features Nelson Bentley: The pioneering utility pilot

American-born Nelson Bentley joined the helicopter industry at its very beginning. He became a legend north of the border for his work flying in the most remote regions of Canada.
By Bob Petite | April 22, 2022

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 21 seconds.

Photos courtesy of the Bentley family

Nelson D. Bentley was born on Dec. 29, 1917, in the town of Batavia in western New York. As a young boy, he would often see aircraft flying overhead, and knew he wanted to be a pilot. He was 22 when he began his flying lessons — in a two-seater Piper J-3 Cub. He first soloed on May 10, 1940, after about nine hours of dual instruction. He ended up with 15 hours and 10 minutes of flight time when he obtained his private pilot license.

Bentley sits in a Bell 47B at New England Helicopter Service in Providence, Rhode Island, during his flight training in 1948.

However, the following February, with war looming, Bentley was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was later accepted for pilot training in the Army Air Forces, where he spent most of his time flying the B-26 Marauder. He was discharged in September 1945 with just over 1,130 hours of flight time.

Bentley continued to fly privately on his return to civilian life, but was soon looking to make the switch to flying helicopters — and began the search for a flight school. Through the grapevine, Bentley heard that Leon Plympton in Providence, Rhode Island, was about to start one. Plympton foresaw a flourishing helicopter industry, and accordingly incorporated the New England Helicopter Service (NEHS) in Rhode Island in January 1946. Two months later, he purchased a surplus U.S. Army Sikorsky R-6, which likely made him the very first private owner of a helicopter in the country.

Bentley joined the school in April 1948, training in a Bell 47B. He soloed the following month, and completed the program with a total of 28 flight hours. He was checked out by a Bell instructor in Niagara Falls, New York, in June 1948.

Bentley leaves on a cross-country flight in a Bell 47B-3 in September 1948.

The next couple of years saw Bentley build his flight hours with NEHS at Providence and at its subsidiary base in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. He was also checked out on the Hiller 360.

In May 1950, he joined Bugbeaters Inc., a helicopter spraying service for farmers, in Syracuse, New York, using the Bell 47B-3 and Hiller 360. Just a month into his new job, Bentley was flying the Hiller 360 while fogging near Old Forge, New York, when the engine stopped. The aircraft crashed into trees during an autorotation, injuring Bentley and badly damaging the helicopter. 

Recuperating from his injuries at home, Bentley came across an article in Reader’s Digest about the construction of a railway in Quebec. It was to service a new iron ore mine, using two Bell 47D-1s flown by Hollinger Ungava Transport (HUT) to move people and supplies on the project. After writing the required exams, Bentley obtained a Canadian commercial license and joined the team in 1951.

At that point, Canada’s fledgling commercial helicopter industry had less than 20 aircraft on the civil register. These were mostly Bell 47s and Hiller 360s. There were also only 16 commercial pilots in the entire country. Commercial operators included Okanagan and the Helicopter Exploration Company in British Columbia; Associated Helicopters in Alberta; Kenting Aviation, the Hydro Electric Power Commission, and Department of Transport in Ontario; and HUT in Quebec. The Canadian military had less than 10 helicopters — mostly Sikorsky S-51s and Bell 47s — and only around 25 military personnel had been trained on helicopters.

Starting a career

Most of the flying on the railway construction project in Quebec was out of Sept-Îles. Bentley enjoyed the work immensely, building time on the Bell 47D-1, flying VIP passengers, supervisors, railway engineers and injured workers, as well as mail, food, and other supplies. 

On May 17, 1952, Bentley married Vera Emily Spies, a passenger agent for Trans Canada Air Lines (TCA) in Westmount, Quebec. They later settled in Ottawa, Ontario, where they raised two daughters. Shortly after the wedding, Bentley began a new job with Spartan Air Services in Ottawa, flying a Bell 47D-1 on floats. 

Bentley’s first operation for Spartan was in Newfoundland, where he worked on topographic mapping surveys. This involved flying survey parties and technicians to high terrain, and to waterways to take barometer readings. Once that project was complete, Bentley flew a similar operation in Quebec, before returning to Ottawa at the end of the season.

The following years saw Bentley continue to build his time and experience, as he worked on another railway construction project in Manitoba, completed more topographic land surveys in Quebec and New Brunswick, flew firefighting operations in Ontario, and began mineral exploration support. In September 1954, he was checked out flying a mineral detecting magnetometer “bird” on a long line underneath the Bell 47D-1, which was then flown operationally in New Brunswick and Maine.

Further exploration and drilling support work took him across Canada, as far as the Northwest Territories, and by August 1957, he reached 2,000 hours in helicopters. 

In 1957, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) completed the construction of the Mid Canada Radar Line (MCL) across northern Canada. Its maintenance was to be performed by Okanagan Helicopters and Spartan, with Spartan looking after it from Labrador to Hudson Bay. They were to use RCAF Piasecki H-21/Vertol 42B and 44 twin-rotor aircraft.

Spartan crews began training on the helicopters at Piasecki’s facility in Arnprior, Ontario, in September 1957, with Bentley soloing that October. He began flying the aircraft operationally the following January in Knob Lake (now Schefferville), where he flew personnel, supplies and mail to and from the line. 

The MCL contract was up for renewal in 1961, and Spartan lost out to Dominion Helicopters. Many Spartan pilots — including Bentley — joined Dominion to continue the work. 

In addition to the MCL support operation, Bentley continued with his varied geological exploration and mapping support. By the end of December 1964, he had accumulated 1,340 hours flying Piasecki/Vertol twin-rotor helicopters — but the MCL was shut down the following year, ending the lucrative contract.

Going turbine

Dominion bought a new Bell 47G-4 in March 1965, and Bentley was the one to take it from Bell in Texas to Canada. He flew it extensively over the next few years, with more surveys taking him to remote northern locations, including Baffin Island.

Two of Spartan’s Piasecki/Vertol twin-rotor helicopters, which were used for the maintenance of the MCL. Department of National Defence Photo

He returned to Spartan in 1966, where he continued his specialization in survey work. At the end of the year, he got his first taste of a different kind of flying — using a Bell 47G for traffic reporting for a local radio station. This lasted several months, and Bentley enjoyed the novel ability to return home every night at the end of his shift. However, he was soon back in the Arctic, flying in Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories (now part of Nunavut), on a geological survey. 

Another new type of work presented itself in 1968, when Bentley began training for his instructor rating. He had his flight check on Feb. 23, and began instructing students the same day. 

However, just a year later, financial difficulties forced Spartan to close its doors. Bentley’s experience ensured he had no trouble finding a new job — he joined Skyrotors Ltd. in March 1969. He was back in Piasecki/Vertol 42s and the Bell 47G-4A, working on utility projects in Ontario, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories. He also spent brief periods instructing the company’s new pilots.

By the end of 1970, he was also checked out on his first turbine helicopter: a Hughes 500. This was followed by a Bell 204B in 1973, and an Aérospatiale Alouette III in 1974.

Unfortunately, Skyrotors met the same fate as Spartan, and it closed in September 1974. Bentley was out of job again, but he found work with Trans Quebec Helicopters the following month. He was quickly checked out on the Bell 206 JetRanger in Matagami, Quebec, and soon he was back flying a variety of surveys throughout the province.

In July 1976, he passed 10,000 flight hours in helicopters. That December, he flew to Calgary to pick up another JetRanger for the company, and he ferried it back across Canada with his wife, Vera, accompanying him.

The next few years saw him fly for a few different operators, including Dominion Pegasus Helicopters, Lac St. Jean Aviation, Sept Iles Helicopter Services, Canadian Helicopters, Okanagan Helicopters, and Quasar Helicopters, with his work regularly taking him up to the Arctic. There, he often worked around Bathurst Island, Somerset Island, Baffin Island, and Prince of Wales Island, moving scientists, geologists, and survey crews.

In 1982, he decided it would be his last season flying helicopters, with his last flight taking place on June 16 of that year.

Across his 34-year career, he had accumulated 12,717 hours and 35 minutes in helicopters. 

An avid photographer, Bentley documented all his travels on the ground and in the air, collecting a wealth of historical images of aircraft, animals, flowers, landscapes, and people. While in Canada’s north, he purchased an amazing collection of Inuit soapstone carvings. Most have been donated to the National Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. He was also an avid stamp collector.

In retirement, Bentley and his wife took up birdwatching. He didn’t completely give aviation up — in 1991, he joined the Gatineau Gliding Club and flew gliders up until 2001, accumulating 1,100 hours. Bentley was also a member of the Twirly Birds, and in his later years, attended Helicopter Association International conventions where he met up with old friends.

Bentley passed away in Ottawa, Ontario, on Nov. 12, 2002. He was 84 years old.

Spartan’s Gordon Townsend said Bentley’s “quiet, efficient and cooperative manner” allowed him to cope with any situation. “If it was surveyors who wanted to be landed on a hilltop, that is what he did. If ore-seekers wanted a clumsy electronic bird towed below a helicopter at a constant height above the ground, Nelson did so. If there was cargo to be delivered along the Mid Canada Line, Nelson delivered it. And this he did for over 30 years, flying on contracts for whomever and wherever a need arose.”

Bentley sits alongside a Bell 206 JetRanger on sea ice in the far north of Canada in March 1977.

Bentley’s daughter Carolyn said: “Dad was a devoted, faithful, kind, gentle, patient and supportive father who loved flying helicopters. He enjoyed his career as a pilot immensely.”

Among those working in the industry he served for almost 35 years, Bentley will be remembered as a pioneering helicopter pilot who helped develop the rotary-wing industry in remote locations across the U.S. and Canada. 

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1 Comment

  1. What a great story. I don’t think I ever met Nelson but I have met many of his fellow pilots from that time period. It was a great time to be in the helicopter industry. So many good people and good times.

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