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The first all-Canadian bush plane

Robert B.C. Noorduyn visiting a Canadian aircraft factory in 1940.
When Robert B.C. Noorduyn set out to create Canada’s first bush plane, his design boiled down to three fundamental criteria: be economical, make loading easy and be the best bush plane in operation. Simple enough.

His finished product was called the Noorduyn Norseman, and it was the first bush plane to be designed and built in Canada and the first Canadian aircraft adopted by the United States military.

Taking its initial flight on Nov. 14, 1935, the Norseman was considered a bush plane unlike any other, with its ability to withstand harsh Arctic flight. The Norseman VI was a stand-out, flying with the Allies in eight countries and multiple theatres of the Second World War. Given such pet names as “the one-ton flying truck” and “the workhorse of the skies,” the Norseman brought Canadian aviation to the world’s military-industrial complex.

Its designer, Noorduyn, was born in the Netherlands and was left with a single leg following a childhood streetcar accident. He had an illustrious career in aviation design and manufacturing, while working for companies such as Fokker, Bellanca and Pitcairn-Cierva. Noorduyn eventually started his own buisness, Noorduyn Aircraft Limited, with a colleague in 1933. Their goal was to design and build the perfect northerly bush plane. And Noorduyn’s First World War-era work gave him just the right expertise.

“Noorduyn understood that bush flying was different from airline flying,” Robert Guttman wrote in a article. “While both required expert aviators, bush pilots had to be able to operate in remote areas for long periods under extreme weather conditions.”

“In addition, the bush flier had to be part taxi driver, part truck driver, part ambulance driver, part porter, part navigator, part mechanic, part meteorologist and part wilderness survivalist.”

A restored Norseman VI.

Its production wouldn’t have extended beyond a hundred planes if it weren’t for the U.S.

Keeping bush flight’s multifaceted nature in mind, Noorduyn created the Norseman in 1934 at his Montreal base. Similar in design to Fokker fighter aircraft, the Norseman was fitted with a large cargo compartment to hold a 45-gallon fuel barrel as well as a high wooden wing and separate cockpit and fuselage doors to make loading and unloading simple. Additionally, the Norseman could set off from land, water or snow due to its three types of interchangeable landing gear–wheels, skis and floats.

“They also featured movable flaps to reduce takeoff and landing speeds,” Guttman wrote, “a first on a Canadian-built airplane.”

Still, Noorduyn’s prototype wasn’t perfect. Its speed was sluggish when it first flew from Montreal across the St. Lawrence River, because the aircraft’s engine was unable to handle the plane’s 6,000-pound weight. Performance improved in 1936 when the Norseman IV was manufactured with a stronger engine.

And while the Norseman IV did achieve moderate success in civilian markets, its production wouldn’t have extended beyond 100 planes if it weren’t for the U.S. being given the task of delivering war material to Britain through Greenland. Wanting a bush plane that could handle the region’s polar climate, General Henry H. Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Corps enlisted the advice of veteran arctic pilot Bernt Balchen.

“The recently commissioned Colonel Balchen overcame Arnold’s strong ‘buy American’ bias by explaining that the U.S. produced nothing comparable to the Norseman for supporting operations in rugged, remote regions such as Greenland and Alaska,” Guttman wrote. And so, the Americans became one of the Norseman’s most loyal patron, with more than 800 Norsemans being produced for both the United States Army Air Forces and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Noorduyn Norseman CF-HBY on display at the Alberta Aviation Museum, in Edmonton.
Given a UC-64A specification for light transport through rugged territory, the Norseman was indeed a lofty workhorse, allowing Americans and Canadians to traverse the wicked wiles of cold climate. The aircraft was also used by Montreal’s No. 3 Wireless School to train wireless operators.

After the war, came the the Norseman V. “The designation ‘Norseman V’ was reserved by the company until the end of the war,” wrote a Canadian Aviation and Space Museum article, “to represent the Winston Churchill’s ‘V for Victory’ symbol.”

But like every trusty steed, the Norseman was eventually put out to pasture, and its production ended in 1959. Many Norseman’s remained commercially operational until the early 1990s, though.

Regardless, the Norseman lived a brilliant career, carrying the weight of Canadian ingenuity and Allied triumph with mastery for its time.


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