Adventures of a Canadian bush pilot

I arrive in Fort William-Port Arthur by train in mid-May. Pop has paved the way and I obtain an interview with Orville Wieben, owner of Superior Airways. The company is well known as a major charter air service in Northwestern Ontario. The headquarters base in Fort William includes a seaplane facility on the Kamanistiquia River and operations at Sioux Lookout and Armstrong. The company had several dozen aircraft including Norseman Vs, a Bellanca Skyrocket, a Douglas DC-3 and a number of Cessna 180s. They are also an official Cessna Aircraft sales and service facility for Northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba.

Orville Wieben is an excellent pilot and savvy aircraft owner-operator with a fleet of high-performance bush planes. These aircraft had to be relatively low maintenance, easy to fly, and carry a diverse cargo of passengers or freight. Two aircraft are the workhorses of the Superior Airways fleet. The first is the Noorduyn Norseman, almost a flying truck. With a 450hp Pratt and Whitney radial engine, it can cruise at 120 mph on floats with a 2,700- pound payload. The other is the fairly-new Cessna 180 on floats. It has a 230hp Continental engine, consumes 11 gallons of gas per hour with an 800-pound payload, and competes nicely with the de Havilland Beaver, which is a bit slower than a Cessna 180 and consumes twice as much gas.

Mr. Wieben reviews my logbook, asks questions about my southern Ontario flying experience and in particular, my float endorsement for pontoons I earned at Orillia Air Services. He apparently has a high regard for Orillia’s Harry Stirk and his pilot training.

He also says my 200 hours with a commercial pilot license represent a modest experience but hires me and sends me off to the Sioux Lookout base.

180 on floats
Superior Airways operated a thriving seaplane business in Northwestern Ontario for many years.

There I would be under the guidance of chief pilot and manager Ranny McDonald. On May 25, 1957, McDonald checks me out on Cessna 180, CF-HZY, on floats. We fly to several nearby lakes where I perform a float plane landing, a pilot’s most difficult maneuver on water. They are glassy water landings and docking in an adverse crosswind—difficult, as the aircraft wants to weather cock into the wind. Being on the controls requires aileron, water rudder, and power manipulation. Ranny says I did well. Before he assigns me to my own aircraft, I am scheduled for familiarization and navigation of our extensive Northwestern Ontario charter air service territory as a co-pilot.

For the next six weeks I fly co-pilot for Captain Gord Norell in the Norseman V. I also co-pilot a Bellanca Skyrocket, similar to a Norseman, with Captain Alex Maxwell. Flying with these senior pilots, I learn a lot. Our jobs are very diverse and include flying prospectors to find mineral ore. We augment the Ontario Provincial Air Service and fly people requiring Sioux Lookout Hospital medical help. The company has four or five hunting and fishing camps throughout our territory. Flying fishing and hunting parties with an Indian guide for a week’s fun in the bush is big business.

There have been various books written about bush pilots. We are great storytellers about our many escapades, but a lot of what has been published does not get to the crux of what makes a bush pilot. So here is my take. When I visited Orval in his Thunder Bay office in the mid-70s, we reminisced about my experiences with his company in the 50s. I was proud when he said, “George, you are one of the last real bush pilots.” So, this is my definition:

A bush pilot should be categorized as an adventurous, resourceful Grade A pilot-cum-mechanic/technician. He or she should have the instincts of an explorer to fly and navigate over Canada’s vast geography of forests and lakes above the 49th and 50th parallels north of Lake Superior and James Bay. By comparison, most of southern Ontario straddles the 44th parallel.

“Be Prepared” as the Scouts say, often seven days per week. Pushing the limits responsibly to get the best power and fuel efficiency to reach the destination. Bush sense includes how to fend for yourself when downed by weather in a remote area. A fishing rod, 410 shotgun, Arctic sleeping bag and camping on the shore under the wing while waiting for weather to clear are a part of the job. So is fuelling the aircraft by oneself from a cached 45-gallon drum of gas with a wobble pump and chamois in a funnel.

Bush pilots need to have the courage to face hardships and danger. Bush pilots flew aircraft at the time with basic flight instruments: an airspeed indicator, turn and bank and sometimes an artificial horizon, if it worked. Navigation equipment was a magnetic compass and directional gyro. Reading and interpreting the VFR nav charts over wide swaths of barren terrain is vital. In some aircraft, we were lucky to have a UHF radio to communicate with our base. These signals were often erratic and dependent on us trailing 200-foot antenna.

An essential ingredient of being a good bush pilot is having strong self-discipline and in its modern sense flying and working with situational awareness. Today, pilots have the luxury of advanced high-tech satellite, GPS, transponder, T-Cast, and glass cockpit instrument panels to aid their flying.

In late July 1957, I was assigned my own airplane, Cessna 180 CF-JEV. Flying engineers and equipment to the headwaters of the Great Divide along the 51st parallel was one of my jobs. The streams and rivers flowing from this terrain’s high point descend north into Hudson Bay. A series of dams was devised to divert the water southward to Lac Seul and Lake Joseph’s hydro projects. By mid-August, I had done this trip many times. One day I took an engineer who had not flown with me before and he asked if he could follow our journey by reading my map that was on top of the instrument panel. After a while he remarked, “you are going straight to our destination.”

I said I hope so and why do you ask. He said, “I was recently flying with one of your other pilots and he got lost. We had to land on a lake and ask an Indian in his canoe where we were.” I recalled the pilot he referred to. He would go out on a two-hour trip and come back four hours later. He was getting lost. Apparently, the Indian took the chart, turned it over several folds and stabbed his finger at the correct location which was about 50 miles away from the intended route. Quite laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

Lac Seul
Ontario is dotted with over 250,000 lakes—perfect for seaplanes.

Our contract with the Federal Government Department of Entomology biologist meant that once every several weeks, one of us would fly the bug doctor, as we called him, to collect samples from various lakes in the territory.

Ours was an avid fisherman. We would take off early in the morning and go to three or four lakes, pull up on a sandy beach and the doctor would collect various insect samples from the trees and bushes and place them in tagged bags. He always scheduled our flights so that about 1 pm we would arrive at one of his favourite fishing holes. We would then de-plane and fish for pickerel for several hours. It was like being on vacation. We cooked some of our catch and had a shore-line lunch. I even became adept at landing fish from the teeming schools of prevalent pickerel. What a lot of fun amidst a very busy bush pilot’s week.

The Ojibway and Cree, indigenous aboriginals of Northwestern Ontario, are a special group of natives who are everything from fellow workers to customers of our company. The Albany River Oji-Cree have a good fishing business. Our contract requires we pick up freshly-caught sturgeon every several weeks. The Indians catch the fish, keep them alive and tethered by a rope through the gills to a stanchion on the riverbank. When they hear the aircraft arriving, they kill the fish and prepare them for transport. This means cleaning out the innards and saving the roe/eggs from the females.

I have the interior prepped for this cargo. All seats have been removed except mine and the interior lined with a waterproof canvas tarp. I have taken a 16-ounce glass jar with me to be filled up with eggs. It cost me only $.50 for a full jar. On returning to Sioux Lookout with my sturgeon cargo for the Fish Monger Warehouse, the company did not mind me selling my jar of sturgeon eggs which I do and earn the princely sum of $5. I later find out that when this is made into caviar for the big city restaurants, my 16 ounces of eggs are worth about $100.

Forced landings can occur at awkward times. Flying the Norseman with Gord Norrell, we are near Big Cat Lake when one of the cylinder heads blows off. Instantly, the windscreen is doused with oil and it is hard to see. We are flying at approximately 2,000 feet and losing manifold pressure so we determine that Big Cat Lake will be our emergency stop. I am on our UHF radio with a Mayday call but get no response. Landing safely, we pull up to a nice sandy beach in front of the only habitation we could see. We are warmly welcomed by a family of Indians who live in a hut. They help us tie up, clean off our oily overalls and invite us for supper and to stay overnight while we wait for a new cylinder and our mechanic. No doubt, our absence would be noted and a search made.

In the meantime, I really get to know these Indians. Their modest shack was immaculate. They hunt and fish and explain their spirituality and sacred respect for their land. The recent Federal Government Indian Act has not affected them yet, but they are aware of the potential of being relocated to another reservation and they are unhappy about that. They go on to explain that their ancestors taught them that they had the right to live on their land, which had been theirs for hundreds of years, but they were not entitled to squat or live on another’s land, which belonged to their brothers for centuries and is sacrosanct.

I find all of this very educational and subsequently become very sensitive to indigenous peoples’ relationships with the land. I learn more about this from my son Andrew, who reads a lot about our native people, and Dr. Robbie Keith from the University of Waterloo. I have become very concerned about our Canadian government’s management of our native Canadians ever since this experience. We spend two days there before a replacement cylinder and the mechanic arrive.

5 Comments

  • Wonderful stories George; so much you learned about airplanes and the people who work in aviation. Real flying too, not just follow the magenta line stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great tale of some of the most challenging and rewarding flying our craft has to offer. Thanks, George. I’m reminded of listening to stories from my friend Verne Lietz, a WW2 pilot and self-taught bush pilot. Verne was asked to deliver a float plane to Alaska from the lower 48 more than a half century ago. He jumped at the chance, teaching himself how to fly floats during the trip!

  • Fascinating stories. Although I am seaplane rated I have never ventured off the beaten path so familiar to bush pilots. Having flown in the land of lakes I wondered how I would have found the right lake without GPS. And, operating in winter foul weather has to be a challenge. It’s too late for me now but I wish I had flown in the wild north a bit more. Maybe my next life….

  • Mr. Daniels,

    Thanks for this wonderful piece. My father took us fishing up in Ontario during the 50’s and 60’s. At that time there were still a number of Norsemans operating on the lakes. I’d watch them taxi out from the dock and wish I was going with them – on some of those flights I was probably lucky I didn’t.

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