Bush Pilots & Barnstormers – ‘Punch’ Dickins

1920 Street, In The News

With the closing of the Municipal Airport, Fort Edmonton Park joins our colleagues in commemorating the history of early Edmonton aviation – in particular the individual stories of men and women who navigated that heavenly aether as Bush Pilots and Barnstormers! 

Clenneth Haggleston Dickins was born in Manitoba and moved to Edmonton at the age of ten, where he would later attend the University of Alberta. Not even he could remember where his nickname came from, but one possible tale was that he was a particularly plump baby and his aunt teased him about his fat little ‘paunch.’

˜Punch’ Dickins – Snow Eagle

Dickins flew early bomber planes in the Great War and is credited for 7 enemy ‘kills’, or shot down aircraft. As he shared the kills with his gunner, he is rarely listed with other Canadian ‘aces’ (it took 5 ‘kills’ to be declared an ace) but he did earn the Distinguished Flying Cross.

'Punch' Dickins

C.H. ‘Punch’ Dickins

When Punch returned to Canada he joined the nascent Royal Canadian Air Force and served from 1921-27. Afterwards he flew for Western Canadian Airways. In 1928 he flew the first scheduled airmail from Winnipeg to Edmonton!*

Dickins is probably Edmonton’s most distinguished bush pilot. He was the first to fly the length of the Mackenzie River, the first to fly the Arctic coastline, and the first to fly into Aklavik in the Arctic. These efforts led to him being called the ˜Snow Eagle’ by Northerners. This was an era when  northern Alberta and the Peace Country was being populated by returning soldiers and new immigrants, but the lustre of rail had worn thin. Canada had more rail-lines on it’s hand than it could fund and the northern terrain seemed even more remote. Imagine, then, the possibilities of linking the arctic to the south not by rail or road or dogsled, but by air!

‘Punch’ wasn’t strictly a barnstormer, he was a bush pilot. He focused more on the military and non-entertainment aspects of aviation. But he fulfilled much the same role as exhibition fliers when he flew the first plane into Aklavik in the Arctic. He spent hours giving rides to the Inuit who lived there, but unlike southern barnstormers, he didn’t charge them.

Dickins managed flight training schools during the Second World War, promoted the Beaver bushplane and helped co-found the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. He didn’t stop flying until he was seventy-eight years old and upon his death his ashes were scattered along the Mackenzie River.

Dickinsfield in Edmonton is named after him, but you might be likely to be inspired to think of him any time you rent out Fort Edmonton Park’s Blatchford Field Air Hangar during a wintry night and imagine the challenges of arctic aviation and the fortitude of those pilots who fulfilled Edmonton’s moniker as they flew out of the country’s first licensed air harbour and pointed their nose North.

Blatchford Field & Air Hangar

* Dickins’ 1928 air delivery of mail from Winnipeg to Edmonton was recreated in 2009!