The High and the Writey

Written by Kevin Garrison
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December 2015

We pilots in the United States are woefully ignorant when it comes to Canada and Canadian aviation history. For example, can any of you tell me the historic Canadian aviation event that took place in a town called Chief back in the 1950s?

You’re really pulling a blank on that one, aren’t you?

That is probably because there is no town named Chief in Canada. There is one in Algeria and probably a lot of other countries, but not in Canada.

Like I said, we know very little about the aviation history or anything else about that big friendly country to our north.

Please, don’t panic. It is embarrassing to us all that you are so ill-informed about our northern buddies, but on the odd chance that anybody in Canada ever invites you to a fly-in or gets you tickets to their national sport, (no, not hockey—lacrosse) you should know a few key phrases to use so you won’t look like a hoser *1.

If you find yourself in the presence of a Canadian, you could lead the conversation by saying: “Hey, how about that Punch Dickins, eh?*2”

Every Canadian aviation enthusiast knows all about Punch Dickins. He is their Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle and Capt. Sully all rolled up into one amazing historical person.

You could impress your new Canadian friend by sitting on his or her Chesterfield*3 or pulling up a nearby muskoka*4 to testify to the fact that Punch’s real name was Clennell Haggerstown Dickins, and that even he did not know from where he got the name “Punch” other than the fact that he was a really fat baby and his Aunt Nell had a penchant for embarrassing him even more than he already was by having a strange first name.

Dickins got over the fact that Aunt Nell was a chirp*5 and a verbal bully. He also got over the fact that he was born in the 19th century, missing the 20th by only one year. He had a talent for engineering and a relationship with spatial orientation that would make even Yeager envious.

Punch was only 16 when he entered the University of Alberta as an engineering student in 1914. The Great War*6 led to him enlisting in the army, first as a Radar O’Reilly-like company clerk. Once his unit reached Europe, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and life as a pilot began. He flew a bomber pilot, flying the Airco DH.9 medium bomber for over a year.

The first outstanding thing he did was surviving the war, which was no mean feat for an active combat pilot. The odds were clearly against him, but Punch not only managed to stay alive, he also downed seven enemy aircraft, making him one of the few bomber pilots in aviation history to become an ace.

Punch returned home to Canada by way of a Canadian Expeditionary Force returning from Siberia, which most likely explains why it took him a year to make it back.

He had a second stint in the military from 1924 through 1927 in which he more or less established airmail in his country.

Oh yeah, he also tested and introduced the new Armstrong Whitworth Siskin fighter—an airplane you American readers likely have never heard of, and have no idea what it looks like.

Like most people who became unlikely aces, traveled through Siberia and virtually invented a new method of moving the mail, Punch decided in the late 1920s that it was time to leave the military and really do something with his life.

He became one of the first pilots on the seniority list at Western Canadian Airways where he flew the first aircraft on the prairie airmail circuit of Winnipeg-Regina-Calgary-Edmonton-Saskatoon-Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, his wife, Connie, who was no slouch in the writing department, did what all wives do—she wrote a book about her husband. Her book was titled, “I Married a Bush Pilot.”*7

All of the flying around snow-covered mountains during terrible weather in underpowered aircraft must have been a snoozefest for Punch, so he decided to go ahead and become an aviation legend. He did this by flying over a million miles across the uncharted north.

He operated so close to magnetic north*8 that his compass was unusable. It seems if you operate north of magnetic north, your compass points south when it says north.

We’ll skip ahead here a little bit because your new Canadian friend is looking like he needs to take a quick trip to the biffy*9. Punch Dickins in the 1930s was a dynamo of cold weather aviation activity, including a pioneering trip he flew to Canada’s Great Bear Lake carrying the survey team who discovered the uranium later used in the Manhattan Project.

Punch re-entered the military at the beginning of World War II and was put in charge of establishing and running the Atlantic Ferry Command. He then took a deep breath (and most likely, a big gulp of either Molson or Labatt’s Blue) and went on to establish and manage six wartime flight schools that turned out a majority of Canada’s combat pilots.

After World War II, you might think that somebody like Punch would put his feet up on his Chesterfield and drag a cooler of Molson over to begin a well-earned retirement. You would be wrong if you thought that.

Nope, he decided to go to work for the deHavilland Canada aircraft company because somebody had to invent the best bush-flying plane in history, the deHavilland Beaver.

Punch continued flying until the age of 78 and passed away in 1995 at the age of 96, making him one of the longest-surviving Canadian World War I veteran pilots.

If we can find this much to talk about with our Canadian pilot friends concerning one pilot named Punch Dickins, imagine how much Labatt’s Blue we could suck down whilst talking about another legendary bush pilot named Wop May. Seriously, he was named Wop May.

 

1 Goofball, idiot.
2 Canadian for “eh?”
3 A couch.
4 Big wooden deck chair.
5 Jerk
6 World War I
7 A Bush pilot not named Jeb or George (I or II).
8 That’s right—magnetic north is in Canada.
9 Toilet.

 

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Fla. He came up through General Aviation and retired as a 767 captain in 2006. Currently Garrison is a DC-9 simulator instructor and a 767 pilot instructor; his professional writing career has spanned three decades. He lives with the most patient woman on the planet on a horse farm in Kentucky. Send questions or comments to .