Bent Props and Blow Pots
Drop into your local library or bookstore and you are bound to find at least a few books chronicling stories of Canada’s bush pilots. While these are without doubt a good read, dig a little deeper and you may just find a true gem about early “Air Engineers” by Rex Terpening.
As a community college teacher I am obviously not a big fan of plagiarism. However, in the case of this issue’s column I just couldn’t think of a better name than “Bent Props and Blow Pots”. Rex Terpening’s adventures as an air engineer in the Canadian bush during the early thirties and forties should be required reading for anyone who has ever turned a wrench on a flying machine. Mr. Terpening’s book is well written, with excellent technical detail, and just enough humor to keep it all interesting.
Rex was raised in the Fort McMurray area of northern Alberta, and was fascinated by the early bush planes that began opening up the northern bush and barrens of Canada. His dream was to become an air engineer, the equivalent of what we now call an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME). However, in the early thirties, paid apprenticeships were hard to come by. Still this did not deter him from his goal. In the summer of 1933 he took a job as a fireman on the Northland Echo, a stem-wheeler ship out of Fort McMurray. For $60.00 a month (good pay for the time) and free meals, he worked 12 hour shifts loading cordwood into the ship’s fiery boiler. By season’s end he had saved enough money to enable him to work without pay as an air engineer’s apprentice. Finally in the fall of 1935, after two years of practical experience, he earned his air engineer’s license. It was then that the real adventures began.
The aircraft that Rex flew with and worked on were not ideally suited for the task of bush flying. Heat and a seat for the mechanic came many years later as aircraft evolved and began being designed to better suit the needs of the North. He often lay atop sacks of mail, cold and unable to communicate easily with the pilot, waiting for the next landing to begin his regular routine. The aircraft types flown, Fokker Universals, Fairchild 71s, and Junker W-34’s were all built long before ideas such as oil dilution for radial engines or heaven forbid, modern turbo props. Consequently, if the aircraft were down for any length of time in cold weather, the fifty-weight oil had to be drained into 5-gallon pails while still hot, and pre-heated with blow pots (crude torches using avgas as fuel) before being poured back in for restarting. The blow pots were also used for pre-heating the engines, usually under canvas covers. This process was noisy, smelly and extremely dangerous. As Rex so succinctly states, “more than one aircraft was burnt to the ground due to careless blow pot misadventures.”
Navigation aids for aircraft in those early days consisted of unreliable compass flying and landmark recognition. Should the weather turn bad your options were extremely limited. It usually meant landing on the most available frozen lake and waiting it out, with the earlier stated drill of draining and pre-heating before your eventual departure. All this was assuming that you didn’t break a ski or bend a prop in the process. Another excerpt from Mr. Terpening’s journal commented on waiting out weather in a tent on a frozen lake, “a fairly comfortable night only 30F and no wind!”
Another interesting misadventure occurred in the first summer after earning his license. Flying on floats, the pilot commented on the stony rapids they crossed as they lifted off on a northern river. “We’d be done for if the engine quit on take off over this” he stated. A few minutes later that very engine fell silent and they glided down to the only smooth section of the river for miles, executing a perfect dead stick landing. After stripping the engine to reveal the problem they set up camp and waited. The culprit, a failed cam gear in the Pratt & Whitney radial required a complete engine change. Once rescuers found them, they remained camped out to eventually change the engine on the riverbank and fly the aircraft out.
This was a job that took stamina to new heights. Work that would be difficult in a heated hangar with proper equipment was routinely done in sub zero temperatures while living in tents, or on riverbanks battling black flies and bears in summer. I was shocked to read that the main maintenance base in Fort McMurray had no electricity or compressed air available for aircraft work. A detailed description of a major repair to a metal Junker’s wing was completed using hand drills, and rivets bucked with hammers, snaps, and bucking bars.
This kind of book can really bring perspective to the life of a modern AME. If you read one book this year, make it this one. You might just find yourself a little less likely to complain about your meager wages or drafty hangars. In conclusion, I would like to pass on a personal note of thanks to Mr. Rex Terpening for recording a small but important part of our Canadian aviation history, and for making it such an informative and enjoyable book to read.
Sam Longo, AME, A&P
Bent Props and Blow Pots- Rex Terpening- 2003