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Bush flying

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Two men standing facing camera under the wing of a red float plane. Some parcels of cargo are visible in the hatch, and a large tracked snow machine is parked on the left.
Noorduyn Norseman float plane in Alaska, 1950

Bush flying refers to aircraft operations carried out in the bush. Bush flying involves operations in rough terrain where there are often no prepared landing strips or runways, frequently necessitating that bush planes be equipped with abnormally large tires, floats, skis or any other equipment necessary for unpaved runway operation. It is the only viable way of delivering people and supplies into more difficult to reach, remote locations.


This term bush has been used since the 19th century to describe remote wilderness area beyond clearings and settlements hence bush flying denotes flight operations carried out in such remote regions.[1] In Australia, in particular, bush refers to areas that might be called forest or wilderness in other countries.


Preparations for take off in the Namib Desert (2018)
Refuelling an aircraft in the field at Simplon, Namibia (2018)

Bush flying is the primary and sometimes the only method of access across Northern Canada,[2] Western Canada, Alaska,[3] the Australian Outback[2] and many other parts of the world.


In Canada, the first real use of bush flying was for exploration and development,[4] while in Alaska, transportation was the main purpose.[4] Later, bush flying became important during rescue operations. Bush pilots are needed in rescue operations and are important for many different reasons.


After the 1918 Armistice with Germany, Ellwood Wilson, a Canadian forester employed by the Laurentide Company in Quebec, realized that airplanes could be used to spot forest fires and to map forested areas.[5] In early 1919, after Wilson discovered that the U.S. Navy was giving Canada several war-surplus Curtiss HS-2L flying boats, he asked to borrow two.[5] He then hired Captain Stuart Graham to fly the planes.[5] Graham and his engineer, Walter Kahre, then flew the first HS-2L to Lac-à-la-Tortue on 4 June 1919, arriving on 8 June 1919.[6] The flight had covered 645 miles, the longest cross-country flight executed in Canada at the time.[6] He then delivered the other HS-2L to Lac-à-la-Tortue.[6]

Equipped with the aircraft, the first bush flights occurred when fire patrol and aerial photography began in the summer of 1919 in the St. Maurice River valley.[6] Graham and Kahre continued this service for two more seasons,[6] but it became so expensive that the Laurentide Company underwrote the operation.[6] In response, it was split into a separate company called Laurentide Air Services Ltd. with Wilson as president[citation needed] and former Royal Naval Air Service instructor and barnstormer William Roy Maxwell as vice president.[6] These were the first bush flights in Eastern Canada.[citation needed]

In Western Canada, after Wilfrid May was discharged from the Royal Naval Air Service and moved to Edmonton, a Montreal businessman offered the city of Edmonton a Curtiss JN-4 after he found success in the city's real estate.[7] Mayor Joe Clarke and city council accepted the gift, prompting May to ask to rent the plane.[7] City council and May agreed to a price of CA$25.[7] May and his brother Court May completed the necessary paperwork and raised the required capital to form May Airplanes Ltd. George Gorman, a pilot, and Peter Derbyshire, a mechanic, joined the first commercial bush operations in Canada.[7]

May then asked the publisher of the Edmonton Journal to fly copies of the paper to Wetaskiwin,[8] 70 kilometres (43 mi) south of Edmonton. He accepted and the next day, Gorman and Derbyshire flew the newspapers along with 2 sacks of advertising circulars, following the rail line to the city, announcing the service to communities along the way.[8]

Bush flying in Canada is commemorated by the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario as well as two National Film Board of Canada documentary films, Bush Pilot: Reflections on a Canadian Myth (1980)[9] and Bush Pilot - Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2000).[10]


Alaska's first bush pilot was Carl Ben Eielson, a North Dakota farm boy of Scandinavian descent who flew during World War I.[4] After the war, he moved to Alaska as a mathematics and science teacher in Fairbanks.[4] However, he soon persuaded several citizens to help him acquire a Curtiss JN-4, flying passengers to nearby settlements.[4] He then asked the postal operator for an airmail contract. The post office accepted the proposal and in 1924, Eielson received a de Havilland 4 that would be used to make eight mail runs to McGrath, 280 miles (450 km) away,[4] before his contract was terminated after the third accident.[11]

Noel Wien made the first successful bush flight to Livengood, Alaska on 19 Aug. 1924. This flight demonstrated that the trip in support of mining operations could be made in under an hour, when the dog sled trail would take several days in winter. Wien made 34 flights that first summer in support of the approximately 250 men located at the camp, providing supplies and services.[11]: 104–107 [12]

A woman by the name of Celia M. Hunter became one of the first to serve as a flight attendant for flights to both Nome, and Kotzebue in the year 1947. These were the first tourist trips to be accomplished by flying in the Alaskan bush.[13]

Aircraft used[edit]

Bush flying involves operations in rough terrain, necessitating bush planes to be equipped with tundra tires, floats, or skis.[2] A bush plane should have good short take-off and landing capabilities. A typical bush plane will usually have high mounted wings on top of its fuselage to ensure adequate ground clearance from obstacles.[14] They will normally have conventional "tail-dragger" landing gear as they offer lower drag and weight than tricycle landing gear, and is more suited to rough surfaces.[14] The greater upward angle of the taildragger configuration gives the propeller more ground clearance allowing it to avoid striking the ground, which would cause damage. Most types can be equipped with wheels, skis or floats, to operate from dry ground, snow, ice and protected waterways. Some commonly seen bushplanes include:

  • The Grumman G-21 Goose amphibian, whose combination of both a flying boat hull and wheeled undercarriage endowed it with considerable versatility.[15]
  • The De Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter (also from Canada) was widely used throughout the Canadian and Alaskan bush. The aircraft which began its service in 1952 was supplemented by a later twin engine version, the Twin Otter that remains in widespread service.[15]
  • The Piper PA-18 Super Cub is a two-seat airplane developed in 1949 and is fitted with a variety of engines of different sizes. The aircraft is capable of carrying a single passenger.
  • The Quest Kodiak is a high-wing, unpressurized, single-engined turboprop with fixed tricycle landing gear. Developed in 1999, passenger seats are track-mounted and removable, it has access doors for the pilots and the aft clamshell door, with automatic steps, allows cargo loading or eight passengers boarding. and is suitable for STOL operations from unimproved airfields.

See also[edit]

Notable bush pilots[edit]

Related articles[edit]



  1. ^ "Bush Flying". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation of Canada. Retrieved 4 August 2008.
  2. ^ a b c "Bush Flying". US Centennial of Flight Commission. Archived from the original on 24 July 2008. Retrieved 14 July 2008.
  3. ^ "Alaska". World Atlas. Retrieved 14 July 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Time-Life editors 1983, p. 34
  5. ^ a b c Time-Life editors 1983, p. 20
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Time-Life editors 1983, p. 21
  7. ^ a b c d Foster 1983, p. 22
  8. ^ a b Foster 1983, p. 23
  9. ^ Ohayon, Albert (23 September 2011). "Bush Pilot: Canada's History Comes Alive". NFB.ca Blog. Montreal: National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  10. ^ Boulianne, Bruno (director) (2000). "Bush Pilot - Into the Wild Blue Yonder" (English-subtitled version). Documentary film. National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 26 September 2012.
  11. ^ a b Harkey, Ira (1991). Pioneer Bush Pilot. Bantam Books. p. 77. ISBN 0553289195.
  12. ^ Rearden, Jim (2009). Alaska's First Bush Pilots, 1923-30. Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc. p. 30. ISBN 9781575101477.
  13. ^ "Celia Hunter, 1919-2001 | Alaska Conservation Foundation". Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  14. ^ a b "Best bush planes: Flying Cessna, Piper, Beech, DeHavilland, airplanes & aircraft". Bush-planes.com. Archived from the original on 1 November 2016. Retrieved 14 July 2008.
  15. ^ a b c d "Alaska Bush Aircraft | Alaska Flying - Alaska Outdoors Supersite". www.alaskaoutdoorssupersite.com. Retrieved 12 November 2020.


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