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Mercy Plane Sets Record – flight From Burns Lake made in five hours

Events in Burns Lake seldom made the front pages of British Columbia’s largest newspapers in the first half of the 20 th Century, but they did in 1929.
The Pintail, a Boeing B1-E flying boat owned by Western Canada Airways, on Burns Lake, September 1929.(Lakes District Museum Society/Lakes District News)

Events in Burns Lake seldom made the front pages of British Columbia’s largest newspapers in the first half of the 20th Century, but they did in 1929.

That year, the September 12 edition of the Vancouver Daily Province carried a story of courage and determination that was worthy of front-page billing. “Mercy Plane Sets Record – Flight From Burns Lake Made in Five Hours” read the headline, and below it, was the tale of how a half dozen people used modern technology to save a man’s life.

In the first week of September 1929, H.C. Hughes, mining engineer for the Consolidated Mining & Smelting Co. Ltd. (Cominco), was inspecting several of the company’s properties near the Emerald Mine on Sweeney Mountain. Alone and unarmed, he was (according to the Daily Province) “going from one camp to another” Sibola Mountain when he was attacked by a large grizzly bear.

The bear swatted Hughes on the hip with one great paw, knocking him down. The mining man lost his glasses but had the presence of mind to follow the advice of old timers and play dead.

After mauling Hughes’s face and leg, and biting him repeatedly in the shoulder and neck area, the grizzly wandered off. The engineer, in his late ‘30s, lay on the ground for approximately a half hour until certain the bear had left, then walked and crawled ten miles back to the Emerald Mine camp over eleven hours.

“The man was tough,” Ootsa Lake pioneer and school teacher Lulu Morgan Beaver recalled in 1987.

Mine employees administered first aid before carrying the injured man to Tahtsa Lake, where he was put on a riverboat for the sixty-mile journey to Ootsa Landing. Once there, he was transported by automobile to Burns Lake, arriving in town on the evening of Sept. 5.

According to the Daily Province, the trip from the mine site to Burns Lake took thirty-six hours.

Dr. Thomas Carlyle Holmes, who had been in town less than a year, attended to Hughes’s wounds, which included a finger that had been broken badly in the attack. Then, because the town’s tiny hospital at the corner of Third Avenue and Center Street was already full, Holmes released his patient into the care of Rev. W.R. (Ray) Ashford, who put the injured engineer up in the United Church manse.

Initially, Hughes’s wounds, while gruesome, were not considered serious. Yet in the days that followed, his condition deteriorated. By Tuesday (Sept. 10), infection had set in, and the injured man was running a fever.

Dr. Holmes, who already had more patients than time, decided it would be best if Hughes was evacuated to a larger hospital with better facilities and more staff. Getting the injured man out of town was a problem, though; he needed almost constant medical attention, the roads leading east and west were poor, and Burns Lake didn’t have an airfield. Going by rail wasn’t considered an option, either.

The mining company that employed Hughes stepped in. M.M. O’Brien, Cominco’s coast superintendent, contacted Western Canada Airways to arrange for an air evacuation. The nearest plane, however, was located more than two hundred and fifty miles away in Stewart, BC.

Late in the afternoon of Sept. 10, Pilot Walter Gilbert and mechanic George Taylor climbed into their single-engine Boeing B-1E 1075 flying boat (nicknamed the Pintail) and took off from the Western Canada Airways base in Stewart. Their destination: Burns Lake.

Word of the impending flight spread like wildfire here. Because the plane left Stewart so late in the day, residents parked more than a dozen automobiles along the lakeshore so their headlights would illuminate the lonely stretch of water where the plane would land. Fortunately, their services were unnecessary; at 7 p.m., after a flight of two hours and ten minutes, the flying boat landed safely on Burns Lake and taxied to a berth near the beach.

The following morning, Dr. Holmes bundled Hughes, who now sported a temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, into the waiting plane, along with nurse Emma L. Scott. Residents watched with trepidation as Pilot Gilbert then tried unsuccessfully to take off. On the third attempt, after unloading most of the supplies put on board to ease Hughes’s trip to Vancouver, he managed to get the plane into the air.

Everyone on the beach breathed a sigh of relief, but for Gilbert, the ordeal was just beginning. To achieve lift-off, he had left Burns Lake with partially empty fuel tanks. Aviation fuel was in short supply in those days, so the plane had to travel south by a circuitous route, landing first in Quesnel and then Bridge River for more gasoline.

Headwinds buffeted the small aircraft and smoke from wildfires reduced visibility to nearly zero in some places. Despite the hazards, though, Gilbert landed his B-1E flying boat at the Bute Street seaplane base in Vancouver shortly before 5 p.m. on Sept. 12.

The thousand-mile trip had taken four hours and fifty-three minutes.

Hughes, semi-conscious and slightly delirious, was taken by “Exclusive Ambulance Service car” to Vancouver General Hospital, where he was listed in critical condition. Gilbert and Nurse Scott, greeted by a horde of reporters, stuck around to answer questions.

“Miss Scott, smiling as she alighted from the cabin, said it had been a rather strenuous trip and she was glad the journey was ended,” wrote one journalist. “She admitted this ‘flight of mercy’ was her first ride in the air, although Pilot Gilbert said she displayed no signs of being nervous.

“Miss Scott related a thrilling tale of trip by boat, automobile, and plane. The fact that Hughes survived is attributed by the nurse to his wonderful vitality.”

Burns Lake had its first fifteen minutes of fame. The mining engineer survived, but we don’t know if he ever returned to the Emerald Mine.

The Boeing B-1E was not the first plane to land in Burns Lake (that distinction was held by a Northern Lights biplane owned by Yukon Airways Exploration Co. Ltd), but it was likely the first medical evacuation flight. Other aircraft visited the town in the decades that followed, but thirty-one years went by before the area got a proper airfield capable of handling large, wheeled planes.

Yet that, as they say, is another story.

© 2021 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society