Featured image: Library and Archives Canada/PA-059984

5/23/1924: Canada’s First Scheduled Air Service

DALLAS – Today, in 1924, Laurentide Air Service Ltd. offered the first regular Canadian airmail, passenger, and freight service. This comprehensive service flew from Haileybury, Ontario, to Rouyn, Quebec.

Laurentide would cease service in 1925. Over the next few years, the major bush-flying agency in Canada was the Ontario Provincial Air Service (OPAS). OPAS, which was established in 1924, was almost entirely dedicated to forestry operations.

The Noorduyn Norseman, also known as the C-64 Norseman, is a Canadian single-engine bush plane designed to operate from unimproved surfaces. Distinctive stubby landing gear protrusions from the lower fuselage make it easily recognizable.

Photo: Le Pontential Aérien Mondial 1936, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bush Flying

Bush flying is a term used in Canada to describe aviation in sparsely populated northern areas. Between the two world wars, flight in the Arctic and the “bush” of the Canadian Shield grew. Cold weather and large distances between communities were obstacles for early Bush pilots, and their tenancy and bravado are part of their legacy.

Since airstrips were scarce, their planes were often fitted with skis or floats, allowing them to take off and land on water or snow. This form of aviation was critical to the North’s development of services and industries. Despite the romantic picture of the Bush pilot, Bush flying continues to serve remote communities in Canada.

Bush planes in particular had to be very rugged, easy to maintain, and capable of taking off and landing in very short distances; dependability, not speed, was the most important feature. Since Canada’s many lakes provided natural “airstrips” most of the aircraft were equipped with floats or hulls to land on water.

The use of skis in winter allowed for year-round use. Photo: Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre

Early History

Bush flying first appeared at the end of WWI. By that time, railways had connected much of southern Canada, but the north remained as inaccessible by land as it had always been.

However, its numerous lakes and rivers provided landing strips for water-based planes in the summer and ski-equipped planes in the winter. Pilots followed the course of rivers in the early days of navigation, which was often based on visual recognition, as most flying was before the introduction of navigation beacons.

Bush flying took off as a means of conducting aerial forest surveys and reconnaissance in order to detect forest fires. In 1919, Laurentide and other paper companies employed Stuart Graham, a former Royal Naval Air Service pilot, to conduct forest-fire patrols over the St. Maurice River valley. Laurentide expanded its patrols from Lake of the Woods to James Bay, using two surplus Curtiss HS-2L flying boats (seaplanes with floatable hulls).

James A. Richardson, a wealthy Winnipeg grain merchant, founded Western Canada Airways (later renamed Canadian Airways) in 1926. During the next few years, Bush pilots conducted extensive surveys of the Hudson Bay Railway’s proposed route. Seven aircraft were also ferried to the tip of the Ungava Peninsula in the Arctic in 1927 to collect information on Hudson Strait navigation.

Leigh Brintnell, one of the Western Canada Airways’ pilots, took off from Winnipeg in 1929, dropped off prospector Gilbert Labine at Great Bear Lake, flew to Aklavik, through the Richardson Mountains across Yukon and northern BC, then to Edmonton and back to Winnipeg — a total distance of 15,000 kilometers. (LaBine discovered the uranium-bearing mineral pitchblende in 1930 and struck it rich.)

Legacy of Bush Flying

Bush flying was a key player in the development of mining in Canada. By the mid-1930s, the country had carried more freight by air than the rest of the world combined. During the discovery of iron ore reserves in Quebec and Labrador, the size of bush flying would increase exponentially.

From 1948 to 1954, Hollinger Ungava Transport hauled gasoline, food, disassembled bulldozers, and even cement for a dam to help construct the Quebec, North Shore, and Labrador Railway. At its height, the project operated 70 flights a day and transported tens of thousands of passengers on thousands of flights.

The North was changed by bush flying. By the 1930s, it was possible to rent an airplane and fly almost anywhere. Trappers and missionaries, as well as geologists and surveyors, were able to use aircraft. Furthermore, victims of injuries or disease may be easily escorted to a medical facility.

Canadian Pacific Airlines and a Modernized Aviation Sector

In the early 1940s, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company decided to purchase Bush airlines Ginger Coote Airways, Southern Air Transport, Wings, Prairie Airways, Mackenzie Air Services, Arrow Airways, Starratt Airways, Quebec Airways, and Montreal & Dominion Skyways.

When a larger airline, Canadian Airways, is added to the lot, a brand new airline is brought into being on May 16, 1940: Canadian Pacific Airlines (CP). At the helm of CP, there are no real businessmen but people with a vision and courage, comprised mostly of Bush pilots and flying pioneers. Among them, Grant McConachie, the first CP CEO, Punch Dickins, and Wop May stand out.

Airstrips were built in the larger northern settlements after WWII, helicopters were introduced, and good radio and navigation facilities, as well as up-to-date weather information services, were developed. All of this has had a significant impact on northern Canada and bush aviation, but aircraft with floats or skis continue to support those who live and work in remote locations.

Featured image shows Wilfrid Reid “Wop” May with Bellanca “Pacemaker” aircraft of Commercial Airways Ltd. delivering airmail along the Mackenzie River, Northwest Territories, 1930. Article source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

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