Frozen in Time
Gloves? Check. Cockpit heater? Check. Engine insulator?
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
(Page 4 of 8)
After the spectacle of the start, Bews rolls out toward the taxiway. Woodbury monitors the right wingtip, which barely clears the 14-foot-tall berms of snow plowed away from the hangar apron. Bews repeatedly feathers the props as he taxis because the oil in the prop hubs is coagulated like, well, molasses in January. The pilot loudly worries about stiffened lubricants blowing seals.
“It takes extra power just to taxi when we’re this cold,” Bews says. “Another three degrees colder I wouldn’t want to do this.”
On takeoff, the icy mist in the old airplane’s wake expands like a living thing, rising from the ground, swirling and thickening, becoming a linear cloud 40 feet high along the length of the runway. “We can shut down the airport for half an hour until the fog dissipates,” Bews suggests, a hint of glee in his voice as he retracts the landing gear.
Four minutes after takeoff, when Bews has 68,000 pounds of airplane and cargo moving through the air at 2,800 feet, he throttles back to 50 percent, burning 1,600 pounds (approximately 267 gallons) of aviation gasoline per hour, fuel that is all but unavailable in the high Arctic.
The airport at Norman Wells is the last place on the Mackenzie River that still sells avgas, which can be delivered only via truck along an ice road in the winter. By late summer, stocks of the fuel are often short, and the fleet of DC-3s and -4s will be grounded due to the scarcity.
“We’re the only piston pounders left up here,” Bews says. “All the other aircraft that haul freight and passengers are turbines, and they burn Jet A or B. Like the rest of the world, we’re just hoping the fuel keeps flowing.”
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.