Downhome Magazine

Gunnar Laurel, Bush Pilot Ace

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By Arthur A. Locke

I have always had a keen interest in flying. I remember my first year or so in Roddickton (in 1948) we settled into a four apartment "company house" with three other families for that winter (we arrived in November). The building was owned by the Sanders & Howell Limited, a company of Carbonear who owned operated a large sawmill and woods operation here in Roddickton. I can still recall "keeping on" at my mother to go up to the Clem Norman's (now deceased) General Store, which was situated about 100 yards from us toward the roadside, to get large cardboard boxes from which I could make aeroplanes. Although I wasn't very old at the time (perhaps about five), I had already developed a keen interest in flying and in aircraft. I can still remember a small airplane, which had a bottom like a boat, landing in Roddickton Harbour just behind our home. It fascinated me! This interest in flying and in aeroplanes stayed with me during most of my school years (and continued into my adult years as well).

I can remember making a model Cessna 180 (Super Cub I believe) from Balsa wood and tissue paper, in which was an engine with a prop (these were the days before remote controlled flying). Attached to a three-winged mechanism in the cab of the plane were two light steel cables, which exited through the tip of one wing and were attached to strong nylon line. The biggest drawback was that the plane could only fly (controlled) by the length of the line! I would start the engine with a battery. It had a glow plug that became hot and burned gas. Then it would take off! I used to fly and land this on the ice or in large open spaces.

It seemed, however, that I was mostly interested in the smaller planes , not the larger ones (although I do remember in my early adult years of having plastic models of the B19 and the B29). I also recall PAL (Provincial Airlines Limited), which flew out of St. Anthony Airport, sometimes used what was known as "The Metro," which I loved. It was a very small plane; some called it "The Flying Culvert." Someone said it was so small that you had to lie down in it to get room for your legs! Well, it wasn't that small, but it was small enough for me to like and I remember flying in it several times through the years.

Anyway, back to my story. I was at Memorial University in St. John's during the winter of 1960-61, and in early May my friend Austin Canning (now living in St. John's) and I got tickets to fly home. We boarded a TCA (Trans Canada Airlines was a forerunner of Air Canada) flight in St. John's and flew as far as Gander.

As there didn't seemed to be any motels available at the time, we were introduced to a somewhat elderly lady who hired out rooms. This is where we stayed for about a week, from Friday to Friday because the weather was down and the snow was piling high, until Austin and I were fortunate enough to catch a ride home on a mail plane. So Austin got on board of one and I in another. They were the relatively small Beaver aircraft (made by de Havilland) owned and operated by EPA (Eastern Provincial Airways Ltd.), which had been hired by government, I assumed, to bring the mail to the smaller outports. When you got on board you sat in the right front seat opposite the pilot because the body portion of the aircraft was stuffed with mail bags. You had said your last word for a while when getting on board, as you couldn't hear anything after that because of the noise of the engine! (I wonder now sometimes what the decibels would have been?) So you just sat there and stared out the window or at the instruments all the way.

Once in the air over Gander, we flew for what seemed like a long time (looking back upon it now I suspect it was for a couple of hours). Every now and then I would catch sight of the Beaver airplane in which my friend Austin Canning was riding. The sky was blue and clear, and it appeared that the week-long storm was over. However, when we got over Englee (a town about ten miles south of Roddickton) our plane ran into a snowstorm. The pilot battled it for a few minutes, trying to make Roddickton, but then I heard the engine rev up and the compass needle on the instrument panel pointed due north. I said to myself, "He's not going to Roddickton," as I knew that Roddickton was northeast from where we were. I'd say we flew for about 20 minutes to a half-hour or so, and then my pilot saw a pond he was apparently familiar with (the area where he had decided to land wasn't big enough to land a mosquito on, I thought at the time) and he put the plane down. We taxied (if you would call it that) to a stop not too far from a small wood cabin by the pond. (I found out later that this was Durnford's Pond, about 10 miles from St. Anthony.)

I don't know if the pilot (who I learned later was Swedish pilot Gunnar Laurel - perhaps the best known of the bush pilots of the day) knew the people who owned the cabin or if he decided to break in. Inside we found a couple of snow shovels which we took to carry out our next task. In broken English, Gunnar Laurel (who I noticed for the first time looked rather young!) told me to follow him toward the end of the pond, to where his skis had first touched the ice when he landed. Following his lead, we shovelled up an embankment of snow about 12-18 inches high and about 12-16 feet long. We would tamp the snow, which was a little wet, down every foot or so with our boots and shovels as we piled it, so that by the time we were finished we had a fairly solid tapered pile.

On Gunnar's instructions about a half-hour later, we climbed into the plane, "To go up and look at the weather," he said in his broken English. It was a good thing that I liked flying because he pointed the plane toward the embankment we had just shovelled. When the skis of the plane hit the embankment, the plane kind of popped into the air and he appeared to "catch it" just in time to clear the trees near the edge of the pond. It sounded like he revved up the motor, while the plane seemed to just skim the tops of the trees. (It probably wasn't that low, but it sure looked and felt like it!)

The pilot did that a couple of times, but the weather hadn't changed, so he knew we weren't going anywhere in a plane that evening. We then walked to the highroad, which wasn't very far away and bummed a ride with a motorist to St. Anthony. I stayed there all night with my aunt (Chris Heath, now diseased), but I don't know where Gunnar stayed (perhaps with some friends). In the morning, the weather had cleared and Gunnar had arranged for a ride for both of us back to the airplane. We climbed aboard the Beaver and, after a few final checks and a grin by Gunnar, we took off for Roddickton once again using the snow embankment we had shovelled on the pond the evening before. We arrived there about half an hour later and landed on the frozen Roddickton Harbour. As I climbed out of the airplane onto the snow-covered ice, I wondered if anyone else had ever had such an experience!

A year later, I was teaching school at Englee. One day while teaching we heard a roar. It seemed like a plane was about to take the roof right off the school. Everyone ran outdoors, frightened. It would be some time later before I learned it was Gunnar's plane we heard. Apparently Gunnar had come to Englee in the Beaver with a load of mail, but he couldn't land on the harbour ice because of the large crowd of people who were streaming onto it to meet the plane (the only contact with the outside world in those days and a cause for excitement). To clear a pathway through the people so that he could land, he "buzzed" the harbour by flying low and revving up his engine. Man, you should have seen the people heading for the shoreline as they heard the engine roar! They were afraid of being hit by the plane! Anyway, Gunnar was more than successful in clearing a landing strip on the harbour ice at Englee that day! Thank goodness for small blessings! (as we often say)

Additional Notes: If you want to learn more about Gunnar Laurel, perhaps the most famous of the NL bush pilots, you can do this by visiting the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander, where the full story of Gunnar is told. It is true that he taught other bush pilots things that possibly saved their lives and the lives of others (the snow embankment we shovelled and piled that day may be one of them!). I realized recently that I am perhaps one of a very few still alive (I am about 79 now) who flew with Gunnar as a passenger. Gunnar was born in May 1923 in Sweden. He immigrated to Canada in 1951 and passed away on December 30, 1988. His grave site is located in Gander.

 
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