06 April 2015

Book Review: Yukon Wings

  • Yukon Wings
  • by Bob Cameron
  • Published by Frontenac House, Calgary, Alberta in 2012, printed in China
  • 12.25" X 9.5" hardback
  • 368 pages, including cast of major characters, notes, index of aircraft and general index
  • $60.00

Author Bob Cameron grew up in the Yukon, the son of a Yukon aviation pioneer. He graduated as an engineer and worked for United Aircraft in Montreal, before returning to the Yukon to become a bush pilot for Trans North Turbo Air. He retired as Operations Manager there after three and a half decades of flying, in 2001. Over the years Cameron also made it his vocation to collect Yukon flying stories, photos and artifacts, up to and including collecting aircraft wrecks. He still lives in Whitehorse, too. If anyone can tell the story of pioneer flying in the territory it must be him!

At 368 pages and 4.5 lbs (2 kg) dead-weight, this is no quick pass over the subject. This is a truly "large" work, with a lot of photos and a lot of detail in it. That said the book is very readable from start to finish and you can feel the author's personal connection to the people he is writing about, many of whom were his boyhood heroes.

The book's 16 chapters focus on the period between the First and Second World Wars when aviation arrived in the Yukon and went to work there. It covers into the time of the Second World War, as well, with the flying support for the Alaska Highway and Canol Pipeline construction that made use of local civil aviation, as well as the northwest ferry route of aircraft heading from North America factories to aid the Soviet war effort.

The book really starts with the US Army expedition of four British-designed Airco DH.4 biplanes landing in the Yukon in July, 1920 on their way to Alaska. It was not until 1927 that anyone actually set up an air service in the territory, when the Yukon Airways and Exploration Company started flying with one Ryan B-1 Brougham aircraft named the Queen of the Yukon, similar to Lindbergh's Ryan, the Spirit of St Louis. This outfit carried out the territory's first passenger flights, first airmail and first air freight runs, too. The Queen of the Yukon met an inglorious fate when it hit a Model T Ford truck on landing roll-out. It was replaced by an Alexander Eaglerock biplane and eventually a replacement Ryan, the Queen of the Yukon II. That latter aircraft was also crashed, with fatal results, after an engine failure on take-off on 22 November 1929.

In many ways that initial episode sets the tone for much of the story that Cameron tells, of brave and resourceful people setting up commercial air services and crashing aircraft. The book is full of the author's collection of many dozens of photos of airplane wrecks. In most parts of the book you can't thumb four pages without seeing a crash photo. In many ways this is unavoidable, as early commercial aviation had an abysmal safety record and a complete history, like this book, cannot ignore that aspect of the story or gloss it over.

The book covers in great detail and lyrical narrative the endeavours of air services such as British Yukon Navigation Company, White Pass Airways, North Airways, North Canada Air Express, United Air Transport and of course Yukon Southern Air Transport, that became part of Canadian Pacific, flying aircraft like the Fairchild FC-2W2 and 82, the Keystone-Loening Commuter flying boat, the Buhl AC-6 Airsedan, the Lockheed 10A Electra, the Ford Trimotor, the tubby American 100 Pilgrim, the Bellanca 66-776 Aircruiser, Curtiss Condor, cabin WACOs and of course the stalwart Fokker Universal and Super Universal. Cameron delves into the fierce competition of the inter-war years, the rate wars, but also the cooperation between companies, especially when aircraft went missing or were stranded in a remote location, unservicable.

Cameron seems to have always had a personal interest in Yukon aviation history, having grown up surrounded by it. He started collecting stories and photos, but also used his time bush flying to visit old wreck sites and eventually collected the remains of three Fokker Super Universals in the 1970s, a type dear to his heart and one of which no examples remained. The huge one piece wooden wings of the "Super" had a very limited lifespan, especially in the north bush and none survived. After 18 years of painstaking restoration by Calgary pilots and engineers Clark Seaborn and Don McLean one "Super" flew again from the remains of the wrecks Cameron had saved. CF-AAM was flown around North America and even won a "Judge's Choice" award at Oshkosh in 1999. It now resides at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada (formerly the Western Canada Aviation Museum) in Winnipeg.

The author received a grant from the Yukon Foundation's Doris Stenbraten Fund to write the book. Of note Doris Stenbraten was the author's high school English teacher! The book was actually printed in China and the publisher, Frontenac House of Calgary, is supported by both the Canada Council for the Arts and the Government of Alberta.

Yukon Wings is a very complete, well written and profusely illustrated work, it would make an excellent addition to any aviation enthusiast or history buff's book shelf.

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