The Aircraft Arrived
At the end the First World War there was a growing enthusiasm for flight as the exploits of the Aces during the war were well known. Many Alberta men returned from the war as trained pilots and were eager to develop an aviation industry. Some of these early pilots bought airplanes, formed companies, and offered services from barnstorming at summer fairs to freight delivery.
Wilfred Reid “Wop” May arrived in the summer of 1920 at the Grande Prairie and Peace River summer fairs carrying out flying demonstrations and offering rides to anyone who wanted one. These demonstrations ceased in 1930 because the costs became too great.
In 1921, the community of Peace River was chosen by Imperial Oil as a base for an experiment in northern exploration. Hangers were established to launch a flight from Peace River to an oil discovery at Norman Wells to establish whether or not northern oil exploration could be supported by aircraft.
On 24 March 1921, everything was ready for the pilots George Gorman and Elmer Fullerton and they started on their way to Fort Norman flying large Junkers.
Once they made it to Fort Simpson, the Junkers had been damaged and the repairs took until late April to complete, which was too late to fly to Fort Norman because there would not be enough snow to land with skis.
When they arrived at Peace River, they noticed that there was not enough snow for the skis there, so they dropped a note at the aerodrome telling the caretaker that they would land at Little Bear Lake. Fuel and pontoons were brought to them by late May. They flew to Fort Norman, where they repaired the Rene, one of the Junkers. They returned with both Junkers to Peace River in late August.
The first aerial forest fire patrols began in Grande Prairie in 1928. These patrols flew De Havilland Moths.
Wop May and his partner, Victor Horner, were asked to assist when an outbreak of diphtheria was reported in Little Red River. May and Horner took off at 12:45 p.m. on 2 January 1929, in their small Avro Avian. They flew 426 kilometres and landed at McLennan Junction.
They took off the next morning at 9:40 a.m. and arrived at Peace River at 10:32 a.m. and flew to Fort Vermilion. The serum was loaded on a sleigh that raced to Little Red River that night. There was only one death in the settlement and a much more tragic ending to this story was adverted.
The first airmail to arrive at Grande Prairie was on 21 May 1929, but throughout many of the years of the Great Depression there were few flights.
By 1937, Grant McConachie’s United Air Transport was providing regular mail and transport to the Peace River country. McConachie started flying once a week between Edmonton and Whitehorse in July, with stops at Grande Prairie, Fort St John, Fort Nelson, and Lower Post that was located on the British Columbia and Yukon boarder.
By 1939, there was so much flying activity in the Grande Prairie and Peace River region that a new company called Peace River Airways was established locally. Two other air companies, Mackenzie Air Service and Canadian Airways, were also in business at this time.