Make it Go with Guts and Glue: Interwar Bush Flying as Winter Narrative

Scroll this

This is the ninth post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

Settler Canadians have a long and diverse history of mobilizing techno-scientific systems of all sizes to make their winters materially manageable and culturally legible. From municipal snow removal schemes to the staging of indoor studio portraiture to look like the rugged outdoors, the conspicuous consumption of winter via technological platforms has facilitated the foregrounding of seasonality in Canadian techno-cultures.1 In particular, Canada’s aviation industry in the first half of the twentieth century was frequently oriented towards solving the literal and figurative problems of being a nation-state just at the horizons of the geographic and climatic imagination.

At the end of the First World War, the continued expansion of Canadian settler colonial enterprise west and north moved aviation to the forefront of nation-building projects, largely because of the formidable territory not heavily populated by settlers. A survey that took weeks or months by foot took only days by airplane, and through the 1920s and 1930s the Canadian Department of Mines and Resources developed a variety of tools, techniques, and tactics to make the sub-Arctic legible by air.2

Bush flying was literally a key part of establishing what made Canada a transcontinental nation. Put simply, survey aircraft identified potential mineral resources in the sub-Arctic, and would then supply people, supplies, mail, and medicine to the burgeoning mining communities that were being established in those places and the communities that were connected to them by networks of trade. One of those communities was Fort Simpson, now a part of what is currently referred to as the Northwest Territories. It is the ancestral land of the Dehcho Dene. Fort Simpson was originally a fur trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and its proximity to the large lakes of the Canadian subarctic made it a key site in the transportation and resource extraction networks there, especially after oil was discovered nearby around 1920.

In 1921, the Imperial Oil Company was desperate to establish air service to oil reserves at Norman Wells along the Mackenzie River in order to make the 900-mile trek from Norman Wells to Peace River, which was more-or-less the northernmost boundary of the Canadian settler imagination, less challenging. Imperial Oil hired a pilot and aviation company manager named George Gorman to make this attempt as the head of their new “aviation department.”

On March 24, 1921, Gorman, another pilot named Elmer Fullerton, and several other crew members set off to fly the Mackenzie River delta from Peace River to Norman Wells in two re-purposed single-engine Junkers JL-6 aircraft, nicknamed the René and the Vic after the secretary and the daughter of Imperial Oil’s vice president. The first section of the flight was fairly uneventful, but a light snowstorm hit the aircraft as they flew over Fort Simpson on March 30 and the crews were forced to land–the first airplane landing in the Northwest Territories. The Vic, with Fullerton at the controls, went down relatively undamaged, but the René broke through the snow crust, swung into a four-foot-deep snow drift, and broke a landing skid and the propeller. The party consolidated the working parts of the two aircraft onto the René and, due to the heavily encrusted snowdrifts, were forced to move the aircraft to a clearer spot approximately a mile away to work on repairs. It is unclear whether the crews intended to soldier on north or return to Peace River at that point, but after the René’s repairs were complete on April 3, the aircraft stalled just after takeoff and crashed, damaging the axle, undercarriage, and only working propeller.

The Rene after a crash-landing in early April. Ingenium Archives, Ken Molson Fonds, KM-08430,

Propellers were a carefully calibrated aircraft part that were becoming increasingly specialized through the 1920s and 1930s.3 This meant that both the René and Vic were essentially stranded until a spare propeller could be brought north from Peace River, which would take eight weeks by dogsled–unlikely, given that the ice was already starting to melt–or until the river steamers began service again in the summer, not to mention the challenges of getting word back south that they needed assistance.

The crews were offered the full support of the Hudson’s Bay Company station at Fort Simpson, as well the tools and equipment that the Roman Catholic Mission had available. One HBC employee, Phillip Godsell, suggested making a new propeller with factory-made sleigh-boards that were typically sent to HBC stations to be fashioned into freight toboggans and “moose-parchments in the fur loft that could be boiled down into glue.” By April 15, the refurbished Vic was ready for take-off—“the new prop had responded as though it had been turned out on a factory lathe!” Godsell later wrote—and a few days later they returned to Peace River, carrying a load of mail including accounts of what had happened at Fort Simpson.4 Even though the René and Vic did not complete their round trip to Norman Wells, they still established that an air route through this territory was possible. In fact, when HBC’s magazine The Beaver recounted this incident in May 1921, there was an editor’s note attached pointing out that “by regular packet the story would not have reached us until late July.”5

Close-up of engineer Bill Hill finishing work on the propeller: Ingenium Archives, CAVM Photograph Collection, CAVM-03568,

This “sleigh-board-moose-glue prop,” as Godsell called it, became an instant symbol of settler Canadian cold-weather ingenuity. In 1945 Gorman’s widow donated it to what would eventually become the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and it has been included as part of family programming at least since I joined the Visitor Experience team there in the early 2000s. It represented what it meant to survive in Canadian Arctic winter conditions, and of how Canadian bush pilots could transcend the environmental limits on mobility that the vastness and harshness of the Canadian territory presented.

But was it really? By most metrics the story of the René and Vic should be apocryphal. Their crews did not complete their mission and their aircraft did not perform as intended. Their claim to being the first aircraft to land in the Northwest Territories is less impressive once it is revealed that it was a crash landing. Why, then, have these aircraft and their makeshift propeller retained such currency as wintertime technologies?

Engineer Bill Hill with the propeller. Ingenium Archives, CAVM Photograph Collection, CAVM-11672,

It could be that it contains a terrific combination of what we might consider “classic” Canadian wintertime ingredients: moose, dogsleds, the fur trade, resource exploitation in the North, and cold-weather ingenuity. On the other hand, there is something to be said for how stories of Canadian wintertime adventures have been told through the twentieth century. The exploits of interwar bush pilots and mechanics provided homegrown romantic narratives that were like catnip to the news media at the time, but stories of the “old-time bush-pilots” as they were sometimes known, were revived in the 1950s as a way to reflect on a unique sort of Canadian seasonal technological ability. There was, for example, Saskatchewan pilot Bill Windrum, who salvaged precious spilled engine oil by melting the snow and skimming it off the top, Fred “Stevie” Stevenson who crashed outside Churchill and walked through “country absolutely devoid of human habitation, with no shelter from blizzards” for five days until he was “picked up by an Indian,” and Jeff Home-Hay who spent two weeks in a shelter of spruce boughs eating rabbit and ice fishing after running into a blizzard in central Manitoba.6 Even Godsell’s account, Pilots of the Purple Twilight, was published in 1955.

The story of the moose-glue propeller is one such example of wintertime ingenuity revived and repurposed as a techno-national narrative in the 1950s. My archival search for the René and Vic led me to Elmer Fullerton’s papers at LAC, and much like the archival papers of many of the other bush pilots and mechanics, much of what I found was promotional: news clippings, transcripts of interviews, and commemorative ephemera of all sorts. In particular, Fullerton tried to sell the story of the René and Vic to Flying, an American popular aviation magazine, in the early 1950s but was seemingly unsuccessful despite pointing out that this was “the only instance in aviation history where a propeller was made by hand in BUSH country and used with complete success.”7 Instead, it appeared in True, a Canadian men’s adventure magazine, in 1960 with the headline “Make it Go with Guts and Glue.”

The propeller in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s collection. Unknown Manufacturer, Propeller, 1921, Artifact no. 1967.0346, Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation,

What we know about the René and Vic, and other similar tales of winter flying heroism, appears to have been filtered through a lens of longing. Even by the 1950s, everyday settler Canadians were becoming increasingly divorced from the material conditions of the winters that were supposed to be the foundation of their identity: transitioning to natural gas heating, paving and ploughing roads, the postwar diffusion of insulating materials for clothing, and yes, even traveling by airplane to Florida. “Canadian winter,” historian Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon has argued, “despite its integration inside popular culture, is no longer what it used to be.”8 That the telling and re-telling winter through the lens of interwar bush flying starting in the 1950s, particularly stories of cold-weather ingenuity such as the René and Vic’s sleigh-rail and moose-glue propeller, suggests a sort of nostalgia not just for a particular type of hero, but for a seemingly lost type of Canadian winter that necessitated home-grown technological knowledge to transcend.


1 See, for example, Gillian Poulter, Becoming Native in a Foreign Land: Sport, Visual Culture, and Identity in Montreal 1840-85 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009).

2 See, for example, Marionne Cronin, “Northern Visions: Aerial Surveying and the Canadian Mining Industry,” Technology and Culture 48:2 (2007): 303-330.

3 Jeremy Kinney, Reinventing the Propeller: Aeronautical Specialty and the Triumph of the Modern Airplane (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017).

4 Phillip Godsell, Pilots of the Purple Twilight (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1955), 38-40. See also Ken Molson, “Early Flying Along the Mackenzie: The Rene and Vic,” CAHS Journal (1982): 41-55.

5 F. C. Jackson, “Home-made H.B.C. Propellers Bring Back Ft. Norman Planes,” The Beaver (May 1921): 8.

6 For Windrum, see Harold Kemp, “The Old-Time Bush-Pilot,” undated manuscript (c. 1950s.) Elmer G. Fullerton fonds, MG30-A60, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa. For Stevenson and Home-Hay, see “The Canadian Bush Pilot,” Northern Lights 9:2 (1950), 20-31.

7 Letter from Elmer G. Fullerton to the editor of Flying magazine, 13 May, 1952. Elmer G. Fullerton fonds, MG-30 A-60, volume 1, LAC.

8 Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon, “Nordicité et identités québécoise et canadienne en Floride,” Globe revue international d’études québécoises 9, 2 (2006): 143; my translation, Desrosiers-Lauzon’s emphasis. See also Sophie-Laurence Lamontagne, L’hiver dans la culture québécoise (Québec: Institut de recherche sur la culture québécoise, 1983).

The following two tabs change content below.

Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.