Published in Legion magazine
In The Wilderness
By Steve Pitt
1919, most of Canada's 3,700,000 square miles were still uncharted wilderness.
People could sail along parts of Canada's extensive coastline or travel coast
to coast on a single railroad line that virtually hugged the Canadian-American
border, but if someone wanted to penetrate into Canada's interior, they were pretty
well limited to the horse, canoe or dogsled.
on June 15, 1919, ex-Royal Naval Air Service pilot Stuart Graham helped change
the course of history when he climbed into a war surplus flying boat and took
off from Dartmouth, N.S. When he landed four days later at Grand-Mère,
Que., Graham became Canada's first recognized bush pilot. His employer was the
St. Maurice Forest Protective Service, which eventually became Laurentide Air
primary duty was to fly forest fire patrols over the St. Maurice River valley,
but in short order his employer's business expanded to include prospecting, aerial
survey and mail delivery. Other provinces took note of Graham's ability to wander
at will over a huge country with few roads but plenty of lakes and rivers. By
the end of the decade, bush planes were flying over every province and territory
end of World War I had produced an abundance of two things: Pilots and planes.
The very first Canadian bush plane was the American-made Curtiss HS-2L. Originally
built for the United States Navy as an anti-submarine patrol bomber, the Curtiss
looked like someone crashed a kayak into a biplane. The HS required a crew of
two-a pilot and an engineer-but could carry up to five people or their equivalent
weight. When WW I ended, a U.S. naval detachment based in Halifax turned a dozen
HS-2Ls over to the Canadian government. These planes were later handed over to
various provincial and federal agencies.
bush pilot training was non-existent in the early days. When former American Army
Air Corps pilot Captain O.S. Bondurant applied for a job with Canadian Airways
in the early 1920s, he was asked one question: "Can you fly an HS?"
of a hand-to-mouth existence as a freelance barnstormer, Bondurant immediately
said yes even though he had never seen an HS. When he arrived at the Canadian
Airways hangar at Three Rivers, Que., he was surprised to discover that an HS
was a flying boat. He wheedled an hour's cockpit instruction from one of the groundcrew
and spent 15 minutes cruising the craft up and down the St. Lawrence River before
attempting his first takeoff with a very unhappy flight engineer at his side.
Surviving his first waterborne takeoff, Bondurant was immediately pressed into
service, flying surveyors and supplies into northern Quebec.
was hard, unglamorous work. Landing on an unfamiliar lake or river was difficult
enough. Unloading supplies from a flying boat to shore without a dock was even
harder. "We have as many as 3,600 pounds in one cache, and it entails climbing
up steep rock embankments or perhaps stumbling for a hundred yards through brush
and muskeg to a suitable spot," Bondurant wrote.
the HS opened the door to the north, it had many shortcomings as a bush plane.
First, the crew and passengers sat in open cockpits and were forced to endure
snow, wind, rain and skin-freezing temperatures without protection. Secondly,
the HS was not designed for freshwater operations. In his memoirs, Planes Over
Canada, A.H. Sandwell recounts trying to make an HS takeoff from a lake in the
Canadian Rockies. It had landed well enough but when Captain Sandwell attempted
to leave the lake, the plane "flatly refused to take off at all." It
suddenly twigged on the aircrew that because freshwater is less dense than brine,
the craft was dragging too low in the water and was marooned on the lake until
extensive modifications could be made to its hull. Finally, there was the problem
of winter freeze-up. As a flying boat, the HS was grounded the minute ice formed
on a lake.
the post-WW I slump in military aircraft demand encouraged plane manufacturers
to cater to this new market. Bush planes of American, British, Canadian and European
design were soon competing for Canadian airspace. Names like Fairchild, Junkers,
Bellanca, de Havilland, Stinson, Vickers and Norseman became a standard part of
the vocabulary of Canadians living in the Far North.
many former Allied pilots found themselves behind the controls of a direct descendant
of the Red Baron's triplane. The Fokker Super Universal was one of the first bush
planes to feature an enclosed cabin, interior engine crank and a monoplane high
wing which gave the pilot excellent visibility for takeoff and landing. More important,
the Fokker could be fitted with skis or floats making it an all-season flier.
Canadian-made Noorduyn Norseman first appeared in 1935 and proved so versatile,
it had one of the largest production runs of any bush plane in history. It was
adopted by several Allied militaries during WW II and nearly a thousand were built.
Although few were built after the war, many Norseman aircraft are still actively
flying around the world.
the most famous bush plane ever built is the de Havilland Beaver. First appearing
in 1947, the Beaver established de Havilland's reputation as the industry leader
in Short Take Off and Landing, STOL, aircraft. Like the Norseman, the Beaver was
a first choice of both civilian and government alike. By 1965, some 1,600 were
operating in 63 countries. Its service in the Antarctica was so valuable that
a lake, glacier and island were named after it.
no matter what kind of plane a pilot was flying, the two major challenges to the
bush aviator have always been navigation and weather. Today's
pilots enjoy a Global Positioning System that automatically calculates a plane's
location by space satellite. Planes are also equipped with modern charts, two-way
radios and, failing all this, a myriad of 24-hour civilian radio stations that
enable pilots to calculate their position by triangulation.
addition to flying his HS, Bondurant was required to make aerial sketches of what
he saw and these drawings usually became the only maps of the area until something
better came along. In 1920, the fledgling Canadian Air Force (not yet Royal) was
given the monumental task of surveying Canada by air. In theory, it was simple.
A plane would fly on a straight course over uncharted territory while a crewmember
took hundreds of photographs that, hopefully, would overlap each other so that
cartographers back on the ground could pick out landmarks and put together a mosaic
that would be transformed into a map.
practice, it was discovered that even the most minor variance in altitude (caused
by air pockets or pilot error) skewed the scale so that hills and lakes grew or
shrunk as the plane moved up and down. The slightest tilt of the wings would distort
the scale from left to right, and small, pesky clouds regularly blanked out hundreds
of miles of territory. W. R. McRae, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who
was assigned to aerial photography in 1945 said of the maps: "The only good
thing about those charts was the price-25 cents."
course, the biggest obstacle to the aerial photographer was sheer acreage. By
the outbreak of WW II, most of Canada north of the 57th parallel was still unmapped.
Even until the 1960s there were still huge blank spaces on official government
charts simply marked "unmapped". Any pilot who flew over these areas
would have to pick out landmarks on the way in and then try to find them again
to fly out. This was not easy because a typical bush plane flight plan was a haphazard
zigzag as the pilot landed and took off from up to a dozen lakes or rivers each
bush pilot's other major affliction was weather. At 40 below zero, a mere hour
on the ground would freeze an early bush plane's engine solid. Pilots often drained
their oil tanks and brought their oil into their cabin or tent. In the morning,
they would warm it on a wood stove, often in a chef's double saucepan to avoid
scorching the oil and ruining its lubrication quality. While the oil was warming
next to the pancakes, the pilot would go out to his plane and thaw out his engine
block by using a canvas chimney and blowtorch.
both the engine and oil were warm, the oil was poured back into the tank and the
pilot would try to start the engine. If for some reason the engine did not turn
over, the pilot would frantically attempt to correct the problem before his oil
and engine froze solid again. Any extended problem left the pilot with two choices-drain
the pan and start over or risk a fire by attempting to start his engine with a
live blowtorch still burning under his engine.
if the engine did start, the plane's skis were often frozen to the ground. One
way pilots remedied this was to run the engine at full blast while someone else
grabbed the plane's tail and jiggled it up and down and from side to side. This
was probably not a pleasant chore at 40 below with the plane's prop wash blasting
ice particles in your face.
if you don't have another human to shake your plane, nature might decide to send
help. In 1927, bush pilot Bernt Blachen was caught in a blizzard near Eskimo Point,
Man. Running out of daylight, he decided to ride out the storm by landing his
Fokker on the snow-covered tundra. Winds buffeted the craft all night but in the
wee hours Blachen was awakened by the sensation that his plane was being rocked
by a different kind of force. Peeking out the door, he discovered that a polar
bear was using his plane's delicate tail section as a bum scratcher.
was not the only deadly season. In the summer months, fog or rain could set in
quickly. When that happened, pilots had to decide whether to fly lower in the
hope of keeping the ground landmarks in sight and risk crashing or to climb higher
to avoid obstacles but risk getting lost. Even calm summer days had their peril.
Mirror smooth water reflected the sky and gave pilots an eerie impression of hanging
in space, unable to tell how high they were above the water. Yet, the worst time
for bush pilots was "changeover" weather when ice was melting or water
was freezing. In spring or fall, bush pilots had to guess whether their plane
needed pontoons or skis and even if they were right when they took off, there
was a good chance they would be wrong by the time they landed. Old snow had a
tendency to suddenly break through and grab skis. New snow tended to drift or
hide obstacles like small boulders and tree stumps.
who survived their crashes were faced with the challenge of repairing their planes
hundreds or even thousands of miles from help. Bondurant subsisted on wild blueberries
for three days while he and his engineer rebuilt their engine in a remote port
of the North Shore of Quebec. The top prize for ingenuity, however, goes to two
airmen working for Canadian Airways who snapped their propeller while landing
on melting snow near Fort Smith, N.W.T. The nearest replacement prop was in Buffalo,
N.Y. Undaunted, they purchased a hardwood sled and a moose hide from local natives.
First they peeled strips of hardwood off the sled and then glued them together
using mucilage made from boiling the moose hide. Using hand files and guesswork,
they managed to make a homemade prop that helped take them back to their home
base in Fort McMurray, Alta.
the days of radio and cellphones, bush pilots were the eyes and ears of the north.
A bed sheet spread flat on the ground or a cross made of conifer branches on the
ice was a signal for any passing pilot to stop because there was an emergency.
At any time, a routine supply drop or forest patrol might suddenly turn into an
emergency run where lives were at stake.
a former WW I airman turned bush pilot, Wilfrid (Wop) May found himself employed
as both an angel of mercy and champion of justice. In 1928, he suffered frostbite
flying through a blizzard in an open cockpit Avro Avian to deliver diphtheria
toxin to a snowbound community. In February 1932, he helped track down Albert
Johnson-the Mad Trapper-by spotting his tracks in a remote region of the Yukon
Territories. Johnson had sought to hide his trail by following a herd of caribou,
but May's sharp eyes picked out Johnson's distinct tracks from the air.
than 80 years have passed since Canada's first bush plane, a HS-2L given the name
La Vigilance, took off with Graham Stuart behind the controls. Sadly, in September,
1922, this historic plane, while being flown by another pilot, crashed while taking
off from a lake in Northern Ontario. The pilot and flight engineer survived, but
the plane went to the bottom of the lake. In 1968, La Vigilance's remains were
discovered and brought to the surface by a recovery team. After years of restoration,
La Vigilance is again on public view at the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa.
- Flying Fur
the spring of 1982, I was sitting with a local gold miner named Dal Fry in a tavern
affectionately known as The Snake Pit in Dawson City, Yukon. A young bush pilot
entered and, being an acquaintance of Dal, sat down at our table.
stories that begin with a opening like that are usually gold so we immediately
asked what happened.
pilot explained he had been dispatched to pick up a fur trapper who had spent
the entire winter in the bush. "When I landed, I discovered that he not only
had about 600 pounds of bleeding animal skins for me to carry, but also a full
husky team and 200 pounds of frozen fish guts, which is what the dogs eat. As
soon as we took off, the warmth of all those dogs made the fish guts thaw out
and fill the cabin with a terrible stench. This drove the huskies wild and suddenly
there was an eight-dog free-for-all behind my seat. The trapper, who hadn't had
a bath or brushed his teeth in months, settled the fight by leaning back and swatting
the dogs he could reach."
pilot said the dogs would settle for about 10 minutes and then start fighting
again. "The inside of my plane is covered in blood and husky fur. And it
smells like a salmon's armpit."
So much for the romance of being a bush pilot.
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