Smoke sighting, North West Territories

FLYING MACHINE as FIRE FINDERS Detection aircraft should provide excellent visibility, be reliable, and handle well at slow speeds.

The observer takes a good look at the fire behavior, notes the closest sources of water, and estimates the number of firefighters and the equipment needed to put it out.

Visibility is particularly important. Fire observers need a wide, unbroken view of the land below, in order to spot that thin spiral of smoke that signals fire. When a fire is spotted, the detection aircraft slowly circles over the fire – or hovers in the case of helicopters.

THE FIRST FIRE DETECTION AIRCRAFT were surplus World War I airplanes used for wartime surveillance operations. Seaplanes – flying boats and float planes – proved to be the most satisfactory detection machines in the Canadian bush, where innumerable lakes and rivers supplied flexible, cost-free landing grounds.

Curtiss HS-2L Flying Boat. One of the earliest fire patrol aircraft, the H-Boat, as it was called, provided fire observers, (who sat in the open cockpit at the forward end), with a panoramic view of the land below. It was a large wood and canvas flying boat used widely for aerial detection patrols from 1919 to the early 1930s. The H-boat had serious drawbacks: it was not reliable, and it was not easy to handle.

Curtiss HS-2L on aerial patrol Emergency engine change
  • The engine broke down regularly, forcing emergency landings on the closest body of water. If the engineer (who always accompanied the pilot) couldn’t fix the problem, the crew had to walk out of the bush to get help – unless they had a messenger pigeon or a wireless transmitting set on board.
  • The H-boat needed lots of room to manoever – to take off, gain altitude, and descend. This left a very narrow margin for error in mountainous, or even hilly country.
  • By the end of the flying season the H-boat was waterlogged and unwieldy, since the wooden hull steadily absorbed water over the summer. The H-boat was phased out of active duty by the early 1930s.
Vedette on patrol

Vickers Vedette Flying Boat. The Vickers Vedette - small, verstaile and reliable - was Canada's first response to the challenges of bush flying. Designed specifically for fire patrols, forest surveys and aerial photography, it was the 'star' of the Royal Canadian Air Force. For a detailed look at the Vedette, check out the Shearwater Aviation Museum.

  • The Vedette prototype flew in 1925. By 1926 the Vedette was flown on Royal Canadian Air Force fire detection patrols in Western Canada. The Vedette was used in forest protection up to the 1930s.

Watch: A Vedette on fire patrol in this video clip from the 1927 flim, Forest Fire Fighters of the Skies. [National Film Board] De Havilland Moth on floats

De Havilland Moth Floatplane. The de Havilland Gypsy Moth, a light detection biplane, arrived on the scene in 1927. The Ontario Provincial Air Service used it extensively for fire patrols. At the request of the OPAS, de Havilland added floats – an essential feature for forestry work in the lake country of the Canadian north.

  • The Moth was light and maneuverable. It was reliable, and did not require the services of an in-flight engineer. On the Moth, the pilot doubled as fire observer.
  • Pilots loved the Moth. It took to the air 'like a homesick angel'. The Moth flew on fire patrols until the 1940s.
Avro 504N & Crew

The land-based DH4, DH9, and AVRO 504 all performed well on RCAF fire detection patrols in the Alberta foothills during the 1920s.

  • The DH4, based in High River, Alberta, flew 495 patrols, for a total of 906.5 hours, during the 1922 season. There were no serious mechanical problems.




AFTER THE EARLY EXPERIMENTAL PATROLS, a variety of aircraft were utilized for fire detection patrols. The Noorduyn Norseman (1935-1959), for example, and the de Havilland Beaver (1948-1968), were designed and constructed to handle the harsh flying conditions of the Canadian bush.

De Havilland Beaver

The de Havilland Beaver, a high-wing, all-metal aircraft, was not intended to be a detection plane but a reliable, all-purpose utility machine, a ‘half-ton truck with wings’. The Beaver had phenomenal STOL – short take-off and landing capabilities.

  • Short take-off and landing capabilities made all the difference on loaded fire patrols carrying firefighters and equipment. Even on a small lake, or in a tight spot, a heavily loaded Beaver needed very little room to land, or to take off.
  • The high wing allows an unobstructed view of the forests below. Twin engines provide that extra measure of safety in the event of engine failure. Both airplanes meet the slow-speed requirements necessary to observe and report accurately on a fire once it is spotted.

TODAY light, high-wing aircraft such as the twin-engine Cessna 337 Skymaster, and single-engine Cessna 182. are commonly used on detection patrols.

Watch: Cessna on Fire Patrol [OMNR]

Helicopters are also used extensively on fire detection patrols. In many ways helicopters are ideal detection aircraft. Visibility is excellent. They can land and take off in tight spots, and hover over a fire while the observer notes and reports the details. Helicopters frequently fly loaded detection patrols during high-hazard days, or in high-risk areas.

Cessna Skymaster, Provincial Government of Newfoundland & Labrador A-Star helicopter, Alberta


From the time the first flying boats roared over the wilderness, Canada’s fire detection aircraft were modified, or specifically designed, to meet the rigours of bushflying – and the demands of wildfire detection. The process continues today.

Photo Credit:
NWT Archives. North West Territories. Dept of Information [Smoke sighting, North West Territories. G-1979-023]
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre [Curtiss HS-2L on aerial patrol; De Havilland Beaver; De Havilland Moth on floats; Emergency engine change; Gipsy Moth on Floats, Ontario]
Department of National Defense [Vedette on patrol]
Canada Aviation Museum, Ottawa [Avro 504N & Crew]
Richard Stoker and Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum [Cessna Skymaster, Provincial Government of Newfoundland & Labrador]
Alberta Sustainable Resource Department [A-Star helicopter, Alberta]
Online Exhibits