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2750 words
8 pics
Rob F. Sanderson
112 E. 36th St.
N.Y. 16, N.Y.

After Oct. 1:
724 Edgewater
Portage, Wis.

How Tough Is Bush Flying?
Rob F. Sanderson

           The men who fly the bush have special problems unknown to the most of us who aviate in more civilized skies. Theirs is a life of adventure and isolation. If they watch their lift and drag they can fly the North for years and years - and here are a few of the problems they have to keep an eye on.

How Tough Is Bush Flying?

           Throughout Canada, Alaska, and parts of the northern U.S., bush-flying routes spread unsymmetrical flight patterns over the wilderness. Fanning out from the ends of roads and railroads, where surface transportation flounders or fails, bush pilots guide their slow speed, high wing planes carrying lumbermen, miners, trappers, forest fire fighters, Indians, surveyors, hunters, fishermen, geologists, prospectors, and others who seek to travel in a few hours the distances which require weeks of surface travel.

           The bush pilot is one of the few survivors of that hawk like generation of airmen begot by early air transport. He flies single engine, two to eight passenger planes with no fellow pilot, no dispatcher, no flight plan, and often no weather report. He must edge his way through low visibilities and under threatening ceilings across unsettled country without radio aid.

           This he does because there are people out in the wilderness who depend on him. The drone of his motor to them means food, supplies, mail, civilization, and medical aid when needed. The air route is the only link between those Bushmen and the “outside”.

           “What is bush flying like?” people often ask. It’s good old self-reliant adventure with some lonesomeness thrown in. Much of the time the bush pilot is flying freight - flying alone with supplies for lumber camps, prospectors, or traders. On these days if the weather is nasty, and he fights rough air through sleet squalls and under low ceilings across swaying tree-tops and wind frothed lakes, the North is a very empty place and he a very lonely man.

           On other days he may be cheerfully listening to the tall stories of world-traveled geologists, or humorous anecdotes told by traders about Indians. But the warmest hospitality of all he experiences when darkness catches him over isolated wilderness and he overnights in the crude cabin of some trapper who may not have heard a human voice in weeks or months.

           Bush flying is unique in that many good bush pilots have flown for years without flying on wheels. From the November freeze up to May breakup the planes are on skis. The rest of the year they are on floats. Both snow and water flying are specialties requiring a high degree of technique having little in common with wheel flying.

           Float flying is probably the most difficult. The decrease in take-off performance caused by extra weight and water drag is a limitation to be constantly humored. This factor is accented because, no matter how large the plane, people seem always to take a bit more baggage than can be rightly carried.

           On water, the landing and take-off surface varies with every whim of weather. On calm days, mirror-like “flat water” has tricked many a pilot into landing twenty feet too high or too low. Flat water is a most unhelpful take-off surface, especially with a load, since more speed and lift is required to break the water suction on the floats. Sometimes a pilot will have to off-load freight, or siphon out gas. I have seen take-off conditions so critical that three gallons of gas were the difference between being in the air or on the water.

           Strong winds are ever a hazard. There is no shock-absorbing device on float struts and damage may result from landing in heavy swells. These swells force premature take-off, bouncing the ship from crest to crest with resounding impact. Landing is usually easier but may be prolonged by necessary blasts of power to save the ships from hard bounces.

           Turns on the water are made difficult by strong winds. Owing to “weathervane” action, one cannot taxi crosswind except at an oblique angle. Hard gusts are most bothersome and are apt to be dangerous. Taxiing up or down wind is not hard, but in turning from an upwind to a downwind heading the pilot may find that the necessary full throttle and treacherous gusts are dangerous combination capable of upsetting the ship. A turn from down wind to upwind can be accomplished without power and between gusts but even then all occupants should have safety belts undone and hands on door handles in case the ship upsets. Often an over turning ship can be saved by the pilot or passenger quickly climbing out on the upwind wing strut.

           Ski flying has its angles but is less troublesome than water flying. The ski installation is lighter and the ship gets out better. If the pilot should miscalculate or crash, he will be spared cold water unless the ice breaks. If the throttle is cut while taxiing, at least the ship will stand still, an advantage lacking in floatplanes.

           Snow conditions vary widely. There is windswept bare ice, deep soft snow, heavy snow, light snow, wet snow, dry snow, and drifted snow. Because of the whiteness, and the glare if the sun is shining, a pilot cannot often tell too much about the surface, or how high off it is, from the air. For purposes of depth perception some pilots like to land along the shore where trees and other objects are ready reference points in judging height while landing.

           A heavy snow on very thin ice may make it dangerous for weeks, since the snow insulates against the wintry cold above. Ice sometimes floods beneath the snow, making a slushy undersurface that will bog a plane down if the skis sink that far. On suspicion of such a snow, the pilot keeps a fast taxi after landing until he can look back at the ski trail. If it darkens with water he either takes off again or taxis into a cove on shore where he can immediately get the skis off the ice or place poles underneath so they will not freeze down. To make a take-off patch, he may have to take his snowshoes and tramp out a runway. Water will run into the snow he tramps down and in a few hours the slush will be sufficiently frozen for take-off.

           When landing on ice, bays or coves are usually safest since shallow, quiet water freezes first. Reeds protruding through the ice indicate shallow water. Inlets and outlets of lakes are dangerous, as are spring holes, which infest some lakes. Then there are miscellaneous hazards; I remember a Norseman that went through the ice in Newfoundland while taxiing across the weakened ice above the warm septic tank outlet waters from a hospital.

           Mooring a ship, especially overnight, is a perennial pilot problem. Pontoons are easily damaged and much of the north country is shored with jagged rocks. Unexpected winds may follow the fairest weather with demon vengeance, and the best mooring or tie-down is none too good. If there is available a heavy anchor and a long, sound rope, I like to secure the ship with a “Y” bridle attached to the base of the front struts and around the spreader bar.

           Sometimes the ship may be hauled well up on a protected sand beach. When knocking about the bush with a camping outfit, I like to locate the campsite on such a beach - if there is one anywhere on the lake you can see it easily from the air. But any rocking back and forth on hard bottom, even if the rocks be small and smooth, is a menace. The vibrations, especially if the surf be persistent, may jar loose some of the float rivets.

           At one Hudson’s Bay post I used to fly into, if the evening weather looked blowy I put the ship in a protected cove for the night, and though it was a two mile walk back through the bush, that walk was a small price to escape a nervous trip down to the regular pier after midnight carrying ropes, lights and rubber boots, with the rest of the night spent in worry.

           For a safe seaplane tie-down, the main requirement is rope, extra rope, and more of the same. Often long lines must be run to reach secure objects, and the longer the lines the more of them there must be for security. Half-inch rope is the smallest size to safely use -I have seen smaller rope snapped like wrapping string during a thunder squall. Under extreme conditions some of the float compartments may be filled with water to give added keel- weight.

           Ski planes are easier to handle, there being no problem of surf. Whereas seaplanes are usually faced into the wind, ski planes may be tailed into the wind. The controls are safe tied forward and a stout rope tied to the tail is secured to the ice by freezing it into an ice hole. This hole is easily chiseled in a few minutes by means of a small ice chisel kept in the plane’s kit.

           Ski planes require less in the way of hip boots, anchors, ropes, etc., but in very frigid weather should have a blowtorch for cylinder pre-heating and a pail for oil heating. The emergency equipment of snow hoes, sleeping bags, heavy axe, etc. is heavier than in summer. But considering the lighter overall weight of the ship, the ski plane is better able to carry this extra weight than is the floatplane.

           Types of skis depend on types of snow conditions for their popularity. In country of deep, soft snow, the short, wide “paddle” type is the preference. In areas having shallower snow better packed, the wide metal ski is preferred. The long, narrow ski is favored only for rather ideal conditions. Ski planes often get temporarily stuck and will not energize themselves, but once started moving with the aid of a push, a properly designed ski should gain momentum and climb out onto the surface.

           Carburetor ice is an often-underestimated danger. It seems to occur with particular severity in the fall, and may cause emergency landings even with carburetor heat fully operative. One misty afternoon I noticed a slight fall in RPM and applied full heat, flying that way for about a half hour when suddenly the power loss became acute and I was forced to lose altitude to maintain flying speed. The nearest water was a narrow river and I had to turn downwind to reach it. Finally we were forced down to within a few feet of the river surface, and the loss of another 100 RPM would have stalled us out. Going down that twisty river on the wings of a thirty-mile an hour tail wind was a horror ride never duplicated in any amusement park. The river was full of pulp logs and dams, and a forced downwind on such a surface would surely have demolished the ship. At length the warmer air near the water thawed the ice and we recovered our RPM, but it was some time before we recovered our composure.

           Weather is always a question mark in the bush. The only safe rule is not to go if conditions look questionable. A thousand feet is my minimum take-off ceiling, and in precipitation or saturated humidity all kinds of unexpected things happen. On such a day a friend of mine took off for a lake in a deep valley. Upon arrival, he found the lake bowl covered with about a hundred feet of thick fog. He lacked fuel to return to base, and anyway early darkness would soon appear. With a certain degree of luck, he attempted and made a blind landing through the fog. Once on the lake, it took him an hour of taxiing along the shore through the fog before he found the camp.

           Because the most innocent circumstances are sometimes insidious, the experienced pilot has plenty of gas and emergency equipment on board. If forced down on a wilderness lake he can hold out nicely for the three-day stretch that bad weather ordinarily allots itself.

           Normal emergency equipment includes food, blankets or sleeping bags (can be carried as seat cushions to save space), fishing apparatus, wire for snaring rabbits, matches, axe, compass, and snow equipment in winter. Many pilots like to carry a short, light rifle. When far from the railroad or other help, it may be best to build a shelter and await a rescue party rather than attempt to walk out.

           For utmost safety, the emergency equipment should be stowed closer to the door than the other cargo; in practice the reverse is often true. Sometimes a ship overturns in deep water or burns and the escape time may be so short that pilot and passengers have no time to save the emergency equipment if it is in an awkward or inaccessible place. One pilot I know has his kit made up in the form of a buoyant cushion, which he can quickly toss out the door.

           Except in Canada, no aircraft is now made especially for bush flying. The standard large bush planes are the Beaver, Husky, and Norseman. There are a few big Bellancas, and an occasional Fairchild 71 or Travelair, all resembling each other in general design.

           Speed is a negligible factor, since compared to a canoe the slowest plane can travel in an hour a distance accomplished only in days by canoe. Ability to get out in a small space with a full load is the most indispensable attribute a bush plane can have

           For a long time bush flying was done with expensive planes for large corporations only, but now even Indian trappers ride by plane. For today’s wilderness population hear increasingly the motors of smaller, more inexpensive ships that all can afford to charter. Aeronca Sedans, Stinson Station wagons, Cessna 195’s, are becoming standard bush taxis and now the Cessna 170 and the Piper Clipper will join the sky parade. The controllable metal propellers soon to be marked will considerably improve the performance of some ships now equipped with them. Present plastic props are short lived in rough water, since the spray seems to beat off the plastic coating, and frequent overhauling is necessary.

           Bush flying is fascinating to an outdoor-minded pilot. The passengers are human, sociable persons eager to be friendly and appreciative of a pilot’s effort and service. They are from vastly different paths of life and every trip with them is a periscope into their daily lives. I have made trips for Indians, millionaires, executives of corporations with wilderness holdings, sportsmen, and those in acute need of medical help. On a hard day the work is tiring, but it is never tiresome.

           There are many good bush pilots, but the advantage goes to men brought up in the wilds. Their intimate understanding of bush life is a great safety factor, particularly if forced down in the remote wilds. Pilots have endured for many days with skeleton emergency equipment, and in below zero weather, this takes more than book knowledge.

           That bush flight can be done by an observant outsider is proven by the many “outside” pilots now winging their way over our Alaskan wilderness. Resourceful fellows who play their cards close to their belt, caution and risk are a price they more than willingly pay for the perfect freedom of their adventurous life. Much of the time alone at the controls over uninhabited wilderness, to them that wild, lonely country spells not desolation but rather a fierce independence and the right to enjoy flying pure and unadulterated.

           It is an active life and sometimes a hard, but always a healthy, life. These men keep right on flying into their slightly grizzled fiftieth years, an age when commercial pilots living in the higher-pitched, civilized world have long since retired. For those who understand the wilderness and love it, the pure air and healthy life of the North will never let them down.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob