Frozen in Time

Gloves? Check. Cockpit heater? Check. Engine insulator?

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A Douglas DC-4 Skymaster starting at 40 below zero is a colossal event. Engines crank, whine, and cough before beginning to rumble in unison, louder than a parade of unmuffled Harleys. The exhaust from the 72 cylinders of the four Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines streams into the frigid air and immediately creates an icy fog. By the time all four engines are firing, a crystalline haze obscures the rear half of the airplane.

The distinctive roar of a DC-4 is routine in Yellowknife, Canada, headquarters of Buffalo Airways. In an average year the family-run airline, which has been flying since 1970, hauls 6,300 passengers on scheduled flights, runs 1,200 charter flights, and delivers 11.5 million pounds of freight to villages across Canada’s Northwest Territories, an area nearly twice the size of Texas. The company operates 11 DC-4s and 12 DC-3s, the largest flyable fleet of those aircraft on Earth. But what really sets this airline apart is that owner Joe McBryan and about a dozen of his pilots fly them in winter temperatures that keep lesser mortals on the ground.

Every morning McBryan flies a DC-3 load of passengers from Hay River, at the south shore of the Great Slave Lake, 140 miles north to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. The city boasts about 15,000 of the Territories’ total population of 17,000.

During January Yellowknife has only six hours of sunlight a day. The town’s residents live the rest of the time under mercury vapor lights that glow in the fog. Despite a handful of 12-story buildings, Yellowknife feels like an isolated border town.

The Northwest Territories needs an airline because its residents cannot rely on any year-round roads. Scattered in the high arctic vastness surrounding Yellowknife are dozens of Canadian Indian communities, fishing shacks, hunting lodges, and mining operations. Short runways, many unlit, provide the only link to the goods and services needed to sustain life. On McBryan’s evening flight to Hay River, a wizened Inuit woman explains: “We used to go by dogsled. Now we move through the air.”

McBryan, 61, is clean-shaven and gravelly voiced and sports a 1950s pompadour. He admits that his disposition isn’t exactly accommodating, and he deflects interviews. “There’s been too many stories about me,” he says. “Talk to the pilots and mechanics. Talk to my sons. I’ve got cat boxes to empty.” But his reverence for his fleet of airplanes, many of which are older than McBryan, gets the better of him. He can’t resist talking about them.

“Rooms full of women built these planes during the war,” says McBryan. “Rosie the Riveter built one hell of an airplane. If they made airplanes these days out of the alloys that they used back when these DC-3s and -4s were built, you could fly them well into the 21st century.”

“It is the 21st century, Dad,” his 22-year-old son Mikey chides. “Buffalo Joe,” as the elder McBryan is widely known, smiles wryly.

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.

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