Warning: The following blog post is unashamedly written from the point of view of an aviation enthusiast. Reading it will make you want to discover more about Canada’s aviation history.
Bush Pilot: Reflections on a Canadian Myth was originally to be a film on the fabled Noorduyn Norseman bush plane. Some 903 examples of this workhorse bush plane were built in Canada from 1935 to 1959 and saw service in 68 countries. Rugged, reliable and capable of carrying ten passengers or 3,000 pounds of freight, these bush planes served, for the most part, in remote regions of Canada and the USA but also in such diverse countries as Thailand and Lesotho. Able to operate on floats or skis, the planes supplied even the most inaccessible communities for over 70 years.
Though the film evolved into a tribute to the bush pilots of the Canadian north, the Norseman is still prominent in Bush Pilot. A Mk IV aircraft (registered as CF-GUE) flown by Northway Aviation of Manitoba is lovingly presented throughout the film, which employs several interviews with veteran bush pilots to tell the story of the opening up of the North through the bush plane. Northway Aviation continues to service the North to this day but Bush Pilot clearly shows the new North being re-shaped in the image of the South. The romanticized era of the bush pilot was long over by the time the film was made. The president of Northway says it best when he compares the bush pilot to a taxi driver or a bus driver. Enough said. (By the way, Northway’s Norseman, CF-GUE, was the 542nd aircraft to be produced by Noorduyn Aircraft Ltd. of Montreal and was originally built for the United States Air Force during the Second World War. As with the majority of the planes operated by the USAF, No. 542 was sold to a civilian airline after the war, eventually making its way to Northway.)
The film was shot in 1978 and completed in 1980. Directors Norma Bailey and Bob Lower both grew up in rural Manitoba and had flown extensively on bush planes (Lower had earned a pilot’s licence with the Air Cadets). While putting the film together, they found a great deal of archival footage shot by the bush pilots of the 1920s and 1930s. With all this footage and a wealth of stories from the veteran pilots, one thing was very clear: the bush pilot was an important part of Canada’s history. They were intrigued to see that no new bush planes had been produced since the 1950s. It was becoming more evident that the bush pilot was being phased out slowly and that remote communities were in danger of disappearing.
There is a moment in the film that I found fascinating, when the bush pilot flies into a remote First Nation community. His job is to buy the wild rice harvested there, on behalf of a businessman in Chicago (spending thousands of dollars in the process). The bush pilot becomes the go-between, connecting the North to the South. The film makes it clear that, with the advent of new northern cities such as Thompson, Manitoba, the link with smaller, far-flung communities might vanish as everyone comes to prefer the “modern” communities, complete with their state of the art airports and shopping malls.
Bush Pilot played on several television stations of the CBC Northern service in November 1981, as well as on some CBC and CTV affiliates in Saskatchewan, and on CITY TV in Toronto over the next few years. A television sale was also made to RTV Television Espanola, the public service television of Spain, and it was released in the non-theatrical market for use in schools in Canada.
Aviation enthusiasts like me will be delighted by the scenes of old workhorses like the Norseman in action, flying in extreme conditions. But whether you are an aviation enthusiast or not, Bush Pilot is well worth watching, and now available on NFB.ca to shed light on the fascinating history of northern exploration. Enjoy.