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Only the Adventurous Need Apply

Possessing a death defying sense of adventure and piloting skills that would make your average commercial pilot squirm. Check. Lifting off from “airfields” that include sandbars, rivers and even glaciers. Check. Flying in the most remote and unforgiving regions of the world. Check. Such skills and requirements only scratch the surface of what is needed by a bush pilot. These brave and daring men and women have answered the calling to fly planes into the harshest environments, including parts of Canada, Alaska, Africa, and the Australian Outback, where there is likely no possibility of rescue if their plane goes down. A good bush pilot will have a strong sense of self-reliance, be able to think under pressure, and possess the skills to maneuver his plane precisely and at very low speeds for landing and take-off. Bush flying is done both recreationally and as necessity, depending on the needs of a particular location.

Flying in the bush originated in northern Canada as a means to transport food, medicine and building materials to rugged areas that were not serviceable by road. At the time, these pilots were the huskiest and heartiest of individuals – men with wild beards, creviced faces and a predilection for seeking that which was dangerous and life-threatening. Modern bush flying, while still requiring a high degree of skill and a strong sense of adventure, benefits for better planes and equipment, GPS, and an improved network of communication. Bush pilots are required for everything from oil exploration and environmental assessments to rescue operations and wildlife photography. A modern bush plane will typically have high wings in order to land in areas with high vegetation and in addition to conventional landing gear, be equipped with floats, skis or large tundra tires.

Perhaps more than anything, the thought of bush flying invokes romantic images of rugged men taking off into pristine blue skies and flying off to exotic locations. For that, you can thank the early pioneers in the field who didn’t want to work real jobs for a living – they just wanted to fly.

Cruising Over Canada

Starting in 1914, there was no better way for Canadian soldiers fighting in World War I to escape the cold, muddy and bullet-riddled trenches than to hop in a plane and take to the skies. Of course, there were many dangers in the sky – like being shot at, the fuel tank being hit, and the plane catching fire – but theses were dangers that thousands of soldiers were willing to risk.

When these pilots returned home to Canada from the war-torn skies of Europe, they had the option of getting a job or getting a plane. For those whose one true passion was flying, picking up a surplus Curtiss JN-4 Canuck was as easy as forking over twelve hundred bucks. At first, with civilian airfields scarce and pilots knowing next to nothing about aircraft maintenance, crashes were commonplace. However, in 1920, everything changed when Canada began issuing private pilot’s licenses and establishing a Canadian air force. The first official bush flight (though many unofficial flights had taken place previously) occurred when a fur buyer strolled into Canadian Aircraft’s office and asked to be flown to The Pas in the northland. This region of bush, lakes and muskeg had never been flown over and it was ultimately a history-making flight.

In the summer of 1922, brothers Maxwell and Herve St. Martin made yet another historic flight, flying an Avro 504K from Ontario to James Bay in the thick of winter. As a result of their bravery and success, the Ontario government hired the men, along with Laurentide Air Services, for an extensive project that included the creation of detailed maps showing the lakes, waterways and forests. The following year, Laurentide was awarded a contract for not only flying services in conjunction with mapping, but also for transportation of firefighting personnel and forestry patrol. The result was an unprecedented survey of 20,000 square miles of country spanning from Lake of the Woods to James Bay. It was also estimated that the lives of several hundred firefighters were saved thanks to the services of bush pilots.

But when it comes to courage, conviction and saving lives, there is one Alaskan bush pilot who will never be forgotten.

The “Don” of Flying

In the 1950’s and 60’s, and perhaps ever since, there was no bush pilot who was braver, courageous or more selfless than Donald “Don” Edward Sheldon.

Sheldon was born in 1921 in Mt. Morrison, Colorado and moved to Alaska at the age of 17 to seek out work and adventure. Already a pilot, he joined the military and served in World War II as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress crew over Europe. Upon returning to Alaska, he began operating Talkeetna Air Service and provided flights for climbers, hunters and others who needed to reach places where roads did not go. Over the years, he became widely known and highly regarded as a standout pilot in the region. He assisted in hundreds of rescue operations, both civilian and military, and had a cadre of planes at his disposal with an assortment of landing gear. One person who knew Sheldon said he was “nine parts caution and one part faith.” While he would land you or pick you up wherever you wanted, be it bald grass or gravel bar, water or a glacier at 7,000 feet, he was known for filtering his plane fuel five times and trusting only a handful of radio frequencies.

Sheldon was a die-hard fan of Alaska, loving it as much for its beauty and grandeur as for its agony and burdens. On a typical day, he would fly over a camp of miners in the Cache Creek area and “skip-bomb” a carton of dynamite down to them. On his way back, he would pass over Mt. McKinley and frequently find climbers who were in need of his assistance. Some had serious injuries and conditions like frostbite and pulmonary edema, but Sheldon with his steadfast calm never flinched. At his most heroic, he landed 18 times on a 30-degree ice slope at 14,300 feet and flew out 5 distressed climbers and the rescue team sent to find them.

On January 26, 1975, Sheldon succumbed to a long battle with cancer – one of the few challenges he faced in life that he wasn’t able to conquer.

Bush Pilots are Everywhere

Today, to some extent, it may seem like bush pilots are simply a relic of a bygone era, but that is simply not the case. In this day and age of worldwide adventure travel and exploration, not to mention a deep passion for flying by some, in several parts of the world bush piloting is as relevant as it was in its heyday. For example, Tusker Trail’s own Julian Jones, who runs the company’s climbing operation and lives in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, is an avid flyer and bush pilot. Having previously worked as a river rafting and safari guide in Zambia, the adventurous nature of bush piloting is a natural extension for him.  Bush piloting is also relevant for those of you trekkers who wish to venture into remote locations in Africa, Mongolia and elsewhere in the world; there is a real possibility that a local bush pilot might potentially be the only person who could rescue you if you found yourself in danger.