Read Flying On Instinct Online

Authors: L. D. Cross

Tags: #TRANSPORTATION / Aviation / History, #HISTORY / Canada / Post-Confederation (1867-)

Flying On Instinct

Canada's Bush Pilot Pioneers


1 Up and Away

2 From War Birds to Wilderness Wings

3 Winged Workhorses and Flying Canoes

4 Airborne Exploration

5 The Flying Knight of the Northland

6 May, Mercy and a Manhunt

7 From Bush Life to Corporate Life

8 Tales from Mountain Valleys

9 Women Take to the Skies

10 Risky Rescues and Tragic Losses

11 A Bird's-Eye View







. The charter flight had started out well, roaring off into sunny skies en route to a remote northern fishing lodge. As a bush pilot, he had made hundreds of these routine trips carrying prospectors, campers, mail, food, and on one journey, four sled dogs and their musher. But this time his engine had conked out at 5,000 feet (1,524 metres) and would not sputter back to life no matter how much he coaxed and cajoled it. He was losing altitude fast and had to find a place to put down. Where were all those smooth lakes and big rivers when you needed them? Even a sandbar would be welcome. But there was not a clearing or bit of scrubland to be seen—only the endless evergreen forest below. A crash landing was inevitable, but where? His two passengers, who at first had enjoyed the soft, quiet glide after the engine cut out, were now well aware of the danger and too terrified to scream. They sat hunched
down in their seats, hoping for the best, which obviously was not going to happen.

Trying to keep his nose up and the plane as level as possible, he spied a grove of young trees that were thinner and less dense than the big spruces growing all around. He aimed for that spot and went in nose first, trying to maintain as much control as possible and pointing the engine between the trees. If the main body of the plane could just slide in and not hit a tree trunk head-on, maybe he and his passengers would survive. The small plane shuddered, and the landing gear ripped off as soon as it hit the treetops. Branches beat against the underside of the fuselage, but at least that slowed them down a bit. The plane dropped but kept moving forward at an alarming speed. All the pilot could see was green coming at him and rapidly flashing past his shoulders. His passengers saw nothing at all because their eyes were clamped shut and their heads were between their knees. The propeller disintegrated into lethal shards that flew back, shattering the windshield and banging into the thin skin of the fuselage like exploding bits of shrapnel. The wings were long gone, sheared off by tree trunks that tore huge chunks out of the frame. Miraculously the cockpit and cabin compartments were still intact, but the fuselage was now a violent projectile careening through the forest.

The occupants were forcefully thrown around inside what remained of their capsule. They had tightened their lap belts and shoulder harnesses on the way down, more as a useless
gesture toward convention than in any hope that it would keep them safe. Arms, legs and heads smashed around as the bashed-up box they were riding in turned on its side and skidded to a stop against a tree root in an unrecognizable heap. Even the registration markings were gone. The engine that had caused their wild ride was rammed under the cockpit. Pieces of wing and other debris were strewn in the trees and along the ground for over a kilometre. The air reeked of fuel, but fortunately there was no fire.

The pilot painfully turned around and looked back. One of the passengers was dragging himself out of the open cabin. The other slumped motionless over the side. They were bloodied and bruised with multiple broken bones, but all three were alive. Now all they could do was to wait to be rescued.



Up and Away

. Almost 8 percent of the country is water, a natural landing site for bush pilots and their float planes in summer. In winter, the frozen surfaces made excellent landing strips for planes equipped with skis. Otherwise planes were set down on snowy tundra or makeshift landing strips in the middle of nowhere.

Bush flying created the gateway to the riches of the North and the means to get there. There was scarcely a place in the country where bush pilots would not go, and every remote region had an independent air operation and service facilities to keep it flying. Forty-five–gallon fuel drums were stashed at trading posts along the way or left at a wilderness cache. It was a different time, and pilots were a different
breed. They were the off-roaders of aviation. Yet even today, some small, remote Canadian communities still rely on bush planes and the intrepid pilots who fly them to bring in everyday necessities that residents in the south take for granted.

Before the First World War began in 1914, Canada had few pilots or planes. After the war ended in 1918, one-third of Britain's Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was composed of Canadian pilots who had volunteered to serve king and empire. Flying had previously been the rare pastime of the rich or reckless, but during the war the RFC was the preferred choice of soldiers wanting lift off into clean, open skies and escape the cold, muck, gas and vermin-infested confines of the trenches. Their getaway vehicle was a flimsy wood-and-cloth airplane.

This trade-off was not always a good one. There were no parachutes, and the fuel tanks were located under the seat. If his aircraft caught fire during an aerial battle, the pilot had three very bad options: ride the plane down and hope to survive the crash; jump out and face inevitable death; or grab his service pistol and shoot himself. The average lifespan of a First World War fighter pilot was 17 flying hours. The RFC was dubbed “the suicide club.”

Some soldiers were encouraged by their superiors to transfer to front-line flying because they were considered problematic misfits. Alan Duncan Bell-Irving of the Gordon Highlanders, for example, was ordered by his
company commander to apply for a transfer (which was immediately approved) because a group of generals had seen him standing behind a berm wearing only his shirt and boots. He had removed his kilt to burn off the lice. As a pilot, Bell-Irving went on to earn the Military Cross for gallantry in action and much later to attain the rank of air commodore in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War.

After the signing of the armistice with Germany in 1918, some military pilots returned to Canada looking for opportunities to use their flying expertise in civilian life. Surplus airplanes were readily available. A Curtiss JN-4 Canuck could be had for the equivalent of $1,200, but airfields were scarce, and most aviators were skilled flyers, not mechanics. Maintenance was a problem and crashes were frequent. Governments were disinterested in funding a permanent military air force. After all, hadn't the First World War been “the war to end all wars”?

One of those returning military pilots was William George “Bill” Barker. Barker was born in a log house near Dauphin, Manitoba, in 1894 and as a teen loved horseback riding and shooting. His sharp eyesight and steady hand made him a crack marksman. In December 1914, in his final year of high school, he enlisted in the First Canadian Mounted Rifles. He was sent to France as a machine gunner, then transferred to the RFC. Returning to France as a fighter pilot, he shot down 50 enemy aircraft in sorties
from 1916 to 1918, finally sustaining severe injuries to his legs and also to his left elbow, which essentially made him a one-armed pilot. Awarded many honours, including the French Croix de Guerre and the British Victoria Cross, his luck finally ran out. He crashed his Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe, but while recuperating in London, he met fellow Victoria Cross recipient William Avery “Billy” Bishop.

Back home in Canada by 1919, the pair formed Bishop-Barker Company Limited, one of Canada's first commercial air services. In a race from Toronto to New York and back, Barker became the first Canadian pilot to carry international airmail, and in 1921, the first to fly commercial cargo between the US and Canada. But like many other flying ventures, the company was ahead of its time; it ceased operations in 1922. Barker went back to the military, joining the new Canadian Air Force (CAF), then resigning in 1926 and taking a series of unsatisfying jobs until becoming vice-president of Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. in Canada. On March 12, 1930, while demonstrating the new Fairchild KR-21 biplane trainer at Rockcliffe air station, he lost control and was killed when his plane struck the ice of the Ottawa River. Obscured by the fame of Bishop, who outlived him by almost three decades, Barker remains Canada's most decorated war hero and proved there was a non-combat role for larger-than-life flyers employing their military skills in civilian work.

Major W.G. “Bill” Barker, wearing goggles and a flying helmet, pilots Fokker D.VII aircraft No. 50 during the air race between Toronto and New York in 1919.

rthur Massey “Matt” Berry, a farm boy from just outside Ottawa, was commissioned at the outbreak of the First World War and transported overseas. He was then transferred to the RFC. After the war, he became a civilian flying instructor, eventually getting a commercial pilot's licence in 1928. Berry got a job at Northern Aerial Mineral Exploration Ltd. and was the first pilot to land at Baker Lake, Northwest Territories. In 1921, he became the first pilot to fly round trip between Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories, and Edmonton in the same day. Berry joined Canadian Airways Ltd. as a pilot in 1931 and was instrumental in saving the lives of many people stranded in the Arctic wilderness.

n 1935, Berry located and flew to safety downed CAL pilot Con Farrell and his air engineer F. Hartley, who had been stranded for 11 days on the Barrens after a blizzard forced their plane down. The next year, Berry was again a hero when he rescued RCAF flight lieutenant S. Coleman and leading aircraftsman J. Fortey from north of Great Slave Lake, then led a record-breaking mission with his air engineer, Rex Terpening, to rescue Bishop Falaise and his party, who were stranded by a blizzard at the Roman Catholic mission at Hornaday River above the Arctic Circle. Persevering through darkness and blinding snowstorms, Berry and Terpening located the group and returned to bring them food, only to be grounded themselves for 10 days before flying everyone out safely. Until this exploit, no aircraft had ever flown that far north during the winter.

Air engineers like Terpening sat in the right-hand cockpit seat on daily flight operations. They refuelled the aircraft, fixed any structural damage, repaired the engine and even warmed the oil so the engine could start on cold winter days. And they did it all in remote locations with basic tools, using only their innate innovative abilities and courage to resurrect broken aircraft so they would fly again.

Other books

Pool Boys by Erin Haft
Pearced by Ryder, H
Perennial by Potter, Ryan
Haunted by Melinda Metz - Fingerprints - 2
Hunks Pulled Over by Marie Rochelle
Yours in Black Lace by Mia Zachary