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Planespotting: Your guide to watching bush planes in Canada's Northwest Territories


Bush plane in the Northwest Territories - Credit: Weiland

Quite typical of Canada: hardly anything symbolizes the vast wilderness of the country more than a bush plane. Especially in the far north, where distances are great, and roads are rare, bush planes seem as common as birds in the sky.  In the Northwest Territories, too, bush planes are part of everyday life. A lot is expected of the robust aircraft here, as long and well-developed runways are rarely available in the wilderness. And some even prefer to land on the water! But which is which? Not all of us are experts at identifying different types of aircrafts. Here’s a handy birder’s-guide-style primer providing the necessary insights:

DeHavilland Beaver (Hardius workhorsicus)


Physical characteristics:

  • 9.2 metres long, box-shaped body and blunt, pug-like nose

  • Once described as "big ol' pelican"

  • Slow, cumbersome, but carries its weight in fish

Voice:

  • Loud snarl punctuated with piston-like bangs and pings

Habitat:

  • Flies anywhere, cruises non-stop for hours

  • Cruises non-stop for hours

Population:

  • 1,657 (produced 1947 - 1967)

Related species:

  • Norseman, Turbo Beaver

Notable fact:

  • The Beaver is named after Canada’s national animal, but the first Canadian-designed DeHavilland was named the Chipmunk.


Piper Cub (Bushplaneicus typicalensis)


Physical characteristics:

  • 6.8 metres long

  • Highly recognizable by its eager, snub nose and open, friendly face

  • The Cub’s low-hanging belly and stocky legs lend it a slow, sturdy air

Voice:

  • The butterfly of bush planes, it flies nearly silently

Habitat: 

  • A regular of lakes in the Northwest Territories; congregates around amateur pilots and tour operators

Population:

  • 19,888 (produced 1938 - 1947)

Related species:

  • Super Cub

Notable fact:

  • The Cub is the most popular training plane.


DeHavilland Twin Otter (Enterprisius canadiensis)


Physical characteristics:

  • 15.8 metres long

  • Sleek pointed nose and full bottom-heavy chest

  • Long blunt-tipped wings set toward the centre of the back

  • Plumage variable

Voice:

  • Quite growl

  • Intermittent slow shooshes when propellers reverse direction mid-flight

Habitat:

  • Cold, remote regions.

Population:

  • 844 (produced 1965 – 1988, 2008 - present)

Related species:

  • The single-engine Otter

Notable fact:

  • In 2001, when Antarctica’s resident doctor needed a medevac from his -60°C winter outpost, the Twin Otter was the only plane rescuers trusted to perform the mission.

DC-3 (Oneofakindus)


Physical characteristics:

  • Full, tapered belly resembling a fish

  • Low wings that angle toward a central, three-pronged trail

  • Plumage variable, but Northern species usually have a green mask

Voice:

  • Silent persistence howl

Habitat:

  • Well adapted to ice

  • Requires a long landing strip

Population:

  • 607 (produced 1936 – 1942, 1950)

Related species:

  • None. It’s been said that the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3.

Bemerkenswert:

  • Starred in the History Channel’s long running show Ice Pilots NWT.

Cessna 185 (Speedy gonzalicus)


Physical characteristics: 

  • 7.9 metres long

  • Feline nose

  • Slender tail

  • Agile, lither, maneuvers well, highly responsive

  • Can fly on floats, wheels or ski

Voice:

  • On take-off, it emits a ping, followed by an uninterrupted, sopund-barrier-breaking screech

Habitat:

  • Wild mountain regions

Population:

  • more than 4,400 Exemplare (produced 1961 – 1985)

Related species:

  • Found Bush Hawk

Notable fact:

  • Founder Clyde Cessna tested all his own prototypes and once leapt from an inverted plane mid-flight.

Pilatus Porter (Mountainous goatus)


Physical characteristics: 

  • 11 metres long

  • Box-shaped snout, wiry legs and square wingtips

  • Unattractive but spry

Voice:

  • Noisy growl, similar to the Beaver

Habitat: 

  • The Northern Pilatus nests in Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, year-round

Population:

  • 562 (produced 1959 - present)

Related species:

  • Helio Courier, Helio Stallion

Notable fact:

  • The Pilatus holds the world record for highest landing by a fixed-wing aircraft: in 1960, it touched down on a 5,750-metre mountain peak in Nepal.


Further information on the Northwest Territories can be found at www.spectacularnwt.com.

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