Float Season for Canada's Yellow Birds
Robert S Grant

Canada's famed "Yellow Birds", so called because of the brilliant paint scheme on their de Havilland Otters, turbo Beavers and Twin Otters, recently started the float season for 1983. Wheel/ski landing gear was removed from the meticulously maintained bush planes and replaced with floats to enable landings and take off on open water. Once the cumbersome, drag-producing floats were installed and secured, the bomb doors on the under-surface were tested for smooth operation and leaks. Most Ontario Government aircraft have modified floats so that water may be scooped from the thousands of lakes in the province and dropped on forest fires.

The pilots of the Ontario Provincial Air Service (OPAS) a name adopted when the organisation was formed in 1924 and still used by many within it, are highly experienced in the variety of tasks they perform. Average flying times for each individual are 7,000 hours, but most pilots join the group with 3,200 hours logged in the bush. Nevertheless, each man undergoes testing in a demanding two-hour flight during which staff examiners monitor each move. No one loses their jobs, yet these standards are certainly high. "No flight test in this outfit it is a piece of cake", sighed one veteran.

Theoretically, the yellow birds exist to fight forest fires. However, this hazardous duty occupies a small percentage of their time. "Break-up", that is when the ice leaves the lakes and rivers, brings water survey crews to airbases across the northern part of
Ontario. Men and women are air lifted with camping gear inside and a boat or canoe strapped outside, into the spruce forests of the Canadian Shield. Left on their own, they map and catalogue the hardness levels, varieties of fish, depths, etc., until they are picked up again in seven to ten days. Aerial photography assignments are common and have a high priority considering the few, clear, blue sky's required for such work. From 5,000 ft to 9,500 ft pilots fly plots on the marked topographical charts so forest inventories may be compiled and land managers can decide what timber acreage's may be cut.

"We fly conservation officers or game wardens on patrols over the bush for many hours" said a pilot working from red lake, a small town known for its gold mines, near the Manitoba border. "An aeroplane be used on patrol must be able to absorb the stress of STOL approaches and quick landings. The engine has to endure sudden shut downs and for this the PT-6 of the turbo-Beaver has been excellent".

Occasionally, the yellow birds co-operate with United States officials. When the then US vice-president Walter Mondale visited the town of Dryden to sample nearby fishing delights, on to us and turbo-Beavers were used for transportation. This was a true complement since American officials generally do not fly in single-engined aircraft. Another unusual assignment involved US-Canada co-operation when radio-marked great grey owls were tracked by telemetry search flights. A Minnesota biologist monitored the giant birds from an Ontario government aeroplane. The turbo-beaver had antennae temporarily attached to it wing struts. Pilot, Ted Hill, Kenora explained: "we cruised at 9,500 ft a s l at maximum speeds on 120 mph, for four hours. I'd expected some difference in aircraft handling, but was unable to detect any notable change in flight characteristics".

Float season wildlife surveillance includes heron and raptor surveys, commercial fish monitoring, and just before freeze up, beaver counts. Actual Beavers are rarely seen, "live" lodges are easily differentiated from unoccupied ones once by the presence of freshly duty and trees and branches. Each live den counts as two animals.

Fish planting, an interesting undertaking each spring, requires the for exploitation of the OPAS's STOL aircraft. Rumbling Otters, loaded to their full gross weight of 8,000lbs, on steep approaches over rocky hills and down high treed shorelines are not to for the inexperienced. Once on the water, trays carrying a known number of silvery fingerlings are poured through a funnel inside the Otter and exit between the huge Bristol made floats. Flight requisitions are accepted from many branches of the Ontario government. Probation and the parole officers visit northern Indian reserves; tourism officials journey to isolated fishing camps to evaluate the quality of service for the benefit of world-wide visitors who will use the facilities and occasionally, the RCMP, of Canada's "Scotland Yard", need to make a quick trip to investigate a smuggling incident.

When aircraft are assigned to fire duty, they may be put on the Red Alert, during which no other work assignment will be accepted. At bases throughout the northern areas, pilots are not permitted to leave for meals. Red alert means the aircraft are to be en route as quickly as possible to a forest fire. The single Otter, an eleven-seat machine, may be dispatched with a unit crew, that is a group of firefighters, complete with gear. Once at the smoke, the Otter lands as close as possible to the blaze and offloads the men and equipment. When airborne again, if fuel permits, a pilot will water bomb until the ground crew can bring water pumps and hoses into action. Single Otters carry 220 imperial gallons, turbo-Beavers 140, and twin Otters 450 imperial gallons.

At Sioux lookout, Ontario, a pilot described the aerial water delivery system: "The aircraft has not stop after landing on the water. Instead, you maintain a speed, which enables the aeroplane to skim the surface, what we call, "on the step ". A cockpit toggle switch lowers a probe in the bottom of each float. When the integral water tanks are full after eight -11 seconds, the probes are selected up and the pilot flies away. At the fire, a bomb-button is pressed on the load cascades into the flames. The object is not to put the fire out, although that does happen, rather to contain it, until ground forces can get their."

Each year, the province of Ontario hires Canso water-bombers to fight fires. Sometimes, a "bird dog" in the form of an amphibious turbo-beaver will accompany the "heavies". Circling above the action, the pilot acts as a flying control tower to prevent made-air collisions and to pinpoint water drops. Its crew usually consists of a yellow bird pilot and an experienced BDO (Bird Dog Officer) who is supposed to have acquired a level of expertise by fighting fires on the ground.

The personnel of the Ontario Provincial Air Service have been a highly motivated group of individuals in the past. Pilots and aircraft engineers have pioneered in the field of forest fire operations and have repeatedly risked their lives. The present fleet of seventeen turbo-Beavers, sixteen single Otters and six twin Otters is scheduled for reduction. What the future holds for this historic organisation cannot be said for certain.

This article first appeared in Aviation News [Vol 12 No.5] 29th July 1983.