Today, bush pilots. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Bush flying is pretty unfamiliar to most of us. It's done
out of our line of sight. Yet, it has played a huge role in opening up regions which,
by the end of WW-I, were inaccessible to rail, coach -- even horses. Most of places
like Canada, Alaska, Australia, and New Guinea were thinly-populated by natives and
only rarely visited by others.
But airplanes finally offered some possibility of getting into those areas. And a few
flyers, whose appetite for danger had not been satisfied by War, turned toward the
One of the earliest services was formed by a man who'd worked with the Canadian forest
service. He hired a former British Navy pilot and borrowed two of the Curtiss HS-2L
seaplanes that America had built to hunt German submarines off the East Coast.
The HS-2L's body was a big kayak with two open cockpits. Its two wings had
a 74-foot span, and sat like a truss bridge atop the body. It carried a ton of goods and/or
people, cruised at 65 mph, and had a range just over 400 miles.
The service began by scouting fires and doing aerial photography in Quebec. Soon a fleet
of HS-2Ls was delivering goods and people throughout Eastern Canada. Then Ontario
set up its own provincial service and the whole operation might've taken on the appearance of
legitimacy. But a gold rush occurred at Red Lake, Ontario, in 1926. It sparked a spate of
new fly-by-night operations.
The HS-2L was still a work-horse, but now newer airplanes appeared. The
Fokker Universal was a high-wing monoplane. Two pilots in an open cockpit
and six passengers inside its cabin -- 118 mph, and a 700 mile range. It could be
fit with skis, wheels, or pontoons. (Note, the cockpit has been enclosed
on the Fokker Universal shown on the Canadian postage stamp.)
So bush operations spread north and west -- into the Yukon and Alaska. Conditions were
ghastly -- crashes and death -- but the skill of the pilots became legendary. One, a man
named Bob Reeve wrote on the side of his maintenance shack, Always use Reeve Airways.
Slow Unreliable Unfair and Crooked. Scared & Unlicensed. Reeve Airways "The Best".
Reeve had flown mail over the Andes. He made and lost a pile of money. Then he stowed away
in a steamer for Anchorage in 1932. He stowed away again on a boat to Valdez. There he
borrowed an airplane and dazzled the owners with both his mechanical and flying ability.
He was soon flying prospectors into the mountains and using glaciers as airstrips.
Meanwhile another bush pilot, Noel Wien, had built up a 175-airplane service. When Reeve
went broke this time, Wien hired him. Now airplanes landed on real airstrips; and, in 1973,
Wien bought five Boeing 737 jets. And so it was, when I spoke in Alaska, that a
pilot flew me around the Kenai Peninsula in a light Stinson airplane. We used a concrete
runway, and I could not summon even a shadow of a doubt that I was safe. It was fun, but an
era was clearly gone.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Bush Pilots. (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983)
For more on the Curtiss HS-2L see:
For the Fokker Universal and other bush airplanes, see:
The two NASA photos below show the wreckage of explorer Admiral Byrd's Fokker Universal which was
destroyed by high winds near the Rockefeller mountains during his first Antarctic expedition in 1928-1930.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.