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Doing It His Way

Doing It His Way

For Buffalo Joe, it’s not about money or fame—flying’s a way to escape all that
By Herb Mathisen
Aug 17
From the August/September 2016 Issue

A pilot’s job is to connect people with food, goods and other people. “Buffalo Joe” McBryan, Buffalo Airways owner and a pilot for 55 years, is doing that even as he steps away from the day-to-day operations of his airline. (He still regularly flies the daily Yellowknife-Hay River route in a DC-3.) He reluctantly accepts his celebrity following the six-season run of History Channel’s Ice Pilots NWT, but from his office-museum at Buffalo’s Yellowknife hangar, he says he’s glad it showed the world the whole North and the airplane’s vital role therein—“we are the Safeway or the Sobeys of the North.” And he gets a kick out of the letters he receives from the show’s fans (often former Northerners or their relatives) looking to connect with long-lost people and places from the most interesting years of a life lived.

What is it about flying that you love?

I probably have a whole different outlook than a lot of people on flying around the North. Some people fly to build their hours so they can get an airline job and fly a bus. Or they fly because they have to pay off their debt. 

I would fly to look at the country. You know, 30 seconds on the runway and then all your worldly problems are below you. You look down at them—there’s earthlings down there arguing and fighting. Sometimes, you have to come back to Mother Earth and face the wrath of the compliance and regulatory people. Once you shut the door and leave the ground, what really matters, eh? 

It takes you very many years to see the whole North and even though I’ve seen it for the 50 years I’ve been flying here, I haven’t really seen it. I’ve been through it. You can fly the Mackenzie Valley every day and no two days are ever going to be the same. The water’s going to be different, the air, the clouds, the atmosphere, the reflection of the mountains.

What’s your draw to older planes like the DC-3s and the Electras?

Well actually, the Electras are born late-‘50s, early-‘60s, but all your 737s around here came out in [the ‘60s], and all your Twin Otters came out in ‘65. But the turbine-powered airplanes and the more modern airplanes are brought into [our] system by my sons Rod and Mikey, the new generation. So that’s where you see the new farm equipment on the old field, eh? My daughter Kathy, she’s involved in that.

Is there something that people get wrong about pilots?

Basically, if you’re a pilot, you’re a self-appointed, egotistical, pompous ass. So I identify myself as a flier.

Which is?

A lot different.