Many Western New York anglers and hunters think of bush planes as the start and finish to an enjoyable stay somewhere on a northern Canadian lake.
Each spring, summer or fall, prop planes fitted with pontoon floats take sportsmen and women to cabins or campsites along remote, roadless waterways for a few days of solitude and excitement rarely found in modern suburbs. After just a day or two in the bush, with no planes overhead or radios, TVs and other electronic noises on the ground, most anglers, hunters and campers key on sounds of distant bush planes that would go unnoticed while in a city, town or even farm field.
A video shown to visitors entering the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., has a great line: "For many northern residents, the sound of float planes on a nearby lake or river was a sign of spring."
Members of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers had a chance to visit this bush plane museum while attending a conference across the Saint Mary River in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., last week. For outdoors folk, this museum vividly displays these uniquely Canadian air taxis that have a storied past as well as an essential role in fly-in outings today.
Bush-plane type aviation marked the first flight of a Canadian-made airship. Shortly after the Wright Brothers took their first heavier-than-air trip in North Carolina, Canada's Silver Dart went airborne on Feb. 23, 1909. Curiously, crude film footage of that flight shows this plane was destined more for service in the bush than in some crowded metropolis.
Don Johnson, bush plane museum general manager, took time to show writers around the 34 exhibits, including an engine test cell. Here, plane engines can be tested after overhaul.
"Operators can check a motor while it's running for efficient use of fuel and oil consumption," Johnson said as he showed visitors through the vented chamber where engines are mounted for inspection.
Many makes and models catch viewers' eyes as they look at brightly painted restorations and working aircraft and vehicle models, but one name reigns supreme among float plane manufacturers - DeHavilland.
DeHavilland's two main models - Beavers and Otters - have been main workhorses for bush fly-in operations throughout Canada's north country.
"Engineers in England didn't think this plane could be adapted for use as a bush plane. Canadian engineers proved them wrong," Johnson said.
The Beaver, with a design based on a British single-engine, single-wing land craft called the Gypsy Moth, has been a steady bush-flight provider to the extent that it replaced the Fairchild Husky as the leading bush plane in 1947. Today, Beavers easily ferry four clients and their gear into fishing or hunting camps regularly each warm-weather season.
The Otter, a larger single-engine plane, flies six or eight passengers and gear to their destinations and back to the base after an outing. Production of these Beavers and Otters continued until 1967, when the company converted to production of the more modern Turbo Beaver and Twin Otter models. Only 466 Otters were built during those two decades, but many of them are still in service today, Johnson said.
While most sporting folk think of these planes as a pleasure craft, they first came into use in timber surveys, mapping and - most important - fire watch and fighting. Following a massive forest fire in 1922, the Ontario Provincial Air Service was formed in 1924. Airborne planes could locate and monitor the direction of fires more accurately than ground or tower observers.
On a recent fly-in trip out of Nakina, our group was left in camp on pick-up day until nearly dark. The pilot explained that the forest service requested outfitters with float planes assist in firefighting operations. On the ground at our camp, no signs of fire or smoke could be seen. But when we were 500 feet up, the line of smoke took up a major quarter of the horizon.
Bush planes not only spotted these fire sites, they went through an elaborate development of water dispersal, starting with ill-fitting canvas bags. An innovative roll-type tank, developed in 1957 and '58, allowed pilots maximum carriage and precise delivery to fire bases. Today, water and fire-retardant materials are delivered with helicopters and larger fixed-wing aircraft, but - as in the Nakina incident - forest fighting officials still rely on the dependable Beavers and Otters for flights to areas with narrow, short landing spaces.
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre, at the end of Bay and Pim streets in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is a must-experience for anyone who has taken or plans to take a fly-in trip. This clean, vividly informative museum, privately funded, receives no government support. In 2001, it received awards from both the province of Ontario and nationally as the top indoor public attraction.
To find out more about this site, call toll-free: (877) 287-4752, ext. 333, or visit the Web site, www.bushplane.com.