World Air Blogs

The Bush Pilot and the DHC-2 Beaver “King Kong”

Some might say, When you’ve seen one “Beaver” you’ve seen them all. I don’t agree with that statement!. I think there are two the same; each has idiosyncrasies of its own. There are reasons why many who work and play with machines regards the cars, ships, aircraft etc. anthropomorphically and in real sense “love” the machines they spend so much of their lives with. I’ve known some wives of pilots joke, perhaps with some jealousy, about their husband’s other mistress. I have to admit to this tendency for I not only love flying, I love the machines I have been privileged to pilot; they have enabled me to escape the surly bonds of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings! I could wax philosophic a lot on this but I just want the reader to understand that when I write about this wonderful Beaver I am writing as though he not it was and is a friend, a buddy that bore myself and hundreds of people and tons of material to many, many difficult, if beautiful, remote locations in northern Manitoba. I also realize that for some reason such machines are generally regarded as feminine and called “her” or “she” but this Beaver came to be called “KING KONG” because of its amazing, more masculine attributes, mainly the tremendous load “he” carried in very demanding “bush flying”.

This wonderful aircraft and I actually took to the air about the same time. This Beaver was built, created in 1957 by de Havilland in Toronto about the same time I trained as an Air Cadet at the Toronto Flying Club at Malton. i flew the humble but rugged Fleet Canuck 80 unaware that a mighty, amazing airplane was born at Downsview, only a few miles away. An aircraft specifically designed for for rugged bush flying and short take-offs and landings. I never thought or realized that this airplane and I were destined to become a team almost forty years later.


Fleet Model 80
In 1949 the Canadian Army took delivery of 45 Fleet 80 Canuck light aircraft, designating them Finch II. Redesignated Finch AT.2 in 1951, they were used in training and liaison duties until 1968. they were transferred to the RCAF, who sold them off instead of continuing to use them; several were donated to the Air Cadets.

At the time i was dreaming of flying “the Arrow” that fabulous All Canadian futuristic fighter then being created just across the field from the Toronto Flying Club. At the time I was exuberated with the little Fleet Canuck and the joys of flight. I was anticipating joining the Royal Canadian Air Force to fly the Arrow! I did join the Air Force as a pilot but that very same year, 1959, the Arrow was terminated, later to become a beloved legend. After a brief period in the Air Force I subsequently became a bush pilot and found my real niche in flying.

This Beaver we later knew as “KING KONG” was one of some one thousand Beavers that entered service with the United States Army. From the start is was acknowledged as a unique rugged vehicle for the demands of military functions in remote and tough Theaters of war. It was dubbed a “Generals’ Jeep” Helicopters were few and far between during the Korean War but the Beaver was able to get into, and out of some very tight places that the Generals seemed to want to get into. The rank ad file soldiers also likened it to a pick-up truck because it carried a half ton (in truth, often more than that).

Some years later it was mustered out into our civilian life. I don’t know all its history but eventually it came home to Canada. Somewhere along it was registered as CG-KKJ and eventually became the pride of the St. Theresa Point Air Service on Island Lake in northern Manitoba.

King Kong in manitoba

C-GKKJ “King Kong” on Burntwood River, near Thompson, Manitoba.
Photo: Brian Stockall

This was a small air service owned by St.Theresa Point First Nation, people who still lived off the land and treasured having their own air service because they needed to fly often to their hunting and fishing camps, most within fifty miles of the settlement. Whole families travelled to and from regularly especially in the spring and fall. “KKJ” often flew from dawn to dark in those busy times. As the Chief (and only) Pilot most of the time I was in sort of Paradise for someone who lives to fly!. We had only two planes, KKJ and a Cessna 185, CG-ORJ and I would alternate from one to the other as required. It was like stepping from a truck into a nifty sports car during those halcyon days! The people and the Board (all native) seemed happy to have an experienced pilot and they really used this little avid, air service.

Most of these folks had limited formal education and often didn’t understand my concerns with loading. It was frustrating for them and me, but also kind of fun for me, getting them to appreciate my worries about weight and balance, center of gravity etc. but on the whole they allowed for my eccentricities with good humour. It was hard to say “No” and so our planes were usually loaded to the max, in truth too often, overloaded. There were no weigh scales in most of these places and so “guesstimation” was commonplace. With float planes there is a rough rule of thumb pilots use: if the rear compartments are above water you’ll probably get off. (Its not in “The Book” but it’s the practice.

One of the reasons KKG was such a remarkable aircraft and why it could get off with such prodigious loads was that happily somewhere along the line, it was mounted on Norseman floats, the only such I know of. The Norseman was another Canadian legend also built for the bush and a venerable predecessor of the Beaver. It could carry twice the load of a Beaver but did not have the short take-off and landing (S.T.O.L.) capabilities. But those great floats on a Beaver, on our Beaver – WOW! In all my time on this aircraft I only saw the rear compartments under water once! I’ll tell you about it later on.

We were a venerable team of elders – pilot, aircraft and pontoons! Actually the Beaver was the youngster, born in 1957. The pontoons, “floats” were born (built) by Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg in 1943, and the pilot (me) was born in 1939. Some few folks looked askance at us “old” guys, remarking that it was time for younger men and airplanes to take over. That’s sort of ironic, I think.

They would prefer younger pilots with far less time and experience to older but more experienced once. They wanted moder but more temperamental machines with all kinds of “doo dads” and electronics that often proved troublesome and difficult to service in remote areas rather than the faithful Beaver that had served well over almost four decades! In my case, I had over eleven thousand hours, mostly bush flying and was in good physical shape. You get that way in this kind of work. Away from base and dock crew a pilot does his own loading and unloading…that’s usually half a ton off and on each way for each sortie.Try it sometime!

King Kong on the ramp

King Kong on the ramp
Photo: Geoff McDonell

It was always a challenge to get my passengers to understand that there were limit to even our wonderful Beaver that carried such great loads easily. Interior loads were demonstrably easier to convince them – there was only so much space but some had a hard time understanding that weight was another critical factor. A few illustrations will help explain:

Two local men chartered KKJ to fly them out and drop them off some forty miles from the village. They were on a moose hunt. We flew to their designated place and I left them there with a trail radio. We’ll call you back when we have the moose one of them said. The very next day they radioed to say they had their moose and would be waiting for pick-up where I left them. An hour later I flew over and gasped at what I saw below! The two men were waiving excitedly, standing beside a mountain of moose meat. I knew before I landed that it was going to be another “Mission Impossible!” Even for the Beaver. They had shot two great Bull moose, enough to feast the whole village! The problem became getting it all back to the village. At the time our Beaver was chartering for $ 4.00 a mile. (Sounds like a lot eh? But at that we could scarcely stay in business – our operating costs were humongous!) Could you do it all in one trip?One of them asked, we can’t afford two trips.

Now, I’ve had to go through situations like this many times and it was like batting my head against a wall trying to explain it all. And a simple “No!” made for angry customers and not only for Native folks; some lodge operators who should know better could be just as ornery. With these folks who were pretty good folks generally I resorted to a little “bush” practicality. Tell you what, I said. We’ll get it all loade and we’ll try one take off and if it won’t get off we’ll have to do two trips, O.K.? Smiling victoriously they nodded their heads. But I knew we would be doing two trips and not because I was being tricky.

As usual where we were we had no docks. I had beached the Beaver tail-in the rear of the floats resting on a gently sloping rock shoreline. The two men eagerly loaded the entire mountain of butchered meat into the cabin. It was ridiculous of course; I could scarcely close the door and one of them would have to sit on that pile of meat. However, I had to play the game! O.K.! You guys help me slide her in the water and we’ll be off, I said, knowing it was never going to happen.

With mighty effort we managed to inch the plane forward and I watched expectantly at the folly. As soon as the pontoons entered deeper water they sank below the compartment hatches, submerged, but but fortunately only a couple of feet or so under water. The forward part of the pontoons stayed above water – well above, the nose in steep climbing attitude, reaching for the sky! Now do you see what I’ve been trying to tell you guys?

Two chastened but good natured men waded in and started to unload the Beaver. As soon as the load lightened the rear end of the plane bobbed up. We hoisted the empty plane back up the shelf and reloaded half the load and got off O.K. After the second trip our little air service had made a bit of profit that day. And a lot of village folks feasted on fresh met because Native hunter are generous with their bounty.

I refer to another earlier Beaver, a lesser Beaver, for my next example. I say “lesser” only in that this wonderful more ancient Beaver was mounted on standard ordinary, floats, not Norseman floats and so more limited, actually more normal for a Beaver. I flew it out of Norway House a few years earlier. The same load games occurred there.

One fine fall day four young local men unloaded a van onto our dock and came up to the office to book a charter to their camp. I was happy to oblige and together we walked down to the dock where they had piled all their guns and equipment. There was quite a lot of stuff – too much for one load with four big men. There’s too much here for one load, I said with authority. They were not happy to hear this and began to argue as so many before them. But I stood my ground. I’m sorry, I said, but I just can’t take you and all this stuff in one load. I’ve got to go up to the office and finish the paper work; that’ll take about fifteen minutes. When I come back you guys decide who and what is going on the first trip.

Awhile later I returned to the aircraft to find a load neatly and efficiently already on board and three of the men seated and smiling at me. I was pleased that they had speeded things up. I assumed that the fourth guy had gone home to await the next flight. I climbed into “the office” and proceeded to start up.

Now, those of you who fly airlines that have lots of staff and everything is donr according to Hoyle may not understand that in a small bush air service we simply have only a few to do the work. In fact, that morning I was alone Chief Cook and bottle washer – our other pilot was up flying and we had no ground staff at that time of the day. I finished the “Bumph” (routine boring paperwork) and with several things on my mind including the upcoming flight I was not as alert as I should have been. There is a lot of trust involved with bush flying operations as there needs to be for things to get done. Some customers may tease and play a few games but not in a malicious way. Sometimes though, they do not appreciate or realize the dangers that pilots try to guard against. Such was the case here.

I started up and taxied out on the Robinson bay for take – off. There is over a mile of water in the bay itself but just beyond was the mighty Nelson River running all the way to Hudson’s Bay. Usually the Beaver performed all take-offs and landings within the confines of the Robinson Bay and that is what I expected to do as I opened the throttle for take – off. Bot something was wrong!

With full take – off power the floats were just ploughing. Acceleration was much slower than usual. Sometimes that happens if the floats have taken on water and I wondered momentarily if they had been punctured at the dock or by a submerged rock or “Deadhead,” (A partially submerged drifting log – hard to see from the cockpit). But even as I thought about this the plane began to accelerate, very slowly at first, then faster and faster but a long time to get “on the step”! We traversed Robinson Bay and into the Nelson River, over a mile, with the temperature gauge climbing towards the red, before reluctantly the Beaver staggered into the air. But she was tail heavy! I fought with the control column and trim, full forward trim, none to spare, to get the nose down and we inched skyward until I gained enough altitude to get over the trees and set course. My passengers were very quiet, glancing anxiously the windows as we lifted over the shoreline with several tree tops just beyond the wingtips. I was still sweating and wondering all the way to our destination. Fortunately we were only going about thirty miles to the drop off. When we got ther I did an Air Canada (a very gentle, shallow) descent and approach to the water landing using much more power to keep from dropping heavily into the lake. At a dock, still wondering and somewhat stressed out I shot down and coasted. One of the guys jumped out on the float and guided the plane to the dock. Then we started to unload.

They had done an impressive job of loading, a superb building job; so many items and tightly placed from one wall to the other and from floor to ceiling. One by one I pulled out the items and passed them out to the willing hands. Then I got to the very last layer of stuff I pulled a dufflebag away and there was a grinning face looking out on me. Alfred E. Neuman of “Mad” Magazine had a similar What! Me worry? Face. It was the fourth man – tucked away in behind the load, far behind the center of gravity, a critically dangerous location. A not too bright stow-a-way on my Beaver!

I was furious in a stoic sort of way. I learned long ago not to erupt demonstrably with these folks. It does no good. I did try, in a controlled way, to get them to understand what a foolhardy trick they had played on me. But they were like schoolboys caught out in some prank, trying to smother their laughter and look serious as I fumed away. (Come to think of it – just like my pals and I in grade school reacted to discipline of an angry teacher.) Of course I would fly them again in the future but I would be far more careful: Once bitten,twice shy!

I guess I could go on and on. Flying lore is full of such stories and I could relate so much more – and have in other writings over many years.

Neil Aird

King Kong on dry land, this was a rare event when Ralph was flying it
Photo: Neil Aird

C-GKKJ was an amazing beast of burden and often carried “everything included the kitchen sink,” the external loads sometimes seemed to defy all the laws of aerodynamics but at the time there was no other way to get some things in. The rugged terrain was such that it would take days of hard canoeing and portaging to access remote places which a Beaver could easily reach within an hour. So the interior would sometimes carry a couple of passengers, a great deal of baggage and outside, strapped firmly to the floats, canoes, large and small items of furniture or tools, even sixteen foot aluminum boats and so much more (not all at once of course)! Needless to say, I kept a sharp eye on the ropes and straps. One time I noticed a canoe, buffeted by the prop wash slipping slowly out of the binding. Fortunately we were over water and I managed a rapid descent and landing before a catastrophe occurred. Bobbing on choppy waters far from firm footing on the shoreline I managed to tighten everything and resume the flight. Sometimes alone in remote places I had to pick up large canoes and 16 foot aluminum boats; no easy task where there are no docks or good moorings. So I invented a system to load the heavy and awkward 16 foot aluminum boats with no one to help. Using foam padding to protect the strut and a good cord, I rigged a pulley midway up the port strut and so I could hoist and secure it in the usual way. I always carried such loads on the port float so I could keep an eye on it from my position.

It all seems like a dream now! For almost four decades and over an accumulation of thirteen thousand hours of flight time I was privileged to fly some wonderful, historic aircraft and I rank the legendary “Beaver” as my favourite – a Bush pilot’s best friend. “KKJ was my favourite.” I never got a chance to fly the famous Norseman but I did get to fly the Norseman floats. They made KKJ into a Super Beaver, so say I!

Alas! Beaver C-GKKJ “KING KONG” is no more! Before I left the wonderful little Air Service called “S.T.P. Air” I was privileged to train several men to take my place. Lance Bright from Vancouver, a city boy, transformed into an excellent bush pilot and became Chief Pilot. Three young, hometown Native men became the ground staff. I was particulary proud of them because when I first went into the north there was no Native pilots from those remote communities. I was one of several pilots who trained local youth to help refuel and maintain our planes. I helped several to become pilots and aircraft engineers and no one could be more prouder of them than I am. At St. Theresa Point George J. Harper, and Greg Wood trained for and became Operation Managers. Keith Wood trained for and became a Commercial Pilot. His first flying job was for S.T.P. Air. With great sadness I had to leave this wonderful community and little Air Service where I had been so happy.

Just as sad was the news I received a few years later that S.T.P. Air was now history. Small Air Services struggle to survive in the high cost and competitive aviation business. I still lament its loss but I will never regret those years and those people that I was once a real part of.
C-GKKJ was sold to someone on the West coast. My friend Lance had the wonderful privilege to fly her on the long flight westward, over the prairies and over the mountains to the sea. Lucky, lucky guy! I expected that KKG, like so many people who leave the prairies or northland for the idyllic west coast life would never cross back over the mountains. I saw KKG only once over the next twenty years, on TV. “he” was part of a great international convention of Beavers near Vancouver> I was unable to attend – I could only watch and lament.

But wonder of wonders! One day I met a former Danish Air Force veteran, Kai Hanse, at the Canadian Museum of flight in Langley BC. I mentioned my only “Danish Connection” that one of my middle names, “Munck” was after Jens Munck (Munk) the famous Danish sailor and explorer whose epic expedition into Churchill Manitoba in 1619 I hope you will “google” and read about it. As old Airmen do we shared our flying experiences and subsequently my great love for the Beaver. I lamented on the loss of KKJ! sometime later I received letters and information from Kai. He had “googled” and found KKJ my long lost friend, right near here, at the Vancouver Airport (water base) and sent o record of “his history”. Some years after arriving in Vancouver KKJ was sold again – to an American way out in New York State. So some lucky pilot got to fly KKJ back across North America and KKJ became an American again, a genuine US Army veteran. That meant a new American registration and so the registration C-GKKJ was up for grabs in Canada.

However, like most Canadian “Snowbirds” this beaver must have pined for Canada. A few years later “he” was sold again to Russ Rossi of Blueskyview Software Corporation in Vancouver BC.

I think Russ was unable to regain the KKJ registration as it had been reassigned by the DOT. I was sorry to hear this but more than pleased when I learned of its new registration, C-FYRR! I have over two thousand hours in this venerable airplane. It is a vanity thing that I feel honoured to think of YRR as my own as it now bears my initials in its identity? Off course Russ may have other ideas, he has the same initials, but I can always dream!.

John W Olafson

King Kong ,was sold again to Russ Rossi of Blueskyview Software Corporation in Vancouver BC. now it is
C-FYRR, Photo John W. Olafson

After all a part of me will always be part of KKJ/YRR – my sweet memories and my sould” Long may “he” fly and God bless all who have the privilege to fly this great airplane.

Ralph K.M. Rowe, Lake Cowichan, BC, Canada



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