Flying in the North

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As usual, I am having adventures faster than I can blog about them, and I can’t believe it’s the end of November! Time really does fly…

Peeking over the pilot's shoulder before take-off
Peeking over the pilot’s shoulder before take-off

I’ve been doing some traveling lately, and, since I live up north now, it’s always an adventure. I have to remind myself that most people never have the opportunity (some might say trial!) of flying on small planes with small airlines or charter companies in the North. In my lifetime, so far, I have flown from as far east as Moncton, NB to Victoria, BC in the west (with major airlines), and now I can say as far north as Norman Wells and Deline, NWT in aircraft ranging from Twin Otters, to Cessna 172’s.

Air travel in the North is unlike anywhere else in the world! The differences really struck me on the way home from Edmonton when I went down in October. In Edmonton, you check in at the airline of your flight, get your boarding pass and baggage tags, and proceed through security as usual. Everyone is familiar with this procedure — empty your pockets, put your bags in the bins and everything is x-rayed. In Canada, you have to show your boarding pass to go through security (so friends or family not traveling with you can’t continue on), although in the US, I understand that non-passengers can go right up to the gates. At least that’s how it used to be (pre-9-11). Everything is secure, all IDs are checked, and when it’s time, you walk down the passageway to the plane. You barely even see the plane as you step onto it.

Now for the Northern experience! Arriving in Yellowknife is straightforward enough, since the major air lines — First Air and Canadian North, for example — use the main terminal building. Connecting flights using air carriers other than the big players are in their own buildings on the airfield, but are quite far away. I was flying on Air Tindi (a Discovery Air company) to connect to Fort Simpson, so I caught a cab over to the Air Tindi building. I’ve been through Yellowknife four times now, and if I don’t have much luggage, I just walk. With just a back pack, it’s a nice walk! At least, I thought it was, but I realize I might be strange!

Waiting area at Air Tindi
Waiting area at Air Tindi

Once I got to Air Tindi, I just had to smile as “the Northern way” of doing things showed itself again! I had several hours before my flight, so I asked if I could leave my bags there while I go explore Yellowknife. The ticket agent (there was only one) said, “sure! Where you going? Just put the tag on it and leave it over there.” So, my stuff sat along the wall of the waiting area for the day and when I returned to check in, I just put it on the scale and we were done. No showing ID (she asked for my name), no security, no fancy-sticker-baggage-tag, no fuss!

...And there's our plane!
…And there’s our plane!

When it was time to board, the pilot, clipboard in hand, said “okay, everybody going to Fort Simpson, we’re ready.” No intercom announcements, no flight number, just the destination. :) We followed him out the door, walked to the plane, and climbed in. No numbered gates, no enclosed walkways, and I got a really good look at the plane before going up the stairs/ladder! The safety briefing consists of the pilot, sitting at the back, explaining where everything is: exits, fire extinguisher, first aid kit and survival gear. You’d better know how to put the seatbelt on, because he doesn’t go over that. In the Caravan, there is even a shoulder belt, although it’s not springy, so it can be a bit uncomfortable. As we approached Fort Simpson, I could see the runway and approach lights — by looking out the front windshield. (I couldn’t get a picture, because I didn’t want any light from my camera to disturb the pilot.) :)

Looking down at the land outside of Yellowknife, in early October
Looking down at the land outside of Yellowknife, in early October

I love flying with these small northern companies! Just last week, I made another trip, this one to Deline, a smaller community quite a bit farther North (65 12 40 N 123 26 11 W). This time, the flight out of Fort Simpson was on a Twin Otter, because there were lots of passengers. The lady checking people in for the flight is a friend of mine and after weighing all my bags (even my carry-on), she politely but point-blank asked me what I weigh! She said she had to know because they were near capacity. Awesome. I estimated.

I have never been on a flight where the pilot was standing at the door (near the ladder into the aircraft) handing out ear plugs! Oh man! I decided to take a pair and I wasn’t sorry I did. The flight itself was uneventful, although my right arm got pretty cold where it was touching the wall of the aircraft. I tried not to touch it, but the fold-down bench I was sharing with a broad-shouldered guy didn’t give me much room to work with. When we landed in YK, I transferred from Air Tindi to North Wright, a 5-minute walk, pulling luggage through a centimetre of snow along the airport’s access road. Again, I left my luggage while I went to visit a friend of mine, came back later and checked in, got a cab downtown where I found a drug store, grocery store and book store. It was a nice bit of shopping. :)

Beech 1900 (B190) at Deline (don't mind all the reflections)
Beech 1900 (B190) at Deline (don’t mind all the reflections)

At North Wright, they don’t ask what you weigh. They make you get right on up on the scale when the luggage is done. Turns out my estimate had been low by 15 lbs! It’s the skidoo boots, I’m sure. Getting on the plane was pretty similar to at Air Tindi — but this plane was bigger (a Beech 1900) and had two pilots. So, they led us out across the apron, and we climbed in, where everyone has the pleasure of both a window and an aisle seat. :)

On descent into Deline, we had all sorts of turbulence, which the pilots had warned us about. What a roller coaster ride! I’m sure even a Boeing 727 would have bounced around in that, although probably not quite as, er, suddenly. When we landed, the luggage was unloaded onto a cart that the pilots (with the help of a ground crew guy) just pulled out to the plane. When they had all the luggage, they just pulled the cart over near the airport’s chain-link fence where there was a gap for people to go through. At Air Tindi, when you arrive in Fort Simpson, they put all the bags into the back of their pick up truck and the ticket agent/ground crew/luggage handler (this is all one person) just drives it around to the parking lot where she takes them off and you just grab whatever’s yours. No fancy baggage system, no baggage carousels, minimal waiting!

This is how you get your luggage in YK (at North Wright).
This is how you get your luggage in YK (at North Wright).

So, that’s a taste of flying with small airlines in the North. You have to watch how things are unfolding and just follow along, because they assume you know how it’s going to go. There is complementary coffee, personal service, and your pilot will help you in and out of the plane. I’ll have to blog sometime about what it’s like to fly in even smaller planes with Simpson Air. :)

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Fort Simpson Traffic

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Since working in Fort Simpson, I have tried to describe what it is like. I’ve told you about the town, but now I thought I would talk about my work a little.

I am an Observer/Communicator, or, as I usually just say “I work at the CARS station.” CARS stands for Community Aerodrome Radio Station, and they are spread throughout the Northern airports. What I do is actually quite similar to my work as a Flight Service Specialist for Nav Canada. There are a few minor differences I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say, my training for FSS is serving me very well here in Fort Simpson.

And why is that, you say? Well, we have some very interesting aircraft traffic! I work at the main airport, a paved strip 6000 ft long located about 11 km southeast of the village (abbreviated YFS). Right in the village there is a second airport, a gravel strip only 3000 ft long and two charter companies operate out of it. We just refer to it as “the Island” (nothing like the movie). Then, there are the float planes which use the Mackenzie River day and night (mostly day), and a couple of helipads. I made a diagram to help you picture it all (thank you Google for the background image)!

Did I forget to mention the ferry crossing? This becomes important when the ferry is not operating (or the ice crossing is closed) because people and groceries have to be brought across by helicopters (just across the river, or back to the helipads), like this:

Add in the other helicopter traffic, mostly pipeline patrols (NW-SE) and points to the southwest, and it looks like this:

Here at the main airport, most of our aircraft go either northeast (Yellowknife), southeast (Trout Lake), southwest (Nahanni Butte, the Nahanni National Park), or northwest (Wrigley, Norman Wells) like this:

At the island, it’s pretty similar, except they hardly ever go to Yellowknife, and they often come over to pick people up at the main airport in order to fly them home (to Nahanni Butte or Trout Lake, for example, which are fly-in-only communities at this time of year). Check it out:

Floatplanes almost exclusively go to the Nahanni National Park — which I hope to go visit sometime soon! — or lakes and rivers in the mountains. Their traffic pattern is something like this:

So, can you imagine what happens when there are guys going every which way, more of less all at once? Here you go!

That’s why pilots have to make sure they make radio contact with us and keep their eyes out for other planes and helicopters. It can be quite a zoo out there! :)

As for species in the zoo, we have Cessna 172’s, Cessna 206’s on wheels and on floats, a twin otter, a beaver on floats, the usual helicopters (JetRangers, AStars), and our scheduled air carriers generally operate with Cessna Caravans, Beech 1900’s or an ATR-42. Sorry, I don’t have photos of them all, but here’s the ATR-42, which you might be the least familiar with:

Nice plane, eh? So, let me just say that I am so happy I took this job! I am having a blast, I enjoy my work every day, and when it’s not busy, I get paid to write or knit! :) The best of all worlds! In fact, I did all the Photoshop work and wrote this article while at work! Night shifts!

I wish the same for each and every one of you (ok, you might not want to write or knit… but you know what I mean). May you love what you do, find it interesting and not overly stressful, and feel like money is coming easily to you. :)