Would you fly a Bush Plane?

by | Aug 31, 2017 | Canada, Ottawa | 2 comments

Welcome to Norman’s 3rd guest post from his visit to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa

This post explores Canada’s great contribution to aviation: The Bush Plane by Norman Letalik

When I was 19, in the summer of 1974, I did a backpacking trip through Europe using a EuroRail pass to get around. I decided to go as far North as the EuroRail pass would take me, which was to Narvik, Norway above the Arctic Circle. To get there I went through Sweden, first visiting relatives in Linkoping, and then taking side trips to visit Stockholm and the university town of Uppsala. Uppsala University was the best University in Sweden and the oldest, having been founded in 1477.

The train north went through Kiruna, which was an important iron-mining center in Sweden. The rail continued into Narvik, an ice-free port above the Arctic Circle located at 68 degrees, 25 minutes north, or about 150 km north of the Arctic Circle (which is at 66 degrees, 33 minutes north). The port was used to transport iron ore from Kiruna to global destinations. My plan was then to head down the beautiful Norwegian coast to Bergen, and then inland to Oslo.

There was no passenger train south from Narvik, but the Norwegian railway ran a costal ferry from Narvik to Bobo, where the railway to the south began again. This meant more than a day on the ferry to travel approximately 300 km to Bodo. I had time, and, as it was near the longest day of the year, there was constant daylight. It was great opportunity to view the beautiful Norwegian coast.

The Captain of the ferry, like most Norwegians, spoke excellent English and I spent several hours talking to him, when he wasn’t busy bringing the ferry into one of the many small fishing villages where the ferry stopped along the way, delivering mail, food and supplies (including an outboard motor and a moped at one village). The Captain was shocked that a Canadian had come to Norway to travel above the Arctic Circle. I told him that in Canada there was virtually nothing 250 km north of the US border and nearly 90% of Canadians lived within 200 km of the US border. As well, there were no passenger railways and only very few dirt roads north of the Arctic Circle in Canada, and certainly no towns like Narvik, which had close to 20,000 inhabitants at that time. Today, Inuvik, the largest Canadian town above the Arctic Circle, has just over 3,000 inhabitants.

In Canada, the same role that the coastal ferry played for coastal Norwegian towns north of Bodo, was typically performed by bush planes. Life is harsh in the Canadian North, but it would be much harsher if bush pilots and bush planes did not keep the North connected with the South.

Canada’s treasure and its curse (I say ‘curse’ because those countries that count on mining and extraction industries to generate their wealth are rarely as well off as those that rely on an educated, skilled workforce) is that it is a huge country with enormous amounts of natural resources. Most of those resources are north of where most people wish to live. Our First Nations and Inuit peoples live there, as they have for millennia, and where resources are plentiful and accessible, small company towns form to extract or harvest the resources.

In the last ice age, most of Canada was under a massive glacier. When the glacier pushed south, it scraped a lot of soil off the surface and left exposed rock, and when the glaciers melted and receded, hundreds of thousands of lakes were created, interspersed with rock. Very little of that land is suitable for farming, so subsistence living means hunting, fishing and some modest gardening. Fruits and vegetables are in short supply. Lumber extraction is possible in the arboreal forest of evergreens, at least to the tree line, north of which trees cannot grow.

When Canada was first settled by Europeans, the early European explorers traveled inland largely by canoes on the thousands of lakes and rivers. They portaged overland between lakes and rivers where there was no water connection. That is how the fur trade was built with the First Nations, resulting in North America’s oldest company, the Hudson’s Bay Co., which was incorporated in 1670, to set up trade and barter posts in British North America. Today, the same company is Canada’s largest remaining department store chain.

In the early days of European exploration, it took weeks or months to travel by canoe to conduct trading. Today the same can be done in minutes or hours by airplane. The problem is that in the North there are few airports, so bush planes have very sturdy landing gear that can be configured for floats to allow them to take off and land on lakes, or skis to take off and land on frozen lakes. For areas with a large enough clearing, large bush wheels and tires can be used to land on grass, dirt or gravel runway strips.

The Canadian government and industry have always had an interest in exploiting the North, and shortly after airplanes became reliable forms of transportation, they were used to open the North. This improved the lives of First Nations people, as planes opened commerce and gave access to medical care.

The Museum has a special exhibit devoted to bush planes, and a number of bush planes are on display.

This is a Curtiss Seagull

You will recall from the earlier post on the Silver Dart that early powered flight in Canada often involved taking off and landing from lakes or frozen ice on lakes. The Curtiss aviation company was the first experimenter with flying boats.

The Museum has two excellent early examples in the Curtiss Seagull, which looks like a beautiful mahogany hulled boat to which wings and a tail were attached, and the later Curtiss HS-2L, which was one of the first aircraft used in Canada to deliver mail to remote regions, whether on inland lakes or in coastal communities on the ocean. The Seagull was too small to carry many supplies or equipment, but it was used for forest survey work and for transporting prospectors and fishermen.

This is a Curtiss HS-2L

The larger Curtiss HS-2L, purchased as a surplus WW1 aircraft, became the basis for the first commercial bush plane operation in Canada in 1919. In addition to being the first commercial bush plane, it was also involved in: the first aerial timber survey, the first forestry patrol, and the first mining claim staked with the use of aircraft.

Bush planes have a number of characteristics. Ideally, they:

  • are made of sturdy metal, typically aluminum;
  • can accommodate floats and skis for operation off lakes;
  • have a high wing, so that when landing on water in side winds there is less chance for a wing tip to hit the water;
  • have a powerful and reliable engine that is relatively easy to service;
  • have STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) characteristics so that they can land on short runways or small lake and have a good glide ratio so that they can fly long enough to find a suitable landing site, should the engine fail; and
  • have an enclosed cabin to carry personnel and cargo in bad weather.

The Curtiss flying boats had open cockpits, which limited their use to good weather operation.

This is a Junkers W.34f/fi

The Museum has an early example of a German Junkers W.34f/fi, which was one of the first metal skinned aircraft. As you can see from the photo, it won’t win any beauty contests, as its corrugated metal skin is pretty ugly.

Junkers built the first all metal aircraft for civil use, the earlier F.13 in 1919. The W.33 and W.34 models were designed in 1926. The one on display in the Museum was built in 1931 and was considered to be one of the best bush planes available in the 1930’s. This particular aircraft was first used by Canadian Airways, and then spent about 20 years serving the mining industry in Quebec as a bush plane: http://casmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-junkers-w-34f-fi.php

The first purpose-designed bush airplane was the Noorduyn Norseman. It was designed by Robert “Bob” Noorduyn, an experienced aviation designer who had worked for Fokker in Holland and Bellanca and Pitcairn-Cierva in the US.

Noorduyn was born in Holland of a Dutch father and English mother. He received technical training in Holland and Germany and learned to fly in England. After he emigrated to the US to work in the aviation sector, he moved to Montreal to establish the Noorduyn Aircraft Limited in 1933. Its first product was the Norseman, which first flew in 1935. Over 900 were produced over the next 25 years, with the great majority being built for the war effort as tough transport planes.

The Norseman saw service in the toughest environments in Canada and globally, including the Arctic and the Antarctic. It was also featured in the Hollywood movie: Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney in his first colour movie, a movie that was actively supported by the RCAF to promote the recruitment of more pilots to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, that was referred to in my previous posting.

When WWII ended, there was a ready-made supply of surplus military Norseman that was eagerly purchased for bush plane use in Canada and other countries, resulting in the Norseman being registered to fly in 68 countries. The Norseman on display at the Museum was built in 1943 and spent 21 years in active service with the RCAF:

This is a DC-3

As WWII was drawing to a close, Canada’s now massive aviation industry was facing an impasse. There would be no guarantees that the Canadian or other governments would continue to purchase new aircraft, and there was the prospect that many of the tens of thousands of aircraft that had been produced for the war effort would flood the market as war surplus aircraft. Perhaps the best example of this is the DC-3, the twin engine transport plane produced by Douglas Aircraft for the Allied war effort.

The DC-3 was first flown in 1935 and was the backbone of early civil passenger transport.

During WWII, a military transport version, the C-47, was built. Over 10,000 were built for the war effort, compared with the approximately 600 that had been built for civil aviation customers.

After the war, thousands of C-47’s were converted to civil passenger and freight use. The DC-3 and its derivatives opened modern long distance civil aviation and many flew into northern towns that had airports. Although last built in 1954, DC-3’s still operate today in the Canadian North, servicing larger towns like Yellowknife and Hay River. Hundreds are still in service globally.

The DC-3 on display at the Museum was built in 1942. It operated as an airliner in the US, then for the USAF, and after the war was the first DC-3 operated by Trans-Canadian Airlines. It finished its service as a corporate aircraft for Goodyear for its VIP’s. http://casmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-douglas-dc-3.php

This is the legendary DHC-2 Beaver, a pick-up truck with wings

While the ready supply of cheap war surplus aircraft was a boon to civil aviation post WWII, it was a threat to Canadian manufacturers, if they wished to stay in business. De Havilland Canada decided that it would build the ultimate bush plane. Unusual for the time, De Havilland Canada surveyed bush pilots to determine what characteristics and features they would want in a bush plane and then built an aircraft that would meet those needs. The product of this design effort was the legendary DHC-2 Beaver. It was reputed to be a “pick-up truck with wings”. It met all of the design criteria for a bush plane, and then some. For example, the cargo door was oddly-shaped so that a 45-gallon drum could be loaded either standing-up or rolled-in on its side. It could carry over 2,200 lbs (1,000 kg) of cargo (people and goods). It had excellent STOL characteristics, and was very pilot friendly. A pilot could even add oil to its engine while flying it through a filler spout in the cockpit. It was well-heated and designed to fly in the most difficult weather.

De Havilland Canada built over 1,600 Beavers at its facilities at Downsview in Toronto (just north of the 401 near Yorkdale Shopping Centre).

The Beaver was built from 1947 to 1967 and most are still in use, many operating in the most difficult corners of the world. Many Beavers were bought by militaries around the world. During the Korean War, the USAF used them extensively to transport senior staff, so they earned the nickname, the General’s Jeep. When Sir Edmund Hillary conducted an expedition to the South Pole in the mid 1950’s, that expedition was supported by a Beaver. Untold numbers of sick and injured have been air-medivacked by Beavers to get treatment. So legendary is the Beaver that it was even named as one of the 10 best Canadian engineering achievements of the century, along with the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railway and the St. Lawrence Seaway: http://www.eic-ici.ca/history/article12.html

Actor/pilot Harrison Ford became enamoured with the Beaver when he flew one while playing a bush pilot in the 1998 adventure movie: Six Days and Seven Nights. After learning to fly the Beaver for the movie, he found an old military Beaver that had bullet holes in it from its previous use by CIA in its “Air America” operations. Ford restored it to better-than-original condition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwq0U9ow45E
See Ford’s comments in this other YouTube video of his love of flying and the Beaver. He is flying his own restored Beaver in the video, purportedly his favourite plane, and he discusses its use in the movie at: 6:20 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsgiEubacT0
Ford claims that he flies his Beaver more than any of his other aircraft: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrison_Ford

The Beaver on display at the Museum is depicted in its natural setting, a Beaver on floats moored to a dock in the North delivering supplies. This particular Beaver is especially noteworthy as it was the first Beaver that was ever built, the prototype: http://casmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-de-havilland-beaver.php
It was used as a bush plane in the Canadian West for 32 years before the Museum obtained it from Norcanair. It was then restored through generous grants from Molson and De Havilland Canada.

This is a De Havilland Otter

Not content with having built the best bush plane, De Havilland Canada then designed and manufactured, in 1951, a larger version of the Beaver, first nick-named the King Beaver until De Havilland Canada finally called it the DHC-3 Otter. The Otter could carry roughly twice the payload of the Beaver. It too was very successful, although not as successful as the Beaver. In total, 466 were built between 1951 and 1967.

The Otter on display at the Reserve Hanger at the Museum was built in 1960 and operated by the RCAF in a search and rescue role until it was taken out of service and donated to the Museum in 1983.

The hull of Otter lived another life when it was used by De Havilland Canada for a new twin-turboprop aircraft, the DHC-6 Twin Otter. The Twin Otter is another legendary aircraft. It was first built in 1966, and over 900 have been built by De Havilland Canada until 1988.

The Twin Otter has exceptional STOL characteristics for a twin turboprop aircraft and is often fitted with floats, skis or bush wheels and is operated all over the world in the most difficult settings, including short runways on small islands, mountain airports, and on rivers, lakes, deserts, beaches, etc. It is typically the support plane of choice for Antarctic operations. Unlike the Beaver and the Otter, the Twin Otter has a pressurized cabin so it is comfortable enough to be used as a company plane that may have to travel to difficult locations. For passenger use, it has room for 2 pilots and up to 18 passengers, compared with 1 pilot and 7 passengers for the Beaver and 1 pilot and up to 14 passengers for the Otter.

The Twin Otter on display at the reserve hanger of the Museum is the original prototype of the Twin Otter built in 1964. It was donated to the Museum by De Havilland Canada in 1981

In 2006, Viking Air of Victoria, BC, obtained the designs, forms and type approvals for all De Havilland Canada bush planes, including the Beaver, the Otter and the Twin Otter, which includes the rights allowing Viking to completely overhaul or manufacture new models. Viking will also convert Beavers and Otters to turboprop engines.


This is the front of the DHC-2 Beaver

Both the Beaver and the Otter use Pratt & Whitney WASP Radial piston engines with outputs of 450 hp and 600 hp, respectively. These were readily available following WWII as war surplus items. They were sturdy and cheap but Pratt & Whitney stopped producing them in the 1950’s. While parts are still available, they are becoming more expensive and fewer aircraft maintenance engineers know how to repair them, given that more easily-maintained turboprops have taken over the commercial propeller aircraft market.

The importance of tough, resilient aircraft to Canada’s North cannot be over-stated. Noorduyn paved the way with its innovative and rugged Norseman and then De Havilland Canada turned it into a Canadian art form with its DHC-2Beaver; DHC-3 Otter and DHC-6 Twin Otter models. All are still in operation decades after they first took to the air. With Viking Air’s new support, we can expect De Havilland Canada’s bush aircraft to continue their important missions for the foreseeable future.

Rose Ann MacGillivray

Rose Ann MacGillivray

World Heritage Traveller at BoomerVoice.ca
I love visiting World Heritage Sites, celebrating the world’s most fascinating places and cultures, and most of all, having fun on a trip. Join me on the road to fun and fascinating places. Thanks for reading – and remember to add your e-mail below for updates!
Rose Ann MacGillivray