When it comes to history, Sault Ste. Marie seems to be a hotbed for interesting stories. Our area after all is one of the oldest settlements in the country.
The Canadian Heritage Bushplane Museum has a lot to share, the Bushplane has been part of our history for over 100 years.
The story behind the historic waterfront hangar is full of excitement and adventure.
Aviation in northern Ontario began with the purchase of eighteen Curtiss HS2L “H-Boats” by the Canadian Air Force. These giant aircraft (boat-hulled biplanes with a wingspan of 74 feet!) were purchased between 1921 and 1924 with the purpose of performing mapping and survey operations by the Canadian Government. Then, between 1922 and 1923, the Forestry Branch of the Department of Lands and Forests entered into a contract with Laurentide Air Service to carry out fire patrols in the northern sections of Ontario, an operation to be headed by W. Roy Maxwell.
After the devastating Haileybury Fire of 1922 claimed 44 lives, two thousand square miles of forest and caused $6 million in damages, the Canadian Government favoured a plan put forth by the Hon. James W. Lyons to create our own Air Service, rather than relying on Laurentide. And so, on February 19, 1924, Maxwell resigned as vice president of Laurentide Air Service to accept the job with the Department of Lands and Forests to organize an air branch of its own.
With its own fleet of thirteen H-Boats, the Ontario Provincial Air Service (OPAS) was separated into two districts: Eastern (based at Ramsay Lake in Sudbury) and Western (based at Sioux Lookout). Strategically-located sub-bases were also established, and Sault Ste. Marie became the home of the OPAS central base for the reconditioning and general maintenance of aircraft and engines. And so, the waterfront hangar was built in 1924. As the Service’s fleet grew, more space was needed and in 1948, a 25,000 square foot expansion was added to the original structure, as well as a concrete apron and slipway. It is in this building that the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre now resides.
Within this historic structure, many important innovations in forest fire protection were developed. Waterbombing started with OPAS pilots dropping bags of water from the air onto forest fires. Shortly after, rollover-tanks were designed at the hangar; these tanks were fastened above the floats of planes like the Beaver and Otter. As the aircraft skimmed along a body of water, water would be forced up intake pipes and then dumped onto the fires by “rolling over”.
SaultOnline.com will have more historic photos and stories next week.