The History of Bush Flying

Remember pilots pictured with silk scarves fluttering in the wind, flying their vintage airplanes on adventures to dangerous corners of the world, saving people? “Busy flying” might be legendary in its illustration, but it is very much alive and true in its representation.

One of the last visages of pre-modern aviation, bush flyers are a precious commodity in Canada, Australia, Alaska and the jungles of South America and Africa, providing isolated communities with supplies of food and medicine, and communication with the outside world. Not only do their planes have to be adaptable to the tough and changing terrains and seasons in each country through periodic mechanical changes, bush pilots have to brave the same harsh elements, lack of work safety quotient and uncertain financial rewards.

The challenging life of a bush pilot was perhaps best summed up by C.H. “Punch” Dickins, a veteran Canadian bush pilot, as, “a pilot and mechanic, who is 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.”

Bush flying became a popular post-war option for the bravest and thrill-seeking veteran American and Canadian military pilots as they sought an income from their technical abilities. However, only those who could handle and maintain their aircrafts would become fixtures on the bush flying circuit, despite the relatively low barrier to entry in obtaining low cost aircrafts for use like the Curtiss JN-4 Jennys and HS-2L flying boats. Imagine a situation where a bush pilot were to be stranded in uninhabited regions such as the Artic tundra or empty desert with its relentless heat. Plane repair abilities would be of life-saving importance and many modern bush flights include flight engineers.

In October 1920, a fur buyer requested the Canadian Aircraft in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to fly him home to The Pas, in one of the first documented paid bush flight. The journey included harrowing flights over swirling lakes, thick jungle bushes and deep swamps and bogs, before becoming the first plane to touch ground on the final destination.

This opened up the possibilities of exploring uncharted global territories such as the Artic regions. It also presented greater markets for bush pilots, including oil exploration in the Artic Circle, mine claims, forest fire patrols, timberland and waterway aerial mapping. Bush flying extended the reach of airmail service to isolated regions and provided medical transport for the same workers and hunters.

These developments called for better and more reliable aircrafts for bush flying, in order to push the commercial viability of bush flying. The result was the 1926 creation from the Atlantic Aircraft Corporation, of a markedly improved and safer single-seat high-cabin monoplane known as the German Fokker Universal. The steady plane with strong wooden wings and a tough steel tube fuselage consisted of a revolutionary shock absorber that allowed landing on uneven terrains and simultaneous floating or skiing capabilities. On a plane driven by the Pratt & Whitney radial engine, a bush pilot would fly in an open cockpit with passengers or cargo stored in cabins built under the aircraft’s wings.

From 1926 to 1931, over half of the 44 Fokker Universals made in the U.S. were used by bush pilots, preceding wide-spread usage by U.S., Canadian and foreign airlines.

November 12, 1935, witnessed the first flight of the reliable Noorduyn Norseman from Canada, created specifically for bush flying. The aircraft facilitated long-distance flights and delivery of fuel to isolated regions with cargo room designed to accommodate an industry standard 45-gallon fuel drum and up to ten passengers. Convenience was also a key feature with pilots having ease of cockpit entry and exit without having to climb over cargo. To date, many of the 900 manufactured Noorduyn Norseman are still being flown.

Today, using aircrafts such as the Beech Staggerwings and Bonanzas and even helicopters, bush flying now includes flying big game hunters, nature photographers and archaeologists to exotic locations, on top of the now common flights to remote settlements for supply deliveries. The sturdy and versatile de Havilland Beaver is a huge favorite of bush pilots, with its adaptability in skis, floats and wheels usage.

The dangers that bush pilots brave have made them a no-no for insurance companies. However, it is the same dangers that so attract bush pilots to take up the challenge of venturing into the unknown. In bush flying, what you do not know may kill you, but what you may find certainly enriches and brings excitement to your life.

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