Article: Airplanes Cover the Distance While Canoes Reach the Destination

  • Two very different forms of transportation complement each other in the wilderness. The best way to fly a canoe through the air is to put the blunt end first.

    Summer, 2015, Altitude

    One of the enduring Canadian images is that of the voyageur making long and arduous canoe trips from eastern Canada along a mostly unmapped network of lakes and rivers.

    Another equally enduring Canadian image is that of the bush pilot unafraid to take to the air at any time, in any weather, to any destination regardless of whether or not it was on the map.

    Airplanes and canoes are two forms of transportation that are very different from each other but also complementary.

    Overland canoe travel was a labour-intensive and physically demanding undertaking that was inherently slow in terms of reaching destinations. Travel times were calculated in terms of weeks, months and even seasons.

    By contrast, the airplanes of the 1920s and 1930s were already so reliable that travel times over the same distances were reduced to hours and days.

    Notwithstanding the obvious difficulty of finding a way to safely load or fasten a canoe to an airplane, it comes as no surprise that someone would come up with the idea of flying canoes to remote destinations and bringing a welcome end to tedious overland wilderness travel.

    Here is how airplanes and canoes complement each other: Airplanes cover long distances quickly, while canoes provide local mobility. For example, anyone in the business of resource extraction can fly to a remote region with equipment and then use the canoe to reach mineral deposits, trap lines, hunting areas, fishing spots, etc.

    Transporting canoes by airplane was a topic of discussion beyond the informal exchange of best practices among pilots and there are examples of published articles on the topic–some deal with the best way of stowing a canoe while others deal with canoe designs that make it easier to transport them by air. Transporting canoes by air was also a research project of the National Research Council of Canada.

    One early description of freighting canoes by air is found in the October 15, 1931, edition of The Bulletin, the publication of Canadian Airways Limited. In that edition, W.B. Burchall, the editor, writes “the question of portability, however, is not entirely one of weight, for when one comes to stow a canoe in, round or about an airplane, it appears suddenly to take on the dimensions of a Noah’s Ark … when the question arises of transportation to some far away lake or mining location even the experts disagree as to the method of stowage and type of canoe to be taken.”

    Burchall continues with this observation: “We have known of pilots carrying an ordinary canoe lashed centrally across the transverse float struts; we have seen photographs of planes with two canoes lashed one on each side above and alongside each float. Neither of these arrangements is good from an aerodynamic point of view, and it is apparent that no canoe can be carried outside a cabin without affecting these qualities more or less.”

    Burchall also describes two attempts to design “air-friendly” canoes. One of these was a canoe design shaped to conform to the underbody lines of the aircraft fuselage. Burchall says in his article that “while the suspension of the canoe under the body does not create much drag, there is danger, unless a canvas cover be fitted over the whole length of the canoe, of the gross load being increased considerably by a canoe full of water. Undoubtedly the canoe is very much exposed to spray, which in shallow water may contain sand and gravel.”

    Burchall’s second example was the sectional canoe, “manufactured to the specifications of Canadian Airways Limited” in 14- and 16-foot lengths. These canoes were “divided into sections so that they may be stowed inside the cabins of the aircraft. The bow and stern are not symmetrical … the centre section is wider at one end than the other. By this construction it is possible to stow the narrow end section inside the broad end of the centre section. The canoes are generally stowed on their side, flat against the cabin wall, the centre section being filled with one end section and then packed with baggage, packsacks, flour, etc., thus utilizing the space. Stowed this way the canoe itself takes up very little cabin space.” One sectional canoe, camp outfit and provisions for two men for a month weighed about 850 pounds.

    In the very next issue of The Bulletin, dated November, 15, 1931, Burchall published the following comment from a pilot on lashing canoes to the underside of an airplane: “There is a chance of damage to the canoe, when the ship is moving in shallow water, due to the flying sand and gravel. In such water, your ship pontoons would be damaged, long before your canoe ever got to it, and I cannot picture any pilot travelling in any water of that depth, with a plane, except at an especially low taxiing speed.”

    Burchall also said that in the month since the publication of the original story “this article has attracted a great deal of attention outside the company, and the various points of view that have been presented to the editor verbally would more than fill the time allotted an evening’s discussion.”

    In the same November issue, Burchall published another article that describes how airplanes and canoes combined to forever alter wilderness work: “Previously the trapper was a lone hunter, who stepped out into the great unknown with his dog team and supplies. Single-handed he transported his ‘outfit’ by canoe and portage over hazardous routes to the remote trapping country.… Throughout a solitary winter he followed his trap lines, endured hardship and danger, then before ‘break-up’ hauled his catch to the nearest post, entirely ignorant of the value of his winter’s labours.… Today the trapper can fly to his winter home in as many hours as it formerly took months by ground transport. Without effort on his part the airplane will carry supplies, radio and dogs to his location without loss or damage in transit.”

    One of the proponents of the sectional canoe was H.A. “Doc” Oaks, one of Canada’s leading aviation pioneers. In an article published in 1930 in The Northern Miner, Oaks is quoted as saying that the traditional one-piece canoe “is slowly losing precedence, given way to the sectional canoe of the aerial prospector.”

    Two years later, an April 30 article in the Patricia Herald and News of the North reports that Oaks was collaborating with the Elliott brothers, Carmen and Warner, of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, in the manufacture of a sectional canoe. The article opens with the observation: “For some length of time Western Canada Airways have puzzled themselves how to fly a complete prospecting outfit which necessitates a canoe as part of the equipment. This latter item has been the chief obstacle. The ordinary canoe is much too long to place on an airplane.”

    The article said the canoe the Elliott brothers built “so completely captured the heart of Oaks that he has ordered five more. It is a 16-footer, built of cedar indigenous to the locality. In weight the difference between it and other canoes of the same length is imperceptible.… The bow and stern can each be taken apart.… Each is a water-tight compartment.” Whether or not the collaboration with the Elliott brothers is the same canoe referenced in Burchall’s 1933 article, quoted above, is not known. (The Elliott brothers are best-known as the makers of the Elliott Sky Ski, a product specifically designed for winter use on aircraft. The product gained an international reputation and, in fact, was used by Admiral William Byrd on his first and second South Pole explorations.)

    In 1936, the National Research Council of Canada got in on the action when one of its engineers conducted a series of wind tunnel tests to determine the best way to carry canoes on an airplane. The project earned a three-line mention in a 1984 book published by the NRC called Mechanical Engineering at the National Research Council, written by W.E. Knowles Middleton.

    A description of the NRC project is found in our museum’s Bush Gallery, where the Stinson Reliant, CF-AZV, shows the aerodynamically correct way to tie a canoe to an airplane–which has the blunt stern end of an outboard-motor-ready canoe as the leading edge.

    As soon as canoes were tied to the outside of airplanes pilots discovered that it affected the aircraft’s handling, giving rise to no end of debate among pilots. While initial instinct would have one believe that a flying canoe should be oriented to the air flow in the same way as it is when on water, this was contradicted by the NRC wind tunnel tests. These tests found that when the blunt end is rearward, the trailing air flow is turbulent causing vibration that interferes with elevator control. But, with the blunt end pointing forward, the air flow behind is smooth.

    The museum display includes a panel with sketches showing the 11 positions that were tested in the NRC wind tunnel in 1936–between the pontoons, on the pontoons, fastened to the fuselage, either on the side or underneath, and above and below the wing struts. From the display one can conclude that the most important characteristic of the “safe” loading of a canoe was its stern-first orientation.

    Finding ways to tie a one-piece canoe to an airplane never disappeared as evidenced by a small note in the May, 1965, issue of Canadian Aviation that described an attachment to carry a 19-foot square stern canoe on a de Havilland Beaver; approved by the then Canadian Department of Transport, it sold as a kit for $360 and could be installed with 20 hours of labour.

    This photo of a Fairchild 82-A illustrates both the right and the wrong way of mounting canoes for flight. The orientation of the right-hand canoe is not an issue because it is tapered at both ends. The left-hand canoe is tied to the Fairchild so that the square stern is the trailing end; according to studies by the NRC in 1936, this orientation causes turbulence which can interfere with elevator control.
    This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2015 edition of Altitude.

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