This Week in History


The Daring Aviators of the Far North !

For the week of Monday August 16, 2004

On August 17, 1920, Roy Maxwell, a former pilot trained during the First World War made the first flight to James Bay. The 1920s and 1930s marked the era of bush flying, changing life in the Canadian Far North forever.

Herman Peterson, Bush pilot, Atlin, British Columbia
© Glenbow Archives / NA-3602-11

At the beginning of the First World War, Canada had only a few aviators at its disposal, but by the end of the conflict, it had more than 20,000. Although hundreds of young Canadians were killed in their flying machines, often in a horrible manner, the war nevertheless helped train a whole generation of experienced pilots and contributed to the development of increasingly powerful airplanes.

During the post-war period, some veteran pilots wanted to continue flying, thus marking the dawn of bush flying in Canada. In 1919, the country’s vast northern territories were still largely unexplored, but this changed with the arrival of bush pilots. These men flew across the northern territories, which were often barely or poorly mapped, in modest aircraft equipped with a radio and a few basic instruments. In the higher latitudes, they often had nothing but their instinct or knowledge of the land to rely on. Since they flew in often extreme temperatures, under dangerous take-off and landing conditions, they had to show exceptional courage.

Bush pilots on the float of a Fokker seaplane, southern Northwest Territories (NWT), August 1929
© Glenbow Archives / NA-463-57

During the 1920s and 1930s, a number of small bush-flying companies emerged across the country. They hired pilots to carry passengers, material and supplies, which allowed the mining industry, among others, to develop in northern Canada. Furthermore, these aviators patrolled forests to spot fires, conducted aerial surveying and mapping, and delivered mail. By 1927, mail service was established along a 800-km route linking Whitehorse, Dawson and Mayo. Within three to four weeks, the population of the Far North could receive mail from abroad.

Through their outstanding work, these pioneers of the air brought Northern Canada out of isolation and played a key role in its economic development. In 1960, Parks Canada designated the Bush Pilots of Canada an event of national historic significance, and a commemorative plaque was erected in Yellowknife in 1967.

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