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Northern Exploration by Bush Plane and Imperial Oil Flight

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Northern Exploration by Bush Plane and Imperial Oil Flight

Imperial Oil had discovered a new source of oil at Fort Norman in the Northwest Territories, but the isolation of the site demanded that they travel 1,891 kilometres following the Mackenzie River from where the railroad ended in the town of Peace River. This trip would take weeks each way on ground and through the wilderness.  Charles E. Taylor, who was the Manager of Western Development for the company at the time, saw an extraordinary opportunity for the use of aircraft. By flying to the area, the trip could be completed in just hours.

Imperial Oil established a hangerTo carry out the flights to the north, Taylor had Imperial Oil purchase two Junkers, which were all-metal, cockpit-enclosed monoplanes. The two aircraft were named the Vic and the Rene. Two Edmonton pilots, George Gorman and Wop May, were hired and sent to New York to bring the aircraft back for the trip north. The first of the two Junkers arrived on 5 January 1921.

At this time, very little was known about the risks associated with flying into the wilderness, especially during the harsh conditions of winter. The effort by Imperial Oil was a first and would act as an experiment. Near the end of February a group set off, carrying seven men that included dominion land and Imperial Oil surveyors and geologists. In three hours they arrived in Peace River.

It was clear that the aircraft would need various caches of oil and fuel to make the flight north and back. To ensure this, the pilots decided to follow a route of Hudson Bay Company trading posts, where these supplies were available. The trading posts had fuel and oil for boats used on rivers and lakes in the north. They also established their own cache of fuel and oil at Upper Hay River, making the necessary trips with the Junkers. The flight to Fort Norman would mark the first time that ski-equipped aircraft flew into the north.

On 24 March 1921 everything was ready for Gorman and Fullerton to start on their way to Fort Norman. They were faced with heavy cloud and deteriorating conditions so they changed their plans and landed at Fort Vermilion, where a blizzard kept them grounded for two days. They were able to continue their flight on 27 March when they made it to Hay River and then on to Great Slave Lake.

Once they made it to Fort Simpson, they realized both Junkers had been damaged. The Vic had suffered the least damage, requiring only a new propeller. This was assembled by a local woodworker using boards, glue, moose leather, and hooves. The repairs were complete by late April, too late to fly to Fort Norman because there would not be enough snow to land safely with their skis.

When they arrived at Peace River, they noticed that there was not enough snow for the skis there either, so they dropped a note at the aerodrome telling the caretaker that they would land at Little Bear Lake. They also asked for fuel and wheels to be brought to them. They waited until late May when they received a set of pontoons and fuel to fly out of Little Bear Lake on their way to Fort Norman, where they repaired the Rene. They returned with both Junkers to Peace River in late August, but when the Rene landed on the water it struck an object that damaged one pontoon, partly sinking the aircraft. The plane eventually drifted to safety on a small island.

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