Wings In The Wilderness

May 1, 2002 by Steve Pitt

A prospector unloads supplies from a bush plane at Taltheillie Narrows, N.W.T.

In 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.

But 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 Service Ltd.

Graham’s 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 in Canada.

The 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.

Specialized 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?”

Tired 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.

It 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.

Although 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.

Fortunately, 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.

Ironically, 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.

The Junkers W.33/34 was preferred by anyone who needed a large load delivered into a remote area. Nicknamed the Flying Boxcar because of its squarish build and all metal construction, the Junkers’ low-wing design proved to be a welcome safety feature for pilots trying to land on thin ice. If the skis broke through, the broad wings usually kept the plane’s passenger compartment from going into the water.

The 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.

Perhaps 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.

But 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.

In 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.

In 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.”

Of 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 day.

The 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.

When 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.

Even 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.

But 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.

Winter 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.

Pilots 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.

Before 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.

As 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.

More 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

In 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.

“I just had the worst flight of my life,” he said.

We immediately asked what happened.

The 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.”

The 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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