How goes your vote for “the great Canadian bushplane”? Without thinking too much about it, lots of people have a knee-jerk solution. “The Beaver”, they shout in unison. One author even calls the Beaver “The World’s Greatest Bushplane”. Well, not hardly, although we all appreciate the Beaver. No argument there – it’s a good bushplane, just not the greatest by any yardstick.
But … if we’re philosophizing nostalgically about an “iconic” Canadian bushplane, at CANAV these days we’re thinking Noorduyn Norseman. That rugged old workhorse started its career in Northern Quebec in 1935 and, 75+ years later, a few Norsemans are still hard at it. In its own way, and all things considered, the Norseman can make the competition look like it has a way to go yet. The Norseman carries almost double a Beaver’s load, almost as much as an Otter, and does it faster than either. “No too bad” for a plane designed 77-78 years ago!
Straight off the mark in 1936, the Norseman proved itself a tough, dependable bushplane and a money-maker. But sales started sluggishly. After all, the world was in economic depression, and there were plenty of older, cheaper bushplanes getting the job done. It wasn’t until the US Army began ordering, that production got rolling.
In 1943-45 the Americans purchased more than 700 Norsemans for the war effort. Designated UC-64As, these were sent to do many a tough job in combat theatres from Alaska to the UK/Europe, India-Burma and the South Pacific. This puts a point on the fact (for anyone to see) that, without the war and Uncle Sam, the Norseman might not have made it.
As soon as the US Army UC-64As were declared surplus in 1945, companies began sweeping them up at affordable prices. These Norsemans definitely led the way, allowing bush operators around the world to establish themselves in the new, wide open, peacetime economy.
Although magazines and journals have often featured the Norseman, no major book about it has yet been published. Someone was always “doing” a Norseman book, but I never saw any results, other than a very fine 2007 magazine-format profile about the Scandinavian Norsemans. So … no Norseman book of any sort from 1935 to 2007, a mere 72 years.
However, a few researchers in Canada at least were laying a foundation. Bruce Gowans put out a list of Canadian civil Norsemans, and CAHS researchers from Paddy Gardiner to Bob Halford, M.L. “Mac” McIntyre, K.M. Molson and Fred Shortt added solid, original Norseman results. Meanwhile, Bob Grant, a longtime bush pilot, kept filling the magazine pages with articles about the Norseman.
Meanwhile, I had been gathering Norseman material for about 50 years. The day came earlier this year when it was time to do something. I talked to Hugh Halliday, who himself had been procrastinating about doing a Norseman book. We decided to go ahead, Hugh concentrating on the RCAF side of the story and using the Ottawa research facilities that he knows so well. Overnight, we started pulling together all the essential material needed by CANAV to finally get “the book” into print.
It now is almost September and I’ve got much of the text roughed out. You can imagine the approach – the recipe is well-proven in a long series of CANAV titles that you ever- skeptical readers have voted “Yea and thank you” time and again since 1981.
In Aviation in Canada: The Noorduyn Norseman, we start with the historic fundamentals – some biographical coverage of Bob Noorduyn and how he came to Montreal to design the ultimate bushplane. Early pre-war trials and tribulations are covered, then comes the war and boom times turning out UC-64As. Some coverage of these 700+ planes is included, but their story is going to have to be researched and published by someone else. CANAV’s book is essentially the Canadian story, with passing mention of Norsemans abroad.
Naturally, much attention is paid to the RCAF Norseman before, during and after the war. Search and rescue is a huge theme here. Several dramatic episodes that were front-page headlines in the 1940s-60s are brought back to life.
Commercial operators across Canada are another giant part of the book, from QCA to Central Northern/Transair, OCA, Austin Airways, Wheeler Airlines, Northern Wings, etc. Norsemans with the provincial air services and RCMP also are included.
Naturally, books galore could be written about all the potential Norseman topics. With this one CANAV is covering specific topics based on well-researched material that you can’t find on that siren of sirens (all too often, the lazy researcher’s “quick and dirty” source), the internet (I like Homer Simpson’s term “interweb”, also his question one day, “Is that thing still around?”).
Not that there isn’t some wonderful Norseman material on the web — there is so much that a publisher might wonder, “Why bother with a book?” In a typical case, on his excellent website Geoff Goodall beautifully covers the history of the 14 Australian Norsemans.
But there still is a vast amount of Norseman material not on the web. Finding it and using it to best effect is the book publisher’s challenge. That’s what some of us love to do.
Many of the famous Norseman pilots and engineers are well written up in The Noorduyn Norseman. I call these fellows “The Kings of the Norseman”. These profiles cannot be found anywhere else. Sometimes I tracked down the great men themselves, or their families, since so many of the “Kings” are long gone. Where the trail was cold, Hugh could sometimes dredge relevant files from the public archives. In one case, in King City and Thunder Bay, I visited the sons of the great Norseman aficionado, Carl Crossley. His logbooks surfaced from this effort — they constitute a goldmine of Norseman history. Then, after some solid detective work, Hugh found Crossley’s wartime RCAF files. “Bingo”, as they say. Bit by bit, this is how CANAV has gotten the story down – the usual story, eh. Work like a dog for no pay, then put out the best book on the block.
Our book finishes with a close look at the Norseman in 2012. Several fine examples still are at work in the bush. Austin Airways’ famous CF-BSC has been restored. It started flying again this summer — I had a ride in it at Red Lake in July! Other legendary examples, such as Bearskin Airlines’ old CF-ZMX, also is back in the air. Other Norsemans , CF-SAP included, still are doing tough day-to-day work at remote tourist camps, and even are busy in Ontario’s “Ring of Fire”, a modern day gold rush scenario. Naturally, Gord Hughes Norseman shop is included, as is “Norseman Days” at Red Lake – several colourful pages are reserved for these topics.
So … get ready for a book that, by the standards of our ever-intelligent and demanding readers and fans, will rate that simple accolade which you have thrown at CANAV so often – “This one’s a real gem”. Aviation in Canada: The Noorduyn Norseman will give you a solid level of history — enticing reading with hundreds of choice photos/illustrations to balance off the whole effort. Sure, it’ll only be the tip of the iceberg, but it makes a good, strong start at getting the Norseman so deservedly back into the limelight.
Keep an eye here for further news. I’m planning a book launch by February 2013, but the sooner the better. This will be the 5th title in CANAV’s ongoing “Aviation in Canada” series. Look on p.1 of the blog for all the details. This is a series for any serious fan of Canadian aviation history.
Meanwhile, should you have any rare old photos of Norsemans (prints or slides), let me know (email@example.com). Original material only — those ancient, tiny old black and white prints are especially of interest. Should you have anything to lend, as usual I’m at 51 Balsam Ave., Toronto, Ontario M4E 3B6. Anything on loan will be scanned to the specs I need for high-quality book production and immediately returned.
Thanks as usual for checking in…
Larry Milberry, publisher