Frozen in Time

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

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He wears a beaver skin hat, but when he flies, he switches to a heavy wool one that doesn’t restrict his peripheral vision.

When handling freight on the ground he wears leather mitts over thinner gloves and, like the rest of the crew, packs himself into coveralls that seem to reduce normal mobility to less than half. The crewmates toddle, looking as though they are holding oranges in their armpits.

Gloves render hands unfeeling and clumsy, so in flight Bews and copilot Peter Woodbury try to go barehanded. While airborne, they wear athletic shoes rather than their felt-lined boots so they can feel the response of the rudder through the pedals.

At 6 a.m. Bews, Woodbury, and flight mechanic James Dwojak arrive to warm up the Arctic Distributor for a grocery run up the Mackenzie Valley. When the airplane was put to bed the night before, all four engines were hooked up to heaters and wrapped with quilted covers. The rest of the airplane is frigid, however, so the crew fires up two Frost Fighters: 250,000-BTU, diesel-powered space heaters with dirty yellow hoses the size of culverts that blow hot air into the cabin and cockpit. There are 600,000 BTUs of heat pouring into the DC-4, enough to warm a dozen three-bedroom homes.

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.”

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