'Yellowknife', Canada's biggest… little town
Situated on the end of the Mackenzie Highway on the Northern shore of the Great Slave Lake, the 9th largest fresh water lake in the world, It is the capital city and legislative headquarters, for an area touching two oceans and extending over 3.37 million square km, representing one third of Canada. This area is also referred as the: Northwest Territories.
Approximately 910 km by air and 1700 km by road from Edmonton (which is the nearest Southern city and the main supply point) Yellowknife is located on the North Arm of the Great Slave Lake and is a modern bustling city of more then 18.0000 inhabitants. Due to this location: just north of the 62nd parallel, the weather can be very extreme. Highest temperatures are recorded in July with average temperatures in the low 20C range up to 30C max. Winters are long and cold with plenty of -30C and -40C weather in December and January.
More than 80% of the population is non aboriginal. English and French are spoken and aboriginal languages such as Slavery, Cree, Dogrib and Chipewyan are commonly used on the city streets. Yellowknife is the airline hub of the western Arctic. Several carriers such as Air Canada, Canadian North and First Air fly directly to Yellowknife.
Gold put Yellowknife on the map 60 years ago when it was discovered in the 1930s. Then the first settlements appeared as people of three neighboring tribes moved into the area. The most famous of the mines today are the 'Giant' and 'Con' mines located at either ends of the city. They have been producing gold for almost 50 years. Since the discovery of gem quality diamonds near Lac de Gras, 250 km's Northeast of Yellowknife in 1991, the mining business is booming.
Yellowknife is also a famous tourist attraction, during the summer months many anglers come to some spectacular fishing in the Yellowknife River and on the Great Slave Lake. Nahanni National Park is one of Canada's most spectacular natural preserves and popular northern destinations. During the cold winter months many visitors (mainly Japanese) come for the nighttime spectacle 'The Northern lights' which are most active during the fall and winter.
DC-3 passenger service to Hayriver
During the summer 1998 I had the opportunity to explore this vast region of Canada. My main objective was to visit Buffalo's maintenance base at Yellowknife Airport and photograph their hard working piston freighter fleet. I had purchased a low fare ticket and my flight originated from Amsterdam 'Schiphol' Airport and routed via London 'Heathrow', Toronto International and Edmonton Airport. Due to Air traffic delays at Schiphol, I missed flight connections at Heathrow and due to technical delays on our Boeing 737 at Toronto; I arrived much too late for my onward connection to Yellowknife!
Fortunately Canadian North came to the rescue and arranged an overnight motel and a 'much needed' toothbrush. The following morning all refreshed I was rebooked on the midday flight and resumed my North bound journey. After 2 hours we landed smoothly at the tiny airport of Yellowknife and I got my first glimpse of a Buffalo Airways Douglas DC-3 parked next to our Boeing B737-200C. At the baggage claim area I was told that my bags did not arrive on the same plane, but they where expected within days!
With only my camera case on hand, I caught a taxi out to the 'Old Town' of Yellowknife and checked in at the Bayside Bed & Breakfast. A friend gave me the tip and said 'if you ever visit Yellowknife' you must stay at the Bayside B/B located on the edge of the lake and in the center of the float plane base. The old settler's first used this area back in 1934 and first set up transportation with their biplane floats planes. Wardair and Canadian Pacific Airliners started their operations from these tiny shores. Today modern bush planes still dominate the scene and many local carriers such as Bradley Air Services, Air Tindy, Ptarmigan Air and Air Rainbow can be found, serving distant villages and communities. From my balcony on the first floor I watched Beavers and Twin Otters land and take off.
After lunch I was on my way back to the airport for my first introduction with the founder member and boss Joe McBryan. I met Joe in his small office, which was packed with aviation magazines, photos and scale airplane models. I explained the reason of my visit and he promptly noted that I was to make myself at home and he even gave me the code to the hanger doors so I could enter whenever wanted. While talking about photography and Buffalo's current operations Joe invited me to join up with the crew on the scheduled DC-3 flight to Hayriver that afternoon and returning the next morning. I thanked him and gratefully accepted his offer. He then excused himself and took off in his green and white pick up truck for ongoing business. I walked across the blackened oil stained ramp in the midst of familiar aircraft silhouettes. Surrounded by Douglas DC-3s, a single Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina, a pair of Curtiss C-46s Commandos and two Douglas DC-4 Skymaster's I felt as I was taken back to 'Propliner' heaven!
At around 3pm I hitched a ride on one of the Buffalo company trucks, and drove to the active ramp in front of the control tower. DC-3 C-GWIR was awaiting its passengers. I was promptly introduced to Captain Al Fiendell and copilot Brian Crocer, who were busy with refueling the DC-3. After my own walk around inspection admiring the immaculate condition of this Douglas veteran DC-3, I entered the cabin. 20 passengers soon boarded the aircraft after me, for the 50-minute flight to Hayriver. I seated myself in the front and photographed the start up and taxi operations in the cockpit. It was a beautiful summer day with temperatures about 25°C. At 16.40 we took off and made a leisurely climb to 5.500 feet. Listening to the drone of the engines, I admired the impressive view down below. Cruising at 169 knots we flew onwards over the immense lake. Flight attended Daryl Weber treated us with some rudimentary in-flight catering of soft drinks and pretzels.
C-GWIR construction number plate showed c/n '9371' ex: USAAF 42-23509, delivery date 13th April 1943. This aircraft was built as a C-47A-20-DL model (manufactured on the Longbeach, CA) and served with the 8th AF from March 1944 to September 1946. She subsequently served with the French AF and Air Attache on Algiers. She arrived in Tucson, Arizona during 1974 and was re-registered to N18262. A year later Aero Traders Western Ltd bought her as C-GWIR. Subsequently she served with Lambair Ltd, Alberta Northern Airlines, Northwest Territorial Airways and finally ending up with Buffalo Airways. All to soon we approached the southern shoreline and the DC-3 lowered its flaps and landing gear. Traffic was slow and we were cleared for a direct approach and landing. After a smooth bump landing we taxied back to the small arrival building where the DC-3 engines were turned off. After disembarking I hung around with the crew, who were preparing to lock up the DC-3 for it's over night stay. I soon discovered why the ramp was so empty…? It was swarming with nasty mosquitos, a normal occurrence during the warm summer months.
C-46 Supply Flight
The following morning C-GWIR brought me back to Yellowknife and I returned to Buffalo's maintenance ramp. Whilst photographing my second most favorite piston engine transports, the WW2 vintage tail dragger Curtiss C-46 'Commando', I bumped into Jim Smith, Buffalo's chief pilot. Jim noticed my fascination for the C-46. I explained my photographic pursuit for the old propliner, which was the main reason I was wandering the dusty ramps. Jim then told me that he was scheduled to make a supply flight to the BHP diamond mine at Koala near the 'Lac de Grass' lake, roughly 300 km north east of Yellowknife…..and I was welcome to ride along in the C-46! Stunned of his generous offer….I instantly checked my camera gear and supply of films and gave him the OK.
The aircraft in question, a C-46F-1-CU model, registered C-GTPO, was parked on a separate gravel ramp next to the Buffalo's large hanger. This aircraft was originally built for the USAAF in 1945 and was delivered with military code '44-78733' and (c/n 225561). During her early flying career she once flew with 'Flying Tiger Lines' and 'Wien Alaska" airlines with tail number N1258N. In 1985 she entered Canadian register and was bought by Winnipeg based, Northland Air Manitoba. Air Manitoba was Canada's last big C-46 operator. After many years of faithful operations Air Manitoba decided to phase out these oil-dripping workhorses in favor of the turbine HS-748. Four C-46s were sold while a fifth (C-GTPO) languished at Pickle Lake, North western Ontario, after an unfortunate take-off incident. During 1993 Buffalo Airways negotiated the sale for the C-GTPO and ferried it out of the remote strip for refurbishment. When I arrived at the loading ramp she was almost ready for departure. 14000 lbs of supplies ranging from soft drinks to explosive detonators had been loaded. Co-pilot Mark Cary was on the wing tending the refueling and checking the engines oil quantity! The C-46 enormous cargo compartment was fully packed. Jim Smith gave me the OK sign so I could make my way up to the cockpit, but first I had to climb over the cargo!
With several bruises and cuts on my hands and knees I entered the cockpit. Jim and Mark followed quickly and settled in for lengthy pre flight checks. Both Pratt and Whitney R-2800 radials engines were fired up effortlessly and were running smoothly. Air traffic control cleared us for runway 27 on a northeasterly departure. The C-46 brakes where released and the heavily laden Commando began its taxi to the runway holding point. After the required engine run ups we were cleared for take-off. Captain Smith opened up the throttles and slowly we gathered speed. The C-46 renowned engine noise during take-off was very evident! At 2300 rpm ('37 inch' engine manifold pressure) we slowly lifted off and established a 500-fpm climb rate. We made a gradual right hand turn towards 010 degrees and the engines were set to METO power (2000 rpm and 33 inch pressure). Leaving the Yellowknife City limits we started our climb towards our cruising altitude of 5.500 feet. With a speed of 150 knots Jim and Mark settled in for the 1-hour's flight to the Koala 5000 ft. landing strip. Down below the barren tundra looked most unappealing. Scattered with hundreds of little lakes, some still with ice patches, seemed endless. Inside the mood was relaxed both pilots were enjoying a late breakfast or early lunch. It is familiar country for the crew. Jim has flown these northern skies for quite a long time. Soon after he pointed out the Koala landing strip in the far distant…but I could not see it. Power was reduced and we began our long and slow descent. ATC issued a warning for the local weather condition on the strip indicating gusty cross winds up to 30 knots!
With a wingspan of 108 feet and a gross weight of up to 48.000 pounds the Commando can haul twice the load of the DC-3. Due to its size and wartime reputation the C-46 is widely feared for its flying characteristics. During the Southeast Asia airlift more then 700 were lost out of a production run of about 3.500! Most of the terrible supply flight routed from India, Burma into China over flying the Himalayan Mountains. Veteran pilot Jim Smith preferred the C-46 by a wide margin, commenting on the equally superior one engine performance.
With our gear firmly down and locked, the flaps were set for landing we began our final approach. I heard the engine noise becoming louder. Looking forward out the C-46 side windows I saw the aircraft shadow becoming bigger and bigger. With both hands firmly on the control wheel Jim sets the throttle levers to a 10 inch differential power setting in order to counter the crosswind. Both engines were roaring as we crossed the threshold and Jim settled the 'old lady' firmly on the landing strip. The power was cut back and we slowly transferred to taxi speed. We made our way towards a desolate loading platform and switched of both engines! Mark opened up the big cargo door and a chilling breeze entered the cabin. Soon several trucks and a forklift arrived and started unloading. Due to the strict mines policy I was prohibited from taking any pictures. On our return flight Mark piloted the C-46 and after a full back track and a short take-off run we climb to 8.500 feet. 90 miles before Yellowknife we began our descent at approximately 400 fpm. Out speed during cruise was maximum 175 knots. After a right-hand track we safely landed on runway 27 and taxied back to the maintenance ramp. I requested a short photo session with Jim and mark in front of C-GTPO. The ramp was deserted, everybody had gone home. I thanked Jim and Mark for an unforgettable flight, which I will treasure all my life!
The 'Northern Stores' DC-4 grocery flight
Beside the regular and ad-hoc passenger/cargo flights, and annual fire suppression contract, Buffalo also maintains a weekly grocery flight for the 'Northern Stores'. Spread out along the impressive Mackenzie River, this flight serves small villages and communities like Fort Norman, Fort Franklin, Fort Good Hope and Norman Wells. During my visit in Yellowknife DC-4 Skymaster C-GPSH named "Freightliner" was operating this schedule. Captain Al Fiendell, whom I met during the DC-3 flight offered me a ride onboard the weekly grocery flight.
I was very curious about such a flight and most gladly accepted his kind invitation. Al a seasoned and veteran pilot has been flying these northern skies for most of his life. He flew for Arctic Air, out of Fort Nelson and spend 12 years with Edmonton based "Eldorado Aviation". At the time of my visit he had logged 500 hours on the ATL-98 Carvair, 7500 hours on the DC-4 and 9000 hours on the DC-3. Another veteran is 'Buffalo's flagship' Skymaster C-GPSH (c/n 7458) was built as a C-54A-1-DO model for the USAAF during 1943 and delivered a year later with military code 41-107439. After the war this aircraft flew with American Airlines as N90414 "Flagship America". Later on she flew with Qantas Airlines as VH-EBN "New Guinea Trader". She entered the US registration with Basler Flight Services as N5581T. Soon after she traded her American tail-number for a Canadian number and she was registered as C-GPSH with Calm Air International. Then she served with Soundair who used the DC-4 on nightly courier flights out of Toronto.
It was the 2nd of July 1998 again a perfect day in the N.W.T. The skies were clear and the temperature were climbing to 25° C. C-GPSH was parked on a different loading ramp with both her aft cargo doors wide open. A row of pallets where lined up next to the Skymaster waiting to be loaded. A total of 20.000 ponds of cargo and 12.000 pounds of fuel would be taken onboard. Checking the cargo manifest I noted 2 motorcycles, 1x outboard boat engine, one gym set, 8x mattresses, 5x canoes, frozen foods (pizza's and French fries), soft drinks and lots of fresh fruit! Inside the cargo hold Captain Al began loading up the forward compartment. While doing my personal walk a round I met up with the other crewmembers F/E Matt Boulanger and co-pilot Eli Green who also served as loadmaster.
We got airborne around noon and the heavily laden Skymaster climbed slowly towards our first cruising altitude of 4500 ft, were we leveled off at a speed of 145 knots. With a distance of 369 n.m. it took us just under 2 hours before we landed at Norman Well Airport. The unloading went swiftly and within 30 minutes we were back in the air, bound for the small airstrip at Fort Good Hope. Flying low we enjoyed the rugged Franklin Mountain Range which appeared on the left-hand side on the DC-4. After our scenic flight we arrived at the 3000 ft gravel landing strip. Al put the DC-4 into its landing configuration and settled the DC-4 firmly on the strip. The crew opened up the side windows and a pleasant cool breeze entered the cockpit. As all four Pratt and Whitney R-2000 engines were shut down we scrambled out of the cockpit via the little ladder and safety rope at the front door. With the tail stand firmly secured under the tail, keeping the DC-4 from tipping, Al opened up the side cargo doors. Soon a big forklift arrived on the scene and started off-loading several pallets.
Quite a few local villagers came out to watch the DC-4. Unloading took a bit longer and 45 minutes later C-GPSH propellers were turning again as we taxied to the very edge of the gravel strip for our next stop at Fort Norman. With all engines roaring at full power we crossed the wide Mackenzie River again and this time turned south. With the DC-4 now considerably lighter it was now possible to land on the 3000 ft strip at Fort Norman, also known as 'Tolita' by the local Indian population. Flying parallel to the wide river Captain AL prepared for the next landing. He has been there many times…the approach was a bit tricky, avoiding the nearby hills and coming low over the water. I looked out the side window and saw the rivers come closer and closer. The landing strip was located near the river bank. We landed hard and Al taxied out to the airstrip little wooden terminal. As we opened up the DC-4 there was nobody to greet us. Perhaps the villagers not heard the Skymaster pass overhead? Within 10 minutes several villagers appeared in their pick up trucks. It appeared that the only forklift in town had broken down and the unloading would now be done manual!
Eli climbed on the wing and filled up engine number 3-oil tank with 20 liters. I walked around the gravel loading spot and soaked up the picturesque scene of the mighty DC-4 set against desolate hills in the background and Tolita village nestled in near the river edge. Flying back Al made good use of a fair tail wind and took the old flagship "Arctic Distributor" up to 9000 feet for a smooth ride home.
I would like to thanks Joe McBryan for his most generous assistance and help. Additionally I would like to thank Jim Smith and Al Fiendell for having me onboard Buffalo's hardworking freighters! Also my aviation travel companion Andre van Loon for his help on this article.