Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Black Wolf Squadron

The story of the first transcontinental flight to land in Whitehorse

As we embrace the northern spirit before making the trek to our 66th CMA National Conference, we'd like to share this fascinating article about the first transcontinental flight to land in Whitehorse, Yukon. We hope you enjoy this little piece of history as you prepare to make your way north.

The first powered flight in aviation history — when the Wright brothers flew the Flyer in North Carolina — lasted 12 seconds and covered 36.5 metres. Just 17 years later, the United States Army developed an audacious plan: a 14,500-kilometre transcontinental flight. No one, military or otherwise, had attempted such a feat. 

Intended to prove the viability of air travel, the jaw-dropping voyage would cover the breadth of North America twice. Over the three months it would take, 110 hours would be spent in the air. This was a staggering test of stamina and skill in an era when the most basic navigational aids and instruments did not exist.

Four planes and eight crew members were selected. Their aircraft of choice was the de Havilland DH–4 biplane, a two-seater designed for combat and the top plane in the U.S. Army’s fleet during the First World War.
Yukon Archives, E.J. Hamacher fonds
(Margaret and Rolf Hougen Collection), 2002/118 #203
Although the voyage was formally known as the Alaska Flying Expedition, the black wolf painted on the side of each plane earned the group a more ominous name: the Black Wolf Squadron.

Their planned route was from New York to Nome, Alaska,
and back. Today the average Boeing 737 airliner travels at 800 kilometres an hour, but the de Havillands peaked at about 215. This meant they could cover roughly 450 kilometres before stopping to refuel, which necessitated stops in 15 communities en route. Two stops were made in the Yukon Territory: Whitehorse and Dawson City.

There was just one problem. In the 1920s, air travel was new to the world and there was little or no aviation infrastructure in place. No airports, no hangars, and, more importantly, no runways. Landing fields had to be created in the places the squadron would stop as they hopped across the continent. Whitehorse was one of those places.

An advance party was sent to Whitehorse to determine the best place for the landing field. They picked a spot on the city’s clay bluffs, close to where the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport is today. At that time it was a scrappy woodlot, thick with trees and brush.

Robert Lowe was contracted to clear the land. Over the next two weeks he marked out a section nearly half a kilometre long and 100 metres wide. Then Lowe slashed a path through the trees on either end to give the pilots more room on approaches from the north and south.

Lowe was paid $1,500 — a hefty sum at a time when a half-ton truck cost $500 and a two-bedroom cottage was $2,200 — but he had done important work. By clearing the Yukon’s first airfield, Lowe laid the groundwork for transportation infrastructure in Canada’s North.

With the landing strip ready, the only thing left to do was wait. The squadron left from New York on July 15. They headed west, stopping 11 times before landing in Whitehorse on August 16.

Crowds flocked to see the planes and cheered as they landed safely. “The captain, smiling and happy, stepped from his cramped quarters and shook hands with the excited assembly, many of whom were old-timers of Yukon and had never seen an aeroplane before,” reported the Whitehorse Star on August 20, 1920.

The squadron planned to fly out the following day for Dawson City, but one of the planes blew a tire on takeoff. That’s when White Pass & Yukon Route Railway employee Bert Pearson stepped in with an innovative suggestion.

At that time spare parts were not available in the Yukon and bringing in a new tire would have meant a long delay, so Pearson helped the pilot wind strips of leather and rope around the broken rim. The makeshift repair worked perfectly, and the following day the squadron was back on schedule.

Yukon Archives, E.J. Hamacher fonds 
(Margaret and Rolf Hougen Collection), 2002/118 #20
They arrived in Nome on August 23, and the city hosted a banquet and parade in honour of the elated crew. “We are enthusiastic over the success of our flight because it has accomplished what was believed to be the impossible,” Captain St. Clair Streett told the media after their arrival.

But their mission was not complete. On August 31 the crews began the flight back east. On October 20 they landed in New York, 97 days after they departed, having left an indelible mark on all of the places they had visited. For Yukoners, the success of this journey foreshadowed a future of regular air service to the North.

“Just as mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, so from the small airfield constructed for the above-mentioned first transcontinental flight north has developed one of the finest airports in the North today of which Whitehorse is justifiably proud,” wrote Horace Moore, editor of the Whitehorse Star in 1947. “In the future, because of its strategic position, it is destined to play an even greater part in global aviation.”

Air North, Yukon’s Airline was founded in Whitehorse 30 years after Moore wrote those words — and this year celebrates both its 35th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of Air North Boeing 737 service. More than 230,000 passengers traveled through the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport on Air North and other carriers in 2011.

Leighann Chalykoff is the communications director and project manager at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. This article was originally featured in Air North’s In-Flight magazine in September 2012.

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