Down North With Yukon Southern’s Barkley-Grows

Back to Articles

by Stu Simpson

The mechanic stood beside the Barkley-Grow and fiddled with the single screw that secured the door. Slightly built and clad in greasy coveralls, he was a stark contrast to the rugged twin with its highly polished silver skin. He finally managed to coax the screw from its hole. Then he opened the door and offered me passage into a grand old relic of the sky.

Poking my head in the door, I immediately noticed the smell. Old and musty, the odor conjured up images of a passenger cabin filled with rugged, independent men from sixty years ago; hunters and trappers and ornery old prospectors, all seeking fortune and adventure in the quickly shrinking wilderness of north-western Canada.

I removed my hat, as much out of respect for the old bird as for easier movement inside, and climbed in. The Barkley-Grow was a handsome airplane, I decided as I studied the cabin. It was nicely appointed with eight comfortable seats in a reasonably large cabin, yet it still retained a feeling of solid, reliable practicality.

I made my way forward and studied the flight deck through the cockpit door. I was surprised to see how much of the panel WASN’T filled with guages. There were the basic flight instruments and controls for the captain and co-pilot, but conspicuous in their absence were the stacks of communication and navigation gear that seem to over-populate some modern cockpits. Things were clearly much simpler in the days of the Barkley-Grow.

Still a willing prisoner of my 1930’s northern bush fantasy, I hunkered into the left seat and tried to picture a snow-covered lake from which I’d soon take wing. I moved to grab the control wheel but was suddenly annoyed to find I could hardly move my left arm to do so. I also noticed my butt was unpleasantly hanging part-way off the right side of the seat, and to reach the rudder pedals meant practically having to scratch my armpits with my knees. This cockpit, I realized, wasn’t spacious like the cabin; it was narrow, small and uncomfortable. I wondered how the hell Grant McConachie ever fit into it.

United Air Transport

The time was 1938 and Grant McConachie was a big man with a big plan. McConachie was running United Air Transport, a northern bush flying operation with about ten planes. He’d worked hard to open various scheduled routes in northern Alberta, B.C., and the Yukon. The previous year he’d been the first to establish a regular air mail service between Edmonton and Whitehorse. That, in turn, led to passenger service as well.

McConachie’s Yukon connection would eventually give Canadians air access to Alaska via a regular Pan American flight between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. This was only one link in McConachie’s vision of an air route through Alaska, Russia, and ultimately, to China.

But that goal had to be approached one step at a time. McConachie realized that a very important link in the chain would be fast and efficient air transport joining southern B.C. – in particular, Vancouver – with the vast northern end of the province. Vancouver was crucial because it was the first stop in Canada for people going north out of Seattle.

So to get access to Vancouver McConachie affiliated UAT with an outfit called Ginger Coote Airways (also known as Cariboo Airways). The merger gave United Air Transport a route system that looked like an inverted Y when drawn on a map. Starting in Vancouver, UAT offered air travel north to Williams Lake, Prince George and Ft. St. John. The same destination could also be reached from Calgary, Edmonton and Grand Prairie. Then the route ran north to Ft. Nelson and turned northwest to Whitehorse.

Enter The T8P-1

Now that McConachie had the routes, he also wanted better, faster, and more modern airplanes to properly service them. Early in 1939 McConachie heard that Canadian Car and Foundry, a company in the railway equipment business, was looking to break into the airplane building game. Toward that end, Can-Car had purchased five twin-engined Barkley-Grow T8P-1 transports from the factory in Detroit. Can-Car made the purchase largely to get the planes out of the U.S. and protect them from the hostile take-over that ultimately brought Barkley-Grow down.

The Barkley-Grow appealed to McConachie beacause it would work well on his low-density passenger runs in Alberta, B.C., and the Yukon. Additonally, it was a plane that could be flown on either wheels, skis or floats; an essential feature for the planes on UAT’s routes. McConachie may have had dreams of reaching the Orient, but he knew bush flying was still his bread and butter.

McConachie contacted Canadian Car about the planes and indicated his interest in them. In turn, Can-Car indicated their interest in a deal with McConachie by paying his expenses to Detroit to test fly one of the planes. Then it was on to Montreal where the charming McConachie cut one of the most amazing deals in Canadian aviation history.

McConachie met with Can-Car’s Murray Semple and exlplained how he was very anxious to put three of the Barkley-Grows to work in the north. The problem, McConachie explained, was that he had no money. Semple, who had originally planned to flog the planes for seventy thousand dollars each, considered McConachie’s position and offered to let all three go for an even hundred thousand.

McConachie emphasised his company’s wonderful future prospects, but reiterated its abysmal current financial standing. Semple hummed and hawed while doing some quick figuring, then lowered the price even further, down to only ten thousand each. He, too, wanted to put the planes to work.

For the third time, McConachie told Semple he didn’t have any money.

Completely exasperated with the young bush pilot, Semple demanded to know what McConachie COULD pay for the planes. McConachie told him. A few minutes later he walked out of Semple’s office having paid only three dollars down and agreeing to one thousand dollars a month per plane on a lease-purchase plan.

Ironically, Can-Car, which was pre-occupied with other matters, and certainly in no bind for the cash, never pressed for the payments and didn’t see another cent from the deal until McConachie sold the planes years later to make way for larger ones.

The Birth Of Yukon Southern

McConachie also formed a new company for his new airplanes to operate under. The airplanes of United Air Transport and Ginger Coote Airways, though affiliated as one company, were still operating with their respective company names painted on their sides. McConachie and Coote discovered this was leading to confusion. So in early 1939 McConachie re-named UAT to Yukon Southern Air Transport, and Ginger Coote Airways continued to operate independently. Yukon Southern had offices in Vancouver at the Sea Island Airport, and in Edmonton.

While McConachie formed Yukon Southern to avoid an identity crisis with his passengers, it’s thought that he also did it to avoid legal conflict with the U.S. airline giant, United Airlines. United was partly owned by Seattle’s Boeing Company and therefore had quite a presence in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. McConachie’s UAT was now flying into Vancouver, essentially just across the street from Seattle, and trying to attract American passengers from that city for the trip north to Alaska. So one may easily speculate that it was clearly in McConachie’s best interest to appease the giant and its lawyers.

What Is A Barkley-Grow Anyway?

The T8P-1 was the Barkley-Grow Corporation’s answer to a mid-thirties U.S. government request that aircraft companies submit design proposals for a twin-engined, six-passenger commercial transport. Several companies submitted designs, including Beech, with their Model 18; Cessna, with the Crane; and Lockheed, with what was to become the Model 12 Electra.

The T8P-1 was typical of its day in that it employed radial engines, had a tail with two-vertical fins (three when on floats), and carried six to ten passengers, depending on cabin configuration.

But the Barkley-Grow had some idiosyncracies that set it apart. The most unique feature of the T8P-1 was its wing structure. The centre section was conventionally supported by three internal spars, but the inboard and outboard panels were composed of a spar-less, rib-less cellular/honeycomb assembly with stressed metal skins. This patented structure was enourmously labour-intensive to manufacture, but offered a major weight saving advantage.

Another unique arrangement of the T8P-1, at least when viewed next to its contemporaries, was that it had fixed landing gear. Again, this was a weight and cost saving measure; the fixed gear knocked 600 pounds and eight thousand dollars off the airplane. It also freed up space in the engine nacelles for thirty gallons of extra fuel per side. But while cheaper and lighter, the fixed gear came with a price. The airplane looked less modern than planes like the Beech 18, the Lockheed 12, and even the older Boeing 247. As a result, the more established manufacturers got more orders; partly because of their well-known names, but also because they were putting out airliners that looked the part. Barkley-Grow did have a plan for a T8P-2 with retractable wheels, but it died on the table when the company was taken over.

McConachie chose well with the Barkley-Grow. The plane was all-metal, simple, and ruggedly built. It sported a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-985’s of 400hp each and could gross out three thousand pounds over empty when on wheels or skiis (3500 lbs on floats). Depending on fuel load, this meant a twelve to fifteen hundred pound payload. The speed was good, too, with a cruise of 160 mph, and it had a range of 800 miles. The plane did fall short of Canadian requirements in one respect, though; at gross weight, it could not maintain altitude on a singe engine without serious over-heating occurring on the remaining one.

Where the Barkley-Grow really shone was in short-field performance. It could take-off and clear the ubiquitious fifty-foot obstacle in only eight hundred feet, and then come back in and land in a little over nine nundred. Even with a full load (or more, in many instances), the Barkley-Grow’s ability to get in and out of tight corners consistently amazed those who flew and maintained them.

When not hauling Yukon Southern’s freight and mail, the Barkley-Grows carried people – in style. For perhaps the first time passengers headed ‘down north’ could travel there in true airline-quality comfort. The seats were upholstered and comfortable, and the rest of the interior was nicely decorated. A Department of Transport inspector of the day described the cabin as “exceptionally quiet”. Some versions of the T8P-1 featured a small two-person bench seat at the very rear of the cabin, while others had the seat replaced with a small lavatory.

McConachie’s pilots liked the Barkley, too. The T8P-1 exhibited good stability and wonderful handling. Ground handling was just as easy, while the view from the cockpit was excellent; and of course, they could always count on it to get in and out of the tightest places.

There were some problems with the electrically operated flaps, though. Early in the plane’s service life there were instances where one flap or the other would extend past its limit, which immediately threw the plane onto its back. Pilots quickly learned to cease flap extension as soon as the trailing edge of the flap disappeared from view.

Probably the only ones who might make disparaging remarks about the plane were those of McConachie’s ‘Black Gang’, the engineers who kept the planes in the air. The Barkley-Grows could be a nightmare to maintain. One example was the original hinge fittings on the tail, which were made of a magnesium alloy and thus tended to corrode badly in wet condidtions. Instead of constantly replacing the hinges, the mechanics hand-crafted new ones from old propeller blades.

The original batch of planes that came off the line in Detroit were largely hand-made. As a result, many parts of one T8P-1 wouldn’t fit onto another! For instance, the late Roy Staniland, while flying for Associated Airways, once flew a bulky piece of equipment into a winter camp in a Barkley, but when he returned to pick it up in the spring with a different Barkley, the same piece of machinery wouldn’t fit thru the door.

The Yukon Queen

Yukon Southern started using the Barkley-Grow in March 1939. McConachie christened the first one (registered CF-BLV), the “Yukon Queen”. He, and co-pilot Ted Field, assured themselves another few lines in the history books by making the first regularly scheduled, weekly flight of passengers and post from Whitehorse to Vancouver on the ‘Queen’s inaugural trip.

McConachie nearly lost his precious Yukon Queen the following month. The plane landed on Charlie Lake, where YSAT’s Fort St. John base was located. But the warm spring sunshine had weakened the ice and the Yukon Queen went through, the bottom of the plane coming to rest on the surface of the rapidly softening ice. With the ingenuity borne of years of living in the bush, McConachie’s men were able to save the plane from ruin.

They first spread saw dust over the ice surrounding the plane, which stopped, or at least slowed, the melting. Next, they chopped through the ice outside of the saw dust. This created an ice raft that the Queen could float on. Then the men hacked out a channel to the shoreline allowing them to drag the raft in, as well as the airplane it carried so precariously. The operation was a success; the Yukon Queen was dried out and put back in the air days only later – this time on floats.

McConachie christened YSAT’s other two Barkley-Grows the Yukon King and the Yukon Prince, respectively. In April 1939, McConachie’s long time friend, Ted Field, piloted the ‘King to a new speed record when he flew between Fort St. John and Whitehorse – a length of 650 miles – in three hours and thirty minutes. When the Yukon Prince was mounted on floats it was considered by many to be the fastest twin-engined seaplane in the entire country.

With his Barkley-Grows, Grant McConachie took Yukon Southern out of the dark ages of seat-of-the-pants bush flying and onto the doorstep of the future of air travel. He equipped the Barkleys with two-way radioes, making them among the first aircraft in Canada to carry such equipment. He also installed radio direction finders in them, and with the financial backing of New York’s Pan American Airways, established a chain of radio navigation stations along his routes.

Canadian Aviation magazine took an interest in YSAT’s Barkley-Grows. In May of 1939, the magazine heralded the arrival of “modern airliner speed and comfort over the rugged bush routes to the Northwest. Through storm and sunshine, heat and cold, over field and forest, swamp and mountain the Yukon Queen rode with a regal serenity befitting her name”.

The writer laid it on a bit thick, perhaps, but he was right about one thing; the modern world, through Grant McConachie, and others like him, had set itself firmly into Canada’s North like a big, barbed hook.

The Alaska Highway Project

It’s not very well-known that Grant McConachie, Yukon Southern Air Transport, and the airline’s Barkley-Grows were instrumental in the construction of the Alaska Highway. In late October 1939, a couple of federal aviation inspectors made their way to Edmonton to make an aerial inspection of the route from there to Whitehorse. The governments of both Canada and the U.S. viewed this route, which came to be known as the Northwest Route, as one of immense strategic importance. The Route could provide a vital war link to Alaska, and subsequently into Russia.

The two bureaucrats hopped on one of YSAT’s regularly scheduled flights and McConachie showed them the sights. Because of his tremendous knowledge of the route, he provided the inspectors with great insight on the area, telling them where and how facilities should be placed and/or improved. He advocated fully maintained airstrips, explaing that to maximize the effectiveness of air transport in the region, airplane operators had to be able to operate on wheels year round, thus eliminating the need to keep planes off the lakes and rivers during break-up and freeze-up. It was along this route that the Alaska Highway and numerous air facilities to support it, were soon built.

A Close Call

McConachie had what he described as his “most frightening air experience” in a Barkley-Grow. He was piloting the Yukon Queen from Edmonton to Whitehorse late in the winter of ’39 and running into head winds and bad weather the entire way. He reached Watson Lake late in the day and decide to press on. He was confident he could make it because he’d be able to home in on the military’s powerful radio at Whitehorse.

The weather contiued to worsen as McConachie approached Teslin Lake. He spotted a hole in the clouds below and decided to set down on Teslin for the night. He radioed Whitehorse of his intentions and then bid them good night as the radio station went off the air. The ‘Queen was on final approach with only inches until touchdown when McConachie spotted a heaving motion in the ice. He firewalled the throttles, realizing, just in time, that spring break-up had begun on Teslin Lake.

Now McConachie was in a real pickle; with Whitehorse only a bit more than half an hour away, he had no choice but to continue in that direction, yet there seemed no hope for him once he arrived there.

“The flight deck of the Barkley was the lonliest place in the world that night,” McConachie later recalled. “I kept calling Whitehorse on the radio, but I knew it was hopeless. This was going to be the end for me.”

YSAT’s agent in Whitehorse, Jack Barber, was just settling in for the evening when he heard the Barkley-Grow roaring overhead. Realizing it could only be McConachie, he raced to the the military’s radio shack and had the operator get the station back on the air. Barber told McConachie, who was flying over a solid cloud deck, there was only a two-hundred-foot ceiling, but there might be a hole to slip down through over Lake Laberge (just north of Whitehorse).

While McConachie searched for a life-saving opening in the clouds, Barber tore off to the airstrip and lined the runway with flare pots. McConachie soon found his hole, then the airport, and brought the Yukon Queen in for a landing, despite the fact that Barber had aligned the pots on the wrong side of the strip. About half-way down the runway, as the Barkley gently slowed to taxi-speed, its engines sputtered and died; the plane had run out of gas.

Not all tales of McConachie’s bush flying have such harrowing endings. For example, McConachie was flying a Barkley-Grow with a passenger named Shifty Schuman from Edmonton to Grande Prairie one day above a thick undercast. McConachie allowed his passenger to take the right seat for the trip as the rest of the plane was empty. Schuman – a fur buyer – was an experienced northern air traveler, but couldn’t figure out how pilots could find their way on such a day without seeing any landmarks.

McConachie detailed the science of air navigation to his passenger like this: He stated that after takeoff from Edmonton he simply put the Barkley on the proper compass heading toward Grande Prairie. Then, when he’d smoked his current cigar down to a butt, they would be over their destination and could descend below the clouds and land.

Several minutes later, unnoticed by Shifty – but duly noted by McConachie – the Barkley’s radio compass swung wildly, then reversed itself, indicating they’d just flown over the Grande Prairie station. McConachie ground out his cigar butt in the ash tray, eased back the throttles, and dropped into the clouds. Moments later they were on the ground and Shifty Schuman was walking away, amazed at how one could navigate by cigar.

Where Are They Now?

On the first day of 1942, the CPR created Canadian Pacific Air Lines by amalgamating a total of ten bush airlines, including Yukon Southern (McConachie, of course, went on to become president of the airline). Naturally, the Barkley-Grows were absorbed with the remainder of the company’s assets. McConachie’s biographer, Ronald Keith, identified the state of things quite eloquently then when he wrote “northern aviation had begun its transition from bedroll to bank roll.”

The Yukon Queen remained with CPA until 1949 when a man named H.R. Peets bought it. Two years later he flipped it to Associated Airways (which eventually became part of Pacific Western). It served those outfits well until it stalled on take-off at Peace River in 1960, and crashed. It was deemed uneconomical to repair. CF-BMG, the Yukon King, served with Canadian Pacific but was eventually sold and met its demise at Port Alberni when a bouy it was tied to sank, pulling the airplane under with it. The ‘King was salvaged, but also not repaired. The author was unable to discover the fate of CF-BMW, the Yukon Prince.

The remains of the ‘Queen were eventually salvaged and the aircraft refurbished with parts of another scrapped T8P-1, though it is no longer airworthy. It now sits on display in the Calgary Aerospace Museum’s hangar at YYC. Another Barkley-Grow – registered CF-BQM – sits outside at the museum, having been flown to Calgary on floats from Quebec. Ironically, since there were only eleven Barkley-Grows ever made, the Calgary Museum’s collection constitutes nearly 20% of the aircraft’s entire production run!

Still Wondering…

I exited the Yukon Queen and gently closed the door. Standing there a moment longer, my hand touched her fuselage, not wanting yet to release the past. I tried again to see and feel what it must have been like with this airplane sixty years ago; to listen to its rumbling radials, to pull it out of an impossibly short strip; and I felt a pang of envy towards those who had been there. Reluctantly, I meandered across the hangar to find the mechanic. Then I chuckled to myself and wondered again how Grant McConachie ever fit into that airplane.

Advertisements