Hans Lundberg, Canada’s greatest mineral detective, Part 4

A Bell Model 47 used by Lundberg to test his equipment. This machine is the second commercially registered helicopter in the world. Anon. “Prospecting with helicopter and magnetics.” Science Illustrated, December 1946, 64.

As interesting as his ground-based geophysical work was, Hans Lundberg is better known as a pioneer of airborne geophysical exploration. His work in this field had seemingly begun in Sweden, in 1920-21, with captive balloons, then large kites and, perhaps, airplanes. Even before the end of the Second World War, Lundberg was predicting that aviation would play a significance role in geophysical exploration, once peace came back. At first, he thought that airplanes would be the main tool. Helicopters soon began to attract his attention, however. Whirlybirds, as they are sometimes called, could go to inaccessible areas, skim the ground in relative safety and hover or land to confirm a possible discovery. By the end of 1945, Lundberg was the founding vice-president of New York and Toronto-based Lundberg-Ryan Air Exploration Company, Incorporated. This company eventually became Lundberg Explorations Limited.

In 1946, Lundberg completed and tested the first airborne electromagnetic survey system in the world. The platform he used to test his relatively primitive equipment in the field was a pre-production American-made Bell Model 47, one of the classic helicopters of the 20th century and a type represented in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Eager to increase its potential customer base, Bell Aircraft Corporation readily agreed to help Lundberg by leasing him a helicopter. The pilot who flew the Model 47 from its factory in Niagara Falls, New York, to Downsview, near Toronto, where employees of famous aircraft maker de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, Limited installed the specialised equipment, was none other than Floyd William Carlson. The Bell Aircraft chief test pilot was one of the most famous helicopter pilots of the age. Also intrigued by what Lundberg was trying to accomplish, International Nickel Company (INCO) gave him permission to test his equipment over its holdings in Sudbury, Ontario.

From mid June onward, Lundberg and his small team conducted a series of survey flights in northern Ontario and Québec – quite possibly the first ever commercial use of a helicopter in the world. Sadly, the technology of the time did not allow him to fully exploit his results. As was the case more than once in his life, the Canadian geophysicist was ahead of his time. Even so, the savings in time Lundberg had demonstrated were simply staggering. Whereas a team of four ground-based operators needed 70 days to survey an 11 km2 (4.3 sq mi) piece of land, two people in a helicopter could do the job in 60 or so minutes.

The trials supervised by Lundberg proved historically significant for another reason. One day, as he was supervising the fight against a stubborn forest fire near Sudbury, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests forest protection supervisor for that district saw the Bell Model 47 fly by. Jack C. Dillon had an epiphany. The helicopter would be an ideal vehicle to observe the development of a fire and identify problem areas. Watching the Model 47 move away, Dillon rushed to a vehicle and drove to where it had landed. Bell Aircraft agreed to let him fly on board the helicopter, free of charge, for a couple of hours. This experiment, conducted on 26 June 1946, was the first flight in North America during which a helicopter was used to control a forest fire.

Interestingly enough, Lundberg’s younger son may have been involved in the 1946 expedition, as a pilot. In late July, Sten Lundberg had received the first commercial helicopter pilot license issued by Canada’s Department of Transport to a person who did not work for the federal government. The young man was the only non-American in the group of four who obtained the coveted rating that day, at the Bell Aircraft factory of Niagara Falls. Sten Lundberg had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941. A pilot since 1942, he had flown in combat with No 416 Squadron. His Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane was shot down over France in May 1944. Lundberg had spent a year in a prisoner of war camp. Once back in Canada, he had flown supplies in support of his father’s expeditions in northern Canada. His older brother, Torkel Lundberg, on the other hand, was a navigator in a Royal Air Force squadron equipped with Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. His aircraft vanished without a trace during the night of 21/22 January 1943. He was 23 years old.

A final few words in the saga of Hans Lundberg will be found in the 5th and final part of this article. And if this text seems long to you, my reading friend, please note that yours truly was quite unprepared for the many twists and turns of this remarkable story.

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Rénald Fortier