Frozen in Time
Gloves? Check. Cockpit heater? Check. Engine insulator?
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
(Page 2 of 8)
Cost versus benefit, the heartless equation that sidelines old equipment, is calculated differently at McBryan’s airline. “None of our freight haulers are less than 60 years old,” Mikey boasts. “We also own the last DC-4 built.”
But the pride of the fleet is the Arctic Distributor, a 61-year-old DC-4 that has spent nearly 70,000 hours in the air. Built in 1944, the old Skymaster served in the Berlin Airlift before becoming American Airlines’ flagship. Qantas owned it for a few years, dubbing it the Pacific Trader, then Malayan Airlines flew it, after which it ended up in Latin America.
“She’s the highest-hour DC-4 ever,” Mikey says, an articulate teddy bear of a man who manages charter flights for the airline. “Which means she’s probably the highest-hour plane in history.”
The airplane now hauls heavy loads into short landing strips, a task that uniquely suits the DC-4.
When Joe acquired the airplane, he named it after the steam-powered stern wheeler on which his father, Red McBryan, worked as a teenager. The riverboat Arctic Distributor delivered goods to communities along the Mackenzie River and Arctic coastal villages during the five to six weeks in the summer when the river was ice-free. Today, the Buffalo Airways DC-4 puddle-jumps the same river route to the same settlements that Red’s steamboat visited 70 years ago, when fuel was cordwood.
Around Yellowknife’s snow-whipped airport, the thick fog partially obscures the collection of hangars big enough to house 737s. Inside the biggest hangar in the Northwest Territories, Joe McBryan prowls around his airplanes in a beaver skin hat and arctic coveralls. He seems overdressed. It’s warm enough in the hangar to paint, which a couple of his pilots are doing, layering the Buffalo Airways aquamarine livery on a welding cart.
When Buffalo Airways pilots aren’t flying, they sweep, mop, answer phones, clean parts, paint, load freight, and generally do Joe’s bidding. Suddenly a bell begins ringing and the four-story-high doors open slowly as a mechanic in a “mule” starts pushing the Arctic Distributor, registration C-GPSH, out the door. It’s 10:00 a.m., and the air temperature is -41 degrees Fahrenheit. Within three minutes the hangar is the same temperature as the wild white yonder, and within another minute another DC-4 has been tugged inside the hangar. The great doors rumble closed as soon as the 117-foot wings clear, and a couple of 20-ton airplanes have swapped places at a cost in lost heat, according to Joe, of a thousand Canadian dollars.
The extreme temperatures shape every decision made at Buffalo Airways. “Companies reflect the personality of the boss,” McBryan says. “The boss up here is the weather.”