As winter began to close in on the southern-most regions of Canada,
temperatures began a steady crawl downwards, rains turned icy, and Canadians broke out the fleece, boots and layered up. But farther north, much farther north, along the shores of James Bay, the Florida-shaped extension of Hudson Bay that drives deep into Ontario and Quebec, the weather in late October was about to go full-on winter, and James Bay winters are in a category all by themselves. Half way up the western coast of James Bay, the dark and icy waters of the Attawapiskat River flowed east beneath a skim of late autumn ice and drove deep into the salty bay beneath a cold winter sky.
If any place in earth can be said to be off the beaten path, miles from nowhere, or the back of beyond, it is the tiny remote community of Attawapiskat First Nation. As remote and forgotten as it might be, Attawapiskat was at the epicentre of media attention this fall and early winter when, on October 28, 2011, the Attawapiskat First Nation
Chief declared a state of emergency in response to dropping temperatures, and the resulting health and safety concerns due to inadequate housing. Many residents were still living in tents, trailers and temporary shelters, and many residences and public buildings lacked running water and electricity. In one case, children, the elderly, and the ill were sleeping in rooms just a few feet away from a 2009 raw sewage spill that had not been adequately cleaned. This spill was the result of a major flood of the Attawapiskat River in May of that year which forced an earlier evacuation to the south of Attawapiskat residents. The sole elementary school building, a state-of-the-art construction in 1976, was closed in 2000 because of toxic fumes from a 1978 diesel spill that seeped into the ground underneath the school. Along with 300 houses, there are 5 tents and 17 sheds used for housing. Images finding their way south showed living conditions that would be intolerable in the richer, warmer south. With winter coming on full bore, the result was that, once again, residents at greatest risk were evacuated south, only to be replaced by an equal number of television crew invading the tiny community from the south, lining up to get a shot in front of the worst situation. Much acrimony, finger pointing, and “A Community in Crisis” media stories abounded. There is no doubt that this poverty-stricken community was in a dire and appalling situation economically, socially, and spiritually speaking. Their health, social structure, children and infrastructure were not just at risk, but at the breaking point. It is not for us at Vintage Wings of Canada to wade into the space between the Canadian Government which funds the community and the Band Council which divvies up the funds, to offer opinions, suggestions, support, or ideas for a resolution, but rather to point out how, once again, private aircraft operators have stepped in and volunteered to help bring relief and assistance to a community in need.
The remote Canadian Aboriginal community of Attawapiskat lies at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River where it flows into James Bay in what is known as the Kenora District of Ontario. The Kenora district is roughly the size of California and is administered from the city of Kenora which lies more than 500 miles to the south west. Like many Northern communities, Attawapiskat is only reached by air. Its remote location is perhaps one of the many reasons that its situation had deteriorated so dramatically - out of sight, out of mind.
The Antonov crew left out of Oshawa, Ontario (On the shores of Lake Ontario) at half past midnight on January 8, 2012 and faced a steady 40 knot headwind all the way to Timmins, Ontario, arriving there at 0540 hrs in darkness. Here, copilot Andrew Farr checks his maps and GPS while navigating north in the moonlit landscape. Ontario native Farr is a Twin Otter Captain with Trans Maldivian Airways but has a lot of northern cold weather experience having flown Beavers and other bush planes for 10 years in Northern Manitoba and Ontario. Photo: Lee Barker
Preparing for a 0030 start means a very long day. Mechanic Cody King gets a little shut-eye/open-mouth en route to Timmins. Copilot Farr could not resist the opportunity to snap an embarrassing photo. The noise level in the Colt is about the same as a de Havilland Otter or Beaver, with good sound proofing and luxury of luxuries - a toilet. Barker notes that “It's a good thing the Antonov has a toilet – the yellow ice block I removed after we got back was about 6 inches thick! And I didn't dare use the cockpit funnel with the OAT's (Outside air temperatures) running -30º- to -35º C as it would have backed up almost immediately! ” Photo: Andrew Farr
Farr (left) and King do a little flight planning and e-mailing at Timmins. With the Timmins Airport restaurant closed on weekends (whaaa?), the crew resorted to a Canadian standard - Timbits for breakfast. photo: Lee Barker
En route to Attawapiskat, first class service was broken out for the crew. At first, the crew was offered beef wellington, sautéed asparagus and sweetbreads in a fennel sauce and foie gras on china plates, but opted instead for the premium Canadian package - Tim Horton's donuts and Jack Link's beef jerky in a cardboard box. Photo: Andrew Farr
Copilot Andrew Farr shows how to prepare world-famous “Jerky Antonov”, the favourite dish of pilots in the north. Instructions: Rip open package with teeth, maintain level flight, reach into bag with throttle hand and extract the deliciousness – pairs well with a Tim Horton's Double Double and spearmint Rolaids for dessert. Photo: Cody King
The crew (Andrew Farr, Cody King and Lee Barker) takes their own photo during the flight to Attawapiskat. Photo: Andrew Farr
Mechanic Cody King gives two thumbs up from his cramped space behind the cabin bulkhead en route from Timmins to Attawapiskat. Above him we can see a couple of pairs of snowshoes – critical survival equipment in the far North should the Antonov be forced down into the barrens. Photo Andrew Farr
After a long day of flying in sketchy weather, pilot Lee Barker checks out the community of Attawapiskat through the big side windows of his Antonov An-2. Coming in from the east, we see the small town situated between the frozen Attawapiskat River on the left and the single runway of their airport on the right. Photo by Andrew Farr
From the right side of the Antonov, Farr checks out the seemingly ordered community from 1,000 feet. The visual order belies a community in heart-breaking turmoil. Photo: Andrew Farr
Looking every inch the backwoods Soviet aviator in an oil-stained insulated coverall, rodeo gloves and knitted woolens, pilot and owner Lee Barker gives Farr a thumbs up from his command seat in the An-2. What better device to chase away all the nasty avgas, Aeroshell 15W50 and beef jerky stench than a 98 cent Canadian Tire Pine tree-scented air freshener. Photo: Andrew Farr
In the poor winter light, Barker taxies on to the Attawapiskat ramp at 11 AM local time. Behind him, the boreal forest stretches uninterrupted across the breadth of Canada. Photo: OVERT
The crew members (Mechanic Cody King (Left), copilot Andrew Farr (centre) and pilot Lee Barker) pose by the Antonov An-2 Colt on the Attawapiskat ramp after their cargo has been removed by OVERT.
Through this gateway at the Attawapiskat airport, travel all visitors and citizens coming to or leaving the community, save for snowmobiles and small boats.
After the terrible earthquake which laid low much of the already destitute country of Haiti, we ran a story called Angel of Mercy about an American Grumman Albatross and its operators flying relief flights of much needed medications, supplies and hope directly to the most devastated areas of the island. This, in many ways, is the same story.
The Baagwating Community Association, who operate the Great Blue Heron Casino near Port Perry, Ontario set up an emergency fund to send household water treatment equipment and medical supplies to help out their brothers and sisters in the community Attawapiskat. Baagwating Community Association donated the supplies and expenses with about 10% paid for by Metalex Ventures who are doing a large diamond exploration program west of Attawapiskat. They contacted the Ontario Volunteer Emergency Response Team (OVERT) to bring the supplies to the distant community. When OVERT could not find an economical commercial charter, they contacted Lee Barker, an operator of a massive Soviet-built commercial biplane known as the Antonov An-2, to airlift the much needed supplies and personnel. The OVERT team got another offer from a company that operates a Basler DC-3 to take the four OVERT staff and a small part of the materiel as they were already heading to Moosonee. Barker agreed to take on the airlift of the bulk of the supplies and the adventure, for he longed to see his beloved Antonov perform a mission she was designed specifically to do.
The Antonov An-2 was first designed in 1947, and frankly, she looks it. When new-built commercial and military biplanes were a thing of the past, the Antonov Design Bureau in Ukraine saw the clear lifting benefits of a light biplane transport. In the West, no company would have touched the concept for obvious marketing reasons, but in the Soviet Union, there was no need to worry about style and marketing image when it came to the design. The Antonov was a huge success with more than 21,000 copies being built over a 55 year production run that boggles the mind. Lee Barker's Antonov was one of the later production runs, being built in the mid-1990s. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of western markets to the Russian and Soviet Bloc manufacturers, the Antonov An-2 began to show up in North America in increasing numbers. Nicknamed “Annushka” by her Soviet crews, the Antonov An-2 is affectionately known as “Annie” worldwide.
Pilot/owner Lee Barker warms up the 1,000 hp Shvetsov radial as passengers board at the Vintage Wings of Canada Open House at Gatineau, 2008. The Shvetsov radial is still in production under license in Poland, so spares are not as big a problem in North America as one would think. This view shows off the extremely wide stance of the An-2's undercart. Photo: Olivier Lacombe
Still the world's largest operating biplane, the Antonov An-2 (NATO-code named Colt) sports a voluminous body and a massive tail and rudder. The Shvetsov radial looks rather underpowered compared to the size of the aircraft, but with the tremendous lift afforded by the biplane configuration, it is perfectly adequate. Photo: Olivier Lacombe
The anachronistic yet versatile and efficient Antonov An-2 was code named “Colt” by NATO, but she was honoured with a couple of nicknames by the Soviet-era military and Aeroflot crews that flew her. One nickname for her spoke of her utilitarian and hard-working nature - Kukuruznik, or literally "Corn farmworker". The other more flattering and endearing name was Annushka or Annie. The first flight of the Antonov An-2 was in 1947 and she remained in production until 2002 – 55 years on the assembly line, perhaps the longest production run of any aircraft in history. Only this year did the Lockheed C-130 Hercules (1957-2012) exceed that production run. Photo: Olivier Lacombe
With more than 21,000 copies built in many locations including China and North Korea, the Antonov An-2 came in many variants. Barker's C-GFBR is an An-2 PD5 indicating that it was an executive version with 6 reclining passenger seats a card table, mini-bar, toilet and a small flight attendant seat. Barker's is one of those manufactured at Poland's PZL, Państwowe Zakłady Lotnicze - or State Aviation Works. It is based in Barker's backyard - Oshawa, Ontario Photo: Olivier Lacombe
The single day adventure began in Oshawa, where Barker bases his big biplane. The OVERT team and Barker's crew loaded 37 boxes of supplies totalling only 650 kilograms, light but very bulky. Once loaded, the crew sat out most of Saturday January 7th, 2012 waiting for the weather to improve. About 0030 hrs on a dark Sunday morning, the Antonov climbed out of Oshawa airport bound for Timmins on a clear moonlit night. With strong headwinds, it took the team 5 hours to get to Timmins, Ontario, landing there before sunrise at 0540. After a brief rest and a Tim Horton's run for coffee and donuts, they were refuelled by 0800 and in the air bound for James Bay. The turn around at Attawapiskat was fast. They landed at 1100 hrs, off loaded and were back in Timmins just after 1500 hrs! Flying the OVERT team members and their gear back home, they were in the Oshawa hangar by 1900 hrs. Total flying time was 15.2 hours with 2,500 litres of fuel consumed as well as 50 litres of oil.
Lee Barker is very proud of his contribution to the relief of Attawapiskat. While most folks preferred to discuss the crisis in the media, the House of commons or over a coffee, Barker and his friends stepped up to the plate to help. The OVERT team ran into Barker at the Oshawa airport after having unsuccessfully found an appropriate aircraft to get the job done. They had looked at Pilatus and King Air type aircraft, which could have done the trip without a fuel stop, but did not have the capacity for all the cargo let alone passengers and cargo. Luckily, the Basler BT-67 (Turbine-powered DC-3) operated by Enterprise Airlines in Oshawa was heading to Moosonee, so was able to bring the passengers up there along with some gear a week before.
The flight was done on a volunteer basis only with expenses being covered by the OVERT team and when approached, Barker jumped at the chance to help. Lee Barker is an enthusiastic Canadian aviator, in love with his big beast of a biplane, proud to demonstrate it amazing capacity for lift and endurance. He flies it to aviation events and shows all over Ontario and Quebec and uses it to make business trips to remote mining communities all over the north of Ontario and Quebec.
Years ago while on a trip to the far north, I learned an old adage about flying in the arctic and sub arctic and it goes something like this: “Up North, you either pay for your flying through the nose or it's free”. The cost of operating so far from the south's infrastructure makes an already expensive mode of transport even more costly for most folks, but often you will find people who will just do the job for nothing, because they are going that anyway, or they just plain like you. That's the nature of a North populated by hardy, adventurous and generous entrepreneurs.
Lee Barker is to be commended for his instantaneous positive response to a request for help, but frankly, it's no surprise. True aviators, like Lee, are a breed of can-do, romantic, passionate and professional adventurers who love what they do. They belong to a special community worldwide and you can find them from Canada's North to Australia's Outback. They are the same characters that have populated our history for a century - rugged individuals like Max Ward and Arthur Fecteau. They do not hesitate when help is needed.
Here's to Lee, Cody and Andrew. Here's to Annie too.