By: PATRICK WHITE [Toronto Globe & Mail}
November 30, 2007
YELLOWKNIFE -- The ambience aboard Buffalo Airways' 1942 Douglas DC-3 is somewhere between Disneyland and chicken bus.
From the outside, the plane's pug nose and bulbous fins look like a cartoon come to life. Inside, stacks of frozen fish and auto parts jut into the narrow centre aisle, their odours mingling with propellor exhaust and motor oil.
A flight attendant -- or "biscuit shooter", as the position is known at Buffalo -- dressed in greasy jeans and an oversized sweatshirt passes out homemade cookies.
Rubberneckers pop their flash bulbs, capturing every dent and scrape inside a plane built to beat Hitler and Hirohito.
The regulars -- most of them northerners making the morning hop from Hay River, NWT to Yellowknife for work or for family -- have learned to tolerate day trippers. In the nearly 40 years that Buffalo Airways has been flying to all points north of 60, its antique birds have become increasingly irresistible to history buffs and aeronautical nerds.
"In the summer, we'll have three people on the tarmac taking pictures at any given time," says Mikey McBryan, head mechanic at Buffalo. "You wouldn't believe how specific their questions get. They'll want where and when a certain plane flew in Normandy. Half the time, I don't even know."
Such is the strange in-between world of Buffalo Airways: For northerners, it's a vital transportation link; for planespotters, it's a kind of working museum.
Ask aviation enthusiasts around the world and they'll rattle off specs for Buffalo's vintage fleet and its distinction as the last airline in North America to fly scheduled DC-3 passenger routes.
Search Buffalo Airways online and you'll come up with hundreds of photos and several YouTube clips of a hardworking airline whose reputation for keeping history aloft attracts aviation nuts from all over the world to the Northwest Territories.
"People like me are just in awe of these things," says Ralph Pettersen, who works for the U.S. Navy in Washington, but travelled to Buffalo's headquarters last year to gawk. "It's the smell, the sight, the rumbling engines -- everything about them is classic."
Among Buffalo's main attractions are several snub-nosed DC-3s, the revolutionary planes whose 21-seat configuration first made commercial passenger flights financially viable in the late 1930s; two Curtiss C-46s, or Whales, whose cavernous bellies hauled Allied troops and cargo over the Himalayas during the Second World War; and nearly a dozen temperamental DC-4s, which clocked a million miles a month over the Atlantic when German U-boats were posing a menace to marine convoys.
Most airlines would dub such an array of hulks a "bone yard", but here no plane is allowed to die.
Mr. Pettersen belongs to a large group of aviation fans, "propheads" to some, who revere the radial piston-driven planes that dominated the skies during the golden age of flight.
Ian Allan Travel, one of Britain's largest travel agencies, caters to these enthusiasts, setting up tours to far-flung corners of the world where vintage planes are still working: Colombia, Bulgaria, Norway, Dubai, and yes, Yellowknife.
"The first thing we do when we arrive is say 'Good Lord it's cold'," says Gerry Manning, an aviation writer who led an Ian Allan tour to Yellowknife last winter. "And then we get down to admiring the aircraft. They're remarkable and virtually factory fresh."
At least Ian Allan tours clear their arrival with Buffalo's owner, Joe McBryan, ahead of time. Some don't bother.
A few weeks ago, for instance, two German fellows showed up unannounced on the Buffalo tarmac wanting a ride in a Curtiss C-46.
"They didn't know a thing about northern Canada," says Mikey McBryan, the founder's son, "but they knew they wanted aboard a C-46. They waited around for a week and a half, but we couldn't get them aboard."
They settled on flying aboard a DC-3.
Joe McBryan -- or Buffalo Joe as he's known -- who founded the company in 1970, still flies the Hay River-Yellowknife route every morning. The company pulls in most of its revenue delivering cargo for the likes of UPS, FedEx, and Canada Post -- which mainly consists of pop, chips, and fresh food for northern towns. The mining boom hasn't hurt Buffalo's bottom line either. "Uranium especially is going crazy up north right now," the younger Mr. McBryan says. But Buffalo Joe and the airline's 80-odd employees have no problem tolerating the tourists, even swapping tall tales. One of the best-known took place a few years back when the elder Mr. McBryan was transporting a planeload of rowdy hockey players. Unable to persuade the jocks to settle down, he flew into the thinner air at 14,000 feet. Pretty soon the lugs were all knocked out, or so the story goes.
Last year, Buffalo updated the fleet with the purchase of two Lockheed Electras, four-engine long-haulers rolled out the year John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister.
The elder Mr. McBryan has good reason for running to older aircraft. For starters, well-worn DC-3s occasionally hit the market for about $150,000. He can make his original investment back in six months. A 20-year-old de Havilland Twin Otter, by comparison, can cost up to $2 million.
Old planes were also designed before the age of computer refinement. As a result, they were overengineered. Slam a DC-3 down on a gravel strip or a frozen lake and she barely shudders.
"It was still the dawn of modern air transport when they were built," Mr. Pettersen says. "So they're built like a brick shithouse."
Even bulletproof engineering and eager fliers may not keep Buffalo's older planes soaring forever. The most pressing threat is a lack of fuel. While newer commercial planes run on kerosene-based jet fuel, most of Buffalo's fleet burns avgas.
"We are the only major burner in the North as far as I know," the younger Mr. McBryan says. "They truck it to Yellowknife for us, but who knows how long that'll keep up."
Should that day come, expect an aeronautical dustup the likes of which haven't been seen since Dief scrapped the Avro Arrow. The longer Buffalo resists buying new, the stronger its status as a national treasure becomes.
"Nobody is really flying planes like they are," Mr. Pettersen says. "The new stuff all seems sterile by comparison."
Prophead hot spots
Planespotters scour every nook of the globe in search of vintage propeller-driven planes still plying the skies. Some of the choicest places in North America:
Opa-Locka, Florida. -- In the mid-1990s, Miami International Airport cleaned up its infamous Corrosion Corner, a parking lot for aging aircraft and legendary haunt of drug smugglers and gun runners. Many of the hulks now sit at Opa-Locka airport.
Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska. -- When a prop cargo plane has come to the end of its life in the Lower 48, it often ends up in Alaska, where several small operators fly DC-3s, DC-6s, and Curtiss C-46s.
Abbotsford, B.C. -- Home of a world-famous air show, the airport is also headquarters for Conair, which maintains several old water bombers and a fleet of decrepit parts planes.
Redmond, Oregon. -- A training centre for forest firefighting, this little airport holds all shapes of water-bombing planes.
Red Deer, Altberta -- Buffalo Airways parks some of its old birds here alongside bush planes servicing remote oil fields.