The first aircraft of the Ontario Provincial Air Service, a Curtiss H-Boat at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, 1925.
Fokker Universal with collapsed landing gear. The plane had a shock absorber system made of bungee cords that allowed it to land on uneven landing strips.
Norseman on floats. The Norseman was the first aircraft built expressly for bush flying.
The terms “bush pilot” and “bush flying” evoke images of the golden age of aviationswashbuckling pilots with flowing silk scarves skillfully maneuvering a vintage aircraft into the most inhospitable regions on Earth. In this case, unlike many legends, these romantic images are very close to realitybush flying is one of the last vestiges of aviation's early roots and is still relied on by many isolated communities to provide a vital lifeline. In the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness, where landing strips were few and widely scattered, most planes had to be adaptable to skis and floats, taking advantage of frozen rivers and lakes in the winter, then switching to floats in the summer months. Many fixed-gear aircraft also relied on tough, over-sized tires to handle the problems of landing on the rocky banks of streams and rivers, and to compensate for soft and spongy ground.
Alaska, Australia, and the barren northern territories of Canada are the locales most commonly associated with bush flying, although its impact extends equally to the rain forests of South America and the jungles of Africa. Mail, medicine, food supplies and dry goods, cargo, and human interaction are just a few of the precious commodities delivered by bush flying pilots.
Veteran Canadian bush pilot C.H. "Punch" Dickins, in a 1962 speech, concisely defined bush flying as “a pilot and mechanic, who are ready and willing to take any kind of a load to any destination, on or off the map, within the limits of their aircraft, and the financial resources of the customer.” Dickins' idealistic definition also touched upon the day-to-day hardships faced by bush pilots the world overscarcity of satisfactory landing strips, dynamic and often challenging weather conditions, inadequate radio communications, erratic work loads and often insufficient cash flow, and the unknowns of satisfying a customer never before seen by flying to a location never before visited.
In the years following World War I, seasoned American and Canadian combat pilots, enamored with the thrill and freedom of flight, soon turned their attentions to peacetime pursuits that would permit them to earn a living from their flying skills. Some turned to the lucrative barnstorming circuit, others to the practicality of crop-dusting, while the most adventurous were drawn to bush flying.
A relatively modest sum of money would purchase a surplus military aircraft, such as Curtiss JN-4 Jennys and HS-2L flying boats, but maintenance of the aircraft was another issue: few pilots knew how to keep their airplanes in operating condition. The handful that could both fly and fix became the core of the fledgling bush flying industry.
One of the earliest recorded commercial “bush flights” occurred in October 1920 when a fur buyer walked into the office of Canadian Aircraft in Winnipeg, Manitoba, requesting a flight back to his home in The Pas, Manitobaa long 11-plus-hour drive by automobile today, an almost insurmountable distance in 1920. Canadian Aircraft accepted the challenge, flying hundreds of miles over inhospitable stretches of lakes, bush, swamps and bogs, landing in a location never before visited by an aircraft with wheeled landing gear.
This modest but daring journey boldly demonstrated that once inaccessible Arctic regions could be reached by airplanes of the era and, within one year, oil companies were exploring within 100 miles from the Arctic Circle. Soon, bush pilots were patrolling for forest fires, performing aerial mapping of timberlands and waterways, and staking mining claims. Airmail service was being extended to remote logging camps and trapping outposts, and bush planes were turned into air ambulances to fly out sick or injured workers and hunters.
With the value of bush flying now obvious to the business community, the next step was to develop aircraft that were more versatile and, most importantly, more reliable than the makeshift assortment of war surplus aircraft pressed into service for bush flying use. In 1926, a new era in bush flying was ushered in with the introduction of the German Fokker Universal, a single-seat high-cabin monoplane that was both responsive and stable.
Built under license in the United States by the Atlantic Aircraft Corporation (Fokker's American subsidiary) and powered by the newly developed, air-cooled Pratt & Whitney radial engine, the Universal could haul cargo or passengers in an enclosed cabin positioned under the wing while the pilot flew in the open forward cockpit. Sturdily built with a welded steel tube fuselage and thick wooden wings, the Fokker Universal used an imaginative shock absorber system comprised of bungee cords that enabled it to land on bumpy and uneven landing strips and could also be equipped with floats or skis. More than half of the 44 Fokker Universals manufactured in the United States between 1926 and 1931 entered the bush flying ranks, and the aircraft was eventually flown by more than a dozen United States, Canadian and foreign airlines.
The first aircraft built expressly for bush flying, the Canadian-designed and built Noorduyn Norseman, made its debut flight on November 12, 1935. Rugged and reliable, the Norseman was designed with a large cargo area and door that could accommodate a standard 45-gallon (170-liter) fuel druma necessity when flying into remote areas lacking refueling capabilities, as well as for the delivery of the fuel itself to those locations.
Capable of carrying ten passengers, the Norseman also featured separate cockpit and fuselage doors that enabled the pilot to enter and exit without climbing over the cargo. About 900 Noorduyn Norseman were manufactured from 1935 until production ended in 1959 and many are still flying today.
Modern bush pilots use a variety of aircraft for their missions: Beech Staggerwings and Bonanzas, Piper Super Cubs and Cherokees, Cessna 180s and 206s are just a few of the aircraft models commonly used in bush flying. Ferrying big game hunters to base camp, nature photographers to scenic vistas and archaeological explorers to the latest dig are several of the diverse missions for today's bush planes.
Many bush pilots continue to rely on the rugged de Havilland Beaver, designed and built in Canada for versatility and for reliable operations using skis, floats, or wheels. A wide variety of other aircraft are also employed, including Piper Super Cubs, Cessna 180s, 206s and helicopters. Bush pilots often make regular flights to isolated settlements, delivering mail, groceries, and miscellaneous supplies. Their diverse missions also include carrying hunters and fishermen to remote camps, flying nature photographers to promising locations, delivering archaeological teams to a promising site, and transporting wildlife managers and foresters on aerial patrols.
An aircraft stranded on a stretch of frozen Arctic tundra or a remote corner of a swamp or lake left the bush pilot with only three possible alternativesfix it, take a long hike back to civilization, or perish. This is when the flight engineer earned his keepswapping out an aircraft engine in the dead twilight of a northern winter, repairing collapsed landing gear in the oppressive heat of summer, or replacing frozen fluids in the middle of a swamp.
Bush pilots (and their flight engineers) have opened up new frontiers in places so perilous to fly that insurance companies refuse to provide coverage for their lives and property. The risky nature of the occupation is the allure that attracted the bush pilot in the first placeflying to unspoiled places in uncertain weather with an ever-changing mission is just a typical day in the world of bush flying.
Anderson, James (as told to Jim Rearden). Arctic Bush Pilot: From Navy Combat to Flying Alaska's Northern Wilderness. Kenmore, Washington: Epicenter Press, Inc. 2000
Potts, F.E. Guide to Bush Flying - Concepts and Techniques for the Pro. Seattle: Aviation Book Company, 1993. (Also available at http://www.fepco.com/Bush_Flying.html)
Rivest, Pierre. Bush Pilot. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Les Editions de Mortagne, 1997
“The Beginning of Bush Flying in Canada.” The Stuart Graham Papers, Canada's Digital Collections. http://collections.ic.gc.ca/sgraham/home.htm
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre. http://www.bushplane.com
“History of Bush Flying.” Aviation and Forest Fire Management, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/MNR/affmb/Aviation/History/bush_history.htm.
“Noorduyn Norseman History.” http://www.noorduyn.ca/history.html