Douglas Cowan Fraser 1903-1990

by Frank Tibbo

“Well it was all problems, wasn’t it? From the time you left the ground until you got back down again...” Doug Fraser probably wasn’t the easiest person to interview, but you could depend on a straight answer. The foregoing quote was made to a reporter who asked him if there were any problems when he was flying.

Despite the problems encountered by Fraser, he had a remarkable aviation career. Consider the fact that he was made an Honorary Doctor of Laws by Memorial University in 1982 and inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1987.

Fraser Road (one of the first streets in Gander) and the Fraser Mall (first mall in Gander) were both named in his honour. Fraser didn’t appreciate the fact that the town shortened Fraser Road when Airport Boulevard was realigned. But even though his street was made shorter, the Council assured him that he had a special place in its history.

His parents, Dr. Nutting Stuart and Maude Cowan Fraser, sent their son to be educated at Bishop Field College, St. John's, then to England to further pursue his studies and later to Sir George Williams University in Montreal. It was while he was studying at Suffolk, England, that his interest in aviation was kindled after he was taken on his first flight.

Upon completion of his education in England, Fraser returned to Newfoundland. While Fraser waited for classes to begin in Montreal, he worked for the Newfoundland Butter Co., a local bank and Bert Hayward's automotive garage.

He seemed to gravitate to anywhere an aircraft existed and soon found himself working as an aircraft mechanic with the Curtiss-Reid Aircraft Company of Montreal. It was while he was with the company that he obtained a Private Pilot licence (No. 526) and a year later a Commercial Pilots licence (No. 720).

In 1930 Douglas Fraser became seriously ill with pneumonia and returned to St. John’s to convalesce. While Fraser was recovering, he was visited by Arthur Sullivan (Sullivan Avenue, Gander) who wanted to form a company called Newfoundland Airways. Sullivan couldn’t fly but had sufficient money to purchase an aircraft. Fraser went to Toronto with Sullivan to ferry a Gypsy Moth, CF-AGL, back to the island. They departed Toronto on November 4, 1930, and arrived in Mount Pearl on November 19. The flight turned out to be a historic one for Newfoundland because it delivered the first foreign mail to Newfoundland. Despite the fact that the journey lasted 15 days, the aircraft spent only 21 hours and 55 minutes in the air. On the trip back, Fraser gave Sullivan flying lessons. He continued to tutor Sullivan while they were in Mt. Pearl.

Newfoundland Airways was the first airline on which many area citizens could take to the air. Fraser’s many five dollar trips enabled Sullivan to get the financing to purchase floats for the Moth.

In 1931, Fraser went to Montreal and purchased a Curtiss-Robin float plane. He arrived on Quidi Vidi Lake on May 19 and immediately established his own aviation company, Old Colony Airways.

Fraser is credited with several ‘firsts’ in Newfoundland aviation history, among which was providing 'shore-to-ship' mail service when he air dropped newspapers to the S.S. Nova Scotia 16 km off St. John's. It was in 1931 when he made the first flight to Parsons Pond on the Great Northern Peninsula. That flight was to carry geologist G. Hopkins of Imperial Oil to a drilling site.

In response to a CBC reporter’s question regarding whether he had had many memorable flights, Fraser said, “Well, one was over Baccalieu Island. I got an oil-pipe leak and a break in the oil line. Oil was going over the windshield everywhere. I managed to get back to Quidi Vidi. That was hair-rising because I didn’t know if I was going to get in there or not.” (Fraser, 1988)

When there aren’t many aircraft around, one is bound to get called on for transportation during medical emergencies. Just about every flight in the 1930s must have been memorable and survival cannot be presumed.

On November 1, 1931, Fraser was flying one of many mercy flights. It was good news for the patient but not so for the aircraft. He flew from St. John's to Middle Arm, White Bay, to evacuate a man who was suffering from blood poisoning. He landed at Bay Roberts to pick up Dr. Pritchard. They were forced to put the plane down at Burlington, Green Bay, due to a snow storm. The next day the weather cleared, and they went on to Middle Arm where the patient was treated. The plane experienced fuel problems on the return trip, so they were forced to land on Wigwam Pond. Pilot Fraser and Dr. Pritchard were obliged to walk the 16 km to Grand Falls. Fraser returned to the Pond with fuel several days later but the pond had frozen. There was no way he could get the aircraft off the ice because it was equipped with floats.

On December 7, Douglas went back to Wigwam Pond. This time he had a mechanic, Bert Clayton, and skis for the aircraft. The floats were removed and skis were fitted. It seems the pond wasn’t fit for water or ice take off. During the attempted take-off, the plane went through the ice. Both men managed to get out but the plane was wrecked. The only thing recovered was the engine. Fraser was without an aircraft and Old Colony Airways was disbanded.

In June 1932, he participated in a search for his friend Arthur Sullivan who disappeared near St. Anthony on May 30 after he had taken off for a sight-seeing trip with Dr. Kuehnert, a dentist from Germany who worked for the Grenfell Mission.

Douglas Fraser formed a second airline company (Fraser Airways) on July 10, 1932, when he bought another Curtiss-Robin from a flying school in Massachusetts.

General Italo Balbo (Balbo Street) led a group of aircraft on a publicity tour in 1933, and one of the stops was Shoal Harbour. While the fleet was there, Fraser flew Lt. John Aorisi to meet General Balbo on July 29. Fraser also carried mail from Italy's Fascist Premier, Mussolini, to Balbo.

On July 12, 1933, Fraser met Charles Lindbergh (Lindbergh Street) when the American hero landed on Quidi Vidi in his Sirius aircraft. He had been contracted by Pan American Airways to chart a 30,000 mile survey. Lindbergh said, "I taxied in to the head of the lake and as we were on our way to Big Pond, Fraser pointed out Bay Bulls Big Pond on the map." Lindbergh was told that he would have to fly to Bay Bulls Big Pond for his fuel – a distance of about twenty miles from St. John's.

In 1934, the Newfoundland Commission of Government approached Doug Fraser with the idea of purchasing his company. Part of the deal was that Fraser would be employed to fly what, up to this time, was his own aircraft. Fraser agreed. Imperial Airways of Great Britain then got into the picture. Plans were underway for transatlantic flights, and it was essential to develop sites in Newfoundland for the aircraft to refuel. Imperial Airways leased the company from the Newfoundland government, and Doug Fraser came under the employ of the airline. The airline purchased two Fox Moths and Fraser made his first flight for Imperial Airways on November 3, 1934.

Doug Fraser was soon sent out on forest-fire patrols; road and bridge construction inspections; timber, geodetic, geological and meteorological surveys; and mercy missions to all parts of Newfoundland.

In June 1935, he participated in a geodetic survey of Canada to determine triangulation points for the purpose of aligning Newfoundland on the map with the rest of North America. It was also about this time that Mr. Edgar Baird flew with Doug Fraser. Mr. Baird was the Chief Forester for the Newfoundland government and was flown around by Doug Fraser and Cliff Kent.

In August 1935, he was given specifications needed to establish an airport on the island and set about finding a suitable site. That was the genesis of Gander.

“You must remember that I was given the specifications from England where they wanted to locate an airport, and the specifications were pretty hard to meet in Newfoundland. You couldn’t find another area which didn’t have a mountain or hill within so many miles, five I think it was, of over four hundred feet. This was the only area that filled the bill.” (Fraser, 1988)

In retrospect, it appears that the primary reason for Imperial Airways’ presence in Newfoundland was to select an area suitable for flying boats and land-based aircraft to refuel. Had a suitable area existed near Botwood, it would have saved millions of dollars. There would have been savings in many areas, but the major savings would have been in the transportation of fuel from Lewisporte to Gander.

Fraser was listed as the chief pilot for Imperial Airways in Newfoundland when he was sent out to do aerial surveys which led to the establishment of Newfoundland Airport (later named Gander). It seems that he also had influence in the selection of Botwood as a seaplane base. Clifford Kent (Kent Place, Gander) also flew for the airline, and the two pilots flew Fox Moths VO-ABC and VO-ADE. A sudden storm in September 1935 extensively damaged both aircraft. VO-ADE was repaired but the other aircraft was too damaged to restore.

It is not clear whether Fraser requested a transfer to England but in any case he got one. He was given instrument training and made a co-pilot flying a Handley on the company's London-Paris route. The following January (1936), he flew as co-pilot on a DeHavilland 86 Rapide on the London-Brussels route and later on the London-Liverpool-Ireland-Scotland route.

It’s not clear why Fraser returned to Newfoundland in 1936 but return he did. The airline referred to him thereafter as Captain Fraser. The airline bought a Fairchild 71 float aircraft in February 1936, and Fraser was sent to Montreal to ferry it to Newfoundland. The aircraft’s primary purpose was to collect meteorological data. The flights were conducted at altitudes of up to 16,000 feet; however, it was not equipped with oxygen. In later years he said: “My health is against me because we were doing trans-Atlantic (test) flights for air to 16,000 ft. every day in a rarefied atmosphere without any oxygen – killed my lungs – so I’m suffering for that.”

Data gathered in the flights were used to aid the meteorologists in the quest to provide reliable forecasts for the new transatlantic service. The same aircraft was used in calibrating the wireless direction-finding stations at Botwood and Gander. A radio operator with the Newfoundland Civil Aviation was sent along on the flights to operate the calibrating equipment. Messrs. W.J.G. (James) Strong and James Dempsey were two of the operators involved with the calibration.

Then on January 11, 1938, it happened. One would like to think it was planned and a big ceremony would be planned but it wasn’t like that at all.

This is what Fraser said about the event:
“I can remember it quite well. I think it was five people who met me. It was a day like today, blue sky and not a cloud in the sky. I had been commissioned to take a doctor to Lethbridge – that wasn’t the name then – and on my way back I touched in at Gander. Why I don’t know, but I just put down for a few minutes.”

“Oh no, no, it was very smooth according to my memory. Just the very first touch and you stayed there. Snow was lovely to fly on because there was always a cushion to absorb the shock.” Doug Fraser was describing the first landing at the Newfoundland (Gander) Airport on January 11, 1938.

A name too often forgotten is engineer George Lace who accompanied Fraser on that historic flight.

Fraser’s aviation career with Imperial Airways continued; and in late 1940, he was their pilot when the United States government contracted the airline to do aerial surveys of Argentia and Stephenville as potential sites for military airports.

Fraser warned the Canadian government about establishing the RCAF base in Torbay because of the frequent fog. He recommended Cochrane Pond but the Canadian government went ahead and used Torbay. Fraser conducted flights over St. John’s in order to test the radar-defence system that had been installed at Torbay Airport.

On February 22, 1941, Doug Fraser assisted Air Vice-Marshall D.C.T. Bennett in recovering military documents from a Hudson Bomber that crashed a few miles from Musgrave Harbour after departing the Newfoundland Airport. Sir Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin, was killed in that crash. It was believed that Banting was secretly working on the effects of high level flying and G forces on fighter pilots.

In 1942 Imperial Airways advised Fraser that he was being transferred to Sierra Leone, Africa. However, Fraser said, “No thanks” and quit.

When he retired from flying, he became the owner operator of Cloverdale Farm in St. John's. Following that he became Managing Director of Sunshine Dairy in St. John's.
During the summer of 1967, Doug Fraser was a special guest of the Department of Transport when a Lockheed Hudson bomber was dedicated in tribute to pilots of the RAF Ferry Command.

He was honoured again in 1972 and was the guest of honour at the opening of Gander's Fraser Mall, which was named for him.

His last visit to Gander was on January 11, 1988, when he helped the Hon. John Crosby unveil a plaque on the occasion of the airport's 50th anniversary.

On June 5, 1987, Captain Douglas Cowan Fraser was inaugurated into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame with the following citation: "His exceptional flying abilities coupled with scientific interest in aviation have made him an honoured member of Canada's flying fraternity and earned him a prominent place in Newfoundland History."

“Gander will always be in my heart because I was the one who picked it for her, actually pinpointed it.”

I never had the opportunity to interview the late Doug Fraser, but I think I know enough about him to know what he might have answered to some of my questions – so here goes!

Mr. Fraser, how extensive was you flying career, how long did you fly?

"Too long. Fifteen years from 1930 to 1945 was like thirty years today. We didn’t have any help when we got up there. We were on our own. You had to fly by the seat of your pants."

Why did you learn to fly in Canada?

"Because there was no place in Newfoundland to get your licence. We didn’t have any department of aviation or anything like that, and besides I was working there with the Curtiss Company and they had a flying school.”

What was Gander like when you landed?

"Well, first of all it wasn’t Gander was it? There was Gander Lake and Gander Bay and Gander River but the airport was called Newfoundland Airport. Some people referred to it as ‘Camp 24', I don’t know where that came from. And then some called it Hattie’s Camp and still others called it Milepost 213. Officially it was called Newfoundland Airport. That’s what the sign said at the railway station, and that’s what was on your mail – the post mark."

Sorry, sir, I meant to say Newfoundland Airport. Can you remember what it was like here then?

"Well, there wasn’t much here then compared to now. There were four runways but there was no pavement laid except for an experimental bit on one of the runways. The runways weren’t finished until Oct. 31/39. The runways were short when compared to today’s standards, and for some reason – I can’t fathom why – they called them numbers one, two, three and four instead of by their magnetic bearings. I landed on Runway No. 1. That was actually Runway 14-32. It was only 4,500 feet long but, of course, the Fox Moth could land in a few hundred feet. The strange thing about it is that the runway was 600 feet wide and today most runways at big airports are only 200 feet wide."

Do you remember anything about the other three runways?

"The other three runways were 36-18, that was called no. 2. Runway no. 3 was 27-09, that was the real wide one, it was 1200 feet wide. The other runway, No. 4 was 23-05".

Were there any buildings here then?

"Not many. The Administration building, near where I parked the aircraft, was nearing completion, you can see the scaffolding around it in the picture that somebody took of me. There were a few buildings in that vicinity, one was a power plant and a few other buildings and some small shacks."

Do you know the names of any of the people who were here then?

"Well, Fred Chafe was here. He was in charge of the electrical section. Bobby Mercer, Bob Moores, Jack James and Mike Woodford were here – all electrical people. The Station Agent was Bert Stone, and there was a fellow by the name of Johnny Johnson who they referred to as the Admiral. He was an Englishmen – engineer I believe – in charge of erecting the radio facilities, the transmitters and receivers for Marconi. They tell me he was here from 1936 to 1939".

Were there any radio facilities here then?

"No, not as far as I know. The radio and weather people were still in Botwood, they didn’t come here until November 30th of that year."

One final question, sir. What do you think of the decision to put the RCAF airport in Torbay?

"Well, as you know, I recommended an area near Cochrane Pond which has very little fog. What do I think of the decision? I think they’re a bunch of jackasses!"

SOLO February 2/1930 1.00 PM – TIME IN THE AIR 15MIN.
Canada No 526
File No. 1020 F-76
Air Regulations 1920

This certifies that Douglas C. Fraser whose address is 437 Prince Albert Ave., Westmount, P.Q. and whose photograph is attached is authorized by the Air Board to act as an unpaid Pilot of Flying Machines not used for commercial or state purposes. This certificate is subject to the conditions printed below and to cancellation at any time for cause.
Dated this 4th day of December, 1929

Douglas Cowan Fraser died on March 5, 1990.


Ed note, also read; Captain Douglas Fraser

Contributed by F. Tibbo

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