Flying into History


In 1937 Amelia Earhart flew into history, disappearing in the Pacific during an attempted solo flight around the world. While I have no desire to emulate her, I am, as I write these words, flying in history. Making my way from Hay River to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories I am currently aboard a DC-3, one of the stars of the reality show, Ice Pilots.

The last DC-3 was built in 1953; the one I’m flying, I’m told, was built in 1942, making it older than the Senator I work for. The plane is unpressurized so it doesn’t fly high, affording a good view of the scenery below. Not that there is a lot to see as we make our way over the frozen expanse of Great Slave Lake. Still, it is high enough to make your ears pop.

Other than that it’s a pretty smooth ride. The bench seats are comfy if you don’t have to share and there is more leg room than business class in most southern airlines. The pilots/flight attendants/baggage handlers (yes they do all the jobs) are friendly and we get a snack and a drink in the forty five minute flight. BTW, the jet I took down on Thursday took only 22 minutes but the ticket cost twice as much so there is a kind of justice there. Besides we left 12 minutes early – once all the passengers showed up, there was no reason to wait around.

This is not my first flight on a DC-3. I flew them a number of times back in the 80s when we both were a lot younger. I’ve also flown them in Mexico. While I think Buffalo Air is the only airline in Canada that still carries passengers on these planes, they remain workhorses in much of Africa and Latin America.

The reason is simple. They are not terribly sophisticated machines with little in the way of electronic or even hydraulic parts; the tail flap is controlled by a wire, clearly visible over the top of the plane. When you board, you walk up hill to your seat – because the plane is designed to have the least stress on the wheels and body. Only in flight does the body level off somewhat.

The engines too are a very basic design, meant for reliability rather than speed. I already mentioned the longer time for the flight today but things could be even slower if there was a headwind. Once, when I was flying from Yellowknife to Rankin Inlet (a very long flight for a DC-3) we passed a herd of caribou running beneath us. Well, we sort of passed them. There was a strong headwind and for a while the caribou kept pace with the plane. That was a slow flight – but also one of the roughest I’ve ever been in. I managed to keep down my breakfast – but I can’t say the same for the person sitting next to me.

Still, I’m not worried. This plane can land safely almost anywhere that is reasonably flat and we’re flying over ice most of the way. So even if something goes wrong, we should be able to set down okay. What happens after though – well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I still have some history to make.

And that’s ten minutes.

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