Winged Messenger: Airmail in the Heroic Era, 1918-1939

The Bush Pilot

The pilot was not a loner, in any sense of the word. Occasionally he would be accompanied on his travels by a mechanic, but at all times he could rely on the support, moral and technical, of the engineers and mechanics that made up his ground crew, or "black gang" as they were called. Flying with another person made perfect sense, especially during the winter, when putting the aircraft to bed for the night or starting it in the morning was a two-person job. The process of draining the oil at night and pouring it back into the motor the next morning — to prevent it from congealing like glue with the cold — was particularly tricky, because it had to be done in a very short space of time, and the oil had to be taken back and forth from the hut. Even the simple act of refuelling required two people: one to activate the pump, and the other to hold the hose towards the funnel and strainer. Whatever the task, in freezing weather two pairs of hands were better than one.

Wherever space permitted on board, the pilot would store the emergency equipment that, in the event of a forced landing, might save his life and that of his passengers — items such as extra socks, mitts, a parka, mukluks, ski pants, a rifle and ammunition, and rabbit snares, plus an emergency supply of beans, bacon and flour. Stored inside his head was the pilot's most valuable resource: his knowledge of and experience with the terrain. Geographical knowledge gave him the ability to "fly by the seat of his pants" and see with his own eyes. Traversing the Canadian bush in an era when the geography of Canada's wide open spaces was not yet fully charted was a challenge. The pilot navigated by "dead reckoning": he would ascertain where he was by noting what was beneath him. Some pilots followed railroad tracks, power lines or even dog-trails. Others preferred to latch onto waterways. The pilot had to know the pertinent landmarks by heart. Punch Dickins never entered a new and unmapped territory unless the weather was clear. He kept his own sketch-maps, as well as published maps and a compass, as a means of keeping track of his information.

Once the pilot reached his destination, he had to put down. In summer, this meant landing the craft, which was outfitted with pontoon landing gear, in the water. The better class of landing bases were equipped with floating docks anchored to the shore. At Fort Smith (N.W.T.), there was unfortunately only one dock, and when more than one plane showed up, it was crowded: "there is no place for passengers to get ashore or for the respective Pilots to refuel their aircraft" was one lament in 1937. Perhaps there was not enough room to load or unload the bags of mail. Some pilots, anticipating less than elaborate landing conditions, travelled with a canoe strapped under their fuselage or wing.

In winter, pilots were expected to land on the frozen surface of a lake or river. This was not always possible, since not all bodies of water would cooperate and freeze over before the start of the winter season. Planes were known to have crashed through an ice surface that was not thick enough to support the weight of a fully loaded aircraft. An entire village might have to be called out to fetch a plane out of the frozen waters. It was just as likely that the community would be asked to smooth out the landing surface by trampling on the ice and snow with their snowshoes. And then there was down time, that peculiarly Canadian version of purgatory that comes once in the fall and again in spring, when winter has not completely started nor is it completely over. Air traffic might come to a halt for weeks at a time, while everyone waited for the lake to freeze over or the ice to melt away. Down time meant no flights, no flights meant no mail, and no mail meant no news.

The exigencies of flying mail under these conditions, primitive as they were, seem, from a late twentieth-century perspective, quite daunting. But they were part of the normal course of events in the heroic era of airmail. The spirit of the pilot and crew in this era was anything but fatalistic; it defied the formidable elements of nature and the predictable imperfections of early aviation technology. Saint-Exupéry captures this sense of dedication, courage and tenacity in Wind, Sand and Stars:

To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one's comrades. It is to feel, when setting one's stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world. 1

Such is a fitting epitaph for an era when airmail wrapped itself around the world and pushed itself into the furthest corners of the globe, here draped in desert sand, there nuzzled in the cold of the Arctic snows. Looking back to that time, this publication and this exhibition are dedicated to the pilots who risked their lives to get the mail through.

1 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, appearing in printed version of this article, copyright 1939 by Saint-Exupery and renewed 1967 by Lewis Galantiere, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, Harbrace Paperbound Library, Harcourt Brace and World, 1967: p. 43.

Airmail and the Postal Village | Canadian Airmail: A Late Bloomer | Experiments | Building the System Region by Region | Bringing Home the Goods | The Bush Pilot | Credits