Bush Pilots: where the real flying was and is

   What is real flying?  Tricky question. A good one, though, one that, for the sake of animated discussion, has to do with  the essence of flying and deserves a crack at a straight-forward and meaningful answer, especially in the present era of glass cockpits and fly-by-wire control systems for airliners. The question came up in the context of a series of videos by National Geographic linked to at the end of this post.

   The answer certainly does not turn on the meaning of unreal flying or on comparing simulator flying with the operation of real aircraft, for that matter.

   Rather, real flying in this post is mostly centered on a sense of nostalgia or current interest for the commercial operation, in remote areas with few facilities, of single-engine piston aircraft with proven designs that have stood the test of time: 50 years for some bush planes. Piston work horses, they just as well may be called. However, twin turbine engine airplanes, such as the Twin Otter, with the ability of landing on unprepared surfaces also fit in bush flying operations.

   Bush flying is often associated with mountain flying where wilderness encompasses both remote low-lying areas and mountainous terrain.

   Real flying is, of course, both a relative and subjective concept. An analogy can be made between real flying and non-competitive real sailing, for instance. Real sailing involves blue water cruising such as extended passage-making on infrequently travelled routes, during which the skipper and his or her crew are located somewhere offshore, days of sailing away from any source of help should weather conditions drastically deteriorate or essential equipment break down. Bush pilots sometimes meet similar situations between refueling points, especially in areas or in weather conditions making a rescue attempt difficult to achieve in a reasonable amount of time. In the case of bush flying, remoteness is not simply a matter of distance from the nearest rescue facility. It is alo the consequence of light bush aircraft, whether of the fixed-wing or rotary-wing type, being able to get into places that are downright difficult for air and ground rescue teams to reach. Isolation in distance or in time goes to the very heart of bush flying and sets it apart from other types of commercial flight operations.

   Another more encompassing aspect of bush flying is that it takes place at lower atltitudes than airline operations. As a rule of thumb, the ability to fly above the weather separates commercial airline operations from bush flying.

   This is why real flying can be readily linked to bush flying. Commercial flight in today’s Canada and America’s far North started with bush flying, not necessarily far up North in the olden days of commercial aviation. 

   Bush flying is about humanity, the necessities of life in the Great White North, linking small isolated communities, applying flying skills to often unpredictable situations, knowing how to interpret surface conditions from the air and dealing with wilderness, changing weather conditions, and skimpy but gradually improving infrastructure. By and large, it is essential transportation. It is also about catering to explorers, scientists, seasonal fishermen and hunters from the South.

   For bush pilots, bush flying entails self-reliance, sound judgment and outdoor survival skills. They take flying conditions as they come, within limits of course. Planning future needs comes second ever since the early stages of aviation. Dealing with the ‘now’ comes first. Rescuing stranded people, bringing medical staff and supplies where most needed, including humanitarian and spiritual support, come first.

   Bush pilots step in where remote dirt roads end up North, where plain human and natural environment beg for outside contact, attention and protection. They enjoy their job even though it’s not a comfortable one. There is no 9 to 5 daily schedule, one of the many aspects that actually define bush flying. It is a beautiful one, though, partly because of their contact with wilderness and partly because they feel they are needed and appreciated. They can be tour-guides, paramedics, pastors to name but a few callings that make bush flying a practical job.

   They know how to land on water, on snow with properly equipped aircraft, and on unprepared landing surfaces, level or not.

   Click on the following link to access a National Geographic series on the theme of bush flying, illustrating the above observations.

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