Frozen in Time

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

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“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.”

But everyone working for Buffalo Joe acknowledges that he is the man in charge. Any employee who doesn’t measure up to the unforgiving environment—and to McBryan’s insistence on safety, heedfulness, and propriety—won’t last long at Buffalo Airways.

“Don’t take his every word as gospel,” Mikey says about his father, with a grin. “Once he told a reporter that the cockpits are so cold that his teeth ached, so he had them all pulled.”

Every human activity undertaken in the Arctic is made more difficult by the many layers of clothing required. Upon contact with the –40 degree air, exposed skin begins freezing immediately.

When Ken Bews, Buffalo’s chief pilot, prepares for a morning freight trip up the Mackenzie River, he dons heavy fleece long underwear, track pants, another fleece undershirt, a wool flight vest, another pair of wool pants, and a heavy work jacket.

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