Monday, November 26, 2007

A Flying Story - Part Two - Edmonton to Yellowknife

Last month, you heard about the 2005 leg of C-INUK’s trip home. That 2,500-mile jaunt by the author and his intrepid co-pilot Bruce Brown took them from St. Lazare (near Montreal) to St. Albert (near Edmonton).

The following chronicles the first part of the final 1,200 mile leg to bring Larry Whittaker’s Challenger II home to Kugluktuk in Nunavut, April 2006.

After putting my Challenger II safely to bed in early October of 2005 in a cozy hangar at St. Albert, northwest of Edmonton, I have been in regular e-mail contact with Bob Robertson. Bob is well-known across Canada and the US as a top Rotax engine expert. During the winter he removes my "tundra" tires, installs a nifty set of Turbulence retractable wheel-skis and his new oil-injection kit. The ‘plane is tuned-up, test-flown and generally placed in tip-top shape for the up-coming trip to the arctic.

Of course, while Bob is busy in Edmonton I have a lot of planning to do. The route is chosen - a no-brainer; follow highway 43 west to Fox Creek, then turn north to Peace River and follow the Mackenzie Highway to High Level and on to Hay River, then jump straight across Great Slave Lake to Yellowknife. Kugluktuk is due north of Yellowknife at a distance of about 375-miles. The total distance, including a 100-mile allowance for following major bends in the highway, is about 1,200-miles.

I arrange three-weeks of vacation leave from my job with (censored). A one-way Aeroplan ticket to Edmonton is ordered, a rental car and a hotel bed are reserved. I spend the last few days at home frantically tidying up loose ends at work and monitoring the construction of my hangar at the Kugluktuk airport.

Edmonton in early April of 2006 is pretty much snow-free, in stark contrast to the whiteness and long days that I’ve left behind in Kugluktuk. The first week is spent getting the dust blown off the aeroplane and deciding what has to be shipped home. I will be flying north into winter-survival conditions and that requires a lot of bulky equipment and clothing. The back seat will hold two jerry cans of gas, an arctic sleeping bag, a couple of small back-packs with gear and some winter clothing. More winter clothing, a tent and sleeping pad will be stowed in the belly bag. My newly-acquired 406 MHz PLB and a sat-phone could be life-savers.

The Challenger is now on wheel-skis, so the tundra tires are shipped home, along with the rear seat cushions and certain items of clothing and equipment deemed "non-essential" because of lack of space onboard.

On April 13 the weather forecast looks great and everything is ready. Tomorrow we’ll be heading north... and home!

Anxious to get away, I’m at the St. Albert airport early - much too early. I wander around, trying to keep warm, waiting for the first glimmer of light. When it comes, C-INUK is fired up and taxied to the runway over the short, brown grass and the lumpy, frozen ground. A quick traffic call on the radio, an instrument scan to verify all is in order, and we’re off. A right turn-out takes us to the highway in a few minutes and then we’re heading west toward our first fuel stop at Fox Creek.

The runway at Fox Creek, alongside the highway, is more than a short walk from town. This being a holiday weekend, I don’t even try to get a cab. Instead, I just fill the tank from the jerry cans and I’m off again in short order, heading for Valleyview.

The weather is cloudy and cool but good VFR without any turbulence and almost no wind. I enjoy a distant view of the Rockies, but this is as close as I will get to them, for now the heading is north, and will remain so for the next 1,000 miles.

At Valleyview I have no choice but to ‘phone a taxi and get some gas. The first trip tops-up the tank, the second trip returns me to the airport with both jerry cans filled.

The next leg is to Peace River over rolling farmland interspersed with forest. The weather is holding, but approaching the Peace River valley the wind starts to increase. My cross-wind landings still leave much to be desired, but I manage a rather sloppy one and taxi to the parking area. I re-fuel the ‘plane and sit on the dry grass in the sunshine, digging into my stash of on-board snacks. The wind is increasing, and it soon becomes obvious that if it gets any stronger it will be prudent to stay put. I eventually decide to do just that. The ‘plane is well tied-down and a taxi is called.

Security at the Peace River airport seems a little excessive. Since this is a Sunday and there are no scheduled flights, the entire terminal building is locked up tighter than a drum. No place for an itinerant pilot to get out of the cold prairie wind. After a long wait, the taxi finally arrives and
I’m soon ensconced in a cozy downtown hotel.

The next morning I’m at the airport early, lugging a back pack and jerry cans of fuel, but without any way to get through the security fence. The gates don’t respond to the usual combinations of various air-ground frequencies. An hour goes by and I finally have to enlist the aid of an air-ambulance crew to get me onto the airport grounds. The ‘plane is fired up, taxied out and we’re off to High Level.

The first stop is at Manning for a quick top-up. Manning to High Level is quite a stretch, so I decide to check out the abandoned strip at Keg River. A low pass confirms that it hasn’t been used by aeroplanes for a long time. The dry grass, later found to be almost two-feet tall, is marred only by the tracks of ATV’s. Still, this clearing in the trees looks smooth and is certainly large enough. The landing is uneventful and the tank is filled from one of the jerry cans. The take-off run is surprisingly short considering the long grass.

I had planned to stay at least one night in High Level with an RCMP friend and his wife. A leaky oil tank and deteriorating weather further north forces an extension of the visit, but so what? I’m on vacation and enjoying cozy digs with good friends.

Three days later I’m airborne again, following the nearly deserted Mackenzie highway in the general direction of Hay River. The weather is perfect. A fuel stop at a forestry strip beside the highway at Steen River is in order. The approach is executed with perfection, but the landing roll on the sandy strip is very short. I had put the skis down when the all the lakes below me became ice-covered, and that’s what happens when you land with skis on sand! Note to self - follow the check-list!

None the worse for wear, we’re off again for Hay River. In less than an hour my little yellow Challenger and I cross the 60th parallel into the Northwest Territories. The weather is great, with a nice tail wind. At Hay River the tank is filled but there’s no need to top-up the jerry cans - Yellowknife is just 120-miles directly across Great Slave Lake and in the event of a forced landing on the rough lake ice that extra weight will be a detriment.

I’m now doing some real bush flying, and it’s great fun! There will be no more of this "I Follow Roads" business from now on! I climb out of Hay River, intending to cruise at about 2,500 feet but decide to keep climbing to take advantage of the tail wind. I level off at 5,500 with a ground speed of 110 mph. The outside air temperature is minus 5C, but with the sun shining brightly and the heater doing its thing, the cockpit is very comfortable. I trim the ‘plane for hands-off flying, then munch on more snacks and hot coffee while the lake unrolls toward Yellowknife.

Coming into Yellowknife is a thrill! With helicopters and bush-planes in the area and much chatter on the radio, I’m cleared for a landing on 09. My friends at Adlair Aviation provide a tie-down for the night and co-owner Paul Laserich gives me a ride to the main terminal building where I rent a car. Then it’s back to the ‘plane, load up my gear and gas cans and spend the rest of the afternoon getting fuel and replenishing my supply of survival rations.

Since leaving St. Lazare in September of 2005, Yellowknife is the first and only controlled airport that C-INUK has ever used. It will also be the last for a long time.

That night, I enjoy the northern hospitality of Yellowknifer and ex-patriot Australian Rob Baker. Rob is building a Challenger so is much interested in looking over mine to clarify his own building concerns.

Tomorrow we head north over the barren-lands, across the arctic circle to the northern coast and Kugluktuk.


Stayed tuned for Part 3!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing.

Steve Attack said...

Bob, how did you determine the wind direction at Keg River? Love reading these posts!

Larry said...


Bob's dead, remember!

It was cold enough that I could see the smoke from the few houses (wood stoves), close to the strip.


Arctic Agent said...