Wings Magazine

Aircraft that conquered the north celebrated in exhibit

Oct. 28, 2013, Winnipeg - Only a few generations ago, northern Canada was largely unknown and unmapped. As the era of flight dawned, a few brave pilots took to the skies with little more than a wing and a prayer, hauling goods and people to remote, frozen communities with almost no protection from the elements.

October 28, 2013  By The Canadian Press

The derring-do era of the bush pilot is
celebrated at the Western Canada Aviation Museum, an 8,500-square-metre
trip back in time that sits near Winnipeg's James Armstrong Richardson
International Airport.

Some of the museum's earliest planes look
jerry-rigged — a cross between a flying boat and a snowmobile, with an
unheated cockpit and landing gear adapted to a region where airstrips
were few and far between.


"When (pioneering bush pilot) Fred Stevenson
took off on his very first flight, he had a plane that had no skis, and
of course there were no airports up north. So what he did was put a
couple of toboggans under the wheels," Shirley Render, the museum's
executive director, said during a recent tour.

With no readily available replacement parts
and no indoor hangars in many areas, bush pilots made do. If a piece of
propeller broke off during a hard landing, the pilot would saw off an
equivalent piece on the other side to keep things balanced, Render said.
If a crew had to spend the night in subzero weather, they would drain
the oil from the plane's engine and sleep with it to keep it warm.

The planes on display at the museum seem a
long way from today's pressure-controlled, plush-seat planes.

There's a Fokker Super Universal, built in
the 1920s, whose 420-horsepower single engine would cruise at only 100
mph (160 km/h). The aircraft at the museum was used to bring mail,
supplies, prospectors and even mail-order brides to Yukon.

Nearby, there's a Vickers Vedette, a wooden
flying boat that was able to take off from water with a very rapid rise —
an important attribute for pilots relying on small lakes or rivers.

The museum also has photographs and stories
to accompany each plane. Several photos show planes taking off from the
Red River just south of downtown Winnipeg. The river was used as a base
for float planes operated by Western Canada Airways, owned by the same
James A. Richardson whose name adorns the city's airport.

As the North developed, there was increasing
demand for supplies, especially big equipment. In the '30s, Richardson
purchased a Junkers airplane from Germany with the capacity to carry
7,935 pounds (3,600 kilograms) — more than triple what most other planes
could hold. Known as the Flying Boxcar, it was the largest
single-engine plane in North America and was used to bring everything
from mining equipment to cattle to northern communities. A restored
Junkers now sits in the museum and seems to tower over other bush

There are more modern planes on display as
well. Museum visitors can go into a Vickers Viscount turboprop used by
Air Canada in the 1950s and '60s that seems almost palatial compared to
today's passenger jets. The windows are large and each seat has leg room
that hearkens back to a time when, as the museum literature puts it,
"passenger travel was glamorous."

"Everybody was in first class," Render said. "It was done in style."

Part of the museum is dedicated to Canadian innovations in flight.

There is an early helicopter from the 1930s,
made with parts from automobiles and farm machinery by three Manitoba
brothers — Doug, Theodore and Nicholas Frobe.

There is an Aero Avrocar — a flying saucer
developed in the 1950s that was shelved after proving unstable in wind

There is a Canadair CL-84 — a tilt-wing
plane developed in the early '60s that could take off vertically with
its propellers facing upward. Once airborne, the wings would be tilted
forward and the aircraft would fly like a regular plane.

It's the same concept used in the V-22
Osprey that was recently developed by Boeing and Bell Helicopters in the
U.S. That is one reason Render, her small staff and the large number of
volunteers at the museum like to promote Canada's contribution to

"It's, again, another country getting the
kudos for developing something whereas we had this idea almost 50 years
earlier," she said.


Stories continue below