A Northern Light

By Dave O’Malley

The Canadian North is not for everyone. With its hard winters and boondocks spirit, it is a place that can easily break a soft, city-dwelling, smart-phone addicted metrosexual. It is however a place that pulls to its bosom those with an adventurous heart and an entrepreneurial spirit and wandering souls who want more from their lives than a time-wasting commute and the suspect benefits of big-box shopping.

It is a place of extraordinary beauty—of fragrant pine-scented air, deep cold lakes the size of seas, vast empty horizons, and a pristine natural world at your doorstep. It is a place of rugged self-reliant people and, in particular, a place where Canada’s greatest names in civil aviation made their marks—Max Ward, Arthur Fecteau, Punch Dickins, Jack Austin, and Tom Jack Lamb to name but a few.

While the exploits of aircrews of the Royal Canadian Air Force are legendary, and though our major airlines are respected around the world, it is the northern bush pilot who springs to mind when one thinks of Canadian flying. Though the people of the North can be said to be self-reliant, it is not 100% true—for without the aeroplane, life in the North of Canada could become intolerable, business untenable, and healthcare less accessible. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the aeroplane “opened up” the North; and now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the aeroplane holds the North together—linking communities, supplying citizens and businesses, and moving resources and resource workers.

There are several main hubs for aviation in the North, but Yellowknife is the largest, linking the north to the south. As such it is home to many of the North’s larger and longest standing airlines. It offers an opportunity to see up close aircraft operations on land, water and ice. It is a place where the great Canadian aircraft designs are still kings more than half a century after their first flights—the de Havilland Beaver, Otter and the Noorduyn Norseman as well as the Twin Otter. This is not because Canadians are stubbornly attached to these iconic aircraft; it is because better aircraft for the job have never been developed.

For the aviation enthusiast who values the obscure, exalts Canadian aviation history and has a thing for photography, Yellowknife is somewhat of a shrine—a place to complete an aviation pilgrimage. For such a person who actually lives in Yellowknife, it is a place of daily fulfillment and constant opportunity for “that perfect shot”.

One such person is Stephen Fochuk, a young man with a passion for Canadian aviation history and a way with a camera. Fochuk is from the small village of Manotick, south of Ottawa, but recently relocated his young family to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He is a much-respected historian in these parts, having written historical books including Metal Canvas: Canadians and World War II Nose Art, Remembering: Lennox and Addington Veterans of World War Two and the Korean Conflict and co-authored 402 “City of Winnipeg” Squadron History – On Guard for 75 Years. Fochuk’s deep knowledge of the squadrons, pilots, technical minutia and movements of the RCAF’s Spitfire squadrons in the Second World War has been a boon to Vintage Wings, and he was a go-to guy when developing the markings of the Roseland Spitfire, a Mk IX set to fly sometime in 2016.

Life is hectic for a man with two young children, but when he can find a moment, Fochuk picks up his camera and heads down to Back Bay, a floatplane Mecca on a protected stretch of Great Slave Lake water where, for 85 years now, aircraft have landed on the water in the summer and the snow in the winter. When looking at his images, the first thing that strikes you is that great northern light—the low-angled, slightly pale light that shines down with such clarity upon the North, unimpeded by pollution or salted windshield. Day or night, the North holds forth in natural spectacle—a backdrop of the best of nature combined with the best of bush aviation technology.

Here now are some of Fochuk’s images celebrating flying in the super natural world. For more of his aviation work and wildlife photography, visit: http://www.smfochuk.ca/

The ultimate Canadian aviation scene. A Noorduyn Norseman float plane taxies back to home base on Back Bay on Great Slave Lake with a typical Canadian boreal landscape behind. CF-SAN is owned by Buffalo Airways and is the personal aircraft of the airline’s founder Buffalo Joe McBryan. Joe saw Fochuk standing on the dock of the Great Slave Yacht Club and came in closer so he could get better shots. CF-SAN, a Mk-V, was built in 1945.

In early autumn, leaves are turning and the air is still near sunset on Yellowknife’s Back Bay. A de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver of Ahmic Air rests after a long day of flying sightseers and fishermen to nearby destinations.

There is not a lot of daylight in Yellowknife in the long, hard winter months, but what little there is is always spectacular—icy morning sunrises, golden sunsets, hard blue days and days so grey, colour seems to cease to exist. Here, a Buffalo Airways DC-3 C-GWZS is caught in the feeble warmth of a Yellowknife sunset, while awaiting work on the Yellowknife-Hay River scheduled run. Just visible beneath the cockpit window is an RAF roundel—a dedication to this warbird’s remarkable history as a D-Day veteran.

The Canadian North, with its requirements for rugged bush flying, was the formative environment for some of Canada’s most important contributions to aviation. The de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter is one of the greatest bush and small commuter aircraft ever built. Now, half a century after the first one took to the air, the assembly line has reopened at British Columbia’s Viking Air, building the versatile aircraft once again. Here we see Air Tindi’s ski-equipped 300-series Twin Otter C-GMAS making a turn on the frozen surface at Air Tindi’s floatplane base, Yellowknife, Great Slave Lake.

Over the past six years, Buffalo Airways has made an international name for itself through its Discovery Channel television show called Ice Pilots, NWT. But long before their media debut, Buffalo had a strong reputation servicing transportation routes in the Far North, using and maintaining vintage aircraft long after the rest of the world has cast them aside. Here a Buffalo Douglas DC-4 Skymaster water bomber/cargo combi (C-GCTF – Tanker 58) is caught on final at Yellowknife, Northwest Territories during Buffalo’s spring training and check rides.

Pinks, oranges, purples and greens—colours of the distinctive palette known to every Canadian. There’s a lot of iconic Canadian artist Tom Thomson in this wonderful image of de Havilland DHC-2 Turbo-Beaver C-FOED resting on a cool fall evening at the Old Town Float Base in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Unlike later Turbo-Beaver conversions, C-FOED started life with a turbine engine in 1965 as CF-OED in the employ of the Province of Manitoba’s Department of Lands and Forests. After service with a number of northern operators, it now flies Polar Developments Ltd.

“The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see, was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge...” No photographic story entitled “A Northern Light” would be complete without, well... the northern lights. On some nights in Yellowknife, when the aurora borealis brings to mind the poems of Robert Service, Stephen Fochuk grabs his camera and heads down to the edge of Back Bay on Great Slave Lake, and heads out looking for interesting subjects. In this case, the Old Town Floatplane Base proved to be just that on this epic fall night in 2014. The aurora that evening put on one spectacular display.

At the Old Town Float Base on Lessard Drive, the northern lights dance on the night sky above this classic 1976 Cessna Skywagon owned and operated by Open Water Charters Inc., who are based out of Yellowknife.

This photograph captures the quintessential northern light seen at sunset north of the 60th Parallel—vibrant, still, hopeful—along with the quintessential bush plane—the de Havilland Beaver, rugged, enduring, capable. The aircraft’s operator is Ahmic Air, a Beaver operation offering “flight-seeing” services as well as fishing and hunting charters.

For the aviation-minded, the sculpted shapes of vintage aircraft are works of art. Here, Fochuk photographs the tail-end of a Curtiss Commando in the failing light of a winter evening in Yellowknife. The bulbous body, massive tail and fared stabilizers in hues of purple and turquoise speak of hard work, pride and utter cold.

In the dying light of a late fall evening, de Havilland Twin Otter C-FTXQ touches down on Great Slave Lake. C-FTXQ has spent her entire life in the north, being delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1971 and assigned to 440 Squadron shortly thereafter.

In an iconic Canadian scene, De Havilland DHC-6-100 Twin Otter C-FTFX touches down lightly on the still waters of Great Slave Lake, bound for the dock of the Yellowknife Sea Plane base (CEN9). This beautiful and cared-for aircraft has seen primarily Arctic and Northern service since it was first bought by Max Ward’s iconic Wardair in 1972. Ward sold it to Ptarmigan Airways seven years later and it flew with Ptarmigan until it went to Bradley Air Services (Carp, Ottawa—now First Air) in 1997. It was bought by Arctic Sunwest Charters in 2001.

The History Channel’s hit television series—Ice Pilots NWT—has made legends of a few of its roster of tough, pragmatic and hard-working pilots. Here, the ever-calm Captain AJ Decoste, Buffalo’s Chief Pilot and co-pilot Chris Staples do a little “valley flying” in the rugged Northwest Territories in a Curtiss Commando (C-GTXW). This is no short-sleeved, shoulder board-striped, chateaubriand cockpit; here it’s construction-grade safety vests, layers of sweatshirts and muscles.

In the North, the weather will remind you when it’s time to take the floats off and put the skis on.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Buffalo Airways DC-3 Dakota awaits passengers on their ramp at Yellowknife Airport for the return flight to Hay River a few days before Christmas 2014. Whisky–Zulu–Sierra was built in 1942 and served with No. 512 Squadron, Royal Air Force, (KG330) and flew paratroopers on D-Day. Quite an historic aircraft still operating in the far north.

C-FOPE of Arctic Sunwest Charters taxies out after the fog has cleared on the Back Bay, with a passenger load of Japanese tourists bound for the tundra. Purists believe the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver should have a gas sucking, noise making Pratt and Whitney Wasp radial engine at the front end, but the Turbo Beaver’s PT-6 Turbine is still a Pratt and Whitney and gives the classic Canadian aircraft better performance and reliability. 

You won’t see this anywhere else other than Yellowknife—two Curtiss C-46 Commandos (C-FAVO (right) and C-GTXW) of legendary Buffalo Airways taxi out in blowing snow on a brutally cold day. Built in February 1945, C-46D C-FAVO was originally in the employ of the United States Army Air Force and then flew with Lufthansa, Shamrock and Trans Continental. It continues to do journeyman service with Buffalo for over 20 years. The second Commando (C-GTXW), a C-46A, was sadly lost in September of 2015, when a propeller overspeed situation necessitated a shutdown of the right engine. The resulting loss of power meant an emergency diversion to Déline, Northwest Territories on the shores of Great Bear Lake. Losing altitude rapidly, the crew chose to keep the landing gear up all the way to the ground so as not to degrade further airspeed. The aircraft bellied in halfway down the runway and slid 700 ft off the end. The crew was unhurt, but the 70-year-old warbird was a writeoff.

The hard work and tough weather in the North takes its toll on people and machines. Many old workhorses have gone through the hangar doors of Buffalo Airways during the 45 years of its existence. Even the strongest draft horse tires eventually and is put to pasture. Here C-GTPO, a former Buffalo stalwart corrodes in the weather at Yellowknife, used now for parts. Built originally for the USAAF, she followed a similar path as C-FAVO, working for Wein Alaska, Shamrock and Trans Continental and Northland Air Manitoba among others. She aborted a landing at Pickle Lake in 1989, overrunning the runway and was left there until a few years later, Buffalo Airways sent a crew in to make her flyable. Now that C-GTXW has been written off, C-GTPO is currently being brought back to life.

Fochuk captures an evening in the Canadian North—colours, stillness, clarity and purity—the kind of end-of-day that stays in your mind and in your heart for a long, long time.

The fog having lifted off of East Bay of Great Slave Lake, de Havilland DHC-2 Turbo Beaver C-FOPE collects speed with its propeller tips chalking the acceleration in vapour and heat blasting from the port exhaust pipe to head on another run north.

A Curtiss Commando (C-FAVO) undergoes engine maintenance on the ramp at Yellowknife. The testy and aging radials, combined with the North’s remote airstrips, mean that ground crews must sometimes work on repairs and other maintenance in the open air. This is not work for the faint of heart—minus 50F degree temperatures and howling Arctic winds can frustrate spirits and freeze hands and faces. Mechanics must continually check for frostbite. This day however, was early winter—a balmy day by Arctic standards.

To countries around the world facing increasingly dry summers and more devastating forest fires, the red and yellow markings of the Canadair water bomber series of aircraft have become an all too familiar sight—from California to Saskatchewan to Spain and Malaysia. Here, an early model CL.215 (C-GDHN) of the Northwest Territorial government, running pre-fire season check rides is caught on final to Runway 16 at the Yellowknife Airport. It would prove to be a busy season indeed with fires all across the west and north of Canada.

Summit Air’s C-FTFX ploughs through the cold surface of Great Slave Lake one early fall morning of 2013, while streaming gouts of hot turbine exhaust. Though she flies for Summit, she was still wearing the house colours of Arctic Sunwest Charters at the time the photo was taken.

With one leg up and hell bent for leather, Twin Otter C-FTXQ is just about finished with the water on takeoff at Great Slave Lake. She is wearing newly applied blue and white house livery of Summit Air. Having just been purchased from Arctic Sunwest Charters, Summit flew here for a while in their burgundy and white markings.

With Ahmic Air’s first operational season in the books (2014), owner and operator Stephen Jeffrey taxis “Mike–X-ray–Sierra” back to base on Back Bay, Yellowknife, Great Slave Lake. C-FMXS was built for the United States Army in 1956, serving later with the Connecticut National Guard. Following military service, it was stored at Davis-Monthan AFB, and then sold in 1976. For 15 years, it flew with the Kansas Geological Survey, then sold and imported into Canada in 1992. For more information and photos of C-FMXS and other Beavers, visit Neil Aird’s amazing and comprehensive dhc-2.com.

Thirty-five-year-old Twin Otter C-FATO of operator Air Tindi gets up to speed on East Bay, Great Slave Lake. It’s a choppy surface and her starboard propeller sucks up a wave and throws it behind.

The evening sun gleams from the flanks of First Air’s Lockheed L-100-30 Hercules C-GUSI. This “civvy” Herc was built in 1975 and has since then been owned by Northwest Territorial Airways (Canada), Safair (South Africa—original civilian operator), EAS Europe Airlines (France) and SF Air (France). Sadly, First Air, who previously owned and operated two Hercs, sold their last (C-GUSI) this year to Lynden Air Cargo of Alaska.

De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter C-FATO on a steep approach to East Bay where its operator, Air Tindi has its base of operations. Air Tindi, owned by Discovery Air, operates throughout the Northwest Territories with a large and diverse fleet of aircraft from Cessna Caravans to DHC-7 Dash-7 to the Learjet 35.

Taken during the same landing as the previous photograph, Air Tindi’s C-FATO flares for the touchdown on East Bay. The word “Tindi” means “big lake” (Great Slave Lake) in the language of the Tlinchon (also Dogrib) First Nations people.

A Royal Canadian Air Force CC-138 (DHC-6) Twin Otter touches down on the ice runway on Great Slave Lake. Four Search and Rescue “Twotters” are operated by 440 Squadron, a Yellowknife-based unit of the RCAF. The cold sunny day in Yellowknife was perfect for 440 Squadron’s family day when pilots took family members for a short sightseeing tour from the Yellowknife Airport (YZF) to the ice strip on the Back Bay. Training and community relations, all wrapped into one flight.

Long Lake lies along the north side of the Yellowknife Airport. Here, a convenient float plane ramp allows aircraft to power up and over the Frontier Trail portion of the MacKenzie Highway and onto the airport grounds for winter conversion to wheels or skis and back again in the summer. Here, Ted Duinker, the Twin Otter’s pilot, sits up high to see over the nose as he throttles up the ramp to have his floats removed, while the lake’s surface gives way under the propeller wash. A light dusting of snow signals the oncoming winter, which, in these parts, will be harsh and long. The white and black offset stripes on the propellers create a pulse-like reminder to stay clear.

This photograph of a Turbo Beaver being tied up at Yellowknife speaks volumes about the magnificent and enduring Canadian aircraft design—65 years after its first flight, two twenty-something pilots make her fast to the dock. It is very likely that the parents of these young men were not even born when the Otter took to the air for the first time on 12 December 1951.

A Summit Air Twin Otter is being hauled out of the water at the Long Lake boat ramp and towed across the MacKenzie Highway to the Yellowknife Airport where she will be converted back to a land base plane for the winter months.

An Air Tindi Twin Otter pilot, with door open, is getting ready to grease C-FATO along the dock at their float base, Old Town, Yellowknife, Great Slave Lake.

Bush flying royalty—a De Havilland DHC-3 Turbo Otter (C-FMAU) flown by Dave Crerar and belonging to the legendary Max Ward drops into a crowded bay at Yellowknife, slipping down between boats and floatplanes for the biennial Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-in. C-FMAU was built in 1956 as a radial-engine Otter and worked with the Manitoba Government Air Service for nearly 50 years. It was bought by Max Ward who chose to keep it in its original yellow and red Manitoba markings. It was converted by Vernon BC’s Kal-Air to a Texas Turbine Garrett engine in 2007.


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