Pilot Notes: Flying in the Canadian Arctic – by Robert S. Grant

Pilot Notes: Flying in the Canadian Arctic – by Robert S. Grant

Pilot Notes: Flying in the Canadian Arctic – by Robert S. Grant

It was November, and as the altimeter moved toward minimums, snow ribboned over the windshield. First officer Sarah Mousseau began easing power levers forward for the missed approach when the dim airstrip lights of Cape Dorset, 1,081 nautical miles northeast of Winnipeg, Canada, pulsed in the gloom. Over the threshold, she raised the nose and touched down on the double main wheels; a slight reverse reduced the roll.

Fuel availability and payment varies in the Northwest Territories; some require fuel by pre-arrangement, other more popular stops have fuel trucks and pumps, and there are places that don’t accept credit cards.

After post-landing checks, I resumed control for taxi while Mousseau reached for another doughnut. Parking parallel to Cape Dorset’s silent terminal, I moved condition levers into cutoff and the 680shp Pratt & Whitney PT6-28s whined to a halt. In the quiet, Mousseau wondered aloud why I left mild southern Canada to launch into snow squalls, constant fog and perpetual crosswinds. The answer had nothing to do with the round-holed treats stashed behind our seats.

A Beechcraft owner in Houma, Louisiana, had inquired about summer flying conditions in the Canadian Arctic. His corporate customer, he explained, decided to reward some staff with bonus exploration and fishing trips. Coincidentally, I had just been offered a short-term captain contract by family-owned Buffalo Airways of the “Ice Pilots NWT” television reality series. I would fly from Yellowknife, the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and it would give me the perfect opportunity to advise my southern confederate if he should leave his land of oyster-pluckers for Canada’s pristine wilderness which proved irresistible. Besides, my own first venture north of the 60th parallel took place decades before in a diminutive Cessna 180 on wheel/skis. Revisiting the “good ’ol days” in an airplane never designed for the Barren Lands added to the picture.

Buffalo Airways, formed in 1970 by “Buffalo Joe” McBryan with a fabric-covered Noorduyn Norseman, had rolled out a Beechcraft King Air 100 registered C-GBFE for a charter to shuttle communication technicians to settlements along Hudson Bay. C-GBFE was a working machine with scuffed seats and scratched sidewalls caused by cabins full of drill rods, generators and fuel drums, not an executive club with belted lavatory seat configuration like its big sister King Air 300 series. Hardly showroom condition, but company A&Ps kept the Buffalo bird finely tuned. On warm days, first officers like Mousseau washed and detailed every inch.

Mousseau’s 1,000 hours on type had been logged in hinterland milieu so her suggestions would be welcome as my recent past consisted mainly of asphalt runways. Not unfamiliar with remote airstrip odysseys and other airplane types, I knew gravel surfaces required different techniques. The aircraft flight manual stated that C-GBFE’s three-blade Hartzell propellers swung only 11.75 inches above the surface. A compulsory item aboard any low-wing type – and the King Air family flew everywhere above the 60th parallel – was a wood-handled household broom to sweep pebbles away before engaging start buttons.

Author, Robert S. (Bob) Grant and First officer Sarah Mousseau at Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, where Buffalo Airways is based.

The first leg entailed 590 nautical miles to the Inuit community of Gjoa Haven to meet the communication technicians who had airlined from Winnipeg. With total system capacity of 374 U.S. usable gallons of fuel and 6,600 pounds empty weight, our “Buffalo 666” cruised at 21,000 feet with autopilot following the Garmin GNS 430 WAAS. We overheard other King Air “drivers” above the tundra engaging in an informal self-policing policy by passing information to each other about general conditions and keeping track of their airborne comrades. Cajun-accented visitors accustomed to rigid Mississippi Delta skies would be welcome to join the chitchat.

Poor Mousseau had little choice except to listen to my ramblings about days before C-GBFE left assembly lines in 1970. Unlike the Cessna 180 of earlier times, pressurization saved us from scud running low level as snow obscured our views. In forthcoming warm seasons, Louisiana pilots could count on long daylight hours and waters rippling with char, grayling and lake trout. Along Hudson Bay’s uncontrolled airspace, whales would create splashes of white and pot-bellied musk oxen resembled tiny brown dots. In our cozy 391.7-cubic-foot interior, we rode in darkness.

Gjoa Haven, 179 nautical miles above the Arctic Circle, has existed since 1903 when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen anchored his Gjoa in a sheltered bay to research the North Magnetic Pole. Mousseau peered into the two-inch thick Canada Flight Supplement (CFS), which provided essential information including fuel availability, airstrip details and telephone numbers. Like all destinations for the next few days, we could expect refueling facilities. After fingering through descent checks, we slipped into an 800-foot overcast layer for an RNAV (GNSS) RWY 31 approach.

At Gjoa Haven’s terminal building, we were not alone. A Keewatin Air King Air 200 taxied from a clear cement pad where itinerant aircraft performed power checks without propeller erosion. Depending on traffic, airstrip managers preferred to keep the block clear for temporary stops. While aromas of kerosene wafted into our cockpit, I jotted a reminder to notify my Louisiana associate that some locations refused credit cards and dispensed fuel by pre-arrangement. Luckily, the CFS published call-ahead telephone numbers.

Pleased to see the Buffalo logo on our airplane since the company’s positive reputation preceded us everywhere, our clients loaded equipment into C-GBFE for the three-hour, 581-nautical-mile leg to Clyde River on Baffin Island’s east coast. Mousseau, much younger than I, evinced surprise when told that a Cessna 180 along the same route entailed several landings because the little airplane carried only VFR instrumentation. Buffalo 666 could stay aloft almost six hours depending on power settings and altitude. Our passengers were unfamiliar with arctic conditions but within 15 minutes, each one voiced appreciation of C-GBFE’s cabin size, speed and range.

While standing by in Clyde River, we followed the standard rule: never miss an opportunity to top fuel tanks. Settlements from Hudson Bay to the Beaufort Sea offered trucks or stationary pumps with trained staff. Daily airline service allowed access – a bonus since parts or A&Ps could be placed on-site within hours. In fact, Buffalo Airways would welcome a walk-in-the-park hop to Houma to retrieve whatever my compatriot in Louisiana might happen to need.

Before takeoff, Mousseau’s numbers showed 1,024 pounds below the 11,500-pound allowable gross weight. The return to Gjoa Haven later in the day for an overnight stop proved effortless. Below the 45-foot, 10-inch wings, we knew polar bears roamed and occasionally, the cream-coloured creatures could be spotted on final approaches. If the ravenous beasts crossed our paths, there would be no damsel-in-distress heroics for this Buffalo Airways contract pilot.

Although severe temperatures had yet to overwhelm us, the 0° Celsius (C) prompted burrowing into C-GBFE’s belly pod for electric cords. Most year-round arctic King Airs have been modified with built-in engine heaters and thankfully, outlets were available at every airstrip. While our customers climbed communication towers, I watched visiting aircraft and noted that none stopped after leaving a parking space. Every pilot completed pre-takeoff checks before releasing parking brakes and on the takeoff roll, the two-person crew slowly advanced power levers to avoid gravel spray. Maintaining a straight line became critical since overcontrolled nosewheels raised stones and damaged flaps.

With passengers already sleeping soundly, Mousseau leveled and waited five minutes before setting power levers to 1,000 ft-lbs and recording 690°C ITTs with propellers turning 1,800rpm in -30°C at 19,000-feet. Relaxed, I pondered what other information to pass on to adventurers from the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico. They would quickly learn that no one lived in igloos anymore, especially since the government assisted with home and hotel construction whenever a collection of huts popped up on a rock pile. No more tinned butter, beans or bacon. Guest tables in most hotels are as well stocked as any in New Orleans or Baton Rouge.

When my pencil broke, thoughts drifted to youthful days. On final with a Cessna 180 toward a cluster of spots on Hudson Bay shore ice, the skis had missed them all. The innocuous targets were plastic sacks of human feces placed to float into Hudson Bay at spring breakup. Incoming Louisianans never need worry. Flush toilets became standard long ago in Canada’s Arctic.

I borrowed Mousseau’s nail file to sharpen my pencil and continued note-taking when Cape Dorset’s weather necessitated an RNAV approach over Hudson Strait where snow squalls and aggravated saltwater wavelets lowered ceilings. With the Garmin GNS430 providing guidance, Mousseau dropped into the polar depths and maintained a 307-degree inbound track as surface winds edging the King Air 100’s 25-knot crosswind limit demanded constant corrections. Her gentle touchdown used less than half of Runway 31’s 3,988-foot length.

Our wait allowed leisure time to explore Cape Dorset and encounter some of the 1,441 residents whose ancestors came upon the secluded bay in 1000 B.C. By the 1950s, the village’s artistic stone carvings had been recognized worldwide. Notes to my Louisiana colleague would emphasise this fact and include a precaution that his corporate customers pack a gallon of insect repellent.

The small village of Cape Dorset, located on the southwestern side of Baffin Island, has a population of 1,441 and is known as the capital of Inuit art.

With tower and line inspections concluded, our passengers needed one night in Rankin Inlet where Mousseau happily replenished her doughnut supply. From this prosperous community and its superb paved surface runway, we moved our clients to the former Distant Early Warning station of Hall Beach where the ice-free months attracted tourists to the multitudes of walrus and whales harvested by local Inuit hunters. Another note to my Louisiana friend emphasized: Reserve ahead – well ahead. Every hotel room becomes pre-booked when winter ends.

Our customers signed the paperwork for their last flight and rhapsodized about Buffalo Airways, the efficiency of the King Air 100 and our particular presence. Buffalo Joe could count on repeat business. In my case, I rearranged my paper pads crammed with facts ready to fire to the far-away domains of Louisiana. With tanks topped again, this time from a fuel truck, we climbed aboard for home.

The Northwest Territories isn’t always extremely cold and snowy. During the summer months – May through September – the temperatures can rise to over 37° Celsius (100° Fahrenheit), but usually averages around 23° Celsius (mid 70° Fahrenheit), perfect for a variety of outdoor activities and beautiful scenery. (Photos: Destination Canada)

Before long, C-GBFE’s wheels went into their wells, and we turned for Yellowknife across the vast immensities we traversed five days before. By the time we landed, airframe hours totaled 19,907.5 and navigation logs showed 4,210 miles. I returned Mousseau’s nail file/pencil sharpener and concluded that a confident pilot from the civilized country south of mine would follow my suggestions. If his customers needed a stable and well-balanced airplane close to perfect, the King Air 100 filled the bill. My last remark read: “C’mon up, eh!” as Mousseau scarfed the last doughnut.

Travel + Leisure magazine and Lonely Planet listed Canada as their No. 1 travel destination in 2017, singling out the second-largest country in the world by size for its unspoiled landscapes, dynamic cities, cultural institutions and welcoming spirit. Here are five experiences in Canada’s Northwest Territories:

  • With crystal-clear skies and a perfect geographic location, Yellowknife is the world’s top destination for viewing the
    Aurora Borealis.
  • Catch a trophy fish in the pristine waters of the northern great lakes. Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world combined, including the eighth largest in the world and the deepest in North America.
  • Explore one of the region’s five national parks, including Nahanni National Park Reserve where you’ll see wildlife, a waterfall twice the height of Niagara and can paddle through great canyons.
  • Play a round of golf. The most northern golf course in in the world can be found in Ulukhaktok, where muskox can sometimes be an additional hazard on the course.
  • Enjoy road trips that take you farther than anywhere else – have you ever wanted to see the Arctic Ocean?

Source: Destination Canada & Northwest Territories Tourism

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Robert S. Grant has become internationally known for publication of over 2,500 articles in six countries, as well as four books and a bimonthly column for a Canadian west coast magazine. During 20,100 accident-free flying hours beginning with a fabric-covered, 65hp hand-started Aeronca Champion, he flew Beechcraft King Air A100s in central and eastern Canada and recently completed a five-month Arctic contract for Yellowknife’s Buffalo Airways. Previously, Grant spent 15 years in various African nations and flew his first King Air 200 in Chad for a US-based humanitarian organization called Air Serv. He currently resides in Ottawa and will likely fly again somewhere for someone.

About the Author