This article is culled from a video interview Stan McMillan (1904-1991) conducted, probably sometime in the 1980s. Mr. McMillan was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.
By Maurice Tougas
No radar, no radio, not even any heat. Very little instrumentation.
Those were the kinds of challenges pilots like Stan McMillan faced in the early days of northern flying.
But at least they had pigeons to keep them company.
Born in Ontario in 1904, Stan McMillan came to Edmonton to study engineering at the University of Alberta. In 1925, he learned to fly through a program offered by the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1927, he was stationed at Camp Borden in Ontario and sent to Winnipeg.
Relegated to forestry work, the planes gathered in Winnipeg and were sent to various forestry bases in northern Manitoba. Flying Vickers Vedette and Varuna flying boats and de Havilland Moths, McMillan was sent out on patrols to spot forest fires and to transport fire fighters and supplies. He was also required to do ‘ice patrols’ on Churchill Bay to give warnings to the ships. In the days before radio, it was common practice for the planes to carry a messenger pigeon. The idea was that if the pilot was in distress, the pigeon would fly back to base, which would alert the crew that the plane was in trouble. There was a man in charge of the pigeons who was called a “pigeoneer”.
“Before you took off, the pigeoneer would come down and give you a box with two or three pigeons in it,” McMillan said in a taped interview, one of many in the vaults of the Alberta Aviation Museum. “We were also given a course in how to attach a message to the leg of the pigeon.”
Throwing them out of the plane took some skill, he recalled, because a poor throw could result in a pigeon getting sliced to pieces on the propeller.
Northern flying was a true test of a pilot’s skill and courage.
It was common practice to put the plane down in bad weather. In that the planes didn’t have any heat, the crew had to wear heavy winter clothing such as caribou or seal skin parkas and mukluks. Daylight hours were short, and when the plane touched down for the night, McMillan recalled, the crew had to drain the oil out of the engine so it wouldn’t freeze. Specially designed pots, called plumbers fire pots, were designed to provide heat to the engine and the plane. A tarp would be placed over the engine and the pots would provide some heat. Starting a plane could take hours.
Due to the primitive nature of the planes, an engineer flew on every flight. McMillan says most of the engineers had First World War experience and could use their know-how to keep the planes flying.
In the summer of 1929, McMillan was part of an expedition that would encompass 20,000 miles, from Winnipeg to Baker Lake, then up to the Artic Coast, then west to Aklavik, then southeast to Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes, then back to Winnipeg. Two airplanes and crews left on the major journey.
But it was fraught with problems. Smoke from forest fires caused periodic, unexpected landings. At Hudson’s Bay, a supply ship with supplies for the expedition caught fire, exploded, and sank.
The planes, a Fokker Super Universal and a Fairchild FC-2W2, had multiple problems with heating, McMillan recalled, resulting in ice and losing power on takeoff.
After ten days of perfect weather, things took a turn, with snow showers and reduced visibility. They got their bearings by using a sun compass, something fairly new, that worked well – if there was sunshine. Their maps were “absolutely useless,” he recalled. The eventually followed a river to the Arctic coast.
McMillan found an Inuit post, where the inhabitants convinced the pilots to wait until things froze over.
“They looked after us like we were family,” he recalled. “They were the most generous, unselfish and happy people we had ever run into.”
They stayed with the Inuit encampment for 54 days before finding their way to Cambridge Bay. Search planes found the stranded pilots.
The pilots had no idea that it was the biggest aerial search to that time, using 15 pilots who covered 29,000 square miles of territory. The story got major play in the newspapers.
By 1931, Stan was flying commercial airlines in B.C. Alberta, the NWT and Yukon. Cargo consisted of passengers, freight, and some of the first airmail. In 1932, he became chief pilot for Mackenzie Air Service (for $300 a month he remembers), out of Edmonton. They flew everything from fish to prospectors and mining equipment to isolated places with names like Scurvy Creek, trips that could take 10 days.
He often flew a “rugged” Fairchild, one of which is on display at the museum. It was easy to repair, he says, because the wings were made of wood. They could carry six or seven passengers, and do up to 100 mph. They could operate on skis, or wheels, or floats, making them especially versatile.
McMilland went on to a long and storied career in Canadian aviation, including service during the Second World War, and leading Pacific Western Airlines’ support of the DEW Line construction as their Chief Pilot and Operations Manager. He died on March 4, 1991.