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updated: 1/31/2011 5:50 PM

Museum gives charter bush planes their due

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A couple of weeks ago I flew with Einstein to Pine Portage Lodge, a fishing camp in northern Ontario. Einstein was my seat partner on a Cessna 206. He's a real dog. Literally. He belongs to Jim Ryan, who is chief pilot for Watson's Skyways, a charter service that takes off from Wawa, Ontario, and lands on Lake Kabinakagami and other isolated areas in the wilderness.

I've always had a romantic view of bush flying. There's something about going where no man's gone before that gives you goose bumps. That can also be caused by the realization that if your pilot suddenly decides to meet his maker, so will you. Or it could be caused by turbulence when you think you might lose your lunch. I didn't. Einstein did. But I digress.

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Before taking off into the unknown, I visited a little-known museum that should be on the radar for any aviation buff. The Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre is located in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, just across the International Bridge from the city with the same name in Michigan. It's housed in the hangar, which was home to the Ontario Provincial Air Service. The hangar was built in 1924 to house planes used to fight forest fires in the backwoods. You can reach the museum by car or by float plane.

The main focus of the museum is the 25 bush planes, some of which date back to the 1930s and have been restored to flying condition. There's a Noorduyn Norseman, designed in 1935 as the first plane built for Canadian bush flying. There's also a DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver, constructed in 1948, which is the oldest operational one in the world today. And there's the plane used in the filming of the 2009 film, "Amelia." It's a replica of a tri-motor Fokker. But planes aren't the only things to land here:

• There's a tribute to Roberta Bonda, the first Canadian woman in space who grew up in Saul Ste. Marie.

• A flight center includes several hands-on aviation exhibits to entertain both adults and children. You can fly your own bush plane on a flight simulator or climb onboard many of the restored aircraft.

• Two theatres run movies all day. One gives the history of the museum. The other, geared more to children, illustrates the day in the life of a bush pilot.

• A third movie expects to screen in January. It will present a four-dimensional view of fire-fighting in the wilderness and will include heat, smoke and occasional bursts of water.

I'm not the only bush pilot enthusiast. To many of the pilots I flew with during the 1960s, bush flying is what flying is all about.

"Flying a Boeing 707 across the pond and landing at one of the largest airports in the world, does a good job of feeding your family," said one old World War II pilot, who flew for TWA for many years. "But flying a two-seater Cessna and landing on a remote lake, feeds your soul."

"The difference between bush flying and line flying is you have to think all the time," Ryan said. "Sometimes, when you're flying in the winter, there's a complete whiteout. You can't see the ground. You have to land your skis on an angle because of the moguls on the lake. That's really fun. Bush flying is several hours of boredom followed by a few seconds of sheer terror."

In a world where security is on everyone's mind, adventure is sometimes hard to find. When you fly into the wilderness, catching fish and cooking them by the shore is incredible. But getting there is truly half the fun.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached at gailtodd@aol.com.

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