For many years, southern pilots have come north for experience and rubbed shoulders with seasoned veterans of bush flying. In the early years of aviation, the veterans had their ways of getting the job done, and their methods were not necessarily "by the book." Many northern pilots did not talk much on the radio and in some situations did not hesitate to push beyond the recommended limits of weight and daylight. They relied on their own senses to navigate and forecast the weather. And they did not get upset if they had to overnight in the airplane while waiting out a storm.
To many southern pilots, with their hopes of executive and airline pilot jobs, flying by sight rather than by instruments, or IFR, seemed primitive. Even in northern Saskatchewan in the 1990s, however, only the airspace which is above an altitude of 3,800 metres is designated "controlled." Most small bush aircraft fly at lower, "uncontrolled" altitudes. No air tower personnel are available north of La Ronge to control this lower air space and set the altitudes for pilots flying in the area. Without air towers, pilots must, therefore, depend on visual flight rules (VFR) to ensure that they are not flying at the same altitude as another pilot.
The north of the 1950s and 1960s was not for every pilot and is not for everyone today either. Some did not like the isolation or the mosquitos or were terrified of spending a night alone in the bush. Some asked themselves, "Why should I put a plane into the trees and die for a load of dead fish?" Each day they hoped for a call from Edmonton or Toronto. During those years, the southern pilots often remained in the north for only two or three years. The north was hard on families too. Many wives found northern living difficult, with few job opportunities, limited access to services, and little social life.
In spite of this, for most the northern experience was good. As they waited for that next job, they gained valuable experience. New pilots soon grew to respect the northern fliers and benefitted from the veterans' years in the bush. Along the way, they made good friends and good memories. Some pilots who planned a short stay in the north remained to take up a lifetime of bush flying. Those who left went away with what they needed: experience.
Leonard Johnson got his start in aviation as a northern fire and timber patrol pilot working for
Saskatchewan's Department of Natural Resources. Here he makes a stop with a Tiger Moth
at Beaver Lake, now called Amisk Lake, during a patrol in 1950. Johnson went on to a
distinguished career in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Photograph courtesy of Leonard Johnson.
Leonard Johnson was one of those pilots who gained experience in the north. He spent his boyhood at Emma Lake, which in the 1930s was on the northern edge of what some called "civilization." All the men in the area were either farmers, truck or tractor drivers, loggers, or fliers. Johnson wanted to be a flier.
At the end of the Second World War, with the provincial government beginning intensive northern resource management, Johnson took a job as a fur patrolman, working out of Cumberland House and later La Ronge. His duties extended far beyond fur management into marking timber, fire fighting, and whatever else there was to do.
During the summer of 1949, he was stationed in Prince Albert as a radio operator. He had never lost his desire to fly, and now he was working right where he could take flying lessons. By the spring of 1950, he was the proud owner of a private pilot's licence, and he immediately applied to join the air force.
Meanwhile, one of the DNR northern fire patrol pilots suddenly resigned. They needed a Tiger Moth pilot right away. Johnson got the job for the summer even though he had few flying hours to his credit and did not even have a seaplane rating. He read a mail-order book on seaplane operations and talked his former instructor into doing a few take-offs and landings with him.
It was a good summer for Leonard Johnson. Besides flying fire and timber patrol, he flew for Game Branch, serviced the remote fire towers, and did air taxi service. By summer's end, two things were clear to him. First, to be a true professional pilot, he felt he needed more training. Second, his real desire was to join the air force for a few years.
Johnson earned his military wings at Gimli, Manitoba, in 1951. His initial service obligation turned into a 25-year career as a transport pilot and distinguished air staff officer. He rose to the rank of Major General and served as commander of 412 Squadron in Ottawa; commander of Canadian Forces Base Edmonton, the Canadian Forces training section; and Commandant of the National Defence College at Kingston, Ontario. Since then, Major General Johnson has retired and become a leading Canadian spokesman for world disarmament through the organization Project Ploughshares.
Gerry Loughlean is another pilot who gained valuable experience in the north, although bush flying was not his goal. He learned to fly at the Edmonton Flying Club in 1965 and gained his instrument flight rating (IFR) in preparation for a career in corporate flying.
He flew first as a DC-3 co-pilot with Shell Oil, and then graduated to the pilot's seat with Hudson Bay Oil and Gas. His new employer, however, soon needed him to fly a Dornier on floats for mineral exploration work in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan.
Loughlean would have preferred to stay in the world of corporate flying, but in May 1970, he made the move to the northern bush. A tent camp had been established northwest of Camsell Portage, and Loughlean's job was to provide air taxi service for the geological surveyors, taking them to outlying lakes each day.
"Our lifeline was Uranium City," Loughlean recalled. "I would go there once or twice a week, sometimes more often. Everything came from Uranium City. The airplane was either at take-off power or on the descent. We ran into maintenance problems because of all the starts and stops."
Loughlean quickly came face-to-face with the tough problems and decisions every northern pilot faces, including failing to find someone he was supposed to pick up. The north has several stories of men who have died because the pilot could not find them.
Gerry Loughlean flew this Dornier DO 28 for Hudson Bay Oil and Gas
on mineral exploration work in the early 1970s.
Photograph courtesy of Gerry Loughlean.
Long-time northern bush pilot Ray Cameron covers the engine of the
Cessna 185 Skywagon II he is flying, during a stop-over on a winter flight.
Photograph courtesy of Graham Guest.
A forest fire was burning in the area one day, but the smoke was blowing away from camp and the men flew to work as usual, with just lunch and the clothes on their backs. At midday, however, the wind shifted, smoke rolled in, and the visibility dropped. As the crews were unprepared, for the night, Loughlean went to look for them. At tree-top level his familiar world became foreign, and he moved from ridge to lake to swamp to ridge, looking for any landmark that would lead him to the surveyors. He finally had to admit he could not find them, and he turned and picked his way through the smoke back to camp.
Eventually the wind changed, the visibility improved, and the men were found. Loughlean realized that the reason why old-timers often flew low in clear weather was to memorize the route in case of poor visibility. In the world of instrument flying, he had merely followed his navigation instruments and pressed on to his destination.
Today Loughlean flies DC-10s through the skies of North America for Canadian Airlines International. He still credits his northern experience as being an important part of his education:
I had to learn to think like a pilot more than I ever had before. That was my first summer to experience the problems of a VFR pilot. I came to realize that incidents can happen when least expected, and I needed to be a little more careful. When we become complacent, something can turn up and we're not ready to handle it.
There are many stories of pilots coming to fly in northern Saskatchewan as a stepping stone to careers in an airline, military, or corporate flying. Other pilots enjoyed bush flying and the life of the north and stayed to pursue distinguished flying careers in northern Saskatchewan. One pilot who has made a career of bush flying is Ray Cameron. He has been flying for nearly 30 years and has logged over 24,000 hours, virtually all of it in the north.
Cameron grew up in the Prince Albert area and started flying in 1962 with the Air Cadets. He gained his private licence through an Air Cadet scholarship and worked at aircraft maintenance for two years with the Prince Albert Flying Club while gaining his commercial licence. He then began flying for Athabaska Airways and in 1966 was moved north to fly a Cessna 180 out of La Ronge.
The air companies were busy. The road ended just north of La Ronge at Otter Lake. A winter road would occasionally be opened to Southend and freight hauled over the ice by a bulldozer to Pinehouse and Stanley Mission, but otherwise, the communities north of La Ronge were isolated. Cameron has many happy memories of flying to the northern communities in those days:
In October we would go into Stanley Mission on floats and move all the trappers out to their traplines, everything from the trapper and his family, their groceries, and even the dogs if the trails were bad. They would stay out there for October, November. Then, just before Christmas, we would be busier than heck bringing them back to Stanley and then back and forth to La Ronge picking up groceries and Christmas shopping. They were good times to be flying. It was a lot of fun.
Although dog teams continued to be used for several years after that, snowmobiles gradually made it unnecessary for trappers to charter planes, unless their traplines were very remote.
In 1968, Cameron began flying for La Ronge Aviation. At that time, the Rabbit Lake mine was just being established. Because the road ended at Otter Lake, Cameron often flew two or three trips a day from La Ronge to Wollaston Lake, hauling men, equipment, and groceries to the mine site.
Cameron flew a Beaver for La Ronge Aviation, then a Single Otter, a Norseman, and a Beech 18 on floats. In 1969, he attended a de Havilland one-week course on the Twin Otter.
When I came back I went on the Twin Otter, and I'm still on them now!
It was pretty well all mining exploration work by this time. That was what kept us going, and you just had to have it to pay for a Twin Otter. And once we got the Twin Otters we weren't restricted to Saskatchewan. When more winter roads went in and things slowed down here, we started flying further north into the Arctic. We were the only place in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Territories that had Twin Otters other than Yellowknife, and the Twin Otter is such a good winter airplane that they'd call us up.
We would spend the summer in La Ronge flying floats, and then to keep the Twin Otters busy in winter we would fly people north for the territorial government from Churchill or our base at Lynn Lake up to the Belcher Islands, Eskimo Point, Rankin Inlet, or Baker Lake. Or we'd fly for the oil exploration companies, keeping a Twin Otter up in the Arctic islands through the dark season until it was time to come back and go on floats again.
In 1972, Cameron moved to Yellowknife to fly Twin Otters for Wardair. The next year, he started flying a large, cumbersome Bristol Freighter to locations in the Arctic. In 1976, Cameron was back in Prince Albert flying Norcanair's Bristol Freighter, the DC-3, and then the F-27 scheduled run to northern Saskatchewan from Prince Albert. Cameron returned to La Ronge and bush flying in 1978.
I've been flying just straight bush planes ever since, all floats and skis. Nowadays the main part of our flying is the tourist trade. It's switched right around. We had a big tourist trade in the late sixties, but the Wollaston Lake highway gave a lot of camps drive-in traffic. And we had the trappers, but when the Skidoos took over we had to find something else and mining was right there. The mining companies kept us busy until they started pushing in the roads, and now the bulk of our bush flying is with the tourist trade again, flying to the Churchill River or across the lake to Hunter Bay.
In 1991, Cameron went back to Athabaska Airways, the company he started with. Although the company also operated twin-engined aircraft on wheels from the airport, Cameron stayed with the bush airplanes. "There are more light twins than we have ever seen before up here, like the Cessna 310 and 404 aircraft and the Beech Baron. I never thought I'd see the day, in the 1960s, that there would be more flying out of La Ronge with light twins than with bush planes, but that's the way it's gone."
Cameron's love of bush flying has caused him to stay in the north and not seek work in the worlds of corporate or airline flying. "The young guys tend to come up here to get a couple of years experience and go on to an executive-type twin or the airlines," Cameron said. "But they are leaving the best job in the world when they pull away from bush flying. There's always interest and a challenge when you jump into a bush plane, I can tell you!"
Another long-time northern Saskatchewan pilot began his flying career as a bomber pilot during the Second World War. Lloyd Reid grew up in Watrous, Saskatchewan, and joined the air force when he was 18, just out of school. After training at Estevan, he graduated as a sergeant pilot. He immediately went to England for further training before joining a Canadian squadron to fly Lancaster bombers. Reid recalled:
We flew 28 missions on bomber command in Canadian-built Lancasters, with a crew of seven. We were shot at pretty well every raid, and you would get hit a few times with flak. We were extremely lucky - we never had anybody injured any more seriously than a black eye. The Lancaster has a perspex nose bubble. We had that hit and a chunk came back and hit my bomb-aimer and gave him a severe black eye.
At the end of the war, Reid and his crew were given long-range navigation and radio training and flew their Lancaster back to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Reid took other work for a few years, but by the mid-1950s he was back into flying with the reserve air force in Saskatchewan, piloting Mitchells, T33s, Single Otters, and Twin Beeches. In 1964, he and his wife Doreen moved to Meadow Lake and got to know John Midgett of C&M Airways. Four years later, Reid began flying for Midgett at Buffalo Narrows.
Reid later flew for Norcanair at Buffalo Narrows, where he and Doreen managed the water base. He transferred to Norcanair's base at La Ronge, continuing at the base after it was sold to Dawn Air. Like other bush pilots, Reid flew a variety of planes including the Cessna 185, Norseman, Beaver, and Single and Twin Otters. Reid recalled that he flew a variety of people and cargo:
We hauled pretty well everything that has ever been hauled in the bush: fish and fishermen, trappers with their sleigh dogs out to their lines, people with groceries, exploration people and drill camps, a lot of tourist flying, and firefighters and water-bombing. We moved anything that had to go. I enjoyed it because there's something new all the time, and you are meeting new people all the time. It doesn't matter how many years you're flying in the bush, you can always find something happens to you that's never happened before.
Like Ray Cameron, Reid enjoyed bush flying and was not tempted away to a southern flying job. The ones who stayed, he said, developed special skills to meet the demands of the north.
There were hundreds of pilots that came up and started out in the bush and then when they got a bit of experience would get a job in the south, flying a light twin, a scheduled plane, or go with an airline. Almost all the bush pilots led a similar life: they flew in rotten weather, but they knew their way around the country pretty good, and they could get somewhere that fellows coming up couldn't make because they knew the country so well. They knew all the low areas. You would have a route for yourself from Buffalo Narrows to Cree Lake, for instance, that a young pilot would never find. It would get you there, with an extra ten minutes of flying, underneath everything, on the ground. All the old pilots had different sorts of tricks for getting around the country in weather that was pretty near illegal to fly in.
The life of a bush pilot can be hard work. "Rolling 45-gallon (about 200 litres) drums up a ramp in the winter-time, is not, for a 65-year-old, fun!" Reid recalled with a laugh. He estimated that by the time he retired from flying in 1988, he had flown about 24,000 hours, including his war service, reserve air force time, and bush flying.
De Havilland Twin Otters owned by Athabaska Airways and La Ronge Aviation
Services working out of Baker Lake in the Northwest Territories
for mineral exploration companies in 1984.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.
Another bush pilot who made the north his home is Gordon Rowan, known to all as "G.T." Today Rowan is the manager and chief pilot of the province's Northern Air Services.
Gordon Rowan grew up on the family farm at Caragana, Saskatchewan, and began farming in summer and "heading for points west" for construction work in winter. While working in Calgary in 1962, he took flying lessons, gaining his private licence that year and his commercial in 1964. After several seasons of crop spraying, Rowan joined Norcanair and was posted to Stony Rapids to become pilot and base manager there.
Nipawin Air Services' Cessna 185 being used to transport
caribou meat in the Athabasca region.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.
One of Norcanair's fleet of F-27 aircraft on the runway at Stony Rapids in 1981,
flying the scheduled service between Saskatoon and Uranium City.
Photograph courtesy of Graham Guest.
During his three years at Stony Rapids, Rowan flew all types of charter flights, from renewable resources, mineral exploration and tourism to flying trappers and caribou hunters to their traplines and hunting areas. He also remembered flying children out from remote areas to attend school in the fall and taking them home again for the summer.
During the fire season, he flew fire patrols and water-bombed fires with Beavers and Otters. "They had roll-tanks on the floats which turned over to drop the water," Rowan said. "That was the modern bombing method at the time!"
One of Rowan's recollections is an example of how aviation assisted northern people in emergency situations. "I had taken Noel and Ellen Laban out to their trapline 50 kilometres north of Stony Rapids in the early fall, and we had arranged a pick-up date," he said. "Later that fall, I was flying back from Fred Riddle's place further north and noticed there was no smoke coming from their tent and no tracks around. I landed and they were both lying in the tent sick, with the dogs starving outside. I managed to get them all in the plane and brought them back."
In 1972, Rowan left Stony Rapids to fly Norcanair's DC-3s and Cansos, and when the company acquired F-27s, he began flying them. In 1976, he joined Northern Air Services to test out and fly the Grumman Trackers and is now operations manager and chief pilot. During that time he has flown most of the aircraft used in fire fighting and today pilots one of the Trackers based in La Ronge.
Looking back over his 30 years of flying experience, more than 20 years of it in northern Saskatchewan, Rowan sees some changes. "The volume of aviation business in the north has decreased over the years," he said. "When I was in Stony Rapids there was an abundance of flying in the fall and spring for trappers, but today there are not as many going out. And there used to be a lot of flying of caribou hunters, but I reckon snowmobiles are taking over there."
Rowan, who has logged nearly 15,000 hours of flying time, also sees a decrease in other areas. "Mining and mineral exploration flying has decreased tremendously, especially in the last ten years, and so has the tourist business, and this is mostly due to more roads being built."
Two other pilots who made careers of bush flying in northern Saskatchewan were Joan and Berna Studer. Their story is unique. Not only were they women working in a traditionally male business, but they were
raised in the north and stayed to make it their home.
As young children in 1943, Joan and Berna Studer moved with their father John to a log cabin at Contact Lake, 50 kilometres north of La Ronge. John Studer, his brother Adolph, and Adolph's son Vern were prospecting in the area. Joan and Berna grew up in the log house, taking school by correspondence and being isolated every spring and fall during freeze-up and break-up. As the girls grew older, they often went out with their father, picking berries as he prospected. Joan even worked alongside her father for a time, panning for gold. The family lived at Contact Lake for 14 years until 1956.
In Gold and Other Stories, Scotty McLeod, a pilot with Saskatchewan Government Airways and later a manager for Norcanair, recalled a time when he flew supplies into the Studers' cabin:
One of the biggest thrills I got in my life as a bush pilot was with the Studers ... I was taking a load of supplies up there one year. It was the first trip after freeze-up. We'd got a report from the Studer family that the ice was okay, so I took off with the Norseman and flew to Contact Lake, about 30 miles (about 50 kilometres). When I got up there the girls, Berna and Joan - both now pilots themselves - had tramped with snowshoes out on the lake, I would say half a mile long, "Welcome, Mr McLeod." You could see it for miles. It gave me a great thrill.
With their father, uncles, and cousins involved in prospecting, trapping, flying, and fishing in northern Saskatchewan, it is not surprising that the two young women would choose careers that would keep them in the north.
Berna and Joan Studer began flying lessons in the 1950s. Joan earned her commercial pilot's licence in 1958 and spent her holidays and weekends building up flying hours and visiting around the north with her sister.
Joan became one of a handful of women in Canada to work as a bush pilot. She moved to Nipawin and started flying for Nipawin Air Services in 1967. She flew for the company for ten years, often flying Norseman CF-SAM to fishing lodges, mineral properties, and communities in northeast Saskatchewan. She was a careful pilot and was always attentive to changing weather patterns. She always kept in mind veteran bush pilot Lefty McLeod's words: "You bend down to pick up a stone and, when you straighten up, the weather has changed."
One summer while flying a Beaver on a mining contract, Joan hit a reef on one of the numerous small lakes. Hitting the reef was serious enough, but she soon found that she could not take off again because the weight of the water in the float pulled her sideways. She tried packing the float compartment with lifejackets to keep the water out but to no avail. She turned on the emergency signal in her aircraft and settled down to wait for help. By the next day, her employer, Garry Thompson, started to search for her. Although Joan could hear him calling her on the radio, Thompson could not hear her answer. However, Thompson knew the area Joan had been flying in and she was soon located.
In another incident, a Department of Transport radio operator had heard an emergency signal going off in the Pelican Narrows area, and the RCMP chartered Joan to pilot the Beaver on a search for the downed aircraft. They searched until dark but found no sign of any wreckage. It was not until the next day that Joan remembered accidentally bumping her emergency signal in the Beaver while moving some survival gear around. She had searched for her signal all day and even got paid for it!
Meanwhile, her sister Berna bought a tourist lodge at McLennan Lake on the road north of La Ronge. The location was excellent. Not only were there many lakes in the area to draw sport fishermen, but the road was busy with traffic to the northern mine sites. Berna became one of the few outfitters in Saskatchewan to fly her own aircraft. She operates a Cessna 180 airplane, flying her customers to lakes that are not accessible by road, returning to pick them up after the day's fishing.
In the fall of 1976, Joan and a partner purchased a new Cessna 185, CF-YEZ, and leased it to Nipawin Air Services. A new type of ski was installed on the plane. Joan had heard from other pilots that the ski was unsafe. On December 7, 1976, while flying for the first time with the new skis, Joan's Cessna crashed and she was killed. The cause of the accident was a structural failure of the skis.
Her sister Berna lives year-round at McLennan lake and continues to fly her customers out to remote lakes to fish. With the expansion of mineral exploration in the area in the 1990s, Berna Studer has expanded her tourist lodge to provide accommodation and a restaurant to passing diamond drillers, geologists, and others.
Flying requires more than an airplane and a pilot. Equally important are the people who keep the machines ready to fly. The air engineers are the doctors of aluminium and steel and fabric. Without them, even the best of airplanes would be grounded in no time.
People choose to be air engineers for a variety of reasons, but all are craftsmen and like working on machines. Their minds, hands, and tools work together with precision.
John Finch, at SGA, hired many apprentice aircraft engineers during the 1950s and 1960s. He had a special trick for getting good workers. He ran a "help-wanted" advertisement in The Western Producer or Family Herald: "WANTED: Young men, 17-20, from a mechanized farm with aviation experience interested in becoming apprentice air engineers." At that time many farms were becoming mechanized. Finch thought that farm boys knew what hard work was and that they had been brought up around machinery. He also knew their "aviation experience" would probably come from being air cadets, where personal discipline was emphasized. He hired many young men through that advertisement and was seldom disappointed.
Air engineer John Finch gained a private licence and flew in his spare time for
rest and relaxation. Here he is with an Aeronca Champ on Lac La Ronge.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Routine maintenance is the basic work of an aircraft engineer. The pre-flight inspection, performed before every flight, is but one of many periodic inspections. On larger aircraft, the ground crews make sure the airplane is ready to roll when the pilot comes aboard. Inspections are also required after the accumulation of a set number of flying hours, such as a hundred-hour inspection. Inspections often turn up minor repairs that require little time to fix such as burned-out light bulbs, broken instruments, and worn tires.
Norseman CF-SAN flipped over in a high wind while taxiing at Ile a la Crosse in
1960. The pilot and passengers got out and were picked up, and John Finch
was called to salvage the plane. He rented a barge from Waite
Fisheries in Buffalo Narrows and winched up the plane.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch
A crowd gathered on the dock at He a la Crosse to watch as the Norseman was turned
over and brought to shore. CF-SAN was rebuilt and continued to fly for many years.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Northern aviation stories from the early days until the 1940s often mention an air engineer. In the exploration days, aircraft could be gone for weeks or even months. Cylinders would blow, oil lines would crack and break, and occasionally aircraft would be damaged on landing or take off. During winter months air engineers put in long hours as they tried to get cold engines going. During the summer, engineers waded into icy water to repair damaged floats.
For many years an aircraft had to be deemed airworthy by an air engineer every flying day. If the pilot did not have an engineer's licence, and he was going to be away overnight, a mechanic had to accompany him to make the logbook entry. Later this requirement was extended to 7 days and finally to 30 days or 50 hours accumulated flying time, whichever came first.
When Saskatchewan Government Airways first started operations, the accompanying air engineer was not so much a necessity as a habit. Pilots liked to have them along to help with cold-weather engine starts and other duties. With careful management, the company finally got the air engineers out of the cockpit and made room for another 80 kilograms of revenue. However, an engineer was kept onboard on arctic and tidal water flights for safety's sake.
Cold weather and aircraft engineers have always been at odds with each other. Engines get stiff, batteries will not give enough power, plastic breaks, and metal becomes brittle. There is always some maintenance that must be done with bare hands. Skin blisters like a burn when working with frigid tools. Maintenance performed in the open seems to take twice as long as in the hangar.
John Pool worked for M&C and later was chief aircraft engineer for SGA. He recorded several stories about flying during the 1930s. One story tells about repairs made to a biplane one cold winter at Wathaman Lake, 80 kilometres west of Reindeer Lake:
On landing one of our aircraft on skis after fresh snow, the aircraft struck a frozen ridge. The right landing gear failed, damaging the lower wing beyond repair and the upper wing for about six feet (two metres) inboard from the tip, and a bent propeller.
As we did not have an aircraft large enough to fly in a replacement wing, it was decided to make up all the parts requested and build the lower wing at the lake where the aircraft was damaged. An engineer, a mechanic, and the pilot were flown in together with a large tent, supplies, stove, parts, and materials.
The temperatures were consistent around minus 40 degrees Celsius. The lower wing was assembled, covered, and doped in the tent. The upper wing was repaired, consisting of both spars having to be spliced, ribs and tip bows replaced, covered and doped, undercarriage and propeller replaced, and the aircraft ferried back to Prince Albert.
The elapsed time was nine days from the time they left until they returned. I feel this was a record which would be hard to surpass under the circumstances, working, sleeping, cooking in a tent, and working outside on the aircraft in severe sub-zero conditions.
For years aircraft engines were heated with blow pots, the small flame throwers that plumbers use. After a day's flight, the pilot would stop the engine by turning off the fuel at the fuel shut-off valve instead of the mixture lever. For safety's sake, this ran the carburettor dry so there was no raw fuel in front of the firewall. Also for safety, any oil spatters or leaks were wiped clean. About an hour before the morning flight, the engineer would untie the engine tarps and allow them to drape down to the ground. The blow pot was set on the ground under the engine, and its blue naphtha gas flame was turned up high. When used correctly, it could warm a Beaver engine in less than an hour. Care was needed though. More than one aircraft was lost while being heated, usually because it had a dirty engine or fuel vapours under the cowling.
McMurray Air Service Limited engineer Ron Pilatzki beside a Beech 18 which went down
with engine trouble in the Northwest Territories. The temperature was -30 Celsius and
a 40 kilometres per hour wind was blowing. A plastic tent has been erected, and a
Herman-Nelson heater, on the left, provides warmth inside while the engine is repaired.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
John Pool thought there had to be a better way than having an open flame so near to fuel and oil. He worked on some ideas at SGA. Here is what he wrote about his new, safe engine heaters:
In 1954, [I designed] a catalyst type engine heater that when placed in the engine nacelle at night would keep the engine warm enough to start in sub-zero temperatures without additional heating. The heaters operated for approximately 24 hours on being filled with naphtha fluid, the engines being previously diluted and covered with an engine tent or cover.
In liaison with the National Research Council, this type of heater was developed to be very efficient, and manufacturing rights for Canada were obtained.
The heaters were known as PLAT - CAT engine heaters and were supplied to numerous operators in Canada, Alaska, the RCAF, and Australia for use in the Antarctic.
The ultimate challenge for any air engineer is to rebuild a wrecked airplane. Broken. landing gear, damaged engine, bent wing - the mechanic looks at them and sees an airplane that will fly again. With skill, care, and ingenuity, those fractured pieces come together again and return to the flight line.
Clarence Ferguson was flying this SGA Cessna 180, CF-JQD, over the Pinehouse Lake area
when it had engine problems. He put it down amongst small trees with little damage,
and John Finch put together a team to get the plane out. A wide trail had to be cut
through the bush for half a kilometre to drag the plane over to Agumik Lake.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
The plane at Agumik Lake during the engine change, with engineer
Marvin Stene, left, and Gabriel Natomagan of Pinehouse, right.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
John Finch salvaged and rebuilt many airplanes during his engineering career. Finch received his air engineer's licence in Ontario in February 1946. In the early 1950s, he moved to Prince Albert and became SGA's maintenance superintendent for northern operations. During the 1950s and 1960s, Finch was well known for recovering downed airplanes from the bush. No matter if an airplane crashed in the barren lands or sunk in a lake near home, Finch could recover it quickly.
In 1959, Clarence Ferguson, who had survived many trips as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War, was working as a DNR flying conservation officer. He was flying a timber survey with a Cessna 180, CF-JQD, near Agumik Lake, about 20 kilometres west of Pinehouse Lake. Ferguson had engine problems and landed in small timber with very little damage to the floats. The Cessna required an engine change in the bush and the floats could be easily repaired. The problem was getting the airplane to the lake about a kilometre away.
George Greening, standing in the doorway, arrives in Norseman CF-SAN to pick up
crew and equipment. Repairs have been completed to the Cessna 180 and it
has been flown back to La Rouge. Marvin Stene, centre,
bedrolls, and Gabriel Natomagan packs away the tools.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Finch hired a crew of men from Pinehouse who in a day and a half cut a road to the water's edge. The airplane was brought out by muscle power. Beaching gear with wheels helped get it over the dry ground, but they had to make special pads to pull it through the muskeg. Once it was on the shore, Finch and another engineer set up a bush camp and went to work. They changed the engine and made quick repairs to a damaged wingtip. Within a few days, it was flown out to La Ronge for further inspection and then on to Prince Albert for a major repair to the wing.
The day after the crash Ferguson needed to do more flying. He went and asked Finch for another airplane. "No, sir," replied Finch. "You didn't bring back the one I gave you yesterday."
This was not the first salvage operation that year. Earlier, while they were still flying on skis, a pilot put an SGA Cessna 180, CF-HLF, down on the Clearwater River north of La Loche. It too had engine trouble. It was early in the spring and, after landing on the ice, the pilot and his trapper passengers quickly pushed the airplane off the weakening ice to the sandy river bank.
Finch flew to La Loche and took a helicopter to the Clearwater River to get ready for the engine change. When they landed, he warned the pilot to stay with the helicopter in case the ice under it gave way. As he walked away the pilot said, "Oh, the ice is good here," and hopped out, leaving the helicopter idling. A moment later Finch heard some splashing and there was the helicopter pilot up to his neck in water. He scrambled out of the water, climbed into the helicopter, and was off the ice in an instant.
An SGA Cessna 180 landed on the Clearwater River with engine trouble and a second
Cessna bringing in assistance went through the soft spring ice.
Above, pilot Jim Barber with Cessna 180 CF-IRZ.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Barber's Cessna is winched out of the ice by John Finch's team.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Both Cessna planes are repaired on the shore. Because the take-off area was short,
the tails were tied to trees, the engines opened to full throttle, and the ropes cut
to ensure a fast take-off. Finch's team returned to La Loche by helicopter.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.
Finch called SGA's office in La Ronge to send over an apprentice to help him change the Cessna's engine. Meanwhile, Finch rode the helicopter back to La Loche and made preparations for the engine change. When the apprentice did not show up, Finch knew there were problems. He was right. Jim Barber had flown Finch's apprentice to Clearwater River in another Cessna 180, CF-IRZ, and had landed on the river near the first airplane. The afternoon sun had softened the ice, and Barber's airplane went through as far as the propeller.
Finch climbed aboard a helicopter the next morning and headed for the Clearwater River, where a helicopter pad had already been brushed out for them. As they approached they saw a dark spot on the ice near the shore. It was Barber's Cessna. The other one was nearby onshore.
They had to work fast. It was another sunny day and the ice was getting worse by the minute. Bringing in floats and doing a changeover there in the bush was out of the question. The river was too shallow and full of sandbars for a water take-off. If they did not get them out today they might have to leave both airplanes there until the next winter.
Finch and his mechanic and pilot crew went to work. They got Barber's airplane out of the water and started inspecting the engine for water damage. Fortunately, when Barber had realized he was starting to sink through the ice, he shut down the engine immediately and there was no propeller or engine damage. The rest of the airplane checked out all right, and they could turn their full attention to the engine change on the first Cessna. They kept a careful eye on the deteriorating ice. Even as the afternoon wore on they knew the ice would not hold much longer.
As evening came the air-cooled. The spring thaw was halted for the day, surface water drained through the cracks, and the ice started to firm up. Meanwhile, the two airplanes were getting a final inspection and engine run-up. At last the airplanes were jockeyed into a position where they could make a straight-out take-off. Every extra kilogram of weight was removed from the airplane. Barber figured out the minimum fuel he needed to get to La Loche and drained off the rest.
There were no brakes on the skis, and the pilots did not want to waste any distance while revving up to full power. Finch tied a rope from the tail wheel to a tree. With the throttle wide open and the airplane straining at the rope, they cut the line and set it free. The Cessna rocketed across the ice and reached skyward. The other airplane followed and in minutes they were landing at La Loche.
Finch gathered up his tools and the extra weight from the airplanes, loaded it in the helicopter, and joined the others in La Loche for a good night's sleep.
John Finch worked for SGA and its successor Norcanair until 1968. He worked out of the province for a few years but returned to work for various smaller companies. Finch retired in 1984 and lives in Nipawin, but his life-long interest in aviation and its history continues. During the winter months, he gives lectures for the local air cadet squadron and does historical research for museums.
There are hundreds of stories about repairing airplanes in the bush, about changing engine cylinders at minus 40 degrees Celsius, and about make-shift repairs that get the airplanes back home. Ingenuity is one of the major hallmarks of northern air engineers.
Northern Saskatchewan owes a great debt to the hardy and energetic pilots, engineers, entrepreneurs, and others in the aviation industry. One way appreciation has been shown for the hard work and courage of these individuals is that northern Saskatchewan now has Campbell Island in Mayson Lake, Windrum Lake, Jewett Lake, and many others. Thanks to their efforts, the airplane is an essential part of the north, touching every aspect of northern life.