Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bringing AMW Home

Although I had first taken flying lessons in 1979 at the Victoria Flying Club, it wasn’t until 2001 that I finally had the time and resources to fulfill a long-time dream – to get a pilot license and own an airplane. So it was that I received a Recreational Pilot Permit from Okanagan Aviation in Vernon that year. A float endorsement was added in May of 2009.

In 2002 I made the decision to purchase an airplane, and after much research I settled on the Challenger ultralight – a most capable, safe and enjoyable aircraft. In 2005, in the company of friend and fellow-pilot Bruce Brown, I made a cross-country flight in this airplane, on wheels, from St. Lazare, Quebec to Edmonton Alberta. The following year, the journey to Kugluktuk was completed on wheel-skis during the month of April. I have kept this flying machine, despite the economic realities of my more-recent purchase, simply because it is so economical and so much fun to fly.

Challenger C-INUK at an Arctic Char infested river on the central arctic coast

However, by 2009 I had decided that I “needed” an airplane with greater range and carrying capacity. This decision was largely dictated by the environment in which I live – a small and tree-less arctic community 371-miles north of Yellowknife and 100-miles north of the Arctic Circle. The nearest other village is 240-miles away and the necessity to carry a considerable volume of fuel and survival gear on anything but the most-local of flights meant that my wife (who, incidentally, loves to fly) had to be left behind on many occasions – something she did not appreciate!

So, the decision was made to add another aircraft to "the fleet", and I settled on the purchase of an Amateur-Built PA-12 replica resident in Sudbury, Ontario. The price was right, and the 160-hp Lycoming had four brand-new cylinders. To make a long story a little shorter, I travelled to Sudbury, finalized the sale and took the airplane for a cross-country flight to Hawk Lake, Ontario, where a badly executed landing revealed some deficiencies in both the airplane and the pilot. Since the fabric and paint were a little shabby and the interior and instrument panel left much to be desired, the decision was made to leave the airplane in the south during the winter of 2009/2010 where the experts could bring her back to new condition.

Nick Smith, Jr. and John and Tammy Gordy from near London, Ontario took on the task of restoring AMW to like-new condition. The fabric was completely replaced, new paint applied, new doors and skylight fabricated and two additional fuel tanks were installed. The interior was completely replaced and a new instrument panel was designed and installed. Vortex generators were added to the wings and tail surfaces. In the end I had a more-capable and safer airplane, in better-than-new condition. The airplane had been re-born and my bank account was on life-support.

Since the now-ready-to-fly airplane was near London and my floats were in Sudbury we needed someone to fly the airplane, on wheels, to central Ontario. Bruce Leighfield stepped up to the plate and flew AMW from London to Espanola. At this point, Phil Chandler, the previous owner of AMW and a 4,000 hour commercial pilot, took AMW up to “wring her out”. The VG’s, it turned out, made a tremendous difference in the ‘plane’s stall characteristics, which are now extremely mild.

But we still had to get AMW to Akela Aircraft’s facility at Grassy Lake, west of Sudbury. Mark Makela has a 700-foot grass strip but conditions had to be just right to make a successful landing there. Phil, with me in the back for ballast, managed to get her down safely on the calm morning of July 9, 2010. The floats and airplane were now in the same locale!

Pilot shakes hands with ballast at Grassy Lake

After a few days, Mark and the boys at Akela Aircraft had the newly-painted floats installed. The aircraft was examined from spinner to tail to ensure it was fit for the voyage ahead. A couple of days of refresher-training with Phil Chandler followed, with the added bonus of the wonderful scenery in the McGregor Bay area of Georgian Bay and the beautiful lakes in the Sudbury area.

It was terribly hot throughout south and central Ontario during those first two weeks of July 2010, and Phil’s swimming pool was a god-send for this arctic exile un-used to such intense heat and humidity.

C-GAMW at Bear Lake, southwest of Sudbury, Ontario

Finally, on July 16, 2010 the ‘plane and pilot were ready and the weather forecast was reasonable to commence the 2,000-mile journey home to the arctic community of Kugluktuk. The trip would require seven fuel and rest stops and the necessary ‘phone calls were made to confirm the availability of 100LL, since the information contained in the Water Aerodrome Supplement cannot always be relied upon.

Tied to the dock at Air-Dale's base on Hawk Lake

The first stop was Hawk Junction, Ontario, where Air-Dale has a wonderful floatplane base at the east end of Hawk Lake, about 20-miles east of Wawa. The wind was high and the lake was full of whitecaps upon my arrival, but the airplane’s ground speed on touchdown was so slow that the impact of the waves was barely felt. With three refueling docks this neat-as-a-pin operation is indeed a great place for a fuel stop. Air-Dale has two Beavers based here, serving their remote fishing camps. AMW was tied to the dock and it was decided that an overnight stay was in order in the hopes that the head-winds would subside by the following morning. Steve Dale kindly drove me to The Beaver Motel in Wawa and, following a nice supper with Air-Dale’s Beaver pilot Maurice Dubreuil, a pleasant rest ensued.

Steve picked me up at 7:00 am the next morning for the drive back to Hawk Lake. The winds were down, so AMW was fully refueled (four tanks totaling 72 US gallons) and it was off to Armstrong, Ontario. Bad weather forced a detour well to the south and I had to follow the north shore of Lake Superior and then go north into Armstrong “by the back-door” in order to get behind the weather. AMW was refueled again at the Huron Air base, and then was off in the general direction of Red Lake. However, with plenty of gas in the tanks, this segment of the trip ended up by-passing Red Lake in favour of a direct flight to Bissett, Manitoba, where I arrived late in the afternoon and tied to the Blue Water Aviation dock on Rice Lake. John, the owner and turbine-Otter pilot, gave me the loan of his pick-up truck for the night and directed me to a nice Bed-and-Breakfast. Bissett is a gold-mining town with plenty of new exploration work going on in the area.

Blue Water Aviation's dock at Bissett, Manitoba, next door to a gold-mine

After a good breakfast at the B&B, I finally got away at 10:00 am with The Pas as the intended destination for the day. Initially, the weather was good, but after crossing Lake Winnipeg northwest-bound, a long line of ugly thunderstorms loomed directly in my path. There was no going around this system, so a decision was made to cross the big lake again from Grand Rapids to Poplar River. Mid-lake I decided to switch fuel tanks but inadvertently shut off the fuel completely. Never has a hand moved so quickly to the fuel selector knob!

I followed the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg north toward Norway House. Unfortunately, the thunderstorm cells were also headed in that direction and I was very lucky to squeak into Norway House in-between two heavy showers. Within an hour of making the aircraft secure at the Molson Air dock, the thunder and lightning arrived, accompanied by a torrential downpour and a two-hour power failure. But by this time Charlie had driven me into town and I was safely in my room at the York Boat Motel.

Charlie at Norway House

The next day dawned sunny and I again made my way toward the west and Grace Lake, just south of The Pas. The highlight of this segment was being able to text to my friend Darren
Stevenson, an RCMP officer in Hanley, Saskatchewan, while at 4,500 feet above northern Manitoba. For someone of my vintage, this was a minor technological miracle! A nice tailwind gave a 20 mph boost to the groundspeed.

Grace Lake is advertised as “a shallow lake filled with weeds”. This is certainly an accurate description – in places the weeds are so thick as to clog the water rudders and prevent the use of wind alone for maneuvering at the dock. A friendly old-timer at the local flying club directed me to the refueling dock, where Missinippi Airways’ high-speed pump, coupled with a leaking fuel drain while enroute, resulted in some wastage of fuel and a higher-than-normal bill.

From The Pas to Southend, Saskatchewan the clouds thinned but the smoke thickened. Upon arrival the smoke was so thick that I dispensed with the usual circuit procedure (sorry Phil!) as the visibility was dangerously poor and I knew the high hills might hide towers or power lines to snag a wayward Cub. So I put AMW down smartly on the water and taxied to the community dock. Following a short visit at the RCMP detachment I learned that the fuel dock was three miles distant in another bay of Reindeer Lake. There followed a long taxi and the discovery that there was no room at this dock for an overnight stay and I would have to tie to a mooring buoy. This was not conducive to a good night’s rest, but luckily there was a cabin for me at the nearby Nordic Lodge and they offered space at their dock, where I would easily be able to keep a close watch on my ‘plane. My cabin was basic but comfortable, and the lodge owner, Donna, scrounged up a box of Kraft Dinner and a left-over Smokie for my supper. I managed to contact my wife on the pay-phone and then, without TV or cell service, spent a restful night with nothing but the sound of a cool breeze through the black spruce and jack pines. The next morning I borrowed the lodge’s ATV to bring back three jerry cans of 100 LL from Lawrence Bay Airways.

Nordic Lodge, Southend, Saskatchewan

With the ‘plane fully re-fuelled I took off for Uranium City in heavy smoke, anticipating a possible return to Southend. Initially the visibility
worsened but eventually a slow improvement was noted, and after about 50-miles I was able to snap a few pictures of the isolated fires along the west side of Reindeer Lake.

My rustic cabin at Nordic Lodge

Uranium City has seen better days, and the remaining 90 die-hard souls are engaged in maintaining some semblance of infrastructure in the hope that the previous mining economy will one day return. In the meantime, the dilapidated buildings and lack of traffic on the roads give a ghost-town feel to the place. I had a one-mile hike to find someone to pump gas. Once that was done I was off to Yellowknife.

It was great to be heading into more familiar country once again, and I certainly appreciated the cooler and drier air since leaving The Pas.

Forest fires west of Reindeer Lake, Saskatchewan

The ‘plane was performing well and the engine running cool. Oil consumption was better than expected and, through experimentation, I learned that I could get about 250-miles out of a single tank of fuel (I had four tanks!). In the cooler air the airplane’s performance was enhanced, and take-off runs were quite respectable even with my 230 pounds in the pilot seat, 72-US gallons of fuel and 50 pounds of baggage onboard.

Arrival in Yellowknife is always a thrill, it being a bush-plane haven. I landed on Back Bay around 8:00 pm with the sun still well above the horizon. After tying up at the Plummer’s dock and arranging for fuel and a two night stay ($60 a night for dock space – ouch!), I hailed a taxi to the Yellowknife Inn, up the hill in the downtown area. I also managed to find the last rental car in town and contacted my three sons, who have lived in Yellowknife for most of their lives – and even farther north during their earlier years. A viewing of the ‘plane, followed by a sumptuous meal at Pizza Hut, topped off the evening.

My sons (and one girlfriend) at the Old Town Float Base in Yellowknife

After a couple of days of rest in Yellowknife I was ready for the last and longest leg of the trip – 371 miles from Yellowknife, directly north to Kugluktuk. The weather briefer had good news – a ridge was building in nicely and I could expect decent conditions for the entire trip. After a 7:30 am departure, Murphy tried to put the kibosh on that forecast, in the form of low cloud during the middle third of the flight, but once beyond the Arctic Circle and approaching the coast the weather steadily improved. Exactly four hours since my departure from Yellowknife I did a fly-past of our waterfront home and saw my wife
waving from the deck. The landing at the mouth of the Coppermine River was decent, despite my excitement at finally being home. I taxied to the community dock where I was helped by two RCMP friends to secure the ‘plane. My wife showed up and I greeted her with some freight from the right float compartment – a dozen red roses from Yellowknife!

Larry and Helen with AMW on the ramp in front of the house, Kugluktuk, Nunavut

So now C-GAMW is secure on the ramp in front of our home. In a few weeks time a custom-built trailer will arrive on our annual sea-lift and it will be used to remove AMW completely from the sometimes angry arctic waters between missions. The trailer will also be used to transport AMW to the airport and into my hangar during the off-season. One day, I hope to get a set of wheel-skis and thus extend the flying season from the current three months on floats to perhaps the nine-months of the year when the sun is high enough to cast a good shadow and the air is not
too cold for comfort and safety.

Much of this odyssey took place over very remote and sparsely populated country. Aside from basic survival items like a tent and summer sleeping bag, other essential items included an Iridium satellite telephone, a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon, the older 121.5 MHz portable ELT in the aircraft and a SPOT beacon. I also had a spare handheld GPS and a spare handheld VHF radio. My wife and other friends certainly enjoyed following my progress by receiving SPOT up-dates from each stop.

The 2,000 mile delivery of C-GAMW from her birthplace in Sudbury to her new home in Nunavut took six flying days and I encountered a variety of weather conditions and ground-based challenges. It was a great experience – once-in-a-lifetime for me I’m sure.


PS: Click on any photo for a larger view.

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