Frozen in Time

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

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At the end of the eight-hour, 1,030-mile Mackenzie Valley flight, suffering through deliveries of 12 tons of cargo in and out of four airports at sub-zero temperatures, Arctic Distributor needs maintenance. In the number-three engine, which used 10 gallons of oil in the first half-hour of flight, a breather line froze, then thawed, reducing the engine’s consumption to an acceptable 2.5 gallons of oil per hour.

But the generator on that engine is not working either. And the number-two engine’s left-hand magneto is not delivering enough spark to the plugs—not “getting the juice to the engine,” Bews notes.

The fuel nozzle on the Janitrol that heats the cockpit has been running at about 30 percent capacity all day, and the pilots and mechanic are chilled through. They spend the next half-hour—in a wind chill of 66 below zero—putting the Arctic Distributor to bed after its long day of labor.

In 1980 Joe McBryan went bankrupt, as did most of the Northwest Territories’ mining operations he served. “If you weren’t broke in those days, you hadn’t been trying very hard,” he quips.

He sold a fleet of helicopters and turbine and piston airliners, holding on to one DC-3 so he could start again. As diamond discoveries in the region began to add up, he was able to re-form a fleet of old piston-engine airplanes. Most operators moved to turbines, but McBryan stayed with what he knew and loved.

Today he runs a thriving business with his family. His 33-year-old son Rod, a slim man with a quick mind, is Buffalo’s maintenance director.

One reason McBryan was able to rebuild his fleet is that Rod knew what to look for at auctions. “I can spend a day at an auction, look at a dozen planes and pick out the best one,” he says.

There are certain flaws that predictably accrue in the old airplanes, but not everyone can see them. Given a couple of hours, Rod says that he can survey any DC-3 or DC-4 and know within a few dollars what it will take to get it flying again.

Keeping a fleet of 60-year-old airplanes flying requires a huge parts inventory. Joe McBryan could measure his cache of DC-3 and -4 parts in acres. He’s been building his inventory for 30 years, to the point that he’s had to rent several hangars in order to house it. With this accumulation of parts, McBryan would rather pay mechanics than buy new airplanes.

A few years ago Joe McBryan sent his brother, Ronnie, and mechanics Roald Sorenson and Cliff Dyson to an Aero Union airplane graveyard in California to bring back three DC-3s. Ronnie McBryan, 44, is a handsome, hefty mechanic with a reserved personality.

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