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Aviation in the North - Changing Roles

Aircraft Line.

Roads have penetrated northern Saskatchewan in recent decades, and the bush airplane is no longer the only means of modern transportation for many northerners.

The use of aircraft has declined for other reasons as well. The mineral exploration boom of the 1970s is over. Satellites and new technology are taking the place of aircraft with cameras in areas such as map making, mineral exploration, and renewable resource surveying. Despite these developments, aircraft continue to play a major role in northern Saskatchewan.

One role is the provision of health services. Before air transport was widely available, many people who are now treated in the hospital had to treat themselves, rely on friends or relatives to administer traditional remedies or try to get to help by an arduous journey by canoe or dog sled that might take weeks.

Today in northern Saskatchewan when someone is injured on a trapline, a child gets seriously ill, or a woman has a difficult pregnancy, airplanes carry them to a doctor or hospital. Saskatchewan's air ambulance, based in Saskatoon, transports patients from airstrips in the north to hospitals at Uranium City, Ile a la Crosse, La Ronge, Prince Albert, or Saskatoon.

The air ambulance aircraft have pressurized cabins and are equipped with many technical advances: special portable cardiac and blood pressure monitors that are not affected by vibration or pressure changes; special infusion pumps to regulate the amount of fluid or medication a patient receives regardless of altitude; and incubators for premature babies. The twin-engined air ambulance lands on wheels, and so it is restricted to those communities with runways. Since the air ambulance may be on duty elsewhere or may be located far in the south, small airplanes equipped with floats or skis are still widely used and handle many of the urgent cases.

Medical teams that accompany patients in the air ambulance are trained in airborne medicine and today know more about the effects of air travel on patients. Pressure changes have effects on patients with chest or head injuries and even on those who have cast on their arms or legs. According to Dr James Irvine, Medical Health Officer for the province's Northern Health Services Branch, air evacuation no longer means just picking a patient up and flying as quickly as possible to a hospital. "It can make a difference of life or death whether a health professional knows those differences," said Irvine. "Many times it's that first period of time that's most critical, so I think training, the technology that will stabilize patients, and getting them into a safe aircraft are all very important."

Airplanes make it possible to bring northerners to the latest medical equipment and expertise, but they also make it possible to bring medical and dental services to northern patients. Consultants and specialists make periodic visits to the northern hospitals and nursing stations in Fond du Lac, Black Lake, and Pelican Narrows. Specialists in children's medicine; ear, nose, and throat diseases; eye diseases; and in ultrasound diagnostics have flown into northern communities. Airplanes can even transport whole surgical or dental teams. For instance, at Uranium City several children needed surgery. Instead of transporting them and their mothers to Saskatoon, a medical team went to them. The families were spared the expense of travel and accommodation, and the children were surrounded by family and friends who spoke their language. And the medical specialists receive benefits as well. They see first-hand how their patients live and work.

Helicopters also play an important role in evacuating people when an airplane cannot reach them, as during freeze-up or break-up. In one major traffic accident on a northern highway, a medical team was sent to the accident scene in a Sikorski helicopter instead of having a road ambulance go back and forth retrieving accident victims. They got to the scene quickly, attended to the injured, and transported them to medical facilities.

As roads push north, one might think there would be less need for airborne medical services. But according to Irvine, there will always be a need to bring state-of-the-art medical skills and technology to the people, wherever they are situated. And, while community hospitals have more resources and expertise, highly specialized and expensive treatment will continue to be centralized, and the airplane will continue to be needed to bring the patients to treatment.

Air travel also continues to bring economic benefits to northerners. An important economic development in recent years has been the "fly-in, fly-out" program at mine sites. Before the 1970s, mining companies built a town at the mine site and brought in workers, mostly from the south. When the ore body was depleted, the community lost its sole source of income. Residents had no more work, and no one wanted to buy their houses. Local businesses shut down, and the community could no longer provide basic services.

Saskatchewan pioneered a new approach to these problems, starting at Gulf Minerals' Rabbit Lake uranium mine in the early 1970s. The company flew workers to the mine site for a one-week shift and then flew them out for a week at home. Commuting by air meant that workers would not be separated from their families and communities for long periods. The "fly-in, fly-out" system also provides much-needed employment for northerners. The economic benefits are spread across the north since workers are flown in from several communities. And when the mine shuts down, no single community pays the penalty - the economic loss is also shared.

Since the 1970s, "fly-in, fly-out" mine sites have become common-place in Saskatchewan and across Canada. The largest is Cameco's uranium mine at Key Lake. Cameco's vice president of exploration Gerry Pollock said, "No one even thinks of building a mining town any more."

Aviation has long been involved with mineral exploration work, providing a wide range of services to the industry. Rod Spooner, the owner of High Rock Contracting based in La Ronge, uses his own Cessna 180 in his exploration work and also charters Single and Twin Otters from air companies to move his camps.

The Single Otter was the main workhorse for moving camps into place when Spooner first worked in exploration in the mid-1960s. When the Twin Otters arrived in northern Saskatchewan, Spooner began chartering them. His winter camps often require two or three trips by Twin Otter. "We usually put a couple of Skidoos in, driving them up a ramp, and load in the camp gear around them," Spooner said. "The Twins are such good performers, and you don't have to worry about cold weather with those turbines."

A typical summer day in camp for Spooner consists of getting his Cessna 180 organized, doing four or five trips in the morning to get everybody in place in the bush, doing his own geological mapping or prospecting, and returning to the airplane to make four or five more trips to pick up the crews.

In winter, snow machines can be used for work close to camp, but aircraft become particularly useful when distances are greater. In the Athabasca Basin, the grid lines his crews are working on are often as much as 800 or 1,200 metres apart, and at the end of the day the crews may be 25 kilometres from camp.


An Athabaska Airways helicopter.

An Athabaska Airways helicopter carrying a net loaded with
supplies to a drill camp at Laonil Lake in 1988.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.

Mike Bird of La Ronge.

Mike Bird of La Ronge unhooking gas barrels from
a helicopter that lifted them to a drill site.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.

In winter the daylight hours are shorter, but Spooner said the time he spends with the airplane is a lot longer, especially in cold weather. He often spends over an hour each morning getting the plane warmed up before first light. His methods of warming the airplane are much the same as those tried-and-true methods used decades ago: engine tarps, catalytic heaters, blow pots, and large, propane blow torches called tiger torches. Spooner also uses a car heater, powered by a small generator, under the cowl.

Helicopters are becoming increasingly popular for exploration work. They started to appear in great numbers during the 1970s. For seven or eight years, during the resource exploration boom, mining companies "used them just like taxi cabs," according to Cameco's Gerry Pollock. The helicopters ferried mining company officials, geologists, survey crews, and others to and from remote locations.

Spooner and other exploration companies often use helicopters to reduce charter expenses. The companies truck their camp gear by road to a point close to their exploration area. From there they would usually charter a Beaver or Otter to make short hops, ferrying the gear to the site. "Now they can get a helicopter to sling the gear over to the camp in a net," Spooner said. "These small helicopters around here, the Hughes 500s and the Jet Rangers, when they don't have to have a whole lot of fuel onboard, can take about 1,000 pounds (about 450 kilograms) on the hook."

Companies also use helicopters to transport their crews. "Last winter we did quite a large job and had a helicopter in camp as well as my Cessna 180," Spooner said. "I flew workers to lakes where I could land, and the helicopter took the rest. They are taking over from fixed-wing airplanes in exploration more and more."

Aircraft have been used extensively for airborne surveys, and Spooner has noted changes in methods over the years. "The first airborne survey I was involved with was in the late sixties. They had a Beaver crammed with radiometric gear, looking for uranium. There was enough room for the pilot and navigator in the front, and the operator in the back had gear at his elbows and all over the place."

Now airborne surveys are more sophisticated and most survey companies have their own aircraft modified with booms or circular hoops to house the equipment. The instruments are getting much smaller, however, and some systems can be carried in light planes. Other equipment is towed behind an airplane or helicopter in a missile-like "bird", about 6 metres long. Whatever method is used, the pilots must maintain an altitude just above treetop level as they fly a survey in parallel lines, usually 200 metres apart. Airborne surveys are not as common as they were a few years ago. Lower base metal prices have reduced the demand for air surveys. As well, many companies are searching for gold which is not so easily detected by this equipment.

Another change that Spooner sees is the light twin-engined aircraft taking over more of the transport work from bush airplanes, now that many communities have good airstrips. Freight can be moved more quickly to the area by wheeled aircraft and ferried to the site by helicopters. However, he sees a continuing role in exploration for float and ski planes. "In the far north and at the end of the road you are always going to need the bush plane. All it takes is somebody to make a strike where there is no road and no big community nearby, and they would be busy again."

Aircraft continue to play an important part in northern Saskatchewan's tourism industry, and at some outfitters camps, their role has expanded. At Hatchet Lake Lodge in the Athabasca region, aircraft are used in all aspects of the business.

Hatchet Lake Lodge has developed over the last 15 years into one of the largest outfitting camps in the province, serving about 700 tourists during its three-and-a-half months of operation each year, and employing 50 people during peak season. The camp is not accessible by road and is designed to offer a wilderness experience with a touch of luxury. It has a restaurant and a licenced lounge, telephones, and two bathrooms with hot showers in every cabin. Camp owner George Fleming said he does not require road access to his camp because "the wilderness experience is essential for my clientele."

Originally established as a fly-in camp accessible only by floatplane, Fleming has over the years developed a 1,300-metre gravel airstrip near to the camp, which he intends to lengthen to 1,500 metres. Fleming said he built the airstrip because "wheeled aircraft has a lower per-seat cost than floatplanes, and movement of people in the most cost-efficient manner is paramount."

Fleming's guests come from across North America, especially the central United States, and today most of them fly directly from Minneapolis on Norcanair charter flights. When the airstrip was first built, guests were chartered in by DC-3, and since then DC-4, F-27, F-28, and Convair aircraft have been used. Other guests fly their own planes to the camp or arrive in corporate aircraft such as the Beech Kingair or the larger twin-engined Cessna airplanes.

Hatchet Lake Lodge also provides business to local air companies. Recently, Fleming arranged with Athabaska Airways to have a floatplane based at the lodge to fly guests to outpost camps and day-use lakes. Occasionally, guests will lease an aircraft from a northern company for their personal use during their stay at the camp. Companies such as Eagle Air Services of Wollaston Lake, La Ronge Aviation, and Westwind Aviation of Saskatoon fly guests to the camp from various centres, and Points North Freighting hauls lumber and other heavy supplies to the camp with a DC-3.


In 1977, Aero Trades' Douglas DC-3.

In 1977, Aero Trades' Douglas DC-3 was the first DC-3
to land at Hatchet Lake Lodge's new airstrip.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.

With more airstrips in the north today.

With more airstrips in the north today, there has been an increase
in the use of twin-engined aircraft on wheels, like this Cessna 310.
Photograph courtesy of Graham Guest.

Fleming's Hatchet Lake Lodge, which generates valuable business for the air companies and provides seasonal employment for many northerners, demonstrates that aviation still has a viable and flourishing role in areas of the north without road access.

Aircraft have affected other aspects of northern life. The provision of legal services is one example. For many northern communities justice comes on the wings of an airplane.

In the early days, the RCMP filled the role of judges, except for serious indictable offences when the person charged and witnesses would be flown out for trial. Starting with Judge Lussier, judges have been flown into communities in small airplanes equipped with floats in the summer or skis in winter. By 1975, the judge was accompanied by a legal aid lawyer. Now, in the 1990s, many northern communities have good airstrips, so twin-engine aircraft are increasingly used. And there are more people to carry: in addition to the judge, there is a court clerk, one or more lawyers, and a prosecutor. The RCMP transports prisoners separately.

The twin-engine aircraft have made the job easier for Judges Fafard and Moxley, who serve northern Saskatchewan. Judge Fafard explained that "things have vastly improved for us as far as the comfort of the job. We have more work to do and we still only have the two judges to do it with, but we're getting around a lot faster and we're getting home at night for the most part." The only time they do not is when they hold court in Fond du Lac or Stony Rapids, or when they have a case that stretches on for more than a day.

The judges face the same hazards as other northern passengers. They have been forced down by bad weather and had to overnight on a lake, experienced a fire in the airplane's wiring, and landing gear that did not come down. Fafard recalled one time when the airplane began to ice up. "Fortunately we were close to La Ronge. You could feel the vibrations of the plane as it was beginning to ice up. It didn't want to fly any more." The pilot managed to get the nose down and give the airplane full power. "We came into La Ronge and made a hard landing. Well, I'm the only one from that crew that ever flew another trip, and the lawyers that were on board, they went south." Since then, judges fly only in aircraft with de-icing equipment.

As roads extend further north, judges may travel by road instead of airplane. But for the immediate future, airplanes will still be used if only because they are faster: as Fafard noted, the extra cost of air travel may well be less than the extra cost of having highly paid professionals spending their working hours on the road.

Another area in which aircraft continue to play a major role is fire suppression. Over the years, the province of Saskatchewan has developed a highly efficient "air attack" system for fighting forest fires in the north, operating from a chain of bases located at Prince Albert, La Ronge, Meadow Lake, Hudson Bay, and Buffalo Narrows. The bases act as homes for the province's fire suppression aircraft, which include six Grumman Tracker fire-retardant bombers, three Canso water-bombers, and four Canadair CL-215 water-bombers.

The Trackers are initial strike aircraft which hold the fire until ground crews can get there to extinguish it. Trackers can be loaded with 3,600 litres of fire retardant at the base and be airborne in less than five minutes. Designed in the late 1950s to operate from aircraft carriers and hunt submarines, the Trackers can stay airborne for about four hours before needing refuelling. They have a cruising speed of 320 kilometres an hour and can quickly reach any fire.

A Beechcraft B-55 Baron will be "bird-dogging" over the fire when the first Tracker arrives. The bird-dog pilot acts as an air traffic controller for the area and warns the bombers of helicopters and other aircraft in the fire zone. The Baron also carries the bird-dog officer, who decides where the drops should be made and make low-level runs to check for "snags" - trees which stick up above the rest of the tree canopy - and other hazards such as hills or poor visibility caused by smoke.

The Trackers make their runs and drop their loads from 15 to 25 metres above tree-top level, with the bird-dog leading the way or following to check the drop. The long-term retardant sticks to the trees and ground, preventing the advance of the fire. Its red colour enables the bird-dog officer to check the drop, and Tracker pilots can link their drops together to form a line around the fire. After each drop, the Tracker returns to base to be reloaded with retardant.

The initial airstrike by the Trackers knocks down and holds the fire until ground crews can get there to extinguish it. Most fires can be contained in this way: the ones that get away are those which were spotted too late.


A Grumman Tracker.

A Grumman Tracker drops its retardant from close to tree-top level. The retardant
sticks to the trees and the ground and prevents the advance of the fire.
Photograph courtesy of Graham Guest.

The Cansos are twin-engined flying boats with retractable wheels which were designed in the late 1930s for wartime offshore patrols. These slower aircraft are ideal for their role in the air attack system and have been converted to carry 3,600 litre loads of water for fire-bombing.

Usually used on a spreading fire, the Canso skims the surface of a nearby lake with a probe lowered to pick up water and fill the tanks. It then makes low-level drops over the fire to damp down the flames and enables ground crews to get close enough to fight the fire. The Canso makes drops for four or five hours before returning to base to refuel.

The Canadair CL-215 was designed in the 1960s especially for water-bombing purposes, and its role on a fire is similar to that of the Canso. The CL-215 picks up 5,500 litres of water in 10 seconds as it skims a lake and, like the Canso, mixes foam with the water on the way back to the fire. The foam acts as a short-term retardant.

Flying air attack on forest fires is hard on men and machines. Pilots often work from sunrise to sunset and total over 150 days of continuous work during the fire season. Bird-dog pilot Ernie Byl said, "The planes go through an enormous amount of punishment: the heat, constant changing from full speed to very little speed, and steep turns at a 45-degree bank." Flying air attack is a high-risk job, with much low-level flying in smoky conditions and many aircraft around the fire which add to the hazards. Canso pilot George Steves said: "On a big fire, you don't know what you are going to meet up with. Smoke, poor visibility, heat, up-drafts, down-drafts - it can be rough!"

The air attack system works in close co-operation with firefighters on the ground, who work long hours in heat, smoke, and dirt to extinguish the fires. "A Canso won't put a fire out by itself," said pilot Ian Pentney. "We knock the fire down, and the ground crews put it out. But the ground crews can't put out a crowning fire by themselves, either, so we work together as a team."


Lumbering giants on the ground the Canso.

Lumbering giants on the ground, the Canso skims the surface
of a lake, picking up water to drop on the fire.
Photograph courtesy of Graham Guest.

A Canso makes its drop.

A Canso makes its drop of 3,600 litres of water on a forest fire.
Photograph courtesy of Graham Guest.

Long-time northern pilot Ray Cameron often flies floatplanes to support the firefighters on the ground. On a big fire, Twin Otters are used extensively to move men and equipment and deliver food and fuel to the ground crews. "We are right down with the men and the helicopter crews doing the groundwork, positioning equipment and people on the ground," he explained.

Cameron noted that helicopters are an essential part of fire fighting now. "They are used for positioning men on parts of the fire line that are not accessible by floatplane. Then the chopper will go all day long bucketing water and in the evening start bringing the crews back in."

Every year in the north the air suppression pilots, ground crews, and firefighters save huge areas of the north's commercial forest, as well as communities and camps, from the ravages of forest fires.

Other advances in aviation and technology are assisting the management of renewable resources. Bill Richards has seen a shift in aircraft usage over his 30-year career in northern resource management. "There has been a change from a predominance of fixed-wing aircraft to helicopters," Richards said. "Helicopters can get into places you can't land a fixed-wing aircraft when locating roads or different timber types. When doing game surveys, a helicopter can fly very slowly and make a turn in a short radius." Richards sees other developments in resource management.


Helicopters like this Sikorsky S55T.

Helicopters like this Sikorsky S55T. have become an essential part of forest fire
fighting, moving fire fighters to the fire-line and water-bombing with a bucket.
Photograph courtesy of Saskatchewan Education.

Improved aerial photography allows forestry experts to identify timber types. New photographic techniques enable fire control staff to fly over a fire at night to see the hot spots so that equipment and manpower can be applied to the right place. And as imaging technology advances, aerial photography will make it possible to monitor the movement of wildlife and improve game management.

Although much of Saskatchewan's north is now linked by roads and improved communications, aviation will continue to play a vital role in the region. Medicine and mining, resource management and recreation, and business and law are just some of the activities the airplane will continue to serve in the north.

Bush planes are still an important part of the lives of the people of northern Saskatchewan. To many, travel by airplane on skis or floats is an everyday occurrence, no more remarkable than a short car ride. Northern people still charter bush planes to fly to remote traplines to continue the lifestyles of their parents and grandparents. Others fly to their favourite fishing spots or cottages on secluded, tranquil lakes. To these people, waiting at the dock for the airplane is still a familiar part of life.

As roads push further into the remote of northern Saskatchewan, linking distant communities with each other and the south, aviation is adapting to the changing needs of the region and will continue to have an important place in the future of Saskatchewan's north.


A de Havilland Beaver.

A de Havilland Beaver ties up at a dock on a beautiful remote northern lake, a scene
repeated thousands of times through the recent history of northern Saskatchewan.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Tomney.

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"Date Modified: 2019, October 21."


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