The new breed of bush pilots

This article was written some time in early 1977. I have no other details. The picture accompanying the newspaper article shows Larry standing in front of a hovering 500D. The black and white image of the Spartan Uplands facility was not part of the story. I included it because several of Viking’s employees had backgrounds at Spartan Air Services.

Keep in mind that all of the values mentioned in the article are in 1977 dollars.


The legends of the bush pilots of the 1920s and 1930s are being augmented by the exploits of a new breed of pilots who can literally land on a dime.

These men don’t fly conventional aircraft but use helicopters in some of the more remote areas of the world.

“Our crews live in unusual situations, a tent or igloo or mud shack,” says Larry Camphaug, president of Ottawa’s Viking Helicopters Ltd.

Until April 17, the firm, which also runs a traffic spotting service for a local radio station, had maintained a rather low profile. An international incident in Ethiopia changed that.

On that day, Bill Waugh, a Viking pilot with the World Health Organization (WHO) was captured and held for ransom by Ethiopian insurgents. The 42-year-old pilot was released unharmed a couple of days later even though the ransom had not been paid.

Camphaug said Waugh sweet-talked his way out of the rebel camp and is still working in Ethiopia.

Smallpox project

Viking pilots and machines have been instrumental in the program to eradicate smallpox in Ethiopia, one of the last areas in the world where the disease is a big problem.

Viking has been working with W.H.O. since 1974. Because Ethiopia is mountainous and has few good roads or air strips to service the interior, there has been a role for the machine Camphaug says “can take you places no other vehicle can go.” Whenever a smallpox case is reported, Viking pilots fly vaccine to the affected village and then assist in quarantine and surveillance. Surveillance in Ethiopia will continue for two years after the last reported case has been treated.

If this were a commercial project Camphaug says, Viking would likely be out of Ethiopia by now because of the danger of operating in the violence-wracked country.

With projects like this, pilots and companies have to balance risks against the end goal. Camphaug says pilots working in the program with dedicated people from all over the world can easily get “hyped up” and committed to its success.

River blindness project

Viking is involved in another African project. Nine company helicopters and short-take-off-and-landing (STOL) airplanes are spraying the Volta River system in nine West African countries.

The program is part of a 20-year $120 million multilateral campaign against onchocerciasis or river blindness, a disease transmitted by blackflies that lay their eggs in rivers.

In the Volta basin nearly one million people have river blindness and of these 70,000 are totally blind.

Viking got the contract after competing with helicopter firms from the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Poland, France and Switzerland.

Meanwhile, back in Canada

While the African business is glamorous, half of Viking’s activity is in Canada, for the government and mining companies. Sales were about $6 million last year and are expected to reach $8 million for 1977.

Technical facility, Spartan Uplands Airport, circa 1951. Right-click and select View Image to see it full-size.

Camphaug says the African ventures are important for Viking’s profitability, enabling men and machine to keep working 12 months of the year.

Camphaug originally got into the helicopter business when he was 22. He joined Spartan Air Services in 1952 when he finished a tour of duty with the Royal Canadian Navy.

When Spartan folded in the late 1960s, Camphaug and partner Pete Peterson bought three old helicopters and the Spartan licences.

Peterson has since retired and his interest was purchased by Gerry McMahon of Toronto in 1972.

Now only Okanagan Helicopters in British Columbia is bigger in Canada and Camphaug says Viking has a lager chunk of the international market.

Viking operates about 50 helicopters with 125 employees in Carleton Place and Bells Corners, just outside Ottawa. The company also maintains bases at Thompson, Man., Toronto, Thunder Bay, Kenora and Dryden, Ont., and Corner Brook, Nfld.

Camphaug says that the helicopter business is capital-intensive and risky. A small Hughes 500D helicopter, the latest model, sells for $200,000 and a heavy-lift helicopter can cost $700,000.

Because of the investment in training and machines Viking’s rental rates are steep. A Hughes 500D and pilot cost $300 an hour; a heaver helicopter capable of carrying 12 passengers rents for $700 and hour.

All of the values mentioned in the article are in 1977 dollars.

Here’s a link to an article in the Ottawa Citizen dated April 11, 1957. Two entire newspaper pages are dedicated to Spartan Air Services and their operations (pages 21 and 22).

2 thoughts on “The new breed of bush pilots

  1. Twolane Post author

    Bart Stevenson in Kenora gave me a copy of the article above.

    The Citizen article you mention, a copy of which I have hanging on my office wall, is dated May 4, 1977, page 39. It’s titled Men who fly for Viking helicopters learn to take dangers in their stride.

    Here’s one of your father’s quotes, a favourite of mine, in the article:

    “Our crews live in unusual situations, a goddamn tent or igloo or mud shack … When they get back to civilization, they look for the brightest, shiniest hotel in town.”

    At the time, that pretty much summed it up for me: I liked bright, shiny hotels.

  2. Mark Camphaug

    I remember that article – it was a full page in the Ottawa Citizen – they described Dad as ” a rough hewn man prone to expletives to get this point across” – classic 🙂


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