Great War vet challenged the Rockies - and survived

As Alberta celebrates its centennial, Business Edge looks back at an important piece of history in the aviation industry - the first flight over the Canadian Rockies.

Canada has a long history in the field of aviation and there have been many notable accomplishments. The opening of the Canadian north by aeroplane, may be considered on a parallel with the opening of the American west by the covered wagon. But how and where did it all begin?

Everybody has heard about the Wright brothers 120-feet (37-metre), 12-second flight into history, and most people have heard about the first airplane flight in Canada. This occurred on Feb. 23, 1909, when J.A.D. McCurdy flew the Silver Dart a distance of about 2,600 feet (800 metres). This was at Baddeck, N.S., and Alexander Graham Bell was part of the group working on this project.

There have been many firsts in Canadian aviation, but one of the most significant of these was the first flight over the Canadian Rockies. The date was Aug. 7, 1919, the pilot, Ernest Hoy, and his plane, a Curtiss JN4 commonly referred to as a "Jenny."

Photo courtesy of The Galt Archives, Lethbridge
Capt. Ernest Hoy's Curtiss JN4 Jenny takes off from Lethbridge en route to Calgary.

Here is the story of that flight.

An airplane in those days was still a rare sight and whenever one was in the air it attracted lots of attention. The Great War (First World War) was recently settled and people's minds were still alive with the feats of Canadians in aerial combat. Advances in aircraft design and technology were rapid and people were beginning to realize the potential of this new marvel in the field of transportation.

Up to this point nobody had been able to fly over the western mountain ranges, though many were convinced it could be accomplished.

The idea for this history-making event, according to one story, came from Mr. Cummings, editor-in-chief of the Vancouver Daily World. However, The Calgary Herald states that " ... first credit (goes) to the Coast Aerial League, and John Nelson of the Vancouver Daily World who are the pioneers of the movement.”

In any case, the Lethbridge Daily Herald and The Calgary Herald did not hesitate to join in as sponsors of the flight and a cash prize of $1,000 was offered to the first person to fly from Vancouver to Calgary in less than 18 hours.

The Vancouver branch of the Aerial League of Canada, just recently formed by veterans of the Great War, decided to sponsor one of their members. There are two stories as to how Ernest Hoy was selected from this group. The first one says the names of all the members who had served overseas during the war were put in a hat and Hoy's name was drawn.

The second story says five young fellows had recently chipped in a total of $1,500 to buy a plane for themselves and they were chosen for the attempt. The actual pilot was then selected by the toss of a coin. Ernest C. Hoy, DFC, flipped his way into the history books of Canadian flying feats. Or perhaps it was a combination of both. Either way, Hoy was the winner.

Ernest Hoy was born in Dauphin, Man., in 1895. During the First World War he enlisted in the army and went overseas with the 48th Battalion. Hoy was wounded in France in 1917 and sent to England. After recovering, he joined the Royal Flying Corps and became a pilot. He accomplished many missions over enemy territory and about two months before the war ended, he was forced down behind enemy lines, captured and became a prisoner of war.

At the end of the war he was released and later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). He then returned home and, after a short stay, decided to move to Vancouver. There he met some other ex-service flyers and joined the Aerial League of Canada. He was 24 years old at this time.

Preparations for the historic flight consisted of adding an extra 12-gallon (54.5-litre) fuel tank on the seat of the front cockpit. Hoy flew the plane from the back cockpit. This increased the fuel capacity to 34 gallons (155 litres) and ensured the aircraft could remain in the air for at least four hours.

Photo courtesy of The Galt Archives, Lethbridge
Ernest Hoy, sitting in the rear cockpit of his Curtiss JN4 Jenny, is surrounded by well-wishers after landing in Lethbridge.

Arrangements were also made in the B.C. towns of Vernon, Grand Forks and Cranbrook and Lethbridge to provide landing sites, fuel and meals. The service crews along Hoy's route consisted of returned soldiers and experienced "air machine men."

As there were very few airports or air routes in the country in those days, the route basically followed the railways and highways for safety reasons. This, of course, explains the rather erratic route.

It was also felt that the weather along this route was more favourable than a more northerly route.

Hoy's navigation equipment consisted of a pocket watch and a railway contour map, which left much to be desired in the way of giving any reliable figures of mountains along the way. The aeroplane was powered by a Curtiss eight-cylinder engine capable of producing 90 horsepower.

Hoy also carried a bundle of special edition newspapers from the Vancouver Daily World and a pack of officially marked letters, 45 in all, addressed to the mayors and other officials in the towns he would be stopping at along his way.

The sender was the mayor of Vancouver and today these items are of considerable value to collectors. Recently an Edmonton stamp dealer said these letters are now worth upward of $5,000 each. Hoy's plane at the time cost less than a third of that figure.

On Hoy's first attempt, Monday, Aug. 4, he almost made it to Hope, before bad weather in the mountains forced him to turn back and land at Chilliwack.

He remained there for two days before returning to Richmond where his aircraft was fine-tuned.

At 4:13 a.m. on Aug. 7, Hoy again took off from the Minoru Park race track in Richmond. There was not a cloud in the sky and he was soon reported going over Chilliwack "... at a great height."

Passing over Hope, Hoy headed into the Coquihalla Pass. He reported later it would be safe to go through it at about 5,500 feet (1,700 metres), but 6,000 feet (1,800 metres) would be much safer.

Hoy actually went up to almost 6,200 (1,900 metres) in this area and almost 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) between Merritt and Vernon. This last stretch was almost a straight line and passed over Douglas Lake.

Hoy landed in Vernon at 7:18 a.m. and while his plane was being serviced, he was taken into town where he handed out his letters and newspapers and had breakfast with the Mayor and the World's Okanagan representative.

To a question from a reporter in Vernon, Hoy commented there seemed to be no obstacles to the establishment of an aerial post between the coast and the Prairies.

The longest leg of the flight was the one just completed, although the Cranbrook-to-Lethbridge section would be almost equal in distance.

The trip from Richmond to Vernon used 23 gallons (around 105 litres) of gas and one gallon (4.5 litres) of oil.

On his departure from Vernon, Captain Hoy headed south into the Okanagan. At Kelowna he turned east and followed the Kettle Valley railway.

A point of interest should be noted here. Besides Hoy, another plane, piloted by Lieut. Ernest O. Hall, was also attempting to fly from the coast to the Prairies. Hall, flying on his own without a sponsor, had left a few days earlier than Hoy.

Hall, who had planned a more leisurely flight, did not consider himself to be in a race. He was on the ground at Midway when Hoy passed overhead. Hoy circled in recognition and then carried on.

On his arrival in Grand Forks at 10:34 a.m., "Captain Hoy treated the large crowd of spectators to a perfect landing after circling overhead for several minutes."

About 15 minutes before Hoy took off from Grand Forks, Hall passed overhead. The Calgary Herald reported Hoy then "apparently caught up to Hall, or perhaps Hall waited for him."

Either way, when they passed over Nelson, "they seemed to be flying in company.”

It was felt by some at this point "... the two airmen may complete the rest of their flight together.”

However, this was not to be.

They had followed the railway lines through the Monashee Mountains to the Columbia River, Castlegar, Kootenay River and Nelson. Then along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake to Balfour where they had the option of going south to Creston or continuing east through Crawford Pass in a more direct route to Cranbrook.

Hoy's choice of the Crawford Pass route almost proved to be a disaster. Fortunately he made it through the high point of the pass, but he had only 150 feet (46 metres) of clearance between his plane and the ground.

Ernest Hall, on the other hand, chose the longer but easier route of following Kootenay Lake south to Creston. The fate of Hall's flight was reported in the Lethbridge Daily Herald as coming to a "... sudden and disastrous stop" at the Canyon City Lumber Company mill near Creston, B.C.

Hall had apparently passed Nelson in the hopes of making Cranbrook his next refuelling stop.

As he approached Creston, however, Hall realized Cranbrook was not within his range. He picked out a hay field and landed without problem. There was no shortage of help and Hall soon acquired what he needed and was about to get under way.

"The plane did not rise more than a dozen feet when it had a power failure.”

Cars and spectators were all around the field and Hall, unable to control his descent, sat helplessly as his "... plane went nose on into a motor car and turned a complete summersault, wrecking it almost completely."

Hall escaped with minor bruises as did a woman occupant of the auto.

Hoy, meanwhile, landed at Cranbrook at 2:05 p.m., where he was greeted by another crowd. After dispatching his mail and newspapers, he refuelled and had lunch.

Ahead of him lay his biggest challenge - the main range of the Rocky Mountains.

At 3:35 p.m., Hoy took off with a full load of fuel. With the Crawford Pass incident still fresh in his mind, Hoy realized he would have to be a little more cautious. Following the railway and roads, he passed over Fernie, Michell-Natal, and on through the Crowsnest Pass.

Hoy was in good spirits now, having passed through the "Great Natural Barrier' of the Rocky Mountains. All that remained was the formality of reaching Lethbridge and Calgary.

When Fort Macleod came into view Hoy "descended to within 50 feet (15.2 metres) of the ground and circled the town before going on to Lethbridge," where he landed at 6:22 p.m.

The 5,000 people who were on hand to witness this historic event were not disappointed. Hoy touched down and then, pushing the throttle full ahead, took off, circled over the crowd and came in for a perfect landing.

An interesting point here is that his was the third plane to fly at Lethbridge. There had been two previous nine-minute flights, making his landing a major attraction.

While his plane was being serviced, Hoy was kept busy shaking hands and listening to speeches on the importance of this flight and the possibilities it opened up. He handed out some World newspapers and the official letters.

The letter from Mayor Gale of Vancouver to Mayor Hardie of Lethbridge read as follows: Vancouver, August 1st., 1919 His Worship, The Mayor Lethbridge, Alberta Dear Mr. Mayor: This letter will be presented to you by Captain E.C. Hoy. DFC, on the occasion of the pioneer air flight between our cities, the successful outcome of which will be anxiously awaited by all interested in rapid transit.

Once it has been definitely proved that the great ranges of the Cascades, Selkirks and Rockies offer no insurmountable barrier to safe aerial transportation a forward step shall have been made in the closer and economic and social relations of our respective provinces. Any move which tends to bring these desired results is to be commended and encouraged.

I know you will give a fitting welcome to Captain Hoy on this memorable occasion.

Yours truly R.H. Gale, Mayor

W.A. Buchanan, MP, on behalf of the Lethbridge Daily Herald, presented Hoy with a silver cigarette case "suitably engraved," and wished him well for the remainder of his journey.

As pleased as Hoy was he knew he could not stay long. He was getting tired and it was getting late.

Even though he had flown over, or through, the Rocky Mountains, he still had to make it to Calgary.

While preparing to leave Lethbridge, Hoy was handed several copies of the Lethbridge Daily Herald to deliver along the way. Two of them were destined for Nobleford and he simply threw them out of the plane as he passed overhead. They were picked up by Mr. Noble and Mr. Harris, who were quick to phone Lethbridge and report their arrival.

Other than this, the flight from Lethbridge was without incident and his only concern was in being able to find the landing site in the evening dusk.

His fears were unfounded. On hand to greet the man who had just accomplished an amazing feat, and one which many thought was impossible, were thousands of people and hundreds of automobiles.

They were all lined up with their headlights on, lighting up the landing site at Bowness Park, where Hoy set down at 8:55 p.m.

The Calgary Herald gave this report: "Calgary made no secret of the spontaneity and heartiness of its greeting to and appreciation of Captain Ernest Hoy, DFC, on the consummation of his 870 mile (1,400 km) flight over the Rockies from Vancouver to Calgary on Aug. 7, in less than seventeen hours.

"Thousands gathered at Bowness Thursday night to meet him when he landed, and today at noon at the Palliser several hundred representative citizens gathered to do him honour and to express to him their admiration for his great feat.

"The ballroom of the hotel was filled when Acting-Mayor Maj. Jack McCoubrey called on Bishop Pinkham to say the blessing. Then Maj. McCoubrey introduced Capt. Hoy and asked him to stand up so that everyone might have a good look at him. This done, an excellent lunch was served and felicitous speeches followed."

During the luncheon, Brig. Gen. H.F. McDonald, CMG, DSO, questioned whether in the minds of anyone present the magnitude and meaning of the flight was fully apparent. He went on to say "... all should take thought concerning the importance of the achievement and of the possibilities in airplane and airship navigation."

The Lethbridge Herald also reported Hoy's arrival in Calgary: "The daring aviator received a tremendous ovation from a great throng of Calgary people awaiting him. They came out in hundreds of motor cars, street car loads and afoot."

This event overshadowed the other major news story of the day which was that of the Liberal Convention in Ottawa and the election of William Lyon McKenzie King as their leader.

The highest elevation reached during the flight was 6,500 feet (2,042 metres), and the total elapsed time was 16 hours, 42 minutes, of which 12 hours and 34 minutes were in actual flying time. His average speed was about 70 mph (112 km/h). The trip from Vancouver to Calgary by train at this time was about 25 hours.

After a few days rest, the return trip to the coast was planned in a more direct route by following the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This would take Hoy over Banff, Field, Golden, Revelstoke, Kamloops, the Fraser Canyon and Vancouver. Hoy expected to make only two stops on the return trip, first at Golden and then at either Kamloops or Vernon. He also estimated the return trip to take about 10 hours, including down time.

He left Calgary on Aug. 11, at 9:50 a.m., and headed west, landing in Golden at 12:30 p.m. Two hours later, with a full fuel load, he was attempting to take off from the small hayfield which had been his landing site.

Suddenly two small boys ran out across his path, causing him to bank sharply to avoid hitting them. This put him directly on course with a big cottonwood tree causing him to bank sharply again. These manoeuvres with a full load of fuel resulted in a loss of several feet of much needed altitude. His left wingtip touched the ground and he crashed.

Hoy himself was not hurt, but his plane was damaged to the point where it could not be repaired on the site. He completed his trip to the coast, with his plane, on a freight train.

The group that owned this airplane had named it the Little Red Devil. Unfortunately this name was not popularized as was the case in other notable events, the Spirit of St. Louis for example.

On Aug. 7, 1966, Ernest C. Hoy was guest of honour at Galt Gardens, Lethbridge, where a monument and plaque were unveiled commemorating this historic flight. Ten years later a similar plaque was unveiled at the Vancouver International Airport.

I first saw the Vancouver plaque in 1985 when I was writing a trivia type book on British Columbia. After reading the plaque it struck me something didn't seem right. I read it again and realized where it says "Crawford Pass" it should read "Crowsnest Pass."

I wrote to the National Historic Parks and Sites branch in Ottawa and here are portions of their reply. After "... a few days interestingly digging through our records ... your suppositions appear to be correct. This plaque was originally put up at Lethbridge in the early 1960s and 10 years later duplicated for Vancouver ... puzzling is the fact that a plaque has stood at Lethbridge for almost two decades, and another for half that time in Vancouver, both containing the same error, and no one has caught it till now ... the error will, I am sure, be put right in due course."

That letter was wrote in 1986. While in Lethbridge in 1989, and again in 1993, I located this same plaque and nothing had changed. But then, with governments, " ... in due course," could mean just about anything.

With the conquest of the Rockies behind them, aviators were now looking ahead to the next big challenge for the airplane - coast-to-coast flight. It was not long in coming, but that's another story.


Canada's Flying Heritage by Frank Ellis

City of Lethbridge Archives and Records

Glenbow Museum

Lethbridge Herald

Parks Canada

Reynolds Museum

The Calgary Herald

West Life Magazine

Winston A. Shilvock