Air Inuit celebrates 40 years of service
Nunavik is an immense arctic region of frozen tundra, snow forest, scenic mountains, rivers and lakes in the northern third of the province of Quebec, Canada. The 170,000-square-mile territory is north of the 55th parallel and inhabited by about 12,500 aboriginal people, the Inuit, who live in 14 modern villages along the coasts of Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay. Only four of those communities have populations of more than 1,000.
Air Inuit – founded and fully owned by the Inuit through Makivik Corporation – began operations in 1978 to bring air service to a region that had been mostly inaccessible. They started with one single-engine De Havilland Beaver aircraft and today operate 31 aircraft, including four Beechcraft King Air aircraft, to provide passenger, charter, cargo and emergency air transport services throughout northern Quebec and destinations across Canada and the United States.
In the far north, the aircraft and pilots are put to the test with extreme weather conditions and varying landing options. But providing a much-needed service and the spectacular views from the cockpit are the reward.
“We operate from major international airports such as Montreal and Quebec City all the way to remote community gravel runways,” said Jonathan Lukca, Air Inuit’s assistant to the Twin Otter and King Air chief pilot. “Since we’re a northern operator, we deal with short days in the winter; contaminated runways like snow drifts, ice, blowing snow; icing; and extreme cold. An average northern winter day can reach -30 degrees Celsius, and it dips lower at night.
“During the summer, days are very long, the sun hides below the horizon for only a few hours at ‘night’ at the end of June. The weather is generally pleasant in the summer; the main issue on a calm day are the flies. The landscape is breathtaking during the day, both in summer and winter, and on a clear night, the northern lights can put on quite a show!”
History of Air Inuit
Makivik Corporation formed in 1975 as the land claims organization mandated to manage the heritage funds of the Inuit of Nunavik provided for under the first comprehensive Inuit land claim in Canada, the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement. Makivik promotes the preservation of Inuit culture and language as well as the health, welfare and education of the Inuit. The corporation’s role includes the administration and investment of these funds and the promotion of economic growth by providing assistance for the creation of Inuit-operated businesses in Nunavik.
One of those businesses is Air Inuit. Shortly after start-up, they added a pair of Twin Otters and one single-engine De Havilland DHC-3 Otter. In 1983, the company purchased the routes north along the eastern Hudson Bay coast from Austin Airways, increasing its Twin Otter fleet to eight. In 1985, the company acquired a Hawker Siddley 748 twin-engined turboprop and began operating it from a base in Kuujjuaraapik, which was later relocated to La Grande (LG2) to address the growing demand to move cargo and heavy machinery throughout the region, primarily for mining purposes. In 1988, Johnny May’s Air Charters was purchased as a subsidiary company running single-engine Otters and Beavers during the float season.
An ambitious expansion plan started in 1995 with the company introducing De Havilland Dash 8-100 service between Montreal and Nunavik. In 1998, they created Nunavik Rotors and purchased an Aerospatiale AStar 350 helicopter to bring rotary-wing service to the region. A couple years later, Air Inuit acquired three King Air A100 aircraft to accommodate an expanding flight network and improve emergency medical transportation flights.
The next big acquisition came in 2008, with the addition of a Boeing 737-200C capable of landing on gravel and specially adapted for northern operations. Air Inuit added a King Air 350 in 2017 for executive charter, commuter and emergency medical transport.
The regional airline built a multi-purpose, state-of-the-art maintenance center and head office at Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in 2011, as part of a sweeping modernization initiative designed to meet increased demand for air transport services throughout Northern Quebec and other destinations across Canada and the United States.
King Airs join the fleet
In 1992, Air Inuit purchased its first King Air, a model 200C, from an operator in Australia. The company’s then chief pilot, assistant and maintenance director brought the aircraft to Montreal, stopping in Papua, New Guinea; Micronesia; Wake Island; Midway Island; Adak Aleutians and Fairbanks, Alaska; then Edmonton and Winnipeg, Canada. It operated as a northern-based medical passenger transport aircraft between the northern village of Puvirnituq and Montreal and flew south about three times a week. In 1995, Air Inuit increased this service between north and south and replaced the King Air with a
De Havilland Dash 8-100.
Several years later, Air Inuit was looking for an aircraft to operate emergency medical transport and executive charters. They acquired their first King Air A100 in 2000. Within three years, two additional A100s were added to the fleet.
“One major factor in deciding which aircraft to get was the engines,” Lukca said. “The A100 has PT6A-28 engines and the Twin Otter has PT6A-27 engines. Air Inuit operates seven DHC6-300 Twin Otters. Besides several accessory and governor differences, these engines are identical, thus interchangeable between both these aircraft types. It’s an excellent operating solution for Air Inuit compared to a King Air with a -30, -40 or -60 series engines.”
Those aircraft are still part of the company’s fleet today. Two of the A100 aircraft are based in Kuujjuaq and mainly fly scheduled, charter and medevac flights. Another is based in Schefferville and flies two daily scheduled flights to Sept-Iles on the northern shore of the St-Lawrence River, connecting north and south.
“… when speed is a requirement, the King Air is the way to go. The King Air also allows us to fly above the weather and turbulence. And with a pressurized cabin, medical transport is generally more comfortable in the King Air.”
– Captain John Lukca
C-FAIO is a 1972 model with about 27,000 hours, C-FAIP was built in 1974 and has 28,536 hours and C-GAIK is a 1971 model with 29,475 hours. All three underwent a massive avionics upgrade in 2012, going from a factory cockpit to a fleet-wide standard Garmin panel. The A100s are equipped with two Garmin G600 Flight Displays, two Garmin GNS430 WAAS GPS units and an STEC-65 Autopilot.
“With the new avionics package, we increased safety by standardizing the cockpit layout,” Lukca said. “Despite being the same aircraft type, each cockpit had its differences. This makes it easier to transition from one airplane to another. By doing this modification, we also significantly lightened the nose of the aircraft which created significant weight and balance challenges when optimizing flights. We installed two lead nose ballast weighing in at 45 pounds each, so we can operate the A100s at maximum, nine-passenger capacity without any balance issues.”
Adding the King Air 350
Air Inuit wanted to bring a newer aircraft into the mix and began researching options in 2016. They considered a Beechcraft 1900, but found the King Air 350 offered the best performance considering the shorter runways in northern Quebec.
“For pilots, going from the 100 to the 350 is like going from a sedan to a top of the line sports car,” Lukca said. “They both do the job very well, however the performance of the 350 still impresses me! We’re able to fly farther and faster than the 100, meaning we can accomplish missions that would, in the King Air 100, require more time and possibly fuel stops.”
Air Inuit acquired a 2000 King Air 350 in early 2017. It has about 6,000 hours and is based in Montreal, where it is mostly used for executive charter and medevac operations.
“Before acquiring the 350, we had a focus group consisting of Patrick Carrière, our King Air and Twin Otter chief pilot, myself, dispatch, the operational control manager and maintenance personnel to determine the most suitable avionics suite for our operation,” Lukca said. “We looked at Pro Line 21, EFIS 85, Garmin and Universal cockpit configurations and determined that the Universal cockpit was best suited for our operation. The 350’s cockpit was completely overhauled and now consists of the standard Collins autopilot, three Universal EFI 890 Flight Displays and two Universal UNS-1LW Flight Management Systems and USB charging ports for our electronic flight bag.”
The 350 is currently in an eight-passenger executive club configuration with room for a ninth passenger at the rear passenger cabin. It can be reconfigured for an emergency medical transport within an hour. Air Inuit also offers the 11-seat commuter configuration.
Current King Air operations
All of Air Inuit’s King Airs are modified for the Lifeport Plus Installation used for safe and rapid loading and unloading of passengers during medevac operations. They have also been modified with a cargo net installation on the left-hand side of the passenger cabin for increased cargo capabilities.
“The aircraft are truly multi-purpose,” Lukca said. He’s flown the King Air A100 as an air ambulance to transport a hiker mauled by a polar bear to a larger hospital as well as flying the model for daily commuters, hauling cargo and conducting flight training.
“All of our King Airs are used for flight training since all our training is completed in the air,” said Lukca, who is also a ground and flight instructor and company check pilot for Air Inuit. ‘’King Air simulators are also used in addition to flight training as part of our recurrent training program.’’
While the King Airs aren’t the only aircraft within the Air Inuit fleet that can do the job – whatever that might be – they are among the most flown. Air Inuit flies the King Air A100 aircraft about 1,500 hours per year.
“The DeHavilland Twin Otter is a very versatile airplane, in some cases even more so than the King Air, but when speed is a requirement, the King Air is the way to go,” Lukca said. “The King Air also allows us to fly above the weather and turbulence. And with a pressurized cabin, medical transport is generally more comfortable in the King Air.”
Air Inuit has approximately 150 active pilots, a dozen of which are based throughout the North on the King Air 100 and three crews on the King Air 350 in Montreal. Maintenance is normally performed in Kuujjuaq for the A100 fleet and the King Air 350 is also maintained in-house in Montreal.
As Air Inuit celebrates 40 years in operation this year, the company says the King Air will continue to play an important and wide-ranging role in its operations. Despite a challenging period for air carriers, Air Inuit continues to expand at a steady, yet temperate pace.
“Additional King Air 350s should be joining the fleet as part of our King Air modernization plan,” Lukca said, “and our maintenance department will ready them for the challenging and always fun task of flying northern skies.”