History of Bush Flying

World War I introduces Canadians to the Sky


With the advent of war in 1914, there were few registered pilots in Canada, and even fewer aircraft. Flying was a novelty of the well to do, and certainly, the daring. But over the next five years, young Canadian men would come to comprise almost one-third of the British air services. For many, it was an opportunity to escape the horrors of the trenches - the mud, cold, rats, lice and the ever ominous threat of a horrible death. It was a chance to take to the pristine blue skies, with the wind in your face and a silk scarf round your neck trailing in the breeze.


But there is little glamour in warfare of any kind. And many paid an exacting price. While the airplane kept them out of the trenches, it posed its own threats. There were no parachutes. A pilot was strapped into a flimsy wood-framed, fabric-covered aircraft that was held together with bolts and wire and sealed with layers of flammable dope and paint.


In many cases, the fuel tank was directly beneath the seat. Should their worst fear be realized - fire - a pilot had few choices. He could attempt to ride the burning craft to the ground and hope he survived the ultimate crash. He could escape a fiery death by jumping from the aircraft but without a parachute, the end was not in doubt. Or, he could take out his service revolver and shoot himself. None of the options afforded much hope. It is little wonder that the average lifespan of a WWI fighter pilot was 17 flying hours.


But many did survive and with the signing of the Armistice in 1918, they headed home to Canada. It has been said, mainly by air engineers that pilots didn't want to work for a living, they just wanted to fly. The end of the war afforded many a continuing opportunity. Surplus training aircraft were plentiful and cheap. The government Curtiss H-Boat at Sault Ste. Marie in 1925felt that the war to end all wars had been too costly to contemplate the expense of employing idle pilots and their ground crews. Politicians were convinced that war was a thing of the past. There would be no need for an air force. Below is a photo of the first aircraft of the Ontario Provincial Air Service, a Curtiss H-Boat at Sault Ste. Marie, 1925.


For $1,200 anybody could pick up a surplus Curtiss JN-4 Canuck and take to the skies. But civilian airfields were few and far between, and most pilots knew little about maintaining the aircraft. Accidents were commonplace, and soon, every small airfield had its boneyard of wrecked and rusting aircraft. It was but a few years to the end of the postwar aviation boom in North America.


After the War


It wasn't until January of 1920 that Canada's first private pilot's licence was issued, the first air engineer's certificate signed, and the first commercial aircraft was registered. At the same time, the goverment granted provisional approval to establish a Canadian air force.


Regimented flying of course wasn't for everybody. The war-torn, embattled skies of Europe had unwittingly give birth to a new era in Canadian history - the era of bush flying. Veterans of aerial combat, and others, were to become the pioneers - the bush pilots.


Nobody can say precisely who the first bush pilot was or when the first bush flight took place, and does it really matter? But we do know that the first purely commercial flight into the northland took place in October 1920 at Winnipeg, The first purely commercial flight into the northland took place in October 1920 at Winnipeg, Manitoba.when a fur buyer walked into Canadian Aircraft's downtown office and asked to be flown home to The Pas. That was hundreds of miles to the north over bush, lakes and muskeg. It had never been done, especially in a wheeled aircraft. But it was done and it was a history-making flight. By 1921, Imperial Oil aircraft were exploring the Northwest Territories and reached to within 100 miles of the Arctic Circle.


But of more importance to Northern Ontario is what was taking place in Quebec and Labrador a year earlier. Canada's first aerial survey was completed in Labrador in the summer of 1919 when 15,000 aerial photographs were taken of the timberlands leased by the Southern Labrador Pulp and Lumber Co. Inc., of Boston, Massachusetts.


Around the same time, one of the most significant of all early Canadian aircraft operations was taking place in the St. Maurice River Valley, of Quebec. The St. Maurice Forest Protective Association had arranged the loan of two Curtiss HS-2L Flying Boats from the Canadian government. In June they were flown from Halifax to the operations base at Lac a la Tortue, near Trois Rivieres. The age of bush flying in Canada was imminent. Over the next three summers, these aircraft were employed in transporting personnel, patrolling for forest fires, sketching of timber limits and aerial photography. And one was even used in the staking of a mining claim - a Canadian first.


It wouldn't be long before the aircraft would be reaching into the hinterlands of Ontario. On August 17, 1920, Roy Maxwell, a former Royal Air Force captain, accompanied by engineer Geordie Doan made the first flight into James Bay. They flew from Remi Lake, near Kapuskasing, into Moose Factory in an H-Boat. Only 11 days later, this same crew completed the first ambulance flight in northern Canada, flying a gentleman from Moose Factory to Remi Lake. In September, Maxwell completed the first volume carriage of air mail in the country, when he carried 100 lbs. of mail into Moose Factory aboard the H-Boat.


The year 1922 is especially memorable for Ontarians. Maxwell and Herve St. Martin made the first winter flight to James Bay, flying an Avro 504K in February. That summer, the Ontario government hired the men and aircraft of Laurentide Air Services, which had been formed out of the original air service of the St. Maurice Forest Protective Association.


The large government contract provided flying work in connection with detailed mapping showing lakes, waterways and forest types. In 1923, Laurentide was awarded all flying required by the provincial government, not only for continued mapping but for transportation of firefighting personnel, and for forestry patrol. They surveyed 20,000 square miles of country as far west as Lake of the Woods, and north as far as James Bay. Twelve aircraft were used. And over that season, 400 forest fires were spotted and reported.


Flying for thrills was rapidly giving way to flying for profits. By 1924, the numbers of licenced pilots, registered aircraft and flying companies was dwindling. Pilots dropped from 139 to 21, aircraft from 60 of all types to only 32. In 1921, no fewer than 23 private firms had been engaged in flying.


Three years later, there were only eight left. But in 1924, with only half the aircraft flying, freight carried was at more than 77,000 lbs., up from 14,600 lbs. in 1921. And flying hours almost doubled to 4,389. Part of the reason was the fact the Canadian Air Force discontinued any flying operations which could be carried on by private companies. But a major change in the Ontario aviation scene was the creation of the Ontario Provincial Air Service. The Ontario Government was convinced of the wisdom of utilizing aircraft to the point it felt it would be advantageous to own and operate its own aviation service.


The new government flying service attracted many of the best pilots and engineers from Laurentide, including Roy Maxwell, who would become the first director.


Ontario Provincial Air Service


If any single enterprise, in the years immediately following the war, could be called the cradle of bush flying, that title would perhaps have to go to the Ontario Provincial Air Service. It was through their ranks, often as fledgling pilots, that passed a high-spirited group of young men who went on to become legends in the annals of Canadian aviation.


The primary base of the OPAS was established at Sault Ste. Marie, where the government constructed a large riverfront maintenance hangar over the winter of 1924. East and west bases were built at Sudbury and Sioux Lookout. Eventually, the OPAS would establish bases all across Northern Ontario. Their first fleet consisted of 13 surplus U.S. Navy HS-2L Flying Boats.


Losing lucrative contracts and key personnel spelled the beginning of the end for Laurentide. In an effort to stay alive, the Laurentide company established a scheduled air service into the Quebec goldfields between Angliers, Lake Fortune and Rouyn. Later, the main operating base was transferred from Angliers to Haileybury, as the facilities were better. It was the first scheduled air service in Canada.


While the service was welcomed by the mining and prospecting companies, it wasn't paying the bills. That fall Laurentide also began regular, scheduled air mail service between Haileybury, Angliers and Rouyn. It was another Canadian first. A less distinctive first was the fact that in November, Canada's first aerial stowaway was discovered on a flight between Rouyn and Angliers. Laurentide purchased two aircraft that would allow them to carry on scheduled winter flying between Larder Lake and Rouyn. One proved to be less than airworthy and the second was lost in a takeoff accident at Larder Lake on January 21, 1925. The activities of the Laurentide company terminated that year. But their positive impact on Canadian civil aviation would be far reaching for years to come.


The discovery of gold by Lorne and Ray Howey at Red Lake in the summer of 1925, provided the catalyst needed to revive Canada's fledgling aviation services industry. Anxious to get work underway, they prevailed upon the aircraft and pilots of the OPAS to fly in all the men, supplies and equipment they would need, prior to winter freeze up.


Opportunity attracts opportunists. And with the goldrush at Red Lake, there was another rush forming - the rush to provided needed aviation services. J.V. Elliott, of Hamilton formed an air service company purchasing two JN-4 Canucks and shipping them by rail to Sioux Lookout, where they were assembled and flown to Hudson, Ontario. Red Lake's first air service commenced in March 1926. Meanwhile, Maxwell interested some backers into financing Patricia Airways and Exploration Ltd. Ironically, some of his own aircrews from the OPAS would leave to become the first employees of the new flying venture, which commenced in April. Foremost was pilot Harold 'Doc' Oaks.


Northern Air Service Ltd.


Back in northeastern Ontario, the demise of Laurentide spelled the birth of Northern Air Service Ltd., which kept up the supply of the Quebec goldfields. Its inaugural flight was May 18, 1925 from Haileybury to Rouyn.


Fortunately for aviation in Canada, a Winnipeg businessman saw the merits and potential of aircraft to serve the remote northland. James Richardson formed Western Canada Airways with its base of operations at Hudson, Ontario. Doc Oaks was the manager. One day, Richardson would be hailed as the father of Canadian aviation.


Up to this point, the development of new aircraft had been somewhat stagnant in North America. Bush flying operations had made do with surplus WWI aircraft like the lumbering, unreliable H-Boats, Canuck trainers, Avro 504Ks, and others. Suitable, rugged bush aircraft simply weren't on the design boards. Similarly, the development of a suitable engine was a holdback.


Western Canada Airways


With the formation of Western Canada Airways came the introduction of a new airplane, the Fokker Universal, complete with newly developed radial, air-cooled engines. The aircraft had been designed in Germany and built under licence in the United States. The engine was designed and built by Pratt and Whitney in the USA. This engine design would be the mainstay of all power plants until the introduction of the turbo props and jets in the 1950s. The high-wing cabin monoplane design became the industry standard until 1932, when low-wing aircraft with retractable undercarriages were introduced. Another innovative development was the introduction of the variable pitch propellor in 1927 by Canadian W.R. Turnbull.


As new Fokkers proved their worth almost immediately. A New York businessman needed financial papers signed by a prospector in the goldfields at Narrow River, Ontario. A telegram was sent from New York to Doc Oaks at Hudson. He flew to Narrow River and snowshoed to the prospector's cabin. They both hiked back to the airplane, flew to Sioux Lookout and had the papers signed at a local bank. What once would have taken three weeks was done in less than half a day.


The first major undertaking of its kind in northern Canada was the supply of men, machinery and materials to the west coast of Hudson Bay at a place called Fort Churchill. The airlift had to be done in the winter to permit drilling while the ice was in the harbour. The elements would prove a challenge for both man and machine but WCA was up to the task, which included the transportation of 800 lbs. of dynamite. In a government report following the completion of the largest Canadian airlift ever, the report indicated, The decision during 1927 as to the selection of Fort Churchill as the ocean terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway was made possible by these flights. There has been no more brilliant operation in the history of commercial flying.


Shortly afterwards, the company received another large contract to move men and equipment into a new mining development north of Senneterre, Quebec. The north was opening up 12 months of the year.


In the meantime, another associated industry was developing - a Canadian aviation industry. While truly worthwhile aircraft, the Fokkers weren't designed for the bush. Fokker-designed skis simply didn't hold up to the rough landings on frozen lakes. The Elliott Brothers, of Sioux Lookout, Ontario designed and built replacement skis that would be utilized on northern bush planes for many years to come. The design was so good, that Admiral Byrd was to use Elliott Brothers skis on aircraft for his three expeditions into the Antarctic. Between Oaks and his chief engineer Al Cheesman, they designed an all-weather canvas-covered nose hangar, complete with a small stove for servicing aircraft engines outdoors.


At Montreal, the Vickers company had built and tested the first commercial aircraft to be built for a civil company - the Vedette. They would go on to design and build many other types.


Shortly after, other companies were assembling aircraft built elsewhere, or manufacturing aircraft under licence. De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd., began operations in a small plant near Toronto in 1928, assembling 62 small, two-seater Gypsy Moths. By the end of 1929, they had enlarged the facility and produced 192 Moths of their own manufacture.


The Reid Aircraft Co., was established at Montreal in 1928. In 1929, the Fairchild Co., built a large aircraft manufacturing plant, also at Montreal. The number of aircraft engine plants in Canada increased to four.


By the end of the 1920s flying in the southern bush had become fairly commonplace. Aviation companies looked to the far north, well into the Arctic Circle. By establishing fuel caches at distant points and operating on floats in summer, and skis after freeze up, the utter isolation of the northland had become a thing of the past.


So far, this early aviation history traces the exploits of half of the pioneer air crews - the pilots. But no tale of the early days of bush flying would be complete without fitting tribute to the other half - the mechanics or air engineers.


Often unreliable aircraft left the crew sitting on a remote lake miles from anywhere, and of course, without comunications. Either the aircraft was made flyable or it was a long hike out of the bush to get help. Sometimes outside assistance was required. It might even mean changing an engine on the spot. Take your pick, in summer the blackflies would chew you apart, and in winter, the sub-zero temperatures made work very difficult. Simply starting an engine in winter meant a certain procedure had to be followed. At the end of the day, the oil had to drained from the engine and carried to the nearest shelter. It had to be kept warm overnight, if that was possible. In the morning, it was poured back into the engine. If it was too thick, it had to be heated first while another fire pot was placed under the engine to thaw it out. When the engine failed to start, the process was repeated. And with the days being so short, this was usually done in the early morning darkness to permit the maximum amount of daylight flying.


The early aircraft had few comforts. Even when winter flying commenced, pilots and engineers often sat exposed in open-cockpit planes. Imagine flying at 35 below zero. The wind chill factor would be horrendous.


Creation of Canadian Airways


In November of 1930, a new Canadian aviation company was formed - Canadian Airways. It was formed by uniting Western Canada Airways with the Aviation Corporation of Canada, and adding the new flying interests of both the CPR and the government-owned CNR. James Richardson was its first president and held controlling shares in the company. By the end of the year, that one company controlled almost all air transport business in Canada.


The continuing development of aircraft meant the introduction of CF-ARM, a German-made Junkers JU52 in November of 1931. This machine remained the largest civil aircraft in the country until 1938. And it was the largest single-engined aircraft in Canada for years after that. It is worthy of mention, since it became a common sight all across the country and performed some amazing feats of freight.


It aptly earned the nickname, The Flying Boxcar. No other single aircraft could handle the large, heavy freight items carried by the Junkers. It is little wonder it would be freighting in the Yukon one day, at Sioux Lookout, Ontario the next day, and somewhere in Quebec shortly after that. Ironically, in 1940, this German-built aircraft played a hand in the war effort against the Nazis. New deposits of aluminum had to be exploited and processed. This required new hydro dams being built. CF-ARM was a leader in moving 3,000 tons of freight to a dam construction site in northern Quebec between August 1940 and October 1941.


The freight included bulldozers, tractors, a complete sawmill, cement, dynamite, gasoline, fuel oil, a 1600 lb, 20 foot boat, six horses, four oxen and a cow to supply fresh milk to the camp.


But Canada was catching up in aircraft designed for the bush. A prominent machine was the Fairchild Super 71, followed by the Fairchild 82. The Super 71 was the first aircraft designed in Canada for bush operations but since it retained the original U.S. Fairchild 71 wing, it wasn't completely Canadian.


The Noorduyn Norseman, on the other hand was completely designed and built in Canada at the Noorduyn plant in Montreal. It was fast, roomy, comfortable and economical. It was capable of operating on wheels, skis or floats and carried 10 people. A tribute to its endurance is the fact so many are still flying today. The prototype was flown in November 1935.


It was just about a year before that a couple of brothers in Ontario took an interest in aviation, an interest that still carries a legacy in Northern Ontario. Jack and Chuck Austin had something of a dream when they entered the aviation business in Toronto in March 1934, as Capreol and Austin Air Services. Not too long after, this would change to Austin Airways. Linking northern communities from Sudbury to Hudson Bay was a large part of that dream.


Their first two aircraft were Waco cabin biplanes, CF-AVL and CF-AVN. One of the aircraft arrived with a new feature - a removable panel on the port side behind the cabin facilitated the loading of a stretcher. This aircraft became Canada's first commercial air ambulance. In the coming years it would make numerous trips with ill and injured northern passengers to hospitals in Sudbury and Toronto.


Early on, mining personnel were the main clients of the new air service. Lake Ramsay at Sudbury would become their primary base in 1935 and would remain so for 20 years. The 1936 season featured plenty of large forest fires in northeastern Ontario. Austins, like several other air service operations, spent considerable time under contract to the Department of Lands and Forests.


Austins soon established bases at Chapleau, Gogama and Biscotasing, in addition to a summer base at Temagami. Early names that would become aviation legends in Northern Ontario included Phil Sauve, Jim Bell, Rusty Blakey, Jimmy Cairns, Frank Fisher, Frank Russell and Jeff Wyborn.


In 1937, Jack Austin was paying his pilots about $200 a month and a dollar a flying hour. He often chuckled that they had the slowest planes in the sky. When he changed the bonus system to so much a mile, the planes suddenly seemed to start moving a lot faster.


But regardless of how fast they moved, there was little doubt the Austin aircraft were on the move all over Northern Ontario and beyond. Life in remote native communities like Fort Hope, Ogoki Post and Osnaburgh House took on a new dimension with the arrival of the Austin airplanes. They weren't the first in, but they lasted, and they paid for fish in cash. Fish hauling became a lucrative business. The aircraft also meant a dependable supply-line for the communities.


By 1941, they were opening bases in South Porcupine and Nakina. Regular flights into James Bay were soon to follow. It wouldn't be long before the sight of Austin Airways aircraft became a regular feature on both sides of Hudson Bay.


In the ensuing years, Austins would utilize a number of different types of aircraft, each capable of filling a variety of needs. And there was no shortage of variety in the needs that had to be filled.