Flying Under the Midnight Sun

Legion Magazine December 2009

As with pilots everywhere, the weather is a main topic this Friday night in late July on Max Ward’s dock in Yellowknife. Nasty clouds looming off to the southeast have already delayed four delegates planning to fly in from Manitoba to this city’s biennial Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly In, and those already here are busy renewing old acquaintances over beer and wine.

“Looks like she’ll hit us in 45 minutes,” proclaims Joyce Dunphy, who flew floatplanes commercially all over the North from 1957 until selling her Cessna 170 and retiring just a few years ago. Roger, a local HVAC contractor who flies his own private 1959 Piper, differs. “I think it’s gonna pass us,” he says. Dunphy wins: soon the wind whips up, cups fly off tables and waves spray the dock.

The Fly-In has been held here every two years since 1995 and attracts more than just northern pilots. This year, floatplanes have dropped in from Washington, Oregon, Tennessee and across Canada. Past gatherings have seen them wing in from as far away as Hawaii.

The legendary Max Ward donates the use of his dock for the event. “Which we really do appreciate because believe me we would never have had this if it weren’t for that,” says Yvonne Quick, who helped establish the Fly In tradition. “We invite him every year, but he is kind of out of the limelight now and doesn’t go where the crowds are. He has a lodge on Red Rock Lake 180 nautical miles north of here, where he likes to spend summers with his family and friends.”

Ward started and built his airline into Wardair International; he is now 88 and gave up his license at 80. But his newest airplane showed up briefly on a supply run—a sleek red and yellow Super Otter refitted with a Garrett turbojet engine which boosts power by 50% over the original Pratt & Whitney radial, to 900. It’s a bit of nostalgia: Ward started his airline in 1953 with a brand new Otter. Ward’s current pilot Dave Crerar loves the new configuration. “There’s no substitute for power,” he grins. Ward spared little expense, along with the new engine it’s luxuriously fitted inside. Crerar says a typical Otter turbo engine conversion runs $1.2 million, but this one was “a lot more.”

The northern floatplane set was always a tightly knit community, but over beers one summer evening at Quick’s fishing lodge on nearby Water Lake her and a group of business friends came up with an idea to organize it a little more. Of anyone in Yellowknife, she was the person to do it. She had come here in 1968 to run a flying school, bringing in three Citabria aircraft and three instructors. It was an instant success. Of the first 20 students, she says four went on to become commercial pilots with Air Canada and Canadian Pacific Airlines. Many years later, “we were out at the fishing lodge and talking about what we could do to promote aviation in the north and we decided maybe a float plane fly-in would work,” she recalls. Fortunately, Yellowknife’s Economic Development Officer, Archie Gillies happened to be staying at the lodge. “We came back into town—at that time I was president of the Northern Frontier Visitor’s Association—and put our heads together,” she says. “There were five of us,” and all business-minded she says. “I thought if anyone knows whether it will go or not, these guys will. We sat down at the visitor’s centre and they said yes it should be good.”

The idea worked the first time. “It was spectacular,” she recalls. “We had 34 airplanes come in and docking was tight.” Locals who could offered complimentary dockage, but still those that were amphibians had to park out at the airport.

Most of the floatplanes that attend are light types—several Cessnas, Beeches and Pipers, along with the odd classic Beaver. But some years have seen pleasant surprises. “In 2007 a 1929 Travel Air 4000 came in from Washington State—the fella that flew it up owned it and he gave rides,” says Quick. The open biplane classic is owned by Greg Larson of Snohomish, Washington.

This Friday evening is just the start of a whole weekend of festivities. Saturday’s events begin with the traditional pancake breakfast which was hosted by the Piro family—Mike Piro was one of the founding members of the Fly In. Chomping down breakfast was Joe McBryan (“Buffalo Joe”) who was to figure largely in the events of the day. McBryan owns and operates Buffalo Airways here in Yellowknife; a one-of-a-kind airline that attracts “propheads” from all over the world to ogle its fleet of vintage piston-driven airliners that go as far back as 1942.

Out at the airport, the highlight of the day is the antique DC-3 rides. Twenty delegates climb aboard, taxi out and the old bird blows a tire on takeoff. Following the local air cruise, McBryan brings it in routinely but taxiing with a flat is a problem so passengers wait patiently as the technicians trundle out a new wheel and bolt it on.

While they wow the visitors, these DC3s certainly aren’t an unusual sight for Yellowknifers. Buffalo operates 13 of the Douglas classics—first flown in the 1930s—on scheduled passenger service between Hay River and Yellowknife. It’s the only scheduled DC-3 service remaining in North America and McBryan flies them personally, charging $200 for the 45-minute flight across Great Slave Lake. It’s a convenient daily commuter vehicle for the airway’s founder and chief executive: he lives in Hay River. While the DC-3 dominates, Buffalo’s vintage fleet includes DC-4s, C54s, Lockheed Electras, Cansos and Curtiss C-46s all in regular service along with several smaller airplanes. They recently sold their two Canadair CL215 water bombers to Turkey and have an instruction crew in that country to teach the airplane’s flying and maintenance.

The Buffalo Airways hangar tour is like visiting a working museum. But there’s nothing fly-by-night about this maintenance operation. “Transport Canada does their regular inspections,” says Ron Wollowich, who’s in charge of stores. That’s no easy feat when you need to scour the world for parts. Wollowich picks one up. “This is a DC-3 brake puck,” he says. “The last batch cost us $425 apiece; and each DC-3 needs 16 of them.” He says McBryan regularly calls his contacts all over the globe to keep up the parts supply. Often the company has to buy a package of parts in order to land just the bits they want—for example, McBryan has a few dozen F-18 external fuel tanks stored here that need a buyer; picked up with some needed engine parts. Many of the parts are quarantined by Transport Canada until the necessary paper trail can be tracked down.
We stroll past a classic C-46 Commando, an airplane that first flew in the summer of 1942 and famous for its supply missions ‘over the hump’ between India and Burma during World War II, with two technicians atop a scaffold replacing a carburetor on the plane’s massive R2800 engine. “These all have their quirks,” says Wollowich. “No two are the same.” But he explains they are all updated with new avionics “over top of the old,” he says. It’s good redundancy. Because of the systems most technicians will never see in a lifetime, tech training he says has to be all on the job, with the program approved by Transport Canada.

With its global network, Buffalo always seems to find a parts supply. But there’s one looming shortage: Avgas. This high-octane fuel needed for these big ancient birds is getting scarcer and they buy up supplies where they can. “As long as there’s a demand, you can get it,” McBryan told me later. But what will happen when that demand peters out? “Well, we’ll be like the Smithsonian,” he says.

Saturday’s happenings continue with the traditional fly-out picnic. Pilots and partners pack their food baskets and planes leave the bay at Yellowknife and follow the shoreline to Whitebeach Point where they cross the North Arm for Chedabucto Lake, 30 nautical miles away. Several airplanes join but dessert is cut short, again by the North’s fickle summer weather. A rapidly approaching thunderstorm from the south sends crews scurrying to wolf down sandwiches and taxi out to take off before the front hits.

If they didn’t manage to fill their stomachs at the fly-out picnic, delegates could make up for it that night back on the Ward dock—it’s barbecue night. With local band Rick and the Relics on stage overlooking the bay, pilots and spouses (many of whom are also pilots) gather and talk shop. Chatting over lagers, I learn more this night about the ins, outs and delights of float flying.

“I don’t like wheels,” declares Joyce Dunphy. “With wheels you can’t land anywhere.” It served her well: she recounts the time she had an engine failure and had to spend an unscheduled night on a hastily-chosen lake well away from home waiting for parts. Other comments might be surprising to a ‘wheels-only’ pilot: “You can’t taxi downwind or crosswind,” comes from one veteran. “Only into wind.” As he speaks, a Cessna 172 taxis past, facing into the wind, drifting backwards and sideways with full flap in a well-controlled manoeuvre inching toward the dock. “You can still steer with rudder,” comes the advice. Other tricks discussed included creative improvisations for changing an engine in the bush, and making a floatplane safe in high winds (e.g. “if you’re in shallow water, just flood the floats”). And, from a Cold Lake delegate, what may come as a surprise to some non-aviator types: landing on a glassy smooth lake is more difficult than a wavy surface—judging height isn’t so easy.

Topping out this entertaining evening was the auction to raise funds for the next Fly In. Scores of donated aviation paintings, carvings, model airplanes, flyers’ cases and more went for $110 to $180 in heated bidding sessions.

One of the paintings, which sold for $170 that night, had special meaning for Paul Laserich, General Manager of Adlair Aviation—the charter service his late father Willy built. The image was of Willy Laserich surrounded by the various airplanes he had flown during his 50+ years of northern bush flying. And early Sunday afternoon following the memorial service on Bush Pilot Monument overlooking the city (in past meets this has been a fly-past), the Laserich story was told.

Especially for the story-telling tent, Laserich junior has put together an impressive DVD and slide show. His father had been an avid amateur anthropology enthusiast and throughout his years filmed much of the North’s long-disappeared traditional culture before the days of skidoos and when the locals still dressed in sealskin parkas, fishing for char from skin boats. All agree he was a bush pilot legend: none other than Max Ward signed the nomination application for his entry into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. Son Paul says his dad ended his career with over 40,000 hours of flight time which included no less than 5,000 medevacs (35 in one record month) with seven babies born on board. Paul himself flew with his father from his days as a toddler and a special memory was the day they brought home two polar bear cubs from Cambridge Bay, destined for the San Diego and Calgary Zoos.

Laserich recalls his father’s favourite trick for keeping rambunctious huskies quiet in the back of his Otter: he’d pull back into a steep climb and suddenly push over to zero Gs, floating the animals to the ceiling. “The dogs would keep strangely silent for a good 45 minutes after that,” he says. “But it didn’t amuse the Inuit keeper in the back.”

Much of the conversation around the tent Sunday afternoon was reflecting how northern bush flying has evolved since Laserich’s early days: for example, the impact of GPS systems on navigation North of 60. Veteran Carl Clouter, who owns three vintage Stinson floatplanes, dubs bush pilots “all rebels up here, we’re so independent.” And although safety is paramount, he says they’re always butting heads with Transport Canada. He reminisced about the days when you’d fly in two prospectors and come back for them two months later. Today, he says, “they get so much more mobile with a helicopter, they can cover so much more ground.” From the start flying geologists, Clouter caught an interest in the subject. He learned all he could, and now hopes to bring his own cobalt and bismuth mine into production with his partners—at Lou Lake 100 nautical miles to the northwest.

The Sunday night banquet closes out the 2009 Fly In. Hosted by Yvonne Quick, a few fun awards are handed out. And Joyce Dunphy wins again: for having the oldest pilot’s license at the meet.

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