The First Bush Flight

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Selkirk Air's Cessna 180

The university term passed slowly. After months of waiting for responses for summer employment, the moment finally arrived. In early 1967, Jack Lamb or Thomas Lamb Airways Ltd. offered work in The Pas, Manitoba. The company's impressive letterhead carried a silhouette of a de Havilland Twin Otter and the motto, "Don't Ask Us Where We Fly; Tell Us Where You Want to Go."
Most pilots with interest in north-country bush flying knew Lamb Airways. It was formed in 1935 by Tom Lamb, the son of a Yorkshire schoolteacher, to haul fish to Winnipeg. Almost every aviation publication and major newspaper carried stories on the famous family. In fact, a clipping from a Toronto Star, had decorated my walls back in Belleville. Thomas Lamb's six sons all flew or worked in maintenance for the airline. Together, they became a legend in Canada.
When university ended in April, I traveled to Winnipeg. After a restless evening in the St.Regis Hotel, I climbed into a Transair Douglas DC-4 for The Pas, 281 miles northwest of Winnipeg.
When I stepped onto the snow-covered airport ramp, I saw no one resembling the famous Lamb family. A taxi driver nearby laughed when I asked if he knew anyone from Lamb Airways. He pointed to a white, two-door Chevrolet hard-top idling in the parking lot. I carefully walked across the slippery surface, lugging my flight bags.
Inside, a dark-haired man wearing a blue baseball cap sat on the right front seat. On the driver's side, a pudgy, red-cheeked individual watched me walk around the front of his car to the left window. This, the taxi driver had told me, was Dennis Lamb.
I approached the car and tapped on the glass. Dennis Lamb rolled down the window no more than two inches.


"I've been hired by your company to fly a Cessna 180. Could you give me a ride to the office?" I asked.
He rolled the window shut. I watched him open a center panel between the two front seats and extract a tall bottle half filled with dark amber liquid. He raised it to his lips, passed it to his colleague as they conferred between sips for several minutes. At last, Lamb, with a wordless jerk of his head, gestured for me to get into the car.
I enjoyed the warmth of the sleek, red leather, lounge-like seats, glad for shelter from the frosty Manitoba wind blasts that shook the light posts. Lamb uncapped the bottle again and offered it to me. On the label, I read "Canadian Club" and in it, no ginger ale or cola softened the sharpness of undiluted rye whiskey. Anxious to establish a favorable, one-of-the-boys impression, I took a long, deep swallow.
Still numbed from the cold, it took nearly half a minute before the alcohol burned through the lining of my throat and filtered down into my stomach. I began coughing, but tried desperately to contain myself, jerking spasmodically through my tightly sealed mouth. My eyes watered heavily and salty tears dribbled down my cheeks.
"Thanks," I chirped and handed the bottle back, Lamb removed it from my trembling hands and downed a thirty-second, nonstop gulp. Wiping his swollen lips, he passed it to his companion, an airplane maintenance engineer. He, too, took an equally long draught. My turn again.
God, I thought.
Officially, no one had hired me yet. With this in mind, I decided that no matter what the consequences, this airline owner wouldn't consider me a wimp. Placing both hands on the bottle I began swallowing, taking a second or two to surface for air. The acid-like pains no longer ravaged my interior and to my surprise, I began giggling. Quickly, I stopped and straightened up. Pilots of the frozen north did not giggle - they belched.
Before long, not an amber drop remained in the bottom of the glorious bottle, as Lamb placed the gear shift lever to "D" and drove to The Pas. A small, single storied storefront building on the main street represented the company office. Almost completely incapacitated now, I stood outside with my baggage as Dennis Lamb drove away and left me standing in the snow.
Convinced I'd tasted the milk of paradise, instead of a few dregs from a fingerprinted bottle, I spent ten minutes contemplating the round and shiny door knob. Frostbite began touching my ears and fingertips, so I staggered inside the office and presented myself to a gracious sandy-haired woman in her midthirties.
The thought that no one placed me on a payroll yet helped pierce my fog and I straightened up. Before my eyes, a collection of artifacts behind protective glass plates riveted my attention. Ancient ship cannon, several yellowed Eskimo carvings and an assortment of whaling mementos brought me back to reality. Lamb Airways really represented the Arctic I desperately wanted to experience. Flying for them or any organization that delved into the barrenlands entailed more responsibility than I'd ever known. This, as someone once said, was "for real."
Grace handed over several forms to complete and didn't seem surprised at my condition or the reeking alcohol on my breath. In a few minutes, I became a Lamb Airways' pilot. That evening, another Lamb brother said with modesty, "We wrote the book on Arctic flying."
My first day with the famous bush airline didn't end once Grace relieved her ballpoint pen from between my trembling fingers. She telephoned the seaplane base at Grace Lake and asked for someone to pick me up.
Soon, a panorama of colorful airplanes filled the windshield of the truck that carried me to the base. A trio of bright red de Havilland Otters on skis parked by the edge of a small airstrip, with huge snow banks piled high along each side. Each of the ten-passenger giants had a wide, white speed line running from the front cowling to the tail.

Twin Otter and Ski-doo On the frozen lake, a Beaver in the same eye-catching scheme rocked in the breeze. Beside it, three bare metal Cessna 180's sat, one with its left hand door open, as someone jammed cardboard boxes inside. Across Grace Lake, deep snow-machine ruts extended to the far shore. A single row of tiny spruce trees designated a ski-strip and acted as warning to snowmobilers for look up.
A neat brick building on the lake shore served as coffee room for pilots. Knocking gently, I waited. No one answered so I let myself in and sat down. Five pilots and several mechanics sipped coffee and picked titbits from a boiling pot on an electric stove. No one introduced himself or looked my way, so I listened. Dennis Lamb led the conversation.
The talk concerned hauling Indians throughout northern Manitoba, Eskimos in the Arctic and civil servants south to Winnipeg. As they chatted, I realized that fate had placed me in the presence of an august group of pilots, the same mettle of men I'd watched flog the mighty Noorduyn Norseman from Chapleau's Kebsquasheshing River. They knew the fabled tundra, had its breadth, smelled its salty shores and landed where few white men or Kablunas trod. They enjoyed their work and I hoped that I would become one of them. The hell with biology.
Interrupting my reverie, Dennis Lamb reached for the pot on the stove. He placed something in his mouth and talked on, discussing a recent incident in which one of his brothers flipped a twin-engine airplane upside down on a runway at Rankin Inlet. Another brother, Greg, noticing my curiosity, suggested I help myself to a snack.
Inside the pot, a greasy, dishwater-grey scum coated the rim and dripped over the sides in slimy rivulets. In the center, a small animal sat on its haunches while waves of bubbling liquid boiled over its ears and face. Not averse to eating wild rabbits, I reached for it, but suddenly realized the creature was not of the order lagamorpha. Two orange incisors protruded from between the tiny lips as the eyes boiled away to opaque, cream-coloured cavities.
Holy God, I thought, it's a complete muskrat.
The pelt had been harvested, but the pathetic rodent had retained its long, sensitive moustache hairs. Nauseated, I turned away, collided with a chair and nearly retched upon the linoleum.
No one flew that day because of dark overcast cloud and strong gusting winds. Dennis dropped me back in The Pas where I checked into a downtown hotel. The clerk agreed to rent the cheapest room and threw a well-worn key ring across the counter top.
For $40 a month, I had a drapeless cubicle with an unfrosted light bulb dangling from a brown cord in the center of the ceiling. No sink, no toilet and no heat but previous owners had thoughtfully jammed a tarnished brass bed against the garish blue wallpaper.

Beaver and Otter Next morning, I hitched-hiked back to Grace Lake's seaplane base where Dennis Lamb waited impatiently. A Cessna 180 trip had been booked and he planned a checkout flight for me. The 230-horsepower airplane would soon become the most powerful type in my logbook. Four seats, all metal and with a controllable pitch propeller, it responded instantly to the throttle and carried remarkable loads, despite its small size. After a few circuits and bumps across the snow-machine ruts, Lamb Airways considered me safe enough for a forty-mile hop to the Cree Indian reserve of Moose Lake.
Moose Lake happened to be the village in which Tom Lamb's father originally operated a trading post. Trips between the community and The Pas took place as many as five or six times per day. In winter, airplanes landed on the ice in front of the village. During open-water seasons several wooden docks were built to park floatplanes. At freeze-up and breakup, a short gravel airstrip within walking distance of the houses sufficed.
On the map, the thirty-four-mile route didn't look particularly difficult. Large lakes and river bends along the way would prove invaluable as navigational landmarks. As I preflighted Cessna 180 CF-SLH, a loaded half-ton truck approached the hanger. Two men stepped out and began transferring groceries into the airplane. Minutes later, a taxi cab arrived with two elderly Indian women laden with shopping bags bulging with potato chips, soft drinks and candy.
Accustomed to light Super Cub loads, I watched one of the Lamb brothers cram the Cessna 180 almost to the ceiling. Thinking he'd planned a second trip for the Indian women, I squirmed into the pilot's seat.
"Waitaminute. Don't start that thing yet," he said. "You've got two riding with you to Moose Lake."
He took their cases, jammed them between cartons of Carnation condensed milk and ordered the parka-clad ladies aboard. One stretched out horizontally on the load and the other wiggled into the right seat, where she sat on a case of soft drinks. The Lambs owned the airline and knew that jobs weren't plentiful. Ignoring any precepts of airmanship and overloading, I started the engine and taxied away. After a horrendously long takeoff run, the airplane slammed into a compacted snow drift and staggered airborne.
Eighteen minutes later, I bumped through the frozen drifts at Moose Lake, a collection of multi-colored boxes that served as homes for the locals. Moose Lake was the first such settlement I'd encountered. Later, I visited hundreds of villages, all showing remarkable similarities. In most, little effort was made toward sanitation or garbage collection.
No one from the retail trading post came to the airplane to accept the freight and the two elderly ladies wandered away. Conscious of my lowly status as new kid on the Lamb Airways' block, I carried the boxes through the slush and up the shoreline to the store. As the last case of cans slammed down against the wooden steps, the owner came outside and kicked it through the doorway into the buildings.
The return to The Pas would be a snap. After all, I'd flown the route and looked forward to enjoying the Manitoba swampland scenery. Overly assured, I watched the "pushups," or small clumps of earth thrown up by muskrats in the marsh grasses, pass underneath the Cessna 180. Evidence of these little rodents dotted every lake side and muskeg bog.
Far below the horizon's edge, a lake reflected the afternoon sunlight. Assuming it to be Grace Lake's seaplane base, I saw no more need for the maps and tossed them over my shoulder toward the tail. Both instrument panel fuel gauges read empty but this mattered little. In a few minutes the dock boy would refill the tanks.
Coming closer to the gigantic frozen lake ahead of the airplane, it dawned on me that its size precluded the likelihood that it could be the skiplane base. I'd placed myself in a ticklish situation, with the maps out of reach in the rear of the fuel-gulping Cessna 180.
The aircraft carried few functioning radios. Company high-frequency, or HF, offered the only slim chance of contacting anyone who might provide direction. I called the base repeatedly, but got nothing more than a twinge of static. Resigned to landing on an unfamiliar patch of ice and waiting for a humiliating rescue, I began replacing the microphone in its cradle when a very bored voice responded.
After explaining my predicament, the air waves across cloudy Manitoba became silent again. Minutes later, the voice returned and in a disgusted, my-God-how-stupid-can-you-get tone asked for a description of the terrain.
It took nearly ten minutes to broadcast the shape of the lake over which I circled with CF-SLH. Throttled back to barely enough power to stay in the air, I waited. Occasionally, someone's finger depressed the microphone button and short snatches of laughter carried above the static in the Cessna 180's overhead speaker. Finally, a pilot come on the air and suggested a south-westerly heading.
Within minutes, I spotted Lamb Airways' aluminum hanger and landed quickly. Beside the dock, I pulled the mixture control to shut the engine off, as several pilots converged from the hanger and office cottage. No one said a word, but ill-concealed smirks told me all I needed to know. After sneaking away from the airplane and parking myself in the bathroom for thirty minutes, I came outside to find that everyone had left for The Pas. No one waited to offer me a ride. I walked to town.

The attitude indicator will take you back to Aviation Friends or continue with the second feature story taken directly out of Robert's book:
Many Died in the North

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Editor John S Goulet


Last modified on March 06, 2006 .
Virtual Horizons, 1996.