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Arctic Adventure Blog

Me? Fly a Plane?

Or “Rough Company at Cape Churchill”
by Ian Thorleifson

Ian Thorleifson with polar bear cubs

Ian Thorleifson with polar bear cubs

Working with wildlife is always full of surprises. One day in November, my assignment was to meet an airplane and a pilot at Thompson airport, fly to Cape Churchill (a favourite resting place for Polar bears during their on land season), land on the beach ridge, and pick up two Wildlife Service biologists. Then we were to fly along the coast of Hudson Bay, searching for radio- collared polar bears.

Sunday at ten in the morning was the agreed time to meet at the airport, and I was there in plenty of time. The only other person around the hangar was a mechanic, working on another plane. I asked him which plane we were to fly with, and he indicated a Cessna 206 parked nearby. I walked over and checked it out, and noted a couple of unique features. The 206’s I’d seen were “tail- dragger” – two wheels under the body and one more under the back of the tail. This one was on “tricycle gear” – three wheels in a triangle configuration under the front of the fuselage with the load balanced by the weight of the engine. Every other 206 I remembered had a three blade prop – each blade being about 2 and a half feet – 80 cm – long. This one had a two blade prop instead, with three foot blades to make up the difference.  Besides, it was a “Trainer” – two equal sets of operating gear to allow the pilot to take control anytime from a person who was learning to fly. I mentioned all this to the mechanic, and he said “Doesn’t make any difference”, and I reckoned he was right.

“It’s quarter to eleven”, I remarked, “Where’s that pilot?”

“He’ll be here”, the mechanic reassured, and sure enough, in walked a sharply dressed young fellow with a city haircut and the meanest set of blood shot eyes I’d seen since earlier that morning. I don’t like the looks of this, I thought as I introduced myself. “Been bush flying long?” I asked. “Just arrived from Calgary yesterday,” he explained, “And they threw a heck of a welcome party for me last night.” Oh, great….  “You look pretty rough – you sure you’re ok to fly??” “For sure! They’ll fire me if I blow my first assignment!”

Against my better judgement, we loaded up and took off toward Gillam, me in the left front seat. I knew my way from Thompson to Cape Churchill “like the back of my hand”, so I reassured the pilot I could navigate for him without maps. That reassured him, and he visibly relaxed – so much so that in about fifteen minutes, his head was bobbing! “Hey, what are you doing?” I yelled. He snapped to attention, then said, “Man, I’m so tired – Can you fly a plane?” I protested vehemently, summarized my flying experiences from the passenger seat, then realized that we weren’t going anywhere with that.  “It’s easy now we’re in the air” my sad specimen of a pilot reassured me – just do this and this and I’ll just have a quick nap.

He was mostly right – Weather was calm, only a few controls to manipulate. The challenge was navigating. I didn’t have the confidence to fly AND look at a map, but, no problem, I could navigate to the Cape from my own memory of the terrain. But – I had to be able to see the ground! We left Thompson with a complete overcast sky and a 3000 foot ceiling. As I flew NE, the ceiling kept dropping. So did I.  By the time sad sack started stirring, we were at 300 feet and getting close to the Cape. He stretched, glanced out the window and LEAPED towards the controls! “What the … are you doing so low?!” I explained, and he settled down. I then described the terrain at the Cape – open gravel beach ridges, one that led to a tower where the researchers were. We would carefully land on the ridge, taxi to the tower, pick them up and go.

206 cockpit with trainer gear

206 cockpit with trainer gear

He surprised me with his very good landing! Because of our tricycle landing gear, he landed “nose up” then slowly lowered the front until all three wheels were rolling along the ridge – rolling right into a polar bear day bed!  Only about eight inches deep, but just deep enough to make our extra-long blades on the propeller contact the gravel. “Praaang” was the sound, and the plane started to vibrate. We were almost right at the tower, so he quickly shut off the engine. We got out to look, and our biologist buddies came down from the tower. No question – we were not flying anywhere with those twisted and broken blades!

In keeping with the “no problems” attitude, the tower crew invited us up for a meal of spaghetti and red wine, and talk things over. Great supper, but a quick look at the tower did not reveal anywhere for two more people to sleep except in layers. Not the best way to get along. I suggested “That plane is big enough – we’ll pull out the seats and Good Luck the Pilot and I will sleep in there – Any bears around?” The biologists informed me that just before we landed, they had scanned all the way around and counted 43 big male polar bears! Pilot’s eyes got very big – but I said “No Problem – I’ve got scare pistols and heavy rifles and shotguns – They’ll never take us alive!” He was not reassured, but really had little choice.

We climbed down to the plane, removed the seats and stored them safely, laid out our sleeping bags and snuggled in with all but our outer parka and boots on. It was comfortable enough, and I was asleep quickly – but not for long. Pilot had me by the shoulder and shaking, hissing through his teeth “Ian there’s a bear at the window right beside you” and sure enough, I looked up and could see a big black nose pressed up against the Plexiglas, five feet up off the ground. No problem – I just waited until he pulled his nose back, opened the door and bumped his nose, then fired a “cracker shell” onto the ground in front of him – BOOM! FLASH! and away he ran. That happened eight times that night. They pounded on the tail of the plane, pulled the insulating engine cover off, banged on the windows. I chased them away each time, but my eyes were sore from the Flashes, my ears were dull from the Booms. I got very little sleep. Pilot got none.

In the morning, we climbed back up into the tower for coffee. The biologists had radioed to town, and soon two rescue planes appeared! Pilot just about leaped right out of the tower. We flew away with one plane and a regular pilot to do our radio collar surveys. The mechanics put another propeller on the plane, and, incredibly, they flew it to town without it falling out of the sky – but it did have a cracked crankshaft when they took it apart, and that could have come apart at any time in the air…

And, you know, I never did see or hear from that Pilot again!

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