Flying the Northern Route
This is a great story from the August 24, 1956 issue of Flight Magazine, dealing with a flight over the Northern Route. Beter known as "OVER THE TOP".
'TWENTY-FOUR hours in Vancouver is too short a time
This was my main reflection as Canadian Pacific's DC-6B
Empress of Toronto taxied out from Gate 6 and across the
apron. Ahead of us was the novel prospect of a polar-route
flight to Europe, while behind me was a honeymoon couple and
the memory of a day-short glimpse of Canada's sparkling west
I had arrived in Vancouver the previous morning by T.C.A.
Viscount from Edmonton, which may not have been the most
picturesque way to cross the Rockies, but was certainly the fastest
and most comfortable. Much of that day I had spent at the
airport, soon absorbing its unique atmosphere of expanding and
varied activity. I had watched DC-3s, Cansos and Convairs
leaving for places with names such as Kitimat, Uranium City,
Yellowknife and Flin Flon; and I had sensed the airport's international
significance as a real cross-roads of Commonwealth
Of the various operators and associated companies which
jostle each other for space on Vancouver's airport, Canadian
Pacific Air Lines are the largest. The airline's headquarters and
main base are here, occupying some 300,000 sq ft. Prior to the
introduction of the Vancouver-Amsterdam service, GP.A.L.'s
trans-Pacific route from Sydney via Auckland, Fiji and Hawaii
was well established, and part of the popularity of the northern
route has been due to the fact that it completes a fast and convenient
network linking Australia, New Zealand and Canada with
Europe and the United Kingdom. A much publicized if dubious
distinction for passengers on this route is their ability to cross
the Equator, the International Date Line and the Arctic Circle
on one and the same service, and within four days. The company's
other main inter-continental service, intersecting this
route at Vancouver, is from Hong Kong and Tokyo to Mexico
City, Lima and Buenos Aires.
My first contact with the direct planning of our flight from
Vancouver to Amsterdam was at 11.30 on the morning of the
flight, two hours before take-off, when I joined the crew for their
detailed met. briefing. The assembling of weather information
for the flight had begun much earlier, however—at about 2 a.m.
—when special upper-air charts had been prepared in the airport's
met. section. The C.P.A.L. flight dispatcher had checked
with met. a few hours .'ater, and had prepared provisional routings
in the form of a pre-plan; using the forecast wind-components
at various altitudes he had calculated times and fuel
consumptions at various engine powers. From the pre-plan, the
captain had obtained a general picture of the probable effect of
weather conditions on the flight, before discussing the later
weather information at the 11.30 briefing.
A first look at the charts indicated some doubt that we would
be able to reach Sondrestrom Fiord, Greenland (the only
normally scheduled stop between Vancouver and Amsterdam) in
one hop. Although there would be tailwinds in the early part of
the flight, followed by southerly crosswinds, critical easterly headwinds
in the later section were forecast.
After a half-hour session with the met. man, during which the
various alternative routes were discussed, the crew returned to
the dispatch office at C.P.A.L. headquarters for detailed flight
planning. The range and fuel consumption for given headwind
components were noted and related to the forecast winds, the
effect of cruising altitude was considered, and meanwhile an
accurate check of freight, baggage and passenger weights was
being made to determine the find permissible fuel toad.
The captain of the aircraft on this trip was to be Capt. Ralph
B. Leslie who, just one year earlier, had flown the inaugural service
of this same route. Previously chief pilot of the Sydney-
Armsterdam sector, Capt. Leslie had also been responsible tor
much of the preliminary flying and planning in connection with
the opening of the new route. First officer was Ted Randall, one
of a C.P.A.L. family (his father and brother are also pilots) who—
despite the earnest efforts of the airline's publicity departmenthad
never yet flown all three together in the same crew.
Listed as second officer on the crew list was Capt. Bill Roxborough,
a check pilot who was making a familiarization flight on the
northern route for the first time. Completing the flight
crew—and doing most of the work in the flight-planning phase—
were the two navigators, Bill Douthwahe and Bill McLean.
The final permissible fuel figure was 31,800 lb, 400 lb more
than had initially been estimated, and Capt. Leslie decided to
flight-plan to Sondrestrom direct, with Frobisher as alternate.
One of two power techniques could be used: long-range
economical cruise (normally used on flights of more than 12
hours' duration); or combination power, which meant beginning
the flight at 1,240 h.p. and cutting down to 1,100 h.p. after four
hours' flying. The distance to Sondrestrom was some 2,700 miles.
It was decided to employ combination power. An easterly
leg was to be flown across the Rockies to East Princeton, after
which we would set course—the Great Circle course^—direct for
Sondrestrom, which would take us north of Edmonton. The leg
to Sondrestrom, it was finally calculated, would take 10 hr 37 min.
From Capt. Leslie I heard brief details of the special techniques
used on the northern route. The basic navigational problems,
he explained, were caused by the unreliable magnetic area in
the region of the North Magnetic Pole (a region extending to a
radius of over 1,000 miles); and in the convergence of the meridians
towards the Pole in the high latitudes. Ordinary magnetic
compasses and conventional map projections are of little use in
flying accurate long-range routes in these areas.
The answer to these problems had been found in the use of a
directional gyro with a very small rate of random drift, together
with the adoption of the Greenwich Grid chart system (in which
headings given in grid degrees remain constant throughout a
Great Circle route). Canadian Pacific, in common with S.A.S.,
the other northern-route operator, use the Bendix polar-path
gyro, which is fitted with a high-latitude t»mpensator.
Having filed the flight plan with the flight dispatcher, we
moved back across to the terminal block, where I left the crew
to complete their pre-flight formalities, and went to join the other
passengers. For many of these Vancouver was simply a nightstop
where they had landed the previous midnight, having
boarded the Empress of Toronto at Auckland just three days
A fair number were starting their journey at Vancouver, however,
and these were liberally equipped with eager friends and
relatives. There was obviously still some novelty in flying the
so-called polar route to Europe—at least for passengers and
friends, if not for the crew.
We jostled through the crowd at Gate 6 and boarded the aircraft.
The popularity of this service was clearly no myth; 55
out of the 56 seats were filled. Scheduled take-off time was
1.30 p.m., but it was 1.45 before we began to taxi out, and two
o'clock when the Pratt and Whitneys were opened up for the
We gained height for the easterly leg across the Rockies in a
climbing circle out over the bay. This gave us a fresh view of
the wide and handsome picture that is Vancouver in its own
special setting of- mountains, coastline and the Pacific. Soon we
had crossed the coastal range and the North Okanagan belt and
were approaching the Rockies themselves.
Much of the grandeur of the Rockies scenery was obscured by
a mixture of cloud as we crossed the range at 17,000ft, but there
remained the striking sight of some of the highest peaks jutting
up above the main strato-cumulus layer. Steep islands with snowcovered
tops, and smaller lumps on which, it seemed, one might
quite easily stub one's toes.
Capt. Leslie spoke over the cabin-address system, apologizing
for the take-off delay, which had been caused by a malfunctioning
tachometer. He was sorry we could not see more of the Rockies;
they were very beautiful at this time of year. We would decrease
height to 11,000ft after passing Edmonton, he said, in order to take
advantage of more-favourable winds.
A cabin crew of three was carried by the Empress of Toronto.
There were two stewardesses, Patricia Stobart and Dolores
Jordan, and one steward, Leendert van Eijk, whose home is in
Amsterdam and who was previously with K.L.M. Soon it was
time for them to take orders for drinks before lunch, and to
indicate one of the differences between first-class and tourist
facilities by dispensing packages of books of matches, embossed
with the passenger's name in gold, to the fortunate firsts. One
mentally deducted their probable cost from the $204,70 difference
in fares on the Vancouver-Amsterdam trip . . .
The confusion of my stomach and mind on this trip began
between three and four o'clock Pacific Daylight Time (local time
in Vancouver), when a truly magnificent lunch was served. The
trick was to lose eight hours between Vancouver and Amsterdam,
keeping up a pretence of normal habits the while. To assist
matters, footrests and blankets were brought round at five o'clock,
just after lunch had ended, and most of the passengers obediently
took the hint and went to sleep.
There were, however, a number of exceptions. Across the
aisle, oblivious to the atmosphere of rest which pervaded the
first-class cabin, an English couple were earnestly discussing
serious topics. In the seats behind me was a young Canadian
• newly married couple, quietly listing their reasons why their
wedding reception was much better than others they had attended.
The girl, I remembered, had approached Jack Crump of C.P.A.L.,
with whom I had been talking before the flight, to thank him
for providing some information several months previously. The
young lady had at that time been preparing a College thesis on
airline economics—a most unlikely sort of thing to accompany
red hair and freckles—and since then she had graduated with a
First (hence the gratitude to Mr. Crump) and, the previous day,
had got married. The two were now on their way to a twomonths
honeymoon in Europe.
Across from these two, two separate young women were variously
occupied. The window-side one, having surely exhausted
her supply of films in recording every aspect of the pre-lunch
scenery, was churning out letter-cards at an amazing rate; while
her companion, blanketed and footrested, slept eloquently with
her mouth open.
Representative of another type of traveller was the middleaged
married couple who sat in front of the two tall and untidy
Britishers. For them, it seemed, the flight was complicated.
Well-equipped with personal impedimenta—much of it contained
in a Braniff Air Lines bag with a Japan Air Lines label—one or
the other was invariably moving, adjusting, re-arranging, or displacing
either themselves or their belongings in the intervals
between restless sleep. They were no beginners in the travel
game, though: the wife had declined the six-course Empress
lunch in favour of two dishes of what looked like asparagus stalks;
the husband had swiftly blocked up the ventilation slits with two
postcards from the flight pack which said "Welcome"; and at one
stage they had the seat-arm off and stacked in their ceaseless quest
for peace of mind.
We were now passing over the incredible, interminable lakespattered
expanse of the "Barren lands" of Canada's Northwest
Territories, having earlier crossed the flat sweep of the northern
prairies. The thousands of small, intricately jigsawed lakes which
stretched all around seemed to be patterned on a huge melonskin
surface. More lakes, and more barren marshland. Our
first sight of ice came at 6.20 Vancouver time, when some of the
lakes to the north were seen to be frozen. Then a hesitant
whitening appeared to starboard, too, with a blue-black edging
which traced the shores of the larger lakes. A little later, some
way above the sixtieth parallel, the scene below was completely
This part of the route, approaching within 500 miles of the
magnetic pole, is especially susceptible to magnetic errors and
discrepancies. Compass errors of over 60 deg have been caused
by magnetic bodies on the ground, and the change in magnetic
variation over this sector can be from 20 deg west to 60 deg east.
Our aircraft was carrying two independent stand-by gyros in
addition to the Bendix polar-path unit. The Bendix and at least
one of the others were operating continuously throughout the
flight. McLean and Douthwaite were checking the aircraft heading
every half-hour by means of astro sights; and astro fixes of
OUT position were being taken every hour. Other navigational
facilities—such as Loran, D.R. and radio ranges—were, of course,
being used during the flight.
After the astro checks the gyros were not re-set, but their
individual rates of precession were noted and used in subsequent
adjustments to course. I was told that the precession rate of the
Bendix instrument was between one and two degrees per hour.
Following the direct Great Circle track to Sondrestrom, we
would by this time have been crossing the great Hudson Bay.
We had taken a more northerly course, however, in order to take
advantage of better winds, and so were continuing over land
towards the north of the bay. "How many times could you fit
the British Isles into Hudson Bay?" asked the blonde, tiredlooking
Englishwoman of her husband. It seemed an excellent
Throughout the flight, regular information on the aircraft
position, course, alterations of flight plan, and other details were
being transmitted back to Vancouver, where our progress was
charted in the dispatch office. The flight dispatcher, who had
initiated the planning for our flight with his pre-plan early this
morning, would now be noting our change of course to the north.
At nine o'clock Vancouver time (midnight local time) Captain
Leslie announced that we were passing the northern tip of
Southampton Island, which straddles the top of Hudson Bay.
We were only 450 miles from the North Magnetic Pole, he
reported, and we should cross the Arctic Circle in about 25
minutes. We had then just passed over Roes Welcome Sound,
a large stretch of water between the mainland and Southampton
Island—and the first stretch of open water since leaving the
Pacific. To our left was Repulse Bay.
Empress of Toronto purred on, and below passed wide rolling
sandbanks of stratus, tinted a tepid pink by the northern sun,
now low on the port horizon. The English couple had begun
a new and strange occupation: the wife was filling in a diary, in
great day-to-day detail, beginning three weeks previously. I
could not avoid hearing her intense questioning of her husband.
"What time did you leave? . . . How did you come back? . . .";
and, for the fourth of June, a bizarre reply which sounded like
"Drove train back, drinking. . . ." That, one thought, must have
been quite a day.
At 9.22 Vancouver time (I had decided not to confuse my
watch until the last possible moment) came an electrifying
announcement. "For your information," Capt. Leslie crisply
reported, "we are now crossing the Arctic Circle, at 22 minutes
past midnight, local time." Almost with a click everyone's eyes
turned to look down at this important boundary but, alas, the
dotted line shown on all the maps just wasn't there. The passengers
on the starboard side gazed down on a sheet of stratus (which
looked just the same as the lower-latitude stuff), and those to port
had slightly better value with a glimpse of Foxe Basin (with ice),
the channel which separates Baffin Island from the Canadian
mainland. The occasion raised a ripple of excited chatter and
some smiling nods across the aisle. "What did you do in the
evening?" the Englishwoman asked. . . .
Normally, Capt. Leslie explained, the Circle would not be
crossed until about an hour and a half later. However, the more northerly
track made good on this occasion would also mean that
we would not see the sun set (and rise ten minutes later); instead,
it would be with us the whole way—which it was. Just to confuse
things further, the moon at that moment began to come up on
the starboard side. "Monday afternoon, cocktails. What did you
do on Tuesday? . . . "
The sight of the crags, mountains and cliffs of Baffin Island
was perhaps the most dramatic of the entire first leg. Topped
by a thick and creamy layer of real snow, in contrast to the icing
blobs seen floating in the grey washing-up water of Foxe Basin
the cliffs and valleys were given sharp contrast in the bright sunlight.
But beneath the illusion of whipped cream caused by the
light-and-shade combination on certain slopes lay the reality of
an extremely inhospitable type of country.
At about ten o'clock (this, being Vancouver time, was
equivalent to 2 a.m. at Sondrestrom) dinner was served, with the
magnificent Baffin Island scenery as an accompaniment. The
keen young short-time husband behind me had commented "Just
imagine living on one of those ice packs . . ." as we had
approached the coast; and an equally imaginative attitude was
shown by the tall Englishman as he firmly declined his champagne
in favour of a can of beer. Steward van Eijk took this very well,
and I managed not to choke over my filet mignon at the time.
To the north, the sun's bright light had softened to glow with a
subtle presence on a proud, silent range of peaks.
Discussing the flight with Capt. Leslie, I heard that we were
meeting headwinds of 35-40 kt from the top of a low-pressure
area. These regions were more normally encountered further
south. Our revised E.T.A. at the Greenland base was now
5.15 a.m. local time.
The sun's reflection could now be seen, metallic and cold, on
the pack and drift ice which fringed the coast of Baffin Island.
Consulted by the young Canadian couple as a relatively experienced
Arctic Circle flier (one previous trip to the Lofoten Islands
in a Coastal Command Neptune from Kinloss), I was able to
confirm that the iceberg-like objects jutting up from the coastal
ice were indeed icebergs. The wide background expanse of
coastal ice was traced with a fantastic pattern of random lines and
areas, presumably as a result of changing pressures and movements.
The general effect was something like a gigantic photomicrograph
of an etched metallic specimen—or like the patchwork pattern of English fields, entirely white fields withspidery outlines. As we headed out over the Davis Strait towardsGreenland, the view below became obscured by cotton-wool
ripples of cloud.
Accepting Captain Leslie's invitation to come up front, I found
him busily signing 55 Arctic Circle Club cards (denoting a successful
crossing of the Circle by each passenger) as I entered the
cockpit. Ted Randall was getting some rest, and Capt. Roxborough
was in the co-pilot's seat.
From the jump seat in the cockpit I watched the approach to
Greenland and Sondrestrom. Our indicated speed and altitude
were 200 kt and 11,000ft, the latter decreasing as directed by
Sondrestrom Control in stages. Our landfall was made at
Holsteinborg, where we turned on to a course on which we would
join the fiord of Sondrestrom.
Having intercepted one leg of the base's beacon, we turned
again, this time to fly in along the fiord itself—and into the
sun. This part of Greenland, at this time of year, was not snowcovered,
and presented a rocky brown face to the world. Ahead
of us, as we let down along the fiord, could be seen the airstrip
—some thirty miles distant. Although conditions were ideal, we
had requested a practice G.C.A. approach.
Soon we were literally in the slot, with our wing-tips below
the level of the cliff-face on either side, and the straight-in
approach was completed with a smooth touchdown at three
minutes past five in the morning, local time. The strangely
garbed natives who, exchanging weird and unfamiliar cries,
shuffled out to greet us, proved to be the U.S.A.F.
While the aircraft was being refuelled, passengers adjourned
to the waiting room to quench thirsts, to buy souvenirs, and to
post cards (featuring polar bears and Eskimos) to most ends of
the world. Quite a number of infants and small children were
travelling; they seemed to be among the more assured of the
passengers. Also bearing up very well under the circumstances
was a nervous young Englishman who was saying to Stewardess
Jordan, "Yes, I'm the one who's going home to get married—
can't you tell by the worried expression?"
Not waiting to ascertain Miss Jordan's reply, I left the lounge
and sampled the fresh air of Sondrestrom. This felt good. The
air temperature was a comfortable 64 deg F, and the time was
five-thirty in the morning—a unique and distinguished hour for
any journalist to be out and conscious. True, back in Vancouver
people were just turning in after a big time, or perhaps just
going on to Ted's place; while in London the morning rushhour
traffic jam at Vauxhall would be almost over: but these
were philosophical thought-toys for others to play with. Such
confusions were not for me. *
The various U.S.A.F. aircraft on the base, also, were not for
me—or so I was informed by the security-minded gentleman
with a gun in his belt. I concurred, noting only that the machines
comprised a gaggle of flat-footed wheel/ski Dakotas and a B-29.
Soon the other passengers were coaxed and coached back to our
Empress, where I rejoined them; we bade the natives farewell;
and taxied out to the runway. One hour at Sondrestrom, Canadian
Pacific Air Lines had said, and one hour they meant: we
took off at tb ree minutes past six. Out over the deep-green water
of the fiord, and then eastward
across the snow-covered inland region and the white-streaked
brown-and-grey coastal border. One of my last impressions of
Greenland was of the piercing blue of a number of lakes which
interrupted the vast white expanse—looking exactly like royalblue
ink blots soaking into a sheet of white blotting-paper. We
climbed to 17,000ft on course for Amsterdam, which we expected
to reach in 7 hr 15 min. This leg was of 2,200 miles.
From the gap in my notebook between leaving Greenland
and eating breakfast I deduce that, while Iceland and the North
Atlantic passed below, I slept. I woke to be greeted with the
news that, while my watch indicated 11.15 (Sondrestrom time),
local time was 3.15 in the afternoon. This was clearly as good
a time as any to have breakfast, for in two hours it would be
tea-time and we would be landing at Amsterdam. Any confusion
this may cause the reader is, I vouch, extremely small beer compared
with my own blank bewilderment at the time.
Fifteen minutes later the coast of Scotland came up, and we
passed over Prestwick and a range of grey, brown and purple
highlands. This countryside soon gave way to a pleasant green
patchwork of fields; looking down on it, we shared the blue
sky only with some tufts of fair-weather cumulus. We finished
breakfast, and it was ten to four. A brace of Hunters swam up to
taste the bright afternoon above the scattered clouds, and
thoroughly enjoyed themselves in a lively tail-chase to our right.
Our northern-route flight was drawing to a close. Confidently
we could now look in the eye the silent paper bags which had
faced us all the way from Canada's west coast. "After use, fold
toward you" they said. We were now reasonably sure the use
would not arise.
At 4.55 the stewardess came round with coats and hats and,
after a let-down through a dull and grey overcast over the flat
Dutch countryside, we landed at Schiphol at 5.15. Flying time
from Vancouver had totalled 18£ ht while the total elapsed time
was only one hour more. For those of us who were going on
to London, there remained a two-hour wait for the connecting
K.L.M. Convair service, and an hour-and-ten-minute flight.
Walking from the airport lounge at Schiphol, I almost collided
with a huge mass of Dutch roses, which turned out to be the
wedding-bound Englishman with a modest posy for his
betrothed. He still had on his worried look, and anxiously
sought my reassurance—readily given—concerning the probable
reaction of the loved one to his flowers.
We came in across die Great West Road and touched down
at London Airport at 8.20 p.m. From Vancouver the whole trip
had taken us 22 hr 15 min. From Auckland, passengers had
taken four days.
Airport formalities soon completed, the passengers boarded
the airline coach, or were met by friends with cars. The young
man about to marry, the tall and languid couple, the aviation
writer needing a shave. New Zealanders, Canadians, and Englishmen.
Already some had clearly slammed their minds shut
behind them on their Arctic Circle flight, and were hurrying
back into dieir familiar routine environment. Odiers, I knew,
had not closed the door on their thoughts, and were lagging
behind a little. Perhaps as far as Sondrestrom, where we had
seen a polar bear—if only the one painted on the control tower.
Perhaps even to Vancouver, where it was now five a.m. the
following day—but let us not start that son of time-wasting
For us, as well as for die Canadian Pacific crews, die phrase
would now be "nordiern routine," and not northern route. We
had completed a flight which was at once uneventful and yet of
absorbing interest; relatively short in time and yet somehow
spanning a long sector of new and varied experience. In our
wallets were the crisp, shiny cards which proclaimed our membership
of die Arctic Circle Club (whatever that might imply);
while in my mind was the thought diat, even if 24 hours in
Vancouver was too short a time, one could easity return there
from London in an even briefer period.