Making Aviation History
First Arctic Coast flight made by Lac du Bonnet manProvided By Marc Zienkiewicz (Spring 2009 – Experience Lac du Bonnet)
Lac du Bonnet certainly has a colourful history when it comes to aviation, being the site of the first airmail delivery flight in Canada, not to mention many other things. But not many know that one of Lac du Bonnet’s very own residents helmed the first Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) flight to the Arctic coast.
According to air force documents provided by area historian Gord Emberley, the late Jim Uhlman of Lac du Bonnet made the flight in 1930 at the request of Canada’s Civil Government Air Operations (CGAO), a civil service division of the RCAF. “This has never before been printed,” Emberley said. “It really is a fascinating piece of Lac du Bonnet history, in light of 2009 being the 100th anniversary of aviation.” Indeed, this year does represent a century of Canadian aviation.
On Feb. 23, 1909, J.A.D. McCurdy made history when he flew the now-famous Silver Dart airplane at Nova Scotia’s Bras d’Or Lake. He flew only a half mile, but it was the first heavier-than-air machine to fly in Canada. A replica of the Silver Dart is now on display at the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa.
Two decades later, aviation had made its mark on the Lac du Bonnet community. The first mention of Lac du Bonnet as a base of operations is found in the July 1922 issue of the old Lac du Bonnet Times. In those days, aviation was considered a novelty, but by the time Manitoba’s first airmail flight took off from the Lac du Bonnet town dock in 1927, aviation was quickly becoming an indispensable part of the country’s economy.
Uhlman became an original member of the Manitoba Government Air Service in 1932, but had started his aviation career several years earlier and became a part of Civil Government Air Operations. “They performed all kinds of important tasks for the country. They did aerial surveys, photography, flew government personnel, you name it,” Emberley said. “They played a major role.” In 1930, Uhlman was asked to command the air service’s first flight to the Mackenzie River, which originates in Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, and flows north into the Arctic Ocean. It is the longest river in Canada. The mission enabled the director of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, and two officials from the Indian Affairs and Agriculture Departments, to carry out inspection visits along the Mackenzie. “The party set out from McMurray on July 2 and flew down the river, making stops at Fitzgerald, Hay River, Fort Simpson, Fort Wrigley, Fort Norman, Arctic Red River and Aklavik,” the documents state. The flight represents a crucial moment in RCAF history. Uhlman’s daughter Shan Hornby, who lives in Headingley and is now 72, said her father was quiet about his history in aviation, and the family didn’t uncover most of his history with the Air Force until after his death in the 1980s. “He never talked a lot about himself,” Hornby said. “He never got a lot of recognition for his achievements, but then again he never asked for any.” Uhlman had quite a detailed history with the Canadian Forces. He was wounded in Vimy Ridge and would go on to serve in the RCAF in Halifax, after learning to fly in England. “He was a real inventive kind of guy,” Hornby said. Uhlman moved to Victoria after his retirement, but lived in Lac du Bonnet for many years. “He always enjoyed his life there,” Hornby added. “He never got a lot of recognition for his achievements, but then again he never asked for any.” —Shan Hornby