Exploring Canada

Scene Description: Claire and Mark and Nana put the finishing touches on their model plane. Poppa sits in the chair beside them, looking on with interest.

Mark: There, it’s done! Now that I look at it, it’s not exactly the same as your plane, Poppa.

Claire: Yeah, it looks it?

Poppa: You’re right, Claire. It is a bush plane, like mine, but it’s a much older one, from 1930. It’s called a Vickers Vedette, and it was used by the RCAF for forestry patrol and aerial photography.

Claire: Wow, you sure know a lot about airplanes, Poppa.

Poppa: (laughing) Well, when I was a boy airplanes were still very new, and so all the more thrilling! I learned everything I could about them, even before I joined the air force. My father would tell me stories about bush flying and the early bush pilots, like Punch Dickins. I wanted to do all the exciting things they had done!

Mark: (looking puzzled) What exactly is bush flying, and what’s a bush pilot? Who’s Punch Dickins?

Poppa: Well, in Canada, bush flying means flying in extremely remote areas of the country—especially parts of the North—that are very difficult to reach by land or water. Bush pilots fly into these far-away areas and play a very important role for many different reasons. See that map? Can you bring it to me, Claire?

(Claire brings the map to him)


Until airplanes could venture to these remote areas, travelling through them was slow, dangerous work. The options were to canoe the water routes, or go by dogsled or on foot through the wilderness areas that hadn’t yet been mapped.

Claire: These areas hadn’t been mapped?

Two Fairchild FC-2 aircraft with a dogsled team.
(CAvM 2803)

Poppa: Well, maps of the coastlines and the main waterways existed, but the more distant parts of the country were uncharted. Because explorers could travel only by canoe or by foot, the areas they reached and were able to map in more detail were mostly around rivers and lakes.

First flight of Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck” using skis in Canada.
(CAvM 4808)

And the communities they encountered in the North—the Inuit and other First Nations people—had their own system of wayfinding. Their maps were more like narratives that might show how long a journey had taken, record events along the way, or reflect the seasons of the year. Sometimes they used charcoal to draw maps on animal skins, and at other times they drew diagrams on the ground. Their maps helped the explorers to make the more permanent maps we rely on today.

Mark: That’s amazing, but I guess that once airplanes were invented, pilots could fly over the North and map it all out much more easily, right?

Laurentide Air Service D.H.9 equipped with skis.
(CAvM 17888)

Poppa: Not straight away, Mark. For example, when airplanes were first invented, the cockpit where the pilot sat wasn’t covered, and so he was exposed to the wind and rain, and the cold! Plus those early airplanes couldn’t fly very far before they needed more fuel.

Pilot Roméo Vachon with a Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck”.
(CAvM 2168)

In Canada, after the First World War ended, in 1918, some of the surplus military airplanes were altered, and fitted with skis or floats so that they could land on snow, ice, or water.

This meant that early bush pilots could reach more remote areas in Canada, and of course airplanes could bring supplies and other things to far-flung communities much faster than traditional delivery methods that involved boats, dogsleds, hiking, or canoes. A trip that had taken weeks or months could be cut down to several days!


Mark: Was it dangerous?

Poppa: Oh yes! Pilots had to be very resourceful, as they had no means of communication should they get into trouble! They also had to be willing to put up with discomfort: imagine flying up North in winter in an open-cockpit airplane! It was brave men returning from the First World War who became Canada’s earliest bush pilots. They were the first to complete a flight across Canada, from Halifax to Vancouver, in 1920. Guess how long it took?

Curtiss HS-2L Flying Boat

Mark: Well, probably quite a long time... two days maybe?

Poppa: Guess again! It took three different types of planes, and over ten days of flying! They had no navigational equipment, and had to use rivers, lakes, towns, and the railway tracks: these were true adventurers! (reverent tone) They called the tracks their "iron compass." By 1949, airplanes had changed so much that they could do a non-stop flight of the same route in eight-and-a-half hours using the new Canadair North Star. What a difference, eh!

Canadian JN-4 / First Air Mail Flight

Capt. C.W. Cudamore and Lt.-Col. W. Tylee in a D.H.9A used in the first trans-Canada flight, 1920.
(CAvM 4624)

By 1927, some airplanes had enclosed cockpits, making life a little easier for the pilots! But it was still hard work...enclosed cockpits just made it slightly more bearable.

Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker in Northern Québec

Claire: That sounds awful—but kind of exciting at the same time...

Poppa: I agree. It must have been incredibly cold, and flying in winter would have been so dangerous if you hit a storm or had engine trouble. It was also very dark, since up North there are only a few hours of daylight during some periods of the winter. And compasses didn’t even work for the pilots who flew up North, because they were too close to the magnetic North Pole.

Man posing with a Fokker Super Universal on skis.
(CAvM 6260)

Canadian Vickers Vedette and Fairchild FC-2 docked on shoreline.
(CAvM 17814)

Remember, no maps existed for many of the remote areas, and of course they had no radio, either. Just think, even I have a radio in my bush plane, the Beaver, and it’s getting pretty old now!

Fairchild FC-2W with a Bellanca Pacemaker at Rouyn, Quebec.
(CAvM 3896)

Mark: So it took determination and skill and not just a sense of adventure to be a pilot...

Poppa: Yes indeed. Still, can you imagine the thrill: knowing that you were the first person to see that land from the air? Bush pilots flew up North to explore and document areas of Canada that, until then, had just been blank spaces on our maps.

Canadian Vickers Vedette MK Va over Montréal

They also carried out forestry surveys and fire patrols, and flew prospectors to remote areas to stake mining claims.

Even the RCAF had its own division for bush flying between the wars. They took on forestry and aerial photography work in the North, and patrolled for smugglers. They also dusted crops with pesticides, did aerial survey work to help build the Trans-Canada Highway, and in 1927 they explored the Hudson Strait to find a northern water route that could be used for exporting goods from Churchill, Manitoba to Europe.

Canadian Vickers Vedette II being lifted at the Canadian Vickers dockyard, Montreal, Quebec.
(CAvM 1869)

The very first bush plane in Canada, a Curtiss HS-2L, was flown by Stuart Graham. He started bush flying to survey forests for the Laurentide Pulp and Paper Company after he returned from the war. He and his crew staked the first Canadian mining claim accessed by an airplane, in 1920.

Foothold in the Bush

Mark: That’s pretty cool...but Poppa, you were going to tell me about Punch Dickins, not Stuart Graham!

Curtiss HS-2L in flight.
(CAvM 12196)

Poppa: Oh, there goes my memory! (Laughs) You don’t miss a thing do you, Mark? Well, Punch Dickins was also a pilot during the First World War and, like Stuart Graham, he became one of the early Canadian bush pilots when he returned to Canada. He flew all over the Northwest Territories, often flying over uncharted areas. In 1928, he flew over 6 000 kilometres to make an aerial survey in the Northwest Territories, which was something no one had done before! During that expedition, he crossed the Barren Lands by air, which was another first! That feat earned him the McKee trophy— a great honour in Canadian aviation!

First Barren Lands Flight

First over the Barrens

Punch Dickins standing on the float of a Fokker Universal.
(CAvM 20908)

In 1929, Punch Dickins was in the news again, this time for being the first person to reach the Western Arctic coast by airplane.

Portrait of Punch Dickins, 1930.
(CAvM 1238)

Claire: Were there other famous bush pilots?

Poppa: There sure were! Many pilots from the First World War came back and took up commercial flying in Canada. Guys like the war hero Wop May!

Wop May.
(CAvM 4210)

Mark: "Wop"? That’s as bad as "Punch"!

Poppa: Well, his real name was actually Wilfrid. "Wop" was a nickname given to him when he was a child. He returned to Canada and set up a flying company, May Airlines, but it didn’t do very well (he was ahead of his time). After that, he started the Edmonton and North Alberta Flying Club, one of the first flying clubs in Canada. He proved he was a hero again in January 1929, when he flew an Avro Avian biplane about 800 kilometres—all the way from Edmonton to Fort Vermillion—to deliver medicine to a community in the midst of a deadly diphtheria outbreak. It took him two days to get there, in extremely frigid temperatures, but he made it!

(CAvM 4210)

Wop May in Sopwith Camel.
(CAvM 6714)

Wop May (right) on return from Mercy Flight to Fort Vermillion, Alberta, 1929.
(CAvM 11336)

Wop May and Vic Horner in an Avro Avian.
(CAvM 4211)

Claire: No wonder he was a hero!

Poppa: Yes, people idolized him, and Punch Dickins, too! By the way, Mark, "Punch" Dickins’s real name was Clennell ( Joking tone).

Wop May started another company, too. Commercial Airways was the first company to make regular airmail deliveries to the Northwest Territories. Now Punch Dickins worked for Western Canada Airways, and so he and Wop May were in competition! Later on, both companies were bought by Canadian Airways.

Portrait of Wop May.
(CAvM 2341)

Commercial Airways airmail stamp.
(CAvM 1998-0498-1)

Claire: Sounds busy!

Poppa: Well, in the mid-1920s, it was busy. A few commercial aviation firms began flying people and supplies to remote mining communities in Ontario and Quebec...and it was 1924 when Laurentide Air Service started the first regularly scheduled air service in Quebec.

I. Vachon, C. Townsend, and Roy Maxwell of Laurentide Air Service.
(CAvM 5134)

Mark: Airplanes have changed a lot since then...

Poppa: Yes, and they were even changing a lot at the time. You know, those old surplus war airplanes that were converted to bush planes often conked out! Breaking down in a remote area was pretty serious. In some instances, pilots and their mechanics had to camp out for days until they were found; some even walked out of the bush! Remember: they had no way of letting anyone know where they were or that they were in trouble.

Pilot Pat Reid posing with a Fairchild FC-2.
(CAvM 2844)

Claire: That would be scary, being stuck out in the wilderness all alone, and not entirely sure where you were.

Nana: It certainly would be! That’s why, by 1921, the first real bush planes - such as the Junkers F-13 - were starting to replace the old surplus war airplanes. Finally, by 1927, the Fairchild FC-2 was specifically designed, with its enclosed cockpit and aerial camera, to be flown in the bush.

Fairchild FC-2 Razorback

K.F. Saunders and George Lowe with supplies and their Fairchild FC-2.
(CAvM 1403)

A Fairchild FC-2 on water.
(CAvM 6487)

Claire: But that couldn’t have solved the problem of breaking down.

Poppa: Nope, it didn’t, although by then, much more reliable air-cooled engines had been designed (the old ones were cooled by water, which could freeze in winter!). Unfortunately, the oils and lubricants in these engines were affected by cold temperatures in winter and they had to be drained from the engine and kept warm so that they worked properly when it came time to take off!

Tim Sims and air crew filling a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker with oil.
(CAvM 7169)

That’s one of the reasons that it was important to have a well-trained mechanic on your flight team. Many bush pilots flew with their mechanics or were mechanics themselves.

Mark: What about your plane, Poppa? It has floats for landing too. Is it a bush plane?

DHC-2 Beaver taxiing on Ottawa River, near Rockcliffe, Ontario.
(CAvM 35-021-10)

Poppa: Floats are just a different kind of landing gear, Mark, but yes, the Beaver is a bush plane, although it’s a much more modern example than the ones we’ve been talking about. Some of the early bush planes built to land on water actually looked like boats with wings! They were made of wood, and pilots had to be very cautious when they landed on water because they were fragile, and rocks or logs could damage them. They could even become waterlogged over time.

DHC-2 Beaver in flight over Ottawa, Ontario.
(CAvM 35-021-4-A)

Claire: So pilots had to worry about flying AND sinking?!

Poppa: Well, yes, I guess so! But, luckily for bush pilots, a Canadian-built bush plane designed in 1935, the Noorduyn Norseman, was better equipped than these earlier flying boats. It was insulated, had a larger cabin, metal floats, and a metal frame. Even though it was still covered in fabric, it was a tough plane! My Beaver is even more durable, as it’s all metal. But, even today, Mark, I have to be careful when I land on water: its floats can still be damaged in the same way!

Bob Cockeram's Noorduyn Norseman MK II "Ruth IV"

A Noorduyn Norseman on floats.
(CAvM 5371)

Mark: Can you and Nana take us for a flight now? I want to see what it was like for those pilots!

Between Friends

Poppa: Sure! Let’s pack some lunch, and we can go do some sightseeing!