The Hudson Strait Expedition of 1927–28

On July 17, 1927, an expedition headed North with 44 men and seven single engine airplanes, as well as sections of prefabricated buildings and hangars. Their 14‐month mission: survey Hudson Strait to determine how long it would be ice‐free for shipping. 

Between 1884 and 1912, the Canadian government mounted four expeditions using wooden sailing-steamships to determine the feasibility of shipping Prairie grain from a port on western Hudson Bay, through the 750-km Strait, and on to European markets. The subsequent expeditions’ reports put the date when the passage was navigable at between July 10 and October 20. 

In 1926, while the Hudson Bay Railroad was laying tracks through northern Manitoba to a new port at Churchill, the government decided to verify the length of time that the Hudson Strait could be open as a shipping route. This time, it would assess the Strait by air. 

The Hudson Strait Expedition of 1927–28 was an ambitious project, involving the construction of three bases at strategic points along the Strait. Two Fokker Universal monoplanes would carry out regular patrols from each base. Port Burwell, on Killiniq Island at the eastern entrance to Hudson Strait, was chosen for Base A. Nottingham Island at the entrance to Hudson Bay was chosen for Base B. And Base C, positioned midway between the two, was established at Wakeham Bay (Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik). Each base included a large dwelling, a storehouse, aircraft hangar, and a radio shack. 

Map showing flight paths from the three air bases on Hudson Strait. Courtesy of Canadian Aviation History Society (CAHS) Journal

Two Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots and four airmen (mechanics and flight support) were stationed at each base to carry out regular flight patrols. The other station men included an RCMP constable, a member of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals (RCCS) cooks, doctors, and radio operators. Two Inuit families were also hired, as their expertise would be invaluable to the men living at each base. 

There was already a large community of Inuit living in the Kangiqsujuaq region, and many of them supported the activities at the base. The men helped with maintenance, moving the planes, and clearing the runways. The women were engaged in making clothing, including qammiks (boots) and parkas for the station men. These were far warmer than the RCAF issued clothing. 

Initially, the plan was for daily flight patrols from each base to conduct aerial surveys and collect data on meteorological and ice conditions. However, the Strait and bases were shrouded in dense fog one out of every three days. Weather, visibility, times of the tides, sea conditions (often too rough to operate a seaplane), daylight and darkness were all factors that seriously hampered their ability to fly. 

Although all three bases were established by September 12, due to bad weather, the first patrol flight didn’t happen until two weeks later. The planes first took off from Base C on September 29, from Base B on October 11, and from Base A on October 23. Port Burwell at the eastern entrance to the Strait was consistently hit with the worst weather. In the 53 days from the first flight at Base C until the Strait froze up, only 10 days were suitable for flying. Fog, snow, and high winds kept them grounded. 

The Fokkers were outfitted with floats that could be changed to skis once the Strait froze up. They could reach an altitude of 2,400 metres. However, as their main goal was to take photographs of the region, they flew well below the clouds. They were also limited from flying higher because the proximity to the North Magnetic Pole and the amount of ore in the region made the compasses unreliable. The pilots also found that the maps—mainly 19th century British Admiralty charts—were inaccurate. 

The Fokker had an open cockpit forward of the wing, and a cabin for up to six crew and passengers. Surprisingly, the pilots didn’t find the open cockpit uncomfortable in the sub-zero temperatures. They wore layers of clothing and a sheepskin-lined leather helmet, face mask, and goggles. 

Each patrol had a pilot, a mechanic/photographer, and an Inuk guide whose knowledge of ice and his skills living on the land would be invaluable in the event of a forced landing. The plane carried 770 kilograms in fuel, cameras, people, and emergency supplies. Three times over the year these emergency supplies, and the Inuk guides’ expertise, were critical when poor weather forced the pilots to land on the ice. 

In February 1928, Flying Officer Alexander Lewis took off from Base A, accompanied by Flight Sgt. N.C. Terry and Inuk guide Bobby Anakatok. Lewis got off track in a blizzard and landed on hummocky ice on the frozen Atlantic Ocean, which meant he couldn’t take off again. The three men made the treacherous journey across ice and along the Labrador coast back to Port Burwell. Thanks to Anakatok’s skills and guidance, they arrived 13 days later, suffering only minor frostbite. Their comrades at Base A had given up their search, assuming they had perished. 

Each plane was equipped with a wireless transmitter that had a range of 160 kilometres for voice transmission and 800 kilometres for keyed transmission. Pilots preferred the keyed transmission, as they found it difficult holding the microphone while wearing a face mask and heavy mitts. The plane radios did not have receivers, though. The pilots could communicate with the base, but could not receive messages, or acknowledgement that their own messages had been received. The three bases had 46 metre transmission towers that connected them to each other by radio, as well as to headquarters in Ottawa and the outside world. 

The cold had a significant effect on the airplane engines. They had to be drained of oil after every flight, and the oil then kept in a warm place. The plane engines needed to be warmed up before they could be flown. So, the men set blowtorches on the ground, which heated the air that went up through a stove pipe to the engines. 

Between January and May, flights were reduced to every two weeks as ice conditions changed little during that time. Regular patrols resumed May 10. Ice operations and patrols ended August 3, 1928. The men intended to fly south at the end of the summer but abandoned that plan when one of the planes was damaged on takeoff. The airplanes were then dismantled and taken aboard the supply ship that picked up the station men on August 24, 1928. 

The Hudson Bay Expedition of 1927–28 was a veritable success. The three bases accomplished 227 air patrols, for a total of 269 hours 44 minutes of flying. They took 2,285 photographs and collected information on ice conditions and winter flying. The information gathered was invaluable, as were the two directional finding wireless stations they set up, in aiding marine navigation in the Strait. The first token shipment of Prairie wheat left Churchill and travelled through Hudson Strait in late September 1929. 

The final expedition report recommended mid-July to beginning of November as optimal for shipping through Hudson Strait — the same length of time recommended by the seagoing expeditions 40 years earlier. 

The Port of Churchill closed in 2015. Arctic Gateway Group, a consortium led by Manitoba’s Indigenous communities, purchased it and the Hudson Railway line in 2018. In September 2019, shipments of grain were again unloaded from freight cars onto cargo vessels, then shipped overseas. 

Despite marine technological advances, 90 years later, the shipping season still typically runs from late July through October. 

For further information on this topic, check out: 

The 1973 NFB film, Aviators of Hudson Strait (28 minutes) at https://www.nfb.ca/film/aviators_of_hudson_strait/ and Season’s article published in above&beyond about shipping prairie grain at http://arcticjournal.ca/featured/the-strait-story/