Shaped by the land: the emergence of the Canadian bush plane

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Fokker Super Universals at Cameron Bay
Fokker Super Universals at Cameron Bay

January 1, 1930, saw Walter Gilbert on the threshold of achieving his ambition to fly in what he called the ‘true’ north. Onboard a Fokker Super Universal winging its way above the wintry landscape of northern Alberta, Gilbert was on his way to join the staff of Western Canada Aviation’s Mackenzie District operation. To a pilot like Gilbert, the Canadian north represented a space of possibility – a land of economic opportunity and romantic adventure. It was also a region in transition. Across the Canadian Subarctic, the interwar years were a period of significant change, as resource industries moved north, transforming the region’s economy, society, and very landscape.

Canadian aviation was deeply connected to these developments. Float and ski-equipped aircraft were able to use the region’s many lakes and rivers as landing fields, thus providing a flexible transport system that enabled resource developers to access the wealth they saw in the land beyond the railways’ end. At the same time, these new industries provided a market for aviation, which the fledgling industry was quick to exploit. Plying the northern skies, these bush pilots were part of a wider transformation of the Canadian north during the interwar years.

While many histories focus on the changes wrought on the northern landscape in this period, probing the history of the technologies used in the north allows us to see that the northern environment was far from passive in these stories. Even as these pilots and their planes contributed to the reshaping of the Canadian north, the environment itself was actively engaged in a process that would simultaneously transform the technology. When Gilbert joined WCA’s Mackenzie District staff, the regional fleet was made up exclusively of American-designed and -built aircraft (specifically, the Super Universals that had carried Gilbert north). By the time he left, 8 years later, the fleet included Canadian aircraft designed specifically for use as bush planes. This chapter traces the genesis of these Canadian bush planes, using the lens of Gilbert’s Mackenzie District career to explore how these new planes emerged from the encounter between the technology and the land.

A close analysis of Gilbert’s experience lays bare how the interaction between the aircraft and the environment, both physical and imagined, was inscribed onto the machines themselves. On the one hand, images of the land would influence the airline’s selection and deployment of its fleet. On the other, the physical encounter between environment and technology would have real consequences for how the aircraft were used and, even more tangibly, would produce very real effects on the materials used to construct the planes. The technology’s behaviour in this environment, filtered through the pilots’ images of the north as both a space of opportunity and an exceptional, potentially dangerous, environment, translated into changes to the aircrafts’ design and construction. Initially this meant adapting existing aircraft to suit the northern environment, followed by Canadian-specific design variants, and ultimately, the creation of aircraft designed especially for Canadian bush flying. Told through the experience of one pilot, the larger story of the Canadian bush plane reminds us that the northern landscape is not a passive backdrop to these histories; that even as we are reconfiguring the physical landscape or refashioning our images of the environment, we (and our machines) are in turn shaped by our encounters with the land.

Also see Walter Gilbert, ‘Arctic Pilot’. The CBC Digital Archives Website.


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Marionne Cronin

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