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Bushplanes (Book Review)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Walter J. Boyne
By Geza Szurovy
Zenith Press, St. Paul, Minn., 2005

To anyone who looks up with delight at the sound of a radial engine aircraft passing overhead, Bushplanes is a book to be savored, for it evokes the look and feel of a bygone era that survives only in the bush.

Author Geza Szurovy did not ignore the advent of more modern aircraft such as the turboprop Canadair CL-415, and aircraft with other than big round engines are also included in this work, but the aura of Bushplanes is that of Norseman and Otters, Stinsons and Pilgrims, de Havillands and Fairchilds—big, businesslike floatplanes that deliver the most because they require the most of their pilots. The attitude of the average bush pilot is summed up in a quote by Russell Merrill, "I'd rather fly in Alaska and live on beans than fly down here [in Portland, Ore.] and own a Rolls Royce." It takes that kind of plucky attitude to be a successful bush pilot.

Bushplanes begins with the early days, when torn fabric could be patched back with a glue made of boiled moose fat, and a handful of pilots found satisfaction, if not economic reward, in catering to the needs of hearty pioneers in Canada and Alaska. The author maintains a good balance between vintage black-and-white and modern photography, depicting some of the most interesting aircraft of our era hard at work in the wilderness. Some of these vintage aircraft, such as a Stinson Jr., are still in daily service—and still absolutely beautiful, as the color photographs included confirm.

The stories of the aircraft are reinforced by the stories of those who flew and fly them. These are resourceful individuals who know how to extract the last ounce of capability from their equipment. One of their key attributes is to weigh the importance of the mission against the known hazards of weather and terrain, and make crucial decisions about taking off or staying home. Most times, the decision is to go.

Szurovy gives an occasional tip of the hat to bush flying in other areas, including Australia and New Guinea, but concentrates on the vast swaths of North America that are superbly beautiful in good weather and appallingly hazardous in bad. And, as legendary flier Noel Wien said, "Alaska keeps you guessing," for the weather in the far north is subject to immediate change. The author did extensive research, and his comparative analysis of the various types of bush planes makes satisfying reading.

Bush flying developed during the golden age of flight, and was still vital when World War II intervened, when for the first time in their lives typical bush pilots could find themselves with a contract and regular pay. The war also fostered the growth of a great series of airlines—Wien, Reeve Aleutian, Alaska Airlines, Canadian Pacific and others.

As Chapter 4 points out, bush flying exists because it is more than a job—it is a way of life that appeals to the rugged individualist who prizes challenge over comfort. Even the generous airline pay scales of years past could not lure away pilots who were committed to living on the edge and dedicated to helping others.

There are not a lot of books on the subject of flying in the bush, and this is easily one of the best. Zenith Press has done a beautiful job with the layout and photo reproduction. The result is a coffee-table book to linger over…at home or in the bush.



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