Taissumani: August 10, 1938 — Mercy Flight to Arctic Bay
A medical evacuation flight — or medivac in northern jargon — is nothing out of the ordinary in the modern Arctic. They happen routinely, a number of them every week, adding to the skyrocketing costs of medical services in the North.
But in 1938, medivacs were unheard of. Inuit lived and died in remote camps, largely unknown to officialdom, untended by doctors or nurses. The resident doctors at Pangnirtung and Chesterfield Inlet in the 1930s were anomalies, and their reach did not extend much beyond their immediate areas.
Traders, police and missionaries in the isolated posts that dotted the map of the Arctic took their chances when they accepted their assignments. Some had a minimum of medical training and were able to attend to minor ailments of both their white colleagues and Inuit living close to their posts. But if local resources failed, death awaited.
In 1938 a Roman Catholic priest, Father Julien Cochard, lay seriously ill in his mission tent at Arctic Bay, the most northerly Catholic mission in the world. The Hudson’s Bay Company post stood a short distance away, and its manager, Allen Scott, discovered the perilous condition of the priest. He sent a radio message to Bishop Clabaut, who was aboard the Nascopie at Churchill. It read: “Father Julien Cochard very ill for nine days. Temperature 105 degrees. Severe pains in left side. Takes no nourishment. Please help.”
There was no possibility of rescue by ship. But another opportunity was immediately at hand. Father Paul Schulte, the “Flying Priest,” was based at Churchill with a small amphibious plane. Schulte had honed his skills as a pilot with the German Air Force during the first World War. Following the war he became an Oblate Priest. After his best friend — they had both been ordained on the same day — died in Africa without medical attention, Schulte founded and incorporated the Missionary International Vehicular Association (MIVA,) dedicated to providing automobiles, boats and airplanes for the service of missions throughout the world.
At Churchill, Schulte had a small plane, a Stinson Reliant, on floats. Named the St. Luke, it was nicknamed The Flying Cross. When Schulte received the message, on August 9, he immediately offered to fly to Arctic Bay to rescue the ailing priest. But his bishop reminded him that there was no gasoline to refuel his plane at Arctic Bay. Fortunately, the previous year, Schulte had sent six barrels of gas and one barrel of oil by ship to Igloolik. He would refuel there.
His mechanic, Brother Beaudoin, worked that night to get the plane ready for what would be a 2,200 mile return journey. The pilot and mechanic took off early in the morning and landed in heavy rain at 8:30 in Chesterfield Inlet, the first stop on their journey. By two in the afternoon they were in Repulse Bay, where they again refueled. They reached Igloolik at 6:30 in the evening.
With his tanks full, Schulte left Igloolik at 9 p.m. He needed optimum flying weather to get to Arctic Bay and back without refueling. But the weather didn’t co-operate. His flying time was cut in half by a fierce head wind under a heavily overcast sky. Reluctantly he turned back to Igloolik. After some sleep, he took off again the following morning, this time leaving the mechanic at Igloolik, and replacing his weight with four small barrels of gasoline.
The weather was better on this day, at least for the first part of the flight. He knew that following Admiralty Inlet northbound would take him almost to his destination. But about fifty miles out from Arctic Bay the wind became so strong at higher altitudes that Schulte had to descend to only six feet above the water. Just before noon, he flew down Adams Sound, banked his plane at Uluksan Point to the astonishment of Inuit camped there, who had never seen an airplane before, and landed in front of the trading post at Arctic Bay. The trip had taken four and a half hours.
Close to the post was a small white tent with a cross on top. But Allen Scott had moved the priest into the comfort of his own home, and looked after him as best he could. “He is alive but he is in great pain,” were Scott’s words to the Flying Priest. Cochard wept at the sight of this earthly saviour.
Aboard the plane, Schulte made the patient, dressed in caribou furs and lying on skins, as comfortable as possible. At four o’clock the plane rose through the rain and fog of Arctic Bay. Aided by a tail wind and flying at 5,000 feet, the Flying Cross reached Igloolik in two and a half hours. After quickly refueling and picking up his mechanic, Schulte was off again, for the most harrowing leg of the journey, through fog at low altitude to Repulse Bay. He landed there in the midnight semi-dark of a waning summer, with little fuel left. Cochard was taken ashore to rest at Our Lady of the Snows Mission. He spent a sleepless night, racked by fever and pain.
Early in the afternoon of the next day, Schulte landed the Flying Cross at Chesterfield Inlet, where there was a resident doctor, Thomas Melling. The Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship, Nascopie, was also there and its physician, Dr. Roger, assisted Melling in his diagnosis. They found a severe kidney infection. The Grey Nuns at the local hospital took charge of Father Cochard and nursed him back to health.
This was the first air rescue to the High Arctic. It was a daring undertaking, in an era of primitive aircraft and before airstrips and navigational aids. Father Paul Schulte received a special paternal blessing from Pope Pius XI for his service.
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.