An old-time bush pilot holds the line on Maine’s Moosehead Lake.
A tall, lean, weathered woodsman with trim white beard, Roger Currier is one of the last of the old-time Maine bush pilots. He still plies his craft from Greenville Junction, on Moosehead Lake, using a fleet of vintage radial-engine aircraft that he personally restored and maintains. He’s been at it now for more than a quarter-century, surviving in a profession that has deep-sixed many others.
The quiet cove on Moosehead Lake where Currier’s operation is based is one of the few places left where you can still hear waves hitting pontoons in concert with the deep rumble of radial engines. Currier’s fleet includes two Cessna 195s that are more than 60 years old. He thinks they’re the only ones still in commercial operation—especially on floats.
Built in the post–World War II period between 1947 and ’54, the five-seat 195 was marketed as the “Businessliner” by Cessna. Its high standards of looks and comfort made it akin to an airborne Cadillac, the epitome of luxury in its day. Today the stylish 195 is a much-sought-after classic on the used aircraft market.
The two 1948-vintage Cessna 195s in Currier’s fleet (he also has a de Havilland Beaver and Cessna 180 in his flying service) are powered by Jacobs 7-cylinder radial engines. The 195 was Cessna’s first all-aluminum aircraft, and the last to be certified for radials. Currier has completely restored the 195s (plus a third he keeps on wheels at his winter home in New Hampshire), and does all the airframe and engine maintenance himself.
The Jacobs radials have been out of production since the 1970s. They boast a venerable heritage, starting in 1933, and have powered a variety of military and civilian aircraft up to and including WWII: Beech Staggerwings, Stearmans, Wacos and many others.
During the 1980s, Currier’s bush flying operation—hauling hunters, fishermen and campers; serving the logging industry; and flying for the state fish and wildlife department—was in need of an airplane with better capabilities than the Cessna 180s he had in his stable. The obvious upgrade would have been a Cessna 206 Stationaire. But Currier didn’t like the way most 206s were configured, nor was he particularly happy with their performance and price. A friend of his had a 195 that he fixed up and had a set of floats for, so Currier took a gamble and bought it. “I found that it would do most everything that a 206 would do,”he said.“And it didn’t cost as much.”
The first 195 was in reasonably good shape. Currier was pleased enough with it that later, when another 195 became available, he bought it too. That one, acquired from a Canadian owner in the 1990s,“needed a lot of restoration work just to get it up to our standards,” he said. “One example was repainting and corrosion work. The plane started its life in Louisiana for an oil company before being used commercially in Canada. When we imported it, the plane was sporting a paint job done with a paintbrush!”
The key to his business’ survival is that Currier’s enterprise is pretty much self-contained. He does almost everything himself except running the office (his wife, Sue, handles booking reservations and radio communications). A long-time A&P mechanic who served in the U.S. Air Force, Currier has plenty of experience in reviving classics. As for those ancient Jacobs radials, he said, “You gotta make friends with ’em.” He pointed out that the old “round” engines require a bit of special handling and knowledge: “They’re not without their problems, and I think they could be classified as high maintenance.”
Currier has a remarkably well-equipped repair facility where he rebuilds his own engines. He claims that the radials are, surprisingly, the least expensive to rebuild. “Originally when they were manufactured, they were designed to be very rugged,” he explained. “In a Jacobs engine many parts, like valves and pistons, can be used over again as long as they mic up properly. Parts are getting in short supply now. There’s a couple of outfits that are starting to manufacture some of the parts.”
The Jacobs he uses in the 1950s are the 275- and 300-hp versions, basically the same engine with a few minor variations. He keeps several spare engines, pickled in airworthy condition, for change-outs as needed.
Given his many years’ experience with radials, Roger doesn’t believe in running them to TBO (recommended time before overhaul) of 1,200 hours on the Jacobs and 1,600 hours on the Pratt & Whitneys.“We try to make it a policy to not run them over 1,000 hours,” he said. “Because I’ve found from other people’s experience that you are more prone to catastrophic failures when you get up there in high time. Plus some of the parts start to wear and there’s a lot of looseness in the engine, and you end up ruining more parts because they just wear beyond limits.
“You take a part that is in a bushing, and the bushing wears out, then all of a sudden the part starts to wear. If you can catch it before the part wears out, it’s a 50-cent bushing. If the part wears out, now you’ve got an $800 part to replace.”
Currier believes that in an operation such as his, “where I’m running them myself and maintaining them myself, problems are pretty much at a minimum. During the first few years we had our share of surprises, but we learned from the surprises. We know what not to do and what to do.” For example, an experienced mechanic told him that he should always park the airplane with the propeller straight up and down. Wrong! “At one point one of our propeller blades started to hang up,” he recalled, “and we found that the [bearing] race was cracked and there was no seal and the water was running down in there. So you don’t park these things with the propeller vertical.You park with it horizontal. You notice down on the dock, all my propellers are horizontal!”
During the winter off-season, Currier spends a good deal of time maintaining his fleet and helping his friends work on their classic aircraft. He bought his third 195, on wheels, from a friend “who had acquired it as a wreck from an insurance company. He stripped the engine, instruments and avionics from it and sold the wreckage to us as spare parts. Being that it was the 11th from last one Cessna built, I felt inspired to rebuild it. It took two years and many hours to complete, but it’s a great flying airplane.”
Then a fourth 195 came into Currier’s sphere:“A couple of years ago a new neighbor moved in near me in New Hampshire at Windsock Village. He brought with him the last 195 ever built. He and I have become good friends, and I have helped him with maintenance on his.”
In addition to 195s, Currier has also restored a couple of classic gullwing Stinson Reliants. That airplane has a venerable tradition in Maine: The very first pilot hired by the Maine Forest Service in the early 1930s, Earle Crabbe, flew a Reliant, as did the first Maine warden pilot, Bill Turgeon. Currier owned and rebuilt a military V-77 Reliant that had spent World War II in England as a trainer. He has also rebuilt and maintains a civilian SR-7 owned by one of his winter New Hampshire neighbors.
Currier’s aviation career began when he took flying lessons under the G.I. Bill after returning to New Hampshire from the Air Force. He obtained private, commercial and instrument ratings. At one point during his training he bought a “fixer-upper” plane.“We had a snowless winter, and I used to land on wheels on the frozen rivers and lakes,” he recalled. “This made me want to get into flying on skis and maybe floats. I came up to Twitchell’s [Flying Service, in Turner, Maine] and bought an Aeronca Champ on skis, and put it on floats in the springtime. And I found that was the type of flying that I liked to do.”
Interested in flying floatplanes commercially, Currier chose Maine over Alaska, moving his family to Moosehead Lake in 1982. After working for a couple of other flying outfits, he bought some land at Greenville Junction on West Cove and began building his business. He constructed a couple of large hangars and also increased his fleet. At the service’s peak, he and several hired pilots flew between 1,000 and 1,200 hours annually.
Given the recent economic slump, Currier said he’s down to 500-600 hours a year. He now does the bulk of the flying himself, specializing in sightseeing excursions to show off Maine’s wildlife and gorgeous scenery—both of which Moosehead has in abundance.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.