Before electricity became available to heat engines in sub-zero conditions, air travel in Canada’s Arctic region could be hazardous at best. Bush pilots, like Keith Olson, one of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada’s founders, would often spend hours every morning warming the engines of their bush planes for flight readiness. Anyone who has lived in the Arctic knows there are many challenges to life beyond the tree line.
Keith Olson recalls being fascinated with flight from an early age. As a child, he would hitchhike to a flying club near his home to watch the action on weekends. Olson earned his private pilot licence in 1955 at the age of 17 with only 30 hours of flying time. After an experience flying in a heavy snowstorm forced him to fly low, and navigate from lake to lake in a Piper J-3 borrowed from a friend, he knew the exhilarating life of a bush pilot was for him.
Olson took his first flying job with Lamb Air Ltd. in 1959, operating a Noorduyn Norseman on skis and floats from northern communities such as The Pas and Churchill, Manitoba. In his six years with Lamb Air, Olson rarely flew with a co-pilot, but often was assigned a young helper to aide in the complex process of readying the airplane for flight in the Arctic. At small posts like Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet, refuelling drums would be stored outside in the elements. Keith remembers, “In the winter we had to dig our gas drums from caches here and there. We’d know they were in the snowdrift somewhere, so we’d dig and roll them out.”
By far the most difficult aspect of Arctic air travel was the exhausting ritual of starting the engine. A small open flame heater, called a blowpot, would be set up under the engine block, and a tarp would be thrown over the fuselage so the heat could not escape. To prevent the wind from blowing out the fire, “… one of us would lie on a piece of tarp to stop it from flapping… and just not move,” Keith recalls. All this often took as long as two hours, and if the engine did not start, the long process would begin from the start again.
Today, the blowpot is nothing more than a precautionary tool used only in an emergency in the cold northern bush. Thanks to the availability of electricity in major northern communities, modern pilots and engines have a much easier time escaping the cold between flights. Keith Olson will never forget when, “… the only time we were warm was when we’d crawl under the tents with the blowpots.”