Planes are constantly coming and going. That’s what they do. But in recent years, Northern airlines have been busy playing musical planes as they purchase new aircraft to adapt to new market realities and sell vessels that no longer fit their long-term growth strategies. That means a few titans of Arctic aviation have flown off into the horizon (for now), while some shiny new tin has landed in the North.
First Air’s Lockheed C-130 Hercules
One day you’re hauling caribou carcasses in Coral Harbour and the next you’re in Maui to deliver an engine for a 767. Such was the life of a First Air C-130 Hercules pilot, first officer, flight engineer or loadmaster. “You had to bring your shorts and your parka [to work],” says Wally LeMay, who was the chief pilot of the mammoth aircraft, the only two civilian-operated Hercs in the country at the time, for 13 years.
For crews, it was with sadness earlier this year as they watched First Air finalize the sale of both Hercs: HPW, acquired when First Air took over NWT Air in 1997, and then USI, purchased in 2006. The four-engine cargo plane’s unique rear-loading setup made it possible to load and offload without fancy equipment or specialized lift infrastructure. “All you need is a flat surface,” says Jeff Bowden, a first officer (co-pilot) on the Herc for two years. That meant despite being based in a remote part of the world, the Hercs would get called into action when world events necessitated them: they had contracts in the Netherlands and Japan, did Red Cross work in Angola, and flew into Kuwait and Haiti during conflicts and in crises. Bowden got as far north as Alert, and south to Punta Cana, Mexico, all within months. LeMay recalls spending a month based out of Windsor, Ontario, flying car parts into northern Mexico for Ford, GM and Chrysler “to keep production lines going” after a big earthquake had knocked out bridges.
“The ‘go anywhere, anytime’ mantra was always there,” says LeMay. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the planes were dispatched to deliver aid supplies and even a generator to power a hospital. LeMay and the Herc hung around Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic and over the span of a month, flew missions that took them to Miami, to Atlanta, to Ecuador. The aircraft “had a very humanitarian role,” says LeMay. “It’s kind of neat to be part of something like that.”
The work wasn’t always so exciting. (Though at times, it really, really was! Like when HPW took some multimillion dollar racehorses to the Netherlands—“one of them was worth more than the airplane,” he says.) As LeMay tells it, it could be “very freaking boring.” Case in point, the hundreds of round-trips, around the clock, to keep the territory’s diamond mines stocked up with fuel in 2006, after the ice road to the mines opened late, closed early and never reached full thickness.
“There’s probably not a person or business who hasn’t been touched by it one way or another.”
Though a lot of the Herc’s international work probably flew under the radar, it was a fixture in Yellowknife. The Hercs were the largest aircraft operating regularly out of the capital and now that they're gone, the skies over the city certainly are a lot quieter. The planes also played a central role in a big annual fundraiser, where teams of 15 tried to pull the Herc 15 feet down the Yellowknife tarmac for charity. And the Hercs' importance to the North is indisputable. “There’s probably not a person or business who hasn’t been touched by it one way or another,” says LeMay. Construction supplies brought up in the Herc became buildings; the fuel it delivered powered communities.
Both LeMay and Bowden miss the camaraderie: at one point, there were 10 separate Herc crews. When Bowden moved over to the plane, he had 11 years of flying experience, but while that would make him a captain on any other aircraft, it made him the low-man on the totem pole. In fact, some pilots on the Herc had been on the aircraft since before he was born. “It really just goes to show you the kind of experience that machine had,” he says.
And for the Northern Hercs, it was necessary: its crews did work on ice strips and short air strips that other airlines wouldn’t dream of taking on. “They look at what we do and go ‘holy smokes, these guys are crazy,’” says Bowden. “But you know, it’s just one of those Northern things that have been done forever. Guys start landing on ice in Twin Otters, and then it’s DC-3s and then it’s Dash 7s, and then all of a sudden, if those things can do it, the Herc can do it.”
Bowden is now back with Air Tindi, where he started his career. Some pilots have moved on to other aircraft with the company, loadmasters have taken cargo positions or jobs with logistics companies. Hard hit are flight engineers, as there are few aircraft left in the country that require the position. Some have retired, or moved back into the maintenance bay. LeMay is now chief pilot of First Air’s ATR-42s—it's great, but it’s not like the Herc.
“I liked the lifestyle,” he says. “It was a good run.”
Summit Air’s DHC-5 Buffalo
The Hercs aren’t the only heavy-freight aircraft leaving the North. Summit Air has sold off one of its two DHC-5 Buffalos, and has plans to sell the second. “It’s an older airframe and it’s very costly and difficult to keep it online just because it’s no longer manufactured,” says Matthew McElligott, the company’s director of business development. Parts are so difficult to find that some have to be manufactured from scratch. “We’re having to find old moulds and casts and it’s a total nightmare,” he says. “We’re a cracked windshield away from being down on the aircraft from anywhere from a couple months to a year.” But as Summit sells its Buffalos, it’s buying something else...
Summit Air’s Avro RJ85
It’s official: Summit Air is a part of the jet set. The airline has purchased two RJ85 aircraft, which can seat up to 90 passengers each. The company is currently working to get the planes gravel-certified, so they can land on the many gravel air strips in Northern communities or at mining camps.
Summit’s been operating the two RJ85s, one leased to First Air to fly its Edmonton-Yellowknife-Norman Wells-Inuvik route, and the other running under Summit’s colours, since 2014.
But that doesn’t mean it’s shifting its focus to get into the scheduled service game. “We’re a specialized charter carrier,” says McElligott, and they’ll be targeting mining and oil and gas operations that need to move a lot of workers. “It doesn’t make much economical sense to send a whole fleet of smaller planes, which has been the model up here for a long time, so we’re looking to target larger scale crew movements in particular in the North, but also south of the 60th parallel.”
The company has its eye on at least one more jet, potentially an RJ100, which seats up to 112 passengers. “We’ve got first-right-of-refusal on a whole fleet of them that are over in Europe. Conversion time to get them from the state where they are right now to being ready to fly is about 15 weeks,” says McElligott. “We’re hoping to have a third in the fleet sometime either before the end of the calendar year or sometime in early 2016.” Summit is also developing a cargo configuration for the jets—because mines need more than just people.
Buffalo’s Lockheed L-188 Electra
The Ice Pilots, Ice Mechanics and Ice Engineers at Buffalo Airways are at it again. This time, they’re busy rigging up a Lockheed Electra, converting what was initially designed as a passenger plane into a water bomber. Mikey McBryan, general manager, told local media that the retrofits cost the company about $4 million. The suped-up Electra will let the company get to fires quicker than its DC4 bombers. As of this printing in early July, it was awaiting final approval by the territorial government.