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By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 12/9/2003 9:46:15 PM ET 2003-12-10T02:46:15

Sitting in the captain’s seat, Ken Bews wags the rudder pedals and notches forward the dual throttles, trying to unstick the DC-3’s big tires from the icy ground. “Since it was about minus 18 last night,” he notes, “I might need a bit more power than I would in the summer.”

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The plane finally nudges forward toward Hay River’s small terminal, where a full load of 24 passengers wait inside to board. Its dual 1,200-h.p. engines wash frigid air across the tarmac with enough force that one of the ground crew loses his footing on the ice.

At the terminal, the crew blitzes the plane, attaching a heavy drape over the open rear door and tucking a large heater vent under it to warm the cabin. Bews and copilot Kelsey Ball catch bags and packages tossed up from the ramp, stowing them in the cargo compartments. The passengers — about half white and half aboriginal, businessmen and government workers and some families headed to the territory’s capital — hurry single-file from the terminal into the plane’s warm interior. They walk up the tailwheel plane’s steeply inclined aisle and are quickly seated in the seven rows of four seats each, two on either side. The seats are old-fashioned but comfortable, with plenty of leg room. A male flight attendant in blue coveralls helps close the door and the plane starts up. Hay River’s airport has no taxiways, so the DC-3 must taxi up the runway and come around before it begins a takeoff roll.

The loudspeaker crackles. Bews pipes up from the cockpit: “Welcome on board Buffalo Airways Flight 169, DC-3 service to Yellowknife.”

A quiet, comfortable ride 
In his early 30s, Bews is Buffalo’s director of flight operations and already a company veteran. Early in his flying career, he piloted their old planes across the northern reaches, then left to fly Dash 8s for Air Canada. That airline’s troubles sent him back north to fly the DC-3 again. While many Buffalo pilots prefer to haul cargo or maneuver a fire bomber, Bews remains mindful of the details that keep passengers coming back: a friendly greeting from the flight deck, a smooth ride on the 45-minute trip across the massive expanse of Great Slave Lake — the world’s 10th largest.

Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
The DC-3s controls show the the wear of almost 60-years of use. A bungee cord is used to keep the control yokes from moving while the plane sits on the tarmac.
The DC-3’s twin engines rumble warmly as the plane rolls forward, gaining speed and coming level as its tail gently lifts off the ground. Then the main wheels lift as the aircraft begins a shallow, almost horizontal, climb — an odd sensation for travelers accustomed to jets that quickly point their noses skyward. The town of 3,800 passes below as the plane climbs through broken clouds to 4,000 feet. Miles of overlapping ice rimming the lakeshore give way to open, liquid water that hasn’t yet frozen for the winter. Just over the edge of the clouds, the sun begins to creep from the southeastern horizon. The flight is quiet and calm, though the plain metal panels of the cabin’s curved interior and the big old engines mounted into each wing make it impossible to forget this aircraft’s long history.

“Amazing for a 60-year-old airplane,” says passenger Paul Venn, sitting in the front row. He has worked at the region’s mines and at times flown Buffalo flights every few weeks. “They just keep going, these things.”

‘No one in their wildest dreams...’
The flight attendant pours coffee and water for the drowsy passengers. In the cockpit, Bews watches Ball fly the plane, occasionally posing a question. Pilots who want to fly for Buffalo don’t simply show up, get hired and head for the skies. They’ll start out in the office or on the ground crew, nursing engines and tossing cargo, or perhaps handing out drinks to passengers and securing baggage. “You’ve got six months to a year to look at a guy,” says Jim Smith, Buffalo’s chief pilot. Then they might get to train in the DC-3 or in one of the airline’s Curtiss C-46s, which once transported Allied supplies and now carry cargo to the Northwest Territories’ many desolate corners, supplying mining camps or small villages, or helping to disassemble sites on the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line that once guarded North America in the early days of the Cold War. There is irony in that last mission, perhaps, because these same models of planes helped build those installations. “No one in their wildest dreams thought that’s what they’d use to be taking it apart 50 years later,” Smith says.

Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Copilot Kelsey Ball tightens the 'tent' around one of the plane's engines. The plane in the background is a Douglas DC-4.
Ball, 26, came north from Alberta in 2001 and spent nearly two years on the ramp before she checked out in the DC-3 and nabbed a copilot’s right seat. The big old plane is more of a challenge to fly than the newer props she trained on: Large flight surfaces require more effort on the manual controls, especially in a stiff crosswind or turbulence. And there’s far more work to be done out in the biting cold: securing the moving surfaces, checking the landing gear, fueling the engines. “I don’t think people realize exactly how much we do,” she remarks.

At the same time, the payoff is undeniable; other pilots blink twice when they meet someone who’s logged this sort of flight time. “I think it would be a crime not to stick around and say I was a captain on a DC-3,” she says.

Sharing a dream
If the cold and the desolation take their toll in winter, to say nothing of 14-hour days and six-day work weeks, the airline’s staff remains tight-knit. Crews in Hay River overnight in a staff house and cook meals together. Leading it all is Buffalo owner Joe McBryan, who only accepts employees that can share in the company dream: to keep the great old planes aloft, doing the things they were built to do so very long ago.

Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Ground crew unload cargo form the back of the DC-3 after landing in Yellowknife. The DC-3 can be quickly converted from a passenger plane to a cargo plane, or carry a combination of both.
Plenty of pilots stay at Buffalo beyond the one year required after someone wins a left seat. Many eventually move on to airlines or to other jobs flying in the wilderness. (The pilots who retrieved an ailing doctor from the South Pole in a daring 2001 rescue flight got their start at Buffalo.)

And some, like Bews, return — for a little while, at least — and once again settle into the cockpits of these flying museum pieces. The tough work ethic and long path to the flight deck is meant to force Buffalo’s pilots to appreciate the effort required on everyone’s part to keep the planes flying. “You’ll understand when you look out the window and you see the guy out there de-icing the airplane and it’s 20 below,” Bews says. It can be frustrating, he says, when pilots who trained in warmer places — and on far less demanding equipment — don’t fully appreciate the ground crews who help keep them in the air.

Evening flight out
Outside the hangar in Yellowknife, Bews and Ball are preparing their DC-3 for an evening flight. He sits, readying the flight deck while she scurries around outside, removing the thermal blankets, or tents, that protect the engines from cold shock. He reviews his checklist, hits the ignition and gestures to the crew outside as he spins up the propellers — first the right, then the left. The cockpit instruments come to life, old analog dials and switches alongside two glowing GPS units. He slowly taxis over to the terminal, settling in by two 737s.

Just a handful of passengers show up for the flight — along with a scant few pieces of cargo, a far cry from the full load that usually comes up from Hay River. Buffalo handles freight for parcel services like FedEx and UPS, and hauls anything from soup to auto glass. Tractor trailers often haul overnight up nearly 700 miles of paved highway from Edmonton to Hay River. But the pavement turns to gravel north of there that and stores like Wal-Mart prefer to fly their cargo into Yellowknife — save when the lake ice is solid and a winter road is cleared.

The external heater is tucked into the back of the plane once more. Bews throws on a parka and steps outside to walk around for a final preflight, checking the wings’ leading edges for hints of ice. He steps back inside, enjoying the rapidly warming cabin: “It’s going to be toasty pretty quick.”

Ball laughs. “That’s the thing I like best about the DC-3,” she says. “The heat.” The baggage cart arrives and she begins to stow luggage — suitcases, duffel bags, a hockey stick.

‘Very slow, very gentle'

The DC-3 picks up a strong headwind down the Yellowknife runway and lifts into the air, pulling into a leisurely climb. A salmon streak of sky, the only remaining shard of light, frames the darkened clouds. The dark ground below is covered with grey patches: hundreds of small frozen lakes that dot the tundra.

Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
A DC-3 taxis to the runway through blowing snow on its nightly run from Yellowknife to Hay River.

At 3,000 feet, the plane breaks through the clouds, skirts the tops and climbs another couple thousand feet. The two pilots level off and turn due south. In the cockpit, hands on the manual controls, their movements are cautious and deliberate as they eye the engine gauges for any flutter that might signal a problem — a sort of flying that often requires more constant attention than the Dash 8s Bews has flown. “The radial engine is almost as intricate as the human body,” he says. “You have to be very slow, very gentle.”

The flight time passes quickly. Bews quizzes Ball about their approach and she begins a slow, 100 foot-per-minute descent. Soon enough, the distant lights of Hay River appear and with 21 miles to go, they radio the controller to cancel their instrument flight plan and begin a visual approach. Bews runs through a landing checklist with Ball as she continues to fly toward the lights below. “Eleven hundred feet to descend, nine miles to go. Perfect.” He smiles. “Perfect.”

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