Doctor Jack Pickup, British Columbia's "Flying Doctor"
Story by Jack Meadows
Originally published March 1997 in Aeroplane Monthly
Much is known about those enterprising doctors who, in the 1930s, used aircraft, originally a variety of de Havilland Moths, to provide a medical service to the vast Australian outback. However, hardly know outside British Columbia, Canada, is the story of a more recent Canadian flying doctor. Unusually his work was done flying floatplanes, notably his famous Waco AQC-6, CF-CCW.
Jack Pickup never really thought of himself as a flying doctor, just as a doctor who used his aeroplane to get to patients in areas very difficult to reach by surface transport. Some would certainly have died but for his initiative and extraordinary flying abilities.
As a boy, Jack Pickup had to decide whether to be a doctor or a musician. He had chosen the former, but nonetheless he is also a pianist of professional standard. He qualified as a surgeon and general practitioner, at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, in 1942. After some time in hospitals and then in practice at Dryden, Ontario, in 1949 he decided to move west. Hearing of a job in Alert Bay, he accepted without even knowing where Alert Bay was.
A rare shot of the Waco on wheels with the young Doctor Pickup.
Twenty miles across the Georgia Strait from the mainland is Vancouver Island. Alert Bay is near its northern tip, on the east side in the Queen Charlotte Strait and 300 miles from Victoria, the provincial capital. With a population of 1,000, Alert Bay is situated on little Cormorant Island, two miles off the coast and six miles from Port McNeill. Named after the first vessel ever to put in there, Alert Bay was from the late 1800s an important fuelling stop for shipping.
In 1947 the people of Alert Bay managed to raise the money to purchase the redundant RCAF hospital at Port Hardy, 30 miles up the coast (the area had been important for coastal defense during the Pacific War). In the prairies it was common for ex-RCAF British Commonwealth Air Training Plan buildings to be moved elsewhere - many can still be recognized at their new sites. But, this move was rather more difficult. The 72 bed hospital was reduced to 16 sections, put on barges and towed to its new location at Alert Bay.
The original doctor soon moved elsewhere, and this is when Jack Pickup came on the scene. His practice did not only include the island residents and people nearby on Vancouver Island, but a much larger scattered population on other islands and on the mainland across the strait. It covered an area of 10,000 square miles. Many were fishermen, loggers, miners and native Indians, scattered in more than a thousand small camps in the steeply sheltered inlets and inland lakes deep in the mountains, almost all involved in dangerous work. They could be reached only by water, and then perhaps along rough logging roads. Often long journeys were involved, sometimes in dangerous seas, for the strait is only partially protected by the north end of Vancouver Island from storms raging in the North Pacific.
For many years Jack Pickup was the only available doctor in the whole area; mainland and Vancouver Island, between Kelsey Bay 60 miles south, and Bella Bella 100 miles north. He soon realized that to get quickly to men injured in accidents and if need be get them to hospital, the trip by sea took far too long, as well as wasting his own valuable time. Aviation was the answer. There was no charter service nearby, even if it could be afforded. The solution was obvious; he would learn to fly.
Jack was thus also a pioneer in recognizing the potential of the aeroplane. In fact, in the next 15 years it was to put the coastal shipping lines out of business. Three ships a week served Alert Bay when he arrived; none at all when he retired.
So he took three week’s leave to go down to Vancouver, took flying lessons, sat his exams, and in September 1950 won his licence on a Luscombe 8A (80 h.p. Continental), flying from the grass between the runways of the international airport. Then he looked round for an aeroplane. “There were patients to look after, and I couldn’t afford to waste any time”, he says.
He considered three available alternatives, all of course seaplanes: a Stinson Reliant which he considered too much of an aeroplane for his limited experience; a Republic Seabee amphibian flying-boat in which he feared he would forget to have the retractable wheels in the right place at the right time; and a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser CF-EFC, with only 72 hours since a complete rebuild, which he bought for $3,500.
Jack Pickup’s Piper Super Cruiser beached, probably at Alert Bay c.1950. The distinctive red and yellow colour scheme made it the best known aeroplane in the area at the time. Note the large rudder addition needed on float planes to help longitudinal control when taxiing.
It was 1,500 miles back east at Kenora, Ontario, and his 60hr flying so far was all on landplanes. In 2 hours flying at Kenora he obtained his floatplane endorsement, and then flew the Piper home. With delays for weather his epic journey took five days and nine refueling stops on lakes (one had only 12 inches of water) and rivers. After the prairies came the Rockies and other ranges which form a 400-mile barrier to the coast, rising to 12,000ft in places. In a light aeroplane it is necessary to fly through, not over them. He took the Jasper/Tete Jaune Cache northerly pass, and flew down the Thompson and Fraser River valleys. In the last, canyon country, he was often below the steep granite on either side. The circuitous route took some 20 flying hours.
A friend, a Saskatchewan ambulance service pilot, had advised him: “If you have engine failure get down as low as you can, anywhere, anyhow.” Also, he checked in his progress by telephone (there was no radio) as often as possible. Ignorance may be bliss, but without a great deal of skill and guts it could not have been done. Both attributes were to be amply demonstrated in future years.
Jack still says the Piper is his favourite aeroplane. Sadly, after flying it for 300 hours on medical work it became due for a lengthy overhaul, so he decided to replace it with something faster with more capacity. In 1953 he traded it in and for another $6,000 bought Waco AQC-6 cabin biplane CF-CCW.
(Waco, the aircraft, is properly pronounced WAH-co, not Wayco as in the town or Wacko, as I wrongly pronounced it for 50 years).
With its 330 h.p. Jacobs engine, the Waco cruised at 120 m.p.h. with floats, a third faster than the Piper. After a quick trip from Vancouver to Nanaimo and back to learn about the constant-speed propeller, Pickup was back on his rounds in this classic aircraft, which was to service his practice for 27 years.
To do his job properly it was necessary to fly on demand; not just in good weather, but any time and anywhere his services were needed. His aircraft doubled as an ambulance when necessary to bring patients into the Alert Bay Hospital. What this involved can only be fully appreciated when the geography and conditions are explained.
On both sides of Queen Charlotte Strait are almost continuous mountains, often riding nearly straight out of the sea, which is why boats and floatplanes are almost always the only means of access. There are numerous inlets, bays, sounds and islands. Even today there are sill few if any surface connections between most of those on the mainland side of the strait - a big part of Pickup’s parish. And the inland lakes were often strewn with stray logs.
The weather is often as unfriendly as the terrain. There is much low cloud - rarely are the mountains out of it. In the main channel the seas can be heavy, with the residue of storms in the Queen Charlotte Sound. Fog is common, winds are unreliable and inconsistent.
Navigation aids in the area were then negligible. Jack installed a radio in the Piper, but other than radio at the former RCAF Port Hardy airfield (20 miles away, where weather conditions are often very different), all flying was by the seat of the pants and local knowledge and experience were vital.
In these conditions, and in a single-engine aircraft, for more than 20 years the doctor flew almost bland disregard of problems. His Piper, then his Waco and Seabee, became the known sights in the area.
In 1958 the Waco sank when it hit a submerged log on take-off (forward visibility over the radial engine is non-existent). It was soon back in service and he soon learnt to use a “Spitfire” approach, or a sideslipping on for landing. Meanwhile, aviation in general, no just “mercy” flying (a term Jack Pickup hates) was playing a bigger part in his life. He helped Alert Bay Air Services get started with their Cessna 170 floatplane, and became part owner of another company, Altair, at Pitt Meadows, inland from Vancouver. However, when his Waco went there for maintenance in 1970 it was continually delayed in favour of outside customers, so Jack bought a little Republic Seabee amphibian (215 h.p. Franklin) to tide him over, and flew it for four years.
This photo of Dr. Pickup’s SeaBee clearly shows the large capacity cabin (inviting overloading) and the high centre of thrust of the top mounted engine.
Some bad things have been said about Seabees (and even more about the somewhat similar Lake amphibians). The high engine (particularly on the latter) means that any throttle change has a big up or down effect on trim. Internal space allows gross overloading. But Jack Pickup liked it, although he took 50-60 hours to get used to it. The pilot sits so low down compared with a floatplane that at first he felt as if he was landing underwater. Unlike a floatplane, it could be circled tightly while gaining take-off speed and so use lakes far too small for, say, a de Havilland Beaver.
With full flap the Seabee could be pointed straight down without exceeding 80 m.p.h. for a landing in confined space. Its retractable wheels and reversible-pitch propeller made docking much quicker and less tedious than the normal deliberate floatplane procedure. But it was slow (120 m.p.h. with wheels off, 105 m.p.h. with them on) and cold. It was soon relegated in favour of the Waco.
Experienced aviators tell many stories about Jack Pickup’s flying skills and exploits. A typical one, by Villi Douglas, then a dispatcher and pilot at Alert Bay, recalls the time the doctor flew his Waco out to bring back the sick lighthouse keeper from Pine Island for an urgent operation.
The Island is in the open Queen Charlotte Strait, subject to huge swells. Somehow, despite awful conditions, Pickup landed and waited, rocking about alarmingly with a wing dangerously close to the rocks while the keeper was lowered by breeches buoy and put aboard the Waco. Then, “nobody knows how”, he managed to take off again and bring him safely to hospital.
Many other such stories are told about him. Certainly, and quite illegally (floatplanes are allowed to fly at night only where there are proper flarepaths and boats to sweep the landing area), he flew knowing his return with a sick patient might be in the dark, using the harbour lights to guide him in. Often he needed his landing lights to taxi in and dock.
“I flew just because I had to get around”, is his explanation of why he did it. How many lives did he save that way, getting people to the operating table in hours rather than days? “I just treat ‘em: the Lord heals ‘em. No-one ever had a baby in my aeroplane.”
A modest man, he claims that most of what has been written about his is untrue - even when the interview was taped. One report of his activities he dismisses because it refers his flying in carpet slippers: “Never owned a pair.”
Some of the seamanship essential for floatplane pilots was learnt from sailing his own boat. Other tricks of the trade he picked up include dropping something from the aircraft on to a glassy surface to cause ripples on the water, and thus allowing judgement of height when landing.
He tells a story of being called to an isolated camp late in the afternoon. By telephone he had asked that the patient be brought to the dock. When he arrived the sick man was still five miles away, and he had to take a truck through the bush to fetch him.
By the time he took off the high cliffs had the whole inlet in darkness. Almost as soon as he was airborne the aircraft yawed violently, and he found that his hitherto unconscious patient now had both feet pressed firmly on the starboard rudder pedal. Somehow he managed to lift them off and put the man in the back. Soon afterwards two hands from behind grabbed him by the throat, pulled him off the controls and tried to throttle him. Somehow he broke free, but the incident was repeated before he could land and take the sufferer from convulsions (or more likely DTs) into hospital. “After that I was a bit more careful”, he says. What did he mean by that: “I’d hit him with the fire extinguisher; that’s the only reason aircraft have them, for dealing with drunks and so on. No use for putting our fires in the air, anyway.”
Jack Pickup and his wife (and secretary) Lila by the Waco with, unusually, wheels instead of floats.
circa late 1950’s.
Any young commercial pilot starting to find his way about the BC coastal areas, learning how to navigate from bay to bay to river, round the mountains in bad visibility, has heard of, and learnt from, Jack Pickup’s experience.
As an exceptional physician and surgeon he could have made a great deal more money and had an easier life practicing in Vancouver or Victoria. However, he would never have had half the satisfaction he got from his “flying doctor” work at Alert Bay. He has no record of how many flying hours he put in; they must total several thousand on 31 types (at least seven or eight without a checkflight) including a twin endorsement on a Beech. Most was off water - in one seven or eight-year period he made only five landings on wheels.
There was a big battle with the tax people, who refused to allow his aircraft costs as legitimate expenses. Car expenses yes; aircraft no. “But I don’t have a car, I use an aircraft”, he protested. After a two-year battle he was allowed to charge 80 percent of the costs; the only doctor in the country to be so treated. By the late 1950s charter and feeder air services were becoming adequate to begin take over some of that side of his work. By then his flying had become a legend, even among experienced professional floatplane pilots operating in the same difficult conditions that Jack Pickup took for granted. Meanwhile, flying, which for him had started as a means to an end, had become a major interest in his life, and he had a phenomenal knowledge of aircraft.
Towards the end of 1992, at the age of 73, he formally retired altogether and presented his precious Waco to the Canadian Museum of Flight. At present dismantled (at the time of this writing), it is being slowly overhauled to flying condition as a tribute to a great pilot who used his skills to further his services to the community. No one knows how many lives he saved in the process. He could hardly have made more friends.
Jack kept on flying himself until he was 67, and only disposed of his last aircraft, a Piper Arrow, early in 1994. However much he denies it, not only are there thousand of residents who owe a lot to Doctor Pickup, but there are many who, without the arrival by air of this great man, would not be alive today.
Credit is also due to the aircraft whose reliability in often primitive conditions allowed the doctor to serve his community, and helped him save lives and bring relief to sick people. Particular among them the Waco AQC-6 CF-CCW c/n 4646, powered by a 330 h.p. Jacobs L-6MB seven cylinder radial and manufactured in 1937 at Troy, Ohio. It was originally purchased by the Department of National Defence, Ottawa, and operated by the Department of Transport. In 1951 it was sold to Medicine Hat, and in 1952 to the West Coast (Malpass Logging, then BC Air Lines). In 1953 it was acquired by Jack Pickup, who, in 1980, donated it to the Canadian Museum of Flight.