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What Is a Bush Pilot?

Cassie L. Damewood
Cassie L. Damewood

A bush pilot is a certified flier of an aircraft, normally a small, customized plane, who specializes in flying in adverse weather conditions into remote geographical areas. She traditionally has an unusually high desire for adventure and danger. A person who works as a bush pilot is typically self-employed and lands most jobs through social and business connections and her reputation for success.

A person with this job normally does not use authorized airfields for take-offs or landings. She traditionally uses no runway at all. A bush plane typically takes off and lands in remote, rough terrain not reachable by any type of land vehicle. To facilitate such maneuvers, a bush plane is normally equipped with skis, floats or oversized tires on its underside.

Many bush pilots operate aircraft, such as the CL-215, that can be used for firefighting duties.
Many bush pilots operate aircraft, such as the CL-215, that can be used for firefighting duties.

Today, the term bush flying commonly refers to flying an aircraft into any undeveloped area that is wild and unsettled. There are normally no buildings or signs of civilization where this pilot flies. The term is generally believed to have originally referred to pilots who flew into the remote areas of southern Africa, commonly referred to as bush.

Bush flying is still the most common form of transportation used to get into the Australian Outback and the tundra of Alaska and Canada. A bush pilot was first used in Canada for the purposes of exploration and development. Alaska’s main use of bush pilots was for transportation. The most common job for this pilot today normally involves a rescue operation.

Unlike a regular pilot, a bush pilot traditionally has multiple pilot licenses. She normally first obtains a private pilot’s license followed by a commercial pilot’s license. Since most of these pilots transport passengers, an air traffic pilot’s license is typically added to the list. It takes almost a year to get all three of these licenses if the training program is pursued full time. Up to five years is required if the licensing is pursued on a part-time basis.

Although not mandatory, a bush pilot frequently receives special training after completing the aforementioned education. Some flight schools offer classes in how to effectively operate planes equipped with wheels or floats. Instruction also typically includes directions on how to safely fly in highly unusual conditions and land in aberrant places like frozen lakes and gravel bars alongside rivers. Precision flying techniques are taught to enable this type of pilot to enter and exit small, confined spaces and maneuver a plane through treacherous and often blinding environments and weather conditions.

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Discussion Comments


I have never ridden in a plane with a bush pilot but I have to imagine the pilots have to be pretty good considering they are usually carrying people with them and also due to the areas they may be flying over as well as the planes they have.

Most bush pilot planes are not anywhere near as well made as commercial aircraft and are more susceptible to changes in the weather as well as other problems that may occur. Considering that a bush pilot is usually over remote areas if they were to have a problem it could become a major issue if they were to crash or have to bring the plane down due to mechanical problems. I would like to think that they are trained thoroughly to deal with these situations but I also have to wonder how often problems like this occur with bush pilots and how up to par they are in regards to training compared to commercial pilots.


@kentuckycat - Although you may be right concerning bush pilots and the weather I would think that it would be a lot harder to land in a field as opposed to water. Water is a flat surface that in reality any pilot with experience can land on in a plane that has skis. Landing in a field in Africa I would think would be a lot harder considering that the bush pilot may not know that the area is flat and could be rough even though it looks flat from the air.

People take for granted smooth surfaces for landing planes and that is why it may be a lot harder for bush pilots to land planes in the African savanna or the outback of Australia, but is a lot harder to fly in areas like Alaska. Wherever a bush pilot is they have some aspect of their job that is harder than another bush pilot somewhere else in the world, so there may be different standards and regulations depending on where a bush pilot is located.


@matthewc23 - I would imagine that considering most countries in Africa have problems with various types of regulation they would have problems with regulating the licenses of bush pilots. I would consider this though another one of the many problems that the countries over there would have with regulating pilots.

I would also like to point out that the standards could be different over in Africa as well as Australia simply due to the weather and the terrain they have available. Over in Africa and Australia, they never have to deal with ice problems and the dry, arid land that they descend and land their planes on may make it easier that the forested areas of Alaska that may force a different type of landing in the water.


I would have to imagine that a bush pilot up in Alaska is a very good pilot. The weather conditions up in Alaska are not necessarily the best for flying and the planes they use are not to the quality of say a 767 jet and are a lot smaller, thus more susceptible to the wind.

It does not at all surprise me that bush pilots in places like Alaska have to obtain multiple licenses in order to fly their aircraft, but I have a question concerns bush pilots in places like Africa, where regulation may not be up to the same standards as in the United States or Australia. Do they still have to adhere to the same standards as the bush pilots in Alaska or is it a lot easier to become a bush pilot there?

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    • Many bush pilots operate aircraft, such as the CL-215, that can be used for firefighting duties.
      Many bush pilots operate aircraft, such as the CL-215, that can be used for firefighting duties.