Every breath the pilots exhale turns to fog in the cockpit, and Bews’s headset mic keeps freezing. He removes it and thaws it on the windshield defroster every ten minutes. On this trip the Janitrol cockpit heater is working at about 30 percent capacity, and the 250,000-BTU cabin heater must be devoted to keeping the cargo from freezing. “There’s vegetables back there,” he says. “The perishables get the heat.”
On this morning’s run, the sun rises about an hour after the 9 a.m. takeoff. The rays come in sideways, as though the heavens were tipped over. The landscape becomes painted with a palette of pastels—tributaries and sloughs braided turquoise, the snow-blanketed tundra in tones of cream. Stubby spruce trees cast light violet shadows.
The landscape around the Mackenzie and its environs is soft, worn rock. At three billion years old, some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth is found in the Northwest Territories. The area’s surface gold lured miners at the start of the 20th century, and since the 1990s diamond mines have been profitable, despite the remoteness and weather extremes.
During the six hours of mid-winter light, today’s miners, pilots, and other Arctic habitués work under peach- and salmon-colored skies. As the day goes on, the clouds coagulate into streaks of crimson and deep blue.
When arriving at remote Arctic airports, every effort must be made to preserve the heat in the engines after they shut down. At the first stop, in Deline, James Dwojak opens the cargo door even before the big airplane slides to a stop on the ice. When the airplane is at rest, he lowers an oily one-inch-thick rope attached to the doorframe and slides down to the ramp.
Hustling across snow-packed ice to the belly hatch, he grabs four insulated “doughnuts,” four-inch-thick, three-foot-diameter covers for the openings in the engine cowlings. Dwojak moves awkwardly, shoving the covers between the propeller shaft and the cowling, which he can barely reach. After stuffing quilted blankets in all four air intakes, he backs into the wind, lights a cigarette, and watches Woodbury lower a stepladder from the cargo door. Several snowmobiles towing basket sleds pull up, and the cargo is quickly thrown out the big rear door.
At the next stop, Norman Wells, named for its nearby oil fields, Bews parks as far from the terminal building as possible to avoid leaving puddles of oil where people walk. By now all four engines have left copious oil streaks along the chord of the wings. The fuel truck pulls up to top off the wing tanks. The seals on the truck’s hose connections have frozen, and fuel leaks out under the truck by the gallon. In what looks like a well-practiced move, the truck driver uses paper towels the size of tablecloths to soak up spilled fuel that hasn’t percolated into the ice. The air crewmen look on, rolling their eyes at one another.
The crew makes two more stops, first at Fort Good Hope, less than 50 miles from the Arctic Circle, and another during the return trip south, at the hamlet of Tulita. By 4:45 p.m. it is completely dark. The crew sees no lights on the ground except those of a solitary semi truck plying the ice road where it crosses the Mackenzie River above Great Bear Lake.
On the return to Yellowknife, a cowl flap on the number-four engine won’t close, causing cylinder heads to cool to the point that Bews must shut it down. At 2,500 feet the engines are running so cold that Bews again comments that the thickened oil may cause another one to fail.
“We can fly the Four home empty on two engines, no problem,” he says reassuringly and issues a quick laugh, forming a cloud of vapor that hits the windshield defroster and disappears.