How to survive as a pilot in some of the most unforgiving terrain

Reddish mud slammed the sides of the de Havilland Beaver as both wheels slithered themselves free of its grip, the aircraft barely clearing a waterless ditch. We’re away, I thought, and at that instant the 450hp Pratt & Whitney radial engine coughed twice, the two-blade propeller hesitated and an animal-like twitch shook the airframe…

Seconds later, all nine cylinders were running smoothly and I was reflecting gratefully on the way that my favourite Beaver, CF-HEP, had never before faltered. Now climbing away from Ellef Ringnes Island in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Canada’s Nunavut territory, the airplane had carried me safely for hundreds of hours with nothing more troublesome than a constant gobbling of oil and broken brakes.

In the early 1970s, Northward Aviation in Edmonton, Alberta, needed a pilot for Norman Wells, 357 miles north-west of Yellowknife, and I jumped at the opportunity for a seasonal job. From the Mackenzie River village, flights fanned out to Hareskin-Dene Indian reserves, oil rigs and river barges. In this woman-scarce, beer-swilling settlement, I made the acquaintance of ’EP ? ‘Echo Papa’. Its paint had faded long ago and leaking oil rippled along its belly towards stone-dimpled elevators. Exhaust soot made more mess, and grease had centrifuged outwards from the propeller hub onto the windscreen. The odour of thawing fish slime and putrefying vomit emanated from the punctured wood-covered floor, where puppies and jail-bound drunks had left their marks. Industrial soap did nothing to lessen the stench, which cast the airplane as an airborne garbage truck.

Regardless, Echo Papa became my friend. Despite narrow airstrips made slippery by millions of tiny pebbles and crosswinds forcing one-wheel landings, the Beaver tracked straight every time and passengers rarely complained.

Although I was not exactly enamoured with social life in Norman Wells, the work became enjoyable until word reached our desolate outpost that the company’s Dornier 28 had inverted itself on Ellef Ringnes Island, 124nm north of the Magnetic North Pole. Nobody seemed surprised: Northward’s veterans knew the airplane’s tiny factory-issue wheels provided zero margin of safety on soft surfaces.

Beyond the North American mainland, an archipelago of islands made up the High Arctic or simply, ‘the Islands’. Pilots who survived the inhospitable wastes returned with tales of frequent fog, long distances and snow-free shallow soils above permafrost turned soft by summertime’s 24-hour daylight. Sooner or later, they said, all newcomers challenging the wind-scored hinterlands experienced accidents or incidents ? flipped airplanes, collapsed wings, or wheels mired in mud so deeply they became immovable until winter solidified the land. Worse still, carnivorous polar bears roamed the tundra.

Naturally, Northward Aviation’s experienced ‘drivers’ scattered when head office called for someone to take over the Dornier’s duties. The order arrived in Norman Wells for me, at the bottom of the seniority list, to take Echo Papa to Yellowknife for changeover from seaplane floats to 45-inch, low-pressure tyres to allow landings on mud flats, hillsides or even shallow rivers, before departing for Resolute Bay. The company also contracted an experienced pilot to teach me High Arctic techniques. A clerk handed over an immense stack of topographical charts, and mechanics installed astrocompass brackets on the instrument panel. The Airman’s Almanac and a tome called Finding The Sun’s True Bearing made up part of the load, as well as food rations, tools and a sixty-pound life raft. Far from Search & Rescue, pilots needed to be as self-sufficient as possible.

When instructor Sandy McKenzie arrived in Yellowknife, he surreptitiously sneaked into the airport washroom and emerged with the final item of our on-board provisions: a case of toilet tissue. My education in the field of High Arctic operations commenced as he placed stacks of them within reach of the front seats.

Each roll of tissue had several purposes, Sandy explained. Windsocks did not exist where we would be performing offstrip landings and, as a rule, sea ice nullified chances of determining wind direction by water patterns. Thrown outside, the unravelled roll landed and, hooked on a plant or stone, fluttered itself into a substitute sock. Its white colour provided reference for targeting touchdown points, easily lost during low-level turns. (Sandy went on to say that the paper dissolved over winter). and if necessary, served as bandages for wounds and wipe cloths. Finally, he laughed, it could revert to its original hygienic purpose. “No public washrooms where we’re going, Laddie.”

Sandy rode in the Beaver’s right seat, where he was deprived of flying controls or brakes. The multi-leg odyssey from Yellowknife became a two-day educational voyage in map reading and navigation. En route to Resolute Bay (75° N 95° W) on Cornwallis Island, we discussed magnetic changes which made standard compasses useless. One chart showed variation veering from 160 degrees on one side to 100 on the other, as you went north of 78 degrees latitude.

Referring to the almanac, Sandy demonstrated astrocompass calculations for headings and reset the directional gyrocompass. As back-up, technique described in Finding the Sun’s True Bearing could be used, but meant facing into sun and returning to track blinded.

Soon after Echo Papa rumbled back onto Resolute Bay’s gravel runway, marble-size fog droplets grounded all airplanes. Assigned to a barracks where twelve men shared one sink and a toilet, time passed slowly. After a week of enduring flatulence from fellow aviators and writing letters non-stop, conditions beyond the storm-trembled windows improved enough for training flights. This time, Sandy plotted a route across Wellington Channel to historic Beechey Island, fifty miles east of Resolute Bay ? and took the pilot seat.

In 1845-46, the Sir John Franklin Expedition wintered on this sheltered spot and left behind graves and artefacts like barrel staves and tin cans. Above the site where more than a hundred hardy Brits barely survived with minimal cold weather clothing and lead-tainted food, Sandy decided crosswinds exceeded Echo Papa’s limitation, so he headed us back toward Resolute Bay. When we passed a cluster of tent rings (stones placed by ancient Eskimos to hold their sealskin shelters), another beach smoothed with slabs of shale came into view. Sandy threw out a roll of tissue from 200 feet. “Never just drive in and land,” he explained. “Pick your spot, touch down but keep rolling, get back in the air and put the sun behind you to see if water reflects in the tracks. If they sparkle, go somewhere else ? this means too much mud.”

Sandy approached with full flap, nose up and engine power so reduced we felt the pistons pounding in their cylinders and shuddering through the firewall. He suddenly pushed the control wheel forward to bounce and took off again to inspect his marks. Satisfied, he came around and planted us firmly down, and kept his feet off the brakes until seconds before stopping.

“Keep that tailwheel up as long as possible,” he stressed. “Stop, get out, walk your takeoff path and look for soft spots and rocks. Never taxi anywhere.”

After returning to Resolute Bay, more low ceilings kept us grounded until at last, we began freight flights into lands where sub-zero temperatures discouraged vegetation. What plants pushed out of the earth in short growing seasons were quickly seized by animals resilient enough to endure perpetual cold. Greyhound-sized Arctic hares and muskoxen followed us as we tracked across their sky. Days blended together and I began to enjoy the braided meltwater streams, lace-edged ice pans on occasional open water channels, and the satisfaction of knowing that we walked where few men had ever stepped before.

Finally, Sandy declared that it was likely that I would live through the season, and the next day he boarded a passenger jet for Edmonton. Again, Echo Papa became ‘my’ airplane. Coincidentally, a new client confirmed his company’s intent to search for oil-bearing minerals. Helicopters needed fuel: henceforth, the Beaver would establish caches within his government-allocated exploratory block, with as many trips as possible. A 135lb weakling working alone, I threw myself into the muscle-straining, dangerous chore of loading 400lb steel barrels into the Beaver. As experience increased, the art of standing the awkward objects upright, rolling each on edge inside and securing them with Sandy’s special knots became instinct.

Besides keeping helicopter pilots happy, a side trip involved an insurance adjuster planning to examine the Dornier 28 responsible for my High Arctic sojourn. I sometimes landed on freight runs near the twisted wreckage abandoned on Ellef Ringnes Island. Now, a non-aviator pencil pusher would determine the Dornier’s disposition. Unaccustomed to northern travel, he intended to return to his Calgary office within the 24-hour daylight period.

With misgivings about his lack of proper clothing, I wobbled the fuel pressure lever, turned propeller blades several times and switched on magnetos. As always, the radial started perfectly, bluish smoke billowed behind and sweet exhaust aromas permeated the cockpit. Behind us, two roped down JICs ? ‘just-in-case’ ten-gallon fuel kegs for extra range ? jiggled against additional food packed for weather contingencies. Two hours later, I was turning left at Devon Island’s Grinnell Peninsula for Ellef Ringnes.

Low cloud obscured the horizon but underneath, visibility appeared adequate. After resetting the directional gyro with the astrocompass for the last time, we re-arranged the charts and descended. Finger-on-the-map navigation became wasted time with no sight of landforms ahead or to either side. Preventing drift became paramount.

Static on the HF disturbed my concentration as we plodded on. Shadows to judge height above ice, imbued with what one Arctic writer termed the ‘blue of heartlessness’, faded away. Three walrus flopped into a crevasse as obstacles below our wheels became too numerous to fly around or jump over. With power reduced and flap lowered, I tightened throttle tension and waited, but nothing resembling coastlines appeared. Thoroughly frightened now, the time came to rudder the Beaver into a flat, 180°turn without clipping a wing?cartwheeling into oblivion could spoil our day. The adjuster’s eyes closed and he dozed without any idea of our worsening situation as I pleaded to whatever gods watched over High Arctic novitiates like me for an anchorage anywhere.

Suddenly, a dark wall loomed ahead. Panicked throttle and backward elevator brought us over the top and I snapped the nose down to target a small expanse of grey ground before the world disappeared into fog. Sandy’s teachings went out of the window as the wheels smashed onto the surface, bounced twice and stopped somewhere on what must be Devon Island. Finding us upright and with no wrinkles in the fuselage, I reached for the throttle quadrant to shut off the engine. The stunning crash of silence brought the adjuster back to life.

The next three days became a hell. My guest whined about wasted time while we lay side-by-side in Echo Papa watching condensing moisture sliding onto the oil-smeared floor. The emergency stove hardly warmed the tinned soup, and wandering beyond the 48ft wing span might mean meeting polar bears. Every time nature called, a wide-eyed stroll beyond the airplane’s tail and a quick trot back became necessary. Finally, a cloud break allowed escape to Resolute Bay. (The adjuster never returned nor did anyone of his ilk come back to settle the Dornier’s fate.)

To my delight, a charter came in that would take Echo Papa on an indirect route to Sach’s Harbour on Banks Island, where several geologists wanted to prospect new ground. To counteract the Beaver’s short range on the 600km journey, a Twin Otter crew placed fuel drums on Melville Island and the top of Banks Island. We carried another three, as well as a mechanic and toolbox. Determined to recover from my fright with the adjuster, I intended to review every trick and technique Sandy had instilled. Complacency could not exist. No pilot dared stare for long at an airspeed indicator on takeoff or landing; eyes needed to be outside and senses tuned to power and attitude changes.

“Remember ? if it’s solid green down there, that could mean plenty of moisture and deep mud,” Sandy had said. “Pick spots where plants show plenty of space between them ? they’re usually more solid ? and remember too that hillsides and hilltops don’t always guarantee safety, since sun-melted soil can retain water. Every decision you make poses some risk.”

At the first stop on Melville Island, I was dismayed to find the Twin Otter pilots seemed to have forgotten that it was only thanks to the luxury of reverse thrust that they’d made the ultra-short landing required. And, departing empty, a Twin Otter takeoff run would have been a fraction of our overloaded Beaver’s. With no other option, the first touchdown enabled us to taxi up a saddleback ridge and swing around to point downhill.

The saddleback’s centre proved so dry, our movements raised dust while we handpumped fuel into the belly tanks. After blasting the airplane further up the slope, I swung around, pointed towards a valley and eased in the throttle. Slightly downwind, the drag of the tyres delayed acceleration but we began to roll. Beside me, the mechanic braced both feet against the instrument panel and, as the ground fell away, the airplane staggered airborne. In zero climb, we shuddered toward another hill with ‘balls to the wall’?maximum power. Unable to miss, the wheels struck the crest and we bounced clear, miraculously managing a climb free of obstacles.

Several hours later, our next cache appeared and again, the Twin Otter crew had deposited our drums on another hazardous spot. Sandy had said, “take it slow,” and I circled several times searching for a suitable landing place. A stretch approximately 600 feet into wind looked like it might suffice, and we halted inches before colliding with the drums. An hour later, we climbed back in for takeoff.

Unlike the previous site, lichen-coated boulders dotted the takeoff path. Nevertheless, the throttle went to overboost and we hoped for flight before reaching the cliff edge. Each time I punched left or right brake to dance around a boulder, the airplane decelerated sharply. An unprofessional peek at airspeed indicated not enough to fly, but we sailed over the lip and into space to plunge terrifyingly downward towards McClure Strait. No panic now ? too busy. In split seconds, we might become components in a pile of scattered metal. As the Strait filled the windscreen, a flicker on the airspeed needle caught my eye as it slipped beyond 60mph. Easing the control wheel gently backwards, I just managed to keep the wheels from striking the ice. We continued to Sach’s Harbour and on the way, I vowed to end my High Arctic career after the next landing.

At the temporary base on Amundsen Gulf, we resided in gigantic seismic vehicles known as ‘Nodwells’. Compared to the higher islands, the land resembled paradise, with snow geese and pretty white ptarmigan everywhere we looked.

The mineral seekers requested exploratory trips further south, where flat-topped plateaux reached 2,450ft above sea level. Sandstone pillars adjacent to shorelines supported velvety hills and, after landing, our tyres flattened hundreds of flowers. With the door open after shutdown, natural perfumes wafted into the cockpit. While the geologists wandered with picks and packsacks, I explored gullies where ancient glacial streams had tumbled rocks and slowed the flow of water. Streaked by every colour in the spectrum, saxifrage and Arctic poppies speckled with bees and butterflies filled spaces between the stones and spread into the gravel.

The adrenalin-charged near misses with boulders, ditches and even the engine blip back on Ellef Ringnes Island (described in the opening paragraph) faded to the back of my mind. Free from fog, and flying one of the greatest airplanes of all time, the Arctic venture no longer felt like a mistaken choice of nightmares. The only sad note entered the picture when we flew over hundreds of dead caribou frozen during the previous severe winter months. Regardless, I was in no rush to leave the strikingly beautiful, though treeless, regions of the High Arctic islands.

Too soon, the contract terminated and we staged to Resolute Bay. At each fuel stop, we scared ourselves as badly as we did on the way to Sach’s Harbour. With snow beginning to stay on the tundra, head office declared season closed and the aerial trek back to Yellowknife began. Instead of a two-day jaunt like the northbound one with Sandy, snowstorms and freezing rain turned the journey into a seven-day epic of hurricane-like winds, overboosted engines and hard, hard braking.

By the time we crossed Coronation Gulf to continental mainland, pleasant skies and warmer temperatures paved the way. After an incredible accident-free learning experience, I felt entitled to gloat, in spite of what Northward’s senior pilots had predicted. Relieved and relaxed, I looked forward to pretty bar girls and Yellowknife beer. At that very instant, an ear-splitting roar overwhelmed the engine’s smoothness and I jumped so high my seatbelt nearly snapped. Stunned, we had no idea what happened until a fuzzy form ahead took on the shape of a twin-engine amphibian airplane. The pilot of a pretty Grumman Goose, which belonged to a tourist lodge, had noticed our de Havilland Beaver and decided on an impromptu buzz job.

In the evening, the mechanic and I welcomed ourselves to Yellowknife. We never found the Goose pilot nor had a chance to take revenge and, weeks later, Northward Aviation sold my friend, Echo Papa.

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