|Thirty years ago, Edmontons C.H. Punch Dickins became the first pilot inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. As one of the greatest pilots in our countrys history, it was a fitting tribute. |
His story was one of rugged adventure, pioneering spirit, courage and a remarkable longevity as a pilot that, to this day, remains unsurpassed. Dickins was one of Canadas legendary bush pilots of the 1920s - and his exploits brought fame to Edmonton, solidifying its position as the gateway to the North.
Northern Indians called him Snow Eagle; northern whites called him White Eagle; newsmen called him the Flying Knight of the Northland. But whatever they called him, they couldnt find enough words to do justice to his extraordinary skill as an aviator, his devotion as a father and husband and the indelible mark he left on the history of Edmonton and the north.
The Clennell Haggerston Dickins story began at the end of the 19th century; he was born January 12th, 1899 at Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. There is some disagreement in historical records about how exactly he got his nickname. His son John says it was Punchs brother Francis who first called him Punch.
Other reports say his maternal Aunt Nell dubbed him a fat little punch because his clothes wouldnt stay over his tummy. In interviews in later years, Dickins said he wasnt sure how he acquired the nickname, but admitted hed had it longer than he could remember.
His family moved to Edmonton early this century when he was about ten years old. He went to Peace Avenue school, a temporary school. When he was 16, he enrolled in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta, but when war broke out, he quit to enlist as an infantryman in the Canadian Army.
The Royal Flying Corps recognized his potential and, even though he was just barely 17, Dickins headed into battle. In all, he flew 73 missions.
They were glad to get us Canadian boys because the Brits didnt want to go and they thought we were crazy, John quotes his father as saying. He then said, Besides, we had all been boy scouts and we knew how to read the compass and they thought that was pretty good.
Punch was just 18 when he was awarded the Royal Flying Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross for persistence and gallantry in completing aerial assignments under fire.
After the war, Dickins returned to Edmonton and got a job in the parts department of McLaughlin-Buick Motor Company. But flying had gotten into his blood and he was soon flying goods to the North and became a charter member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1927, he joined the fledgling Western Canada Airways.
About that time, he convinced Edmontons city engineer to spend $600 for a flying field. Dickins explained: I had him clear a 100-yard pasture strip of willow bushes and poplar trees so we could land without taking corners. It was fitting then that in 1927, he flew into Blatchford Field to commemorate its official opening.
There is no shortage of tales of adventure when it came to Punch Dickins. John tells the story of one time while flying near Fort Simpson, when the gas gauge froze and his fathers plane ran out of gas. Punch was forced to land on the river.
A paddle wheeler coming down the waterway stopped to help and a guy from the boat yelled, Do you need any help? Punch yelled back, We could use some aviation fuel if you have any.
The fellow on the boat said, Funny you should say that. Ive got 25 barrels here for some fella named Dickins who thinks hes going to fly up here some time.
Then there were exploits closer to home. The story goes that Punch flew his plane underneath the High Level Bridge to impress Constance Gerrie, a girl he was dating. The stunt apparently worked. He and Constance were married on September 1st, 1927.
In her journal, I Married a Bush Pilot, Connie writes of their honeymoon cabin on the shore of Lac Seul between the bootleggers hut and the Indian burial ground. And she tells of the vision Punch had as he talked of Alexander Mackenzie, of how the mighty river that bears his name could be the key to commerce in the north.
Connie and Punch were to have three children - John, Bill and Mary Anderson. Years later, John recalled that his father always called Edmonton home because this is where he met Connie and they built their first home here - at 70 St. Georges Crescent in Glenora. Punch also played flying wing for the Edmonton Eskimos of 1920 and 21. And they both figure skated at the Glenora Club.
Punch became the first pilot to fly the length of the Mackenzie River - 2,000 miles in two days, from Edmonton to Aklavik on the Arctic Circle. In 1935, he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire. In 1968, he was awarded the Order of Canada, in recognition of his vital role introducing the air age to northwestern Canada.
Through it all, he remained a modest and unassuming man, reluctant to talk about his exploits. He told an Edmonton Journal reporter interviewing him on his 80th birthday Dont make it flowery. Keep it short . . . just put the facts in.
In Edmonton, the Dickinsfield neighbourhood, Dickinsfield Extended Care Centre and Dickinsfield School are named for him. He even attended the official opening of the school on December 6th, 1974.
He was 78 when he turned in his pilots license, even though his vision was still 20/20. Sixty years, thats enough, he told friends.
Punch Dickins died at a Toronto retirement home on August 3rd, 1995, with Connie at his bedside. He was 96.
On July 19th the following summer, Max Ward flew his Twin Otter over the North West Territories to Providence, where John scattered his fathers ashes on the Mackenzie River. It was, as John says, a fitting tribute. A flight in a Canadian aircraft he helped develop, piloted by a friend and fellow aviation pioneer, over the lands he flew first and loved most.