wicker basket.

    It was no contest, really.

    George O’Reilly and Thomas Mahon were well fed and picking their teeth when they were found three days later.

    And that ended the Ontario Provincial Air Service’s plans to use pigeons as message-bearers.

    Image of a Curtiss HS-2L "H boat" in flight

    This article originally appeared in the June, 1971 edition of Canadian Aviation magazine.

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