An aviation love triangle

Imagine a love affair between a man, a woman - and an airplane, and you have the storyline for Lady on a Pedestal, a new book written by Gordon Bartsch.

Imagine a love affair between a man, a woman – and an airplane, and you have the storyline for Lady on a Pedestal, a new book written by Gordon Bartsch.

This is the account of the love of two people who shared their passion for flying, built around a durable and reliable old airplane with the call letters CF-CPY.

The airplane was a Douglas DC-3, one of the most air-tested airplanes in the world. In total, more than 16,000 of these airplanes were built, most of them during World War II as military transports known as C-47s. CF-CPY bears the serial number 4665 and was built in August of 1942. During the war, she flew transport missions in India and China.

After the war, she was purchased by Canadian Pacific Airlines, and flew scheduled service across Canada for the next 15 years. When they took her out of service in 1960, she was purchased by Crae Dawson, of Osoyoos, British Columbia, whose daughter, Dawn Connelly and her husband Ron, were flying in the Yukon. Thus, CF-CPY became part of the fleet of Connelly-Dawson Airways, of Dawson City.

From as far back as she could remember, Dawn Dawson wanted to be a pilot. At age 18, her father sent her to Vancouver for flying lessons, and she excelled. She received her pilot’s licence October 20, 1950, followed quickly by her instrument rating. She was not the first instrument-rated female pilot, but she was certainly the youngest, and it was not easy for her, as this book goes on to explain.

To gain her qualification in various categories of flight certification, she had to be better than her male counterparts, and overcome the prejudices that existed at the time. The Department of Transport inspector who qualified her for instrument flight, gave her a more arduous flight test than he did for the male candidates. “I’m not going to fly with no goddamn girl,” he blustered, “there ain’t nothing in the book that says I gotta pass her.”

He made her take not one, or two, but three passes at the Vancouver airport, each flying on instruments alone. The third time, she was reduced to needle-ball and airspeed indicators to aid her in her final approach. Three times, she “split the runway” perfectly. There was no way the inspector could fail her.

As this book demonstrates, this prejudice against women pilots was a continuing theme in her career. Working for a flying business in Prince Rupert, the insurance company objected to covering her under their policy – a complaint they never expressed with any male pilots. When PWA pilots wanted to join the Canadian Air Line Pilots’ Association, no women were allowed, so her name was removed from the seniority list. It would be another 17 years before she became the first woman pilot to captain a scheduled passenger flight in Canada.

Gordon Bartch’s flying career was much easier and he moved quickly through the ranks to become a pilot for Canadian Pacific Airlines. Along the way, he met Dawn Dawson, but fate initially carried them along different paths. They married other partners, but later on ended up working together for Connelly-Dawson Airways. Eventually they divorced their spouses and were married in December of 1962.That was 50 years ago, and they are still married today.

Lady on a Pedestal is a compelling story of the Bartches’s involvement in the growth and development of commercial flying in the North, first with Connelly Dawson, then with Great Northern Airways. In the course of this narrative, we learn about the challenges and obstacles they overcame to fly in the North. They mastered the art of sandbar landings so that they could provide regularly scheduled flights to Old Crow. They responded to missions of mercy to medevac the ill and injured to hospital.

On one occasion, after they landed to pick up a shipment of fish from a frozen lake near Hay River in the Northwest Territories, they could not take off again in the chunky snow. It took them six days to shovel, by hand, a landing strip 10 metres wide and 500 metres long down the lake – from which they were able to take off. On another occasion, they had to take a full load of inebriated and rowdy miners from a camp to Watson Lake. The only way they could get the boisterous drunks to settle down was to take them up to 5,000 metres, where the thin atmosphere put them all to sleep.

This book is enriched with colourful stories of the people and places where the Bartches flew between 1950 and 1970, a period that is only now slipping away into that nebulous zone between the living present and the distant past, which makes this book all the more valuable.

CF-CPY logged more than 31,000 hours of flying time, the bulk of which was in the North. She was retired in November of 1970. In the following years, she was restored and placed on a large swivelling pedestal near the main Whitehorse airport, thus earning her the title of the largest weather vane in the world.

In 2011, Gordon and Dawn Bartsch were inducted into the Order of Polaris by the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame. Dawn was a pioneer at breaking down gender barriers, and together, they changed how Yukoners and travellers from afar move into and through the vast northern landscape.

Lady on a Pedestal was recently published by Epix Design Company in Calgary. Its 271 pages contain almost 90 photographs, most of which, though not credited, appear to have been gleaned from the author’s personal collection. Despite the fuzzy focus in some of the images, the small size of some, and the soft quality of the printing, which may make them difficult to enjoy, they are well chosen and add emphasis to the narrative.

Five maps accompany the text and again provide a clearer understanding of the breadth of CF-CPYs ventures in the North. A short glossary of abbreviations and aviation terms used is placed at the back of the book to enlighten the uninitiated reader. There is a short bibliography, but no index.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and you may find it hard to put it down. Five dollars from every book sold will be donated to the Yukon Transportation Museum.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net