By Tricia Frank
As Terrace celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the Terrace Airport this July, it was exactly 85 years ago on July 5, 1933, that the first plane actually landed in Terrace! There had been a few float planes that had landed on Lakelse Lake in the past, but this was the first airplane to land in the valley! As the airport didn’t exist in 1933, the plane landed on Frank’s field. On July 5, the Terrace community is invited to share their stories about the Frank family and this milestone at the Old Pioneer Cemetary on Kalum Lake Road at 1 p.m., followed by a trip up to Heritage Park for tea and snacks.
As my father, Floyd Frank, often told the story, it was about mid-day that July 5th when a farmhand was mowing a hayfield with a team of horses on the bench by the cemetery when he heard a huge roar overhead. The little plane circled then barely cleared the fence and came in right over the team of horses, frightening them so much that they fell down, and did a soft landing on a field of clover.
Coincidentally, that year the field had been sown with clover that came in as a very thick, plush crop that was 18 to 24 inches tall and was so dense Dad said that it could “hold a big felt hat if thrown out onto it”. The airplane’s crew said the heavy crop of clover made it feel like they were landing on a big soft mattress!
Where did this plane come from?
In the early 1930s a young American aviator, named Jimmie Mattern, attempted to break the world record for the time it took to fly around the world. His first attempt in 1932 ended in an emergency crash. He repaired his aircraft called “Century of Progress” and again set out from Floyd Bennet Airfield in New York on June 3, 1933, this time flying solo. He was in a bit of a competition with another American aviator, Ernie Pyle, to see who could fly around the world in the fastest time. Unfortunately, Mattern’s plane ran out of oil and he was forced to make a crash landing in the Siberian tundra. He survived but he had to abandon the “Century”. Mattern then went from trying to fly around the world to trying to save his own life. After about 21 days in the Russian tundra, he was finally found and flown to Nome, Alaska.
But in the meantime, his friends in the U.S. organized a rescue expedition in was reported to be a four-seater older model Pacemaker with a Wright J-5 single engine. It had a wingspan of about thirty feet. The wings were canvas covered.
The rescue party consisted of William Alexander the chief pilot, Frederick Fellerman the mechanic, Thomas Abbe on leave from the NYPD motorcycle squad and a Harold Person. The four departed New York on June 30th heading west for Alaska. The rescue group made it as far as northern B.C. where they ran into difficult weather conditions around Hazelton.
They were running low on fuel and were becoming anxious to find somewhere to land when they spotted Frank’s field.
I remember my father relating the story about the unexpected visitors landing in the field by the now Heritage Cemetery. The following is an excerpt of’ Dad’s memory of that unusual event:
“Word of the landing in our field spread like wildfire, and I believe every man, woman, child and dog rushed up to see the plane. They came plodding through the tall grass from every direction until Constable McKenny arrived and ordered them to stick to one path. Inside of a day a path about four feet wide was tramped through the heavy clover with absolutely no sign it had ever been planted. As we had already started cutting the crop, the crew asked if we would first cut a strip diagonally across the field so they could have a clear runway to take off from. This we did but the clouds had thickened and hung two-thirds of the way down the mountains. For the next three weeks it didn’t rain, but there were no breaks in the heavy cloud cover. The plane was waiting for a break in the weather, as well as for aviation gas.”
Dad recalled it was tough on the men who wanted to get on with their search but actually it was a good thing they couldn’t continue on in that small land plane.
Finally, word came through that Mattern had been located in eastern Siberia and had been flown to Alaska. With their plane still unable to fly because of the low cloud, the men arranged with the railway to have the section men take them to Prince Rupert on their gas speeder. In Prince Rupert, they rented a small seaplane and flew to Alaska. Mattern who had recovered from his ordeal in Siberia by this time, met the rescue crew and then flew the seaplane along with the crew back to Lakelse Lake. A car met the group at the lake and drove them to Frank’s field where the rescue plane was still waiting.
That day, Dad and his brother Ivan were up in the field by the rescue plane just finishing up with their last load of hay when the group arrived. Dad and Ivan had the honour of shaking hands with the now famous Jimmie Mattern. As the clouds had cleared, the crew began readying the plane for take-off. Dad and Ivan went to get their mother, Mattie Frank, so she could watch the plane take off. As they were returning, they heard the plane’s engine roaring and they saw it come into view over the brow of the hill, circle around the valley and head on its way east. That was 85 years ago this July 5th! It had been an exciting time for everyone!