The heavily forested “bush” of Northern Canada was mostly inaccessible until the end of WWI, except by the hardiest of explorers. During the war, the internal combustion engine became more fully developed. This technology was the key to opening the Canadian North via bush planes, which were often flown by former military pilots desperate to keep flying. Bush planes were able to take off and land on short runways, including ones made of ice or water. Many had tundra tires and skis for winter landings and floats for summer landings on lakes.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, “the first commercial flight into the north took place in October, 1920 at Winnipeg, Manitoba, when a fur buyer walked into Canadian Aircraft's downtown office and asked to be flown home to The Pas. That was hundreds of miles to the north over bush, lakes and muskeg. It had never been done, especially in a wheeled aircraft. But it was done and it was a history-making flight. By 1921, Imperial Oil aircraft were exploring the Northwest Territories and reached to within 100 miles of the Arctic Circle.”
By 1930, it was possible to charter an aircraft and fly almost anywhere in Northern Canada. This meant trappers and missionaries could fly as easily as the geologists and surveyors from mining companies who were the predominant passengers on early flights. Also, those who were ill or injured accidentally could easily be brought to a hospital for medical attention.
The most famous, or “classic,” Canadian bush plane is the de Havilland Beaver, DHC-2, which first flew on August 16, 1947 (by 1965, around 1,600 were flying in 63 countries). The Royal Canadian Mint issued a special gold coin in 2008 imprinted with the Beaver’s image to honour “the airplane that opened the North.” It also printed a quarter with the same image in November 1999.
Around 3,500 de Havilland Canada aircraft were produced from 1947 to 1988, the largest fleet of aircraft made in post-war Canada. Many of these are still flying. The prototype DHC-2 Beaver, DHC-6 Twin Otter and DASH 7 are currently housed at the Canadian Aviation Museum in Ottawa, along with several other de Havilland Canada heritage aircraft.
These planes, including the iconic Beaver, faced an uncertain future in 1986, when de Havilland Canada (DHC) was sold to Boeing. After discontinuing two planes (the Twin Otter and Dash 7), Boeing put DHC up for sale. Bombardier Aerospace bought it. Four years later, Viking Air of Victoria, B.C., bought the type certificates from Bombardier for all the original DHC designs including: the DHC-2 Beaver, DHC-2T Turbo Beaver, DHC-3 Otter, DHC-6 Twin Otter, DHC-4 Caribou, DHC-5 Buffalo and DHC-7 Dash 7 aircraft.
The purchase of the de Havilland certificates elevated Viking to first-tier status in the Canadian aerospace industry and secured the company’s place in Canadian history.