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April 2020

At the end of the road

by Yardena Malka

Imagine waking up as a pilot in northern Canada: You’re given a routine assignment, you drive to the airport terminal and – you’re locked out of the building. In a region where 36,000 islands magically create a natural paradise of ice and snow, the clocks tick differently. As a result, waiting outside for 30 minutes in a wind chill of 60 degrees below zero can be part of your normal working day. A woman who has added frostbite, patience and a large portion of pragmatism to her résumé is Maxie Plante (27), Captain for Summit Air in Yellowknife and pilot of a Dornier 228.

Yellowknife is more or less the end of the road – everything going north from there belongs to remote communities, only reachable by air. And when we talk about local aircraft, we mean rather small and rugged machines, built for landing on graveled airstrips next to simple terminal buildings. Nevertheless, in the coldest city of Canada, aircraft are an important means of transport, and the pilots who fly there are among the best in the world: the best in the sense of making fast and accurate decisions, solving problems under extreme circumstances, flying in an inhospitable environment and having the ability to evaluate dangerous situations before they occur. These are qualities that Maxie Plante seems to have been born with.

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Learning and having a good time with Capt. Jim Vissers.

Maxie was only 18 years old when she went from a vague idea of working in the field of physical therapy to the dream of being a pilot. After two years of study she quit university and jumped feet first into her passion
for flying. She struggled through nausea during her first attempts, but she hung in there, the nausea ceased, and she managed to feel fully comfortable while flying as time went by. At the same time as she was earning her pilot’s license, she became a flight attendant, giving her an important professional foothold in the aviation industry.

“After I was licensed as a pilot, I happened to have contact with a friend who was working for a charter company at Yellowknife at the time. It was so far up north, I had never even heard of it before!” Maxie recalls. This friend handed in Maxie’s résumé to Summit Air, a charter company serving mining and exploration companies, government agencies, environmental organizations, tour operators, survey parties and other aviation services in the extreme climates of remote northern Canada. They hired Maxie right away, and she moved 3,000 km north into the tundra to Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories.

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Flying Mary River shift workers home on Baffin Island in June.

Absorbing and embracing the mentality of the far north

Life in northern Canada differs in many ways from life in the rest of the country. The most obvious distinction is the choice of ransportation. Due to the very tough weather conditions, people in these areas are often dependent on air transport when they have to travel considerable distances to, from and between northern destinations. As flying is pretty much the only transport option for most in this region, a functioning passenger and freight transport system is essential: for the inhabitants and the local economy, but also – considering the number of gold and diamond mines in this part of Canada – for the economy of the entire country.

A subtler difference lies in the prevailing mentality in northern Canada: “There is something about the North,” Maxie says. “The people are so generous, everybody helps everyone else and you really never feel alone!” She goes on to explain that cars regularly break down in the extreme cold, making the scene of strangers helping out at the roadside quite typical. “You can count on somebody to help you out and that’s exactly the mentality I met at Summit Air as well,” she says. “The people I work with are really my favorite part about this company – and I, too, have taken the mentality to heart and brought it into my professional life as a pilot.”

Serenity is part of the job

Many things that Maxie is confronted with in her daily working life go beyond what can be learned in a flight simulator. She has learned on the job to deal with things like the extremely harsh, rapidly changing
weather conditions that prevail in the vicinity of the Arctic. She manages precarious ice landings in order to supply food to construction workers, who work hard to ensure that the ice roads through northern Canada remain open. She sometimes flies to Grise Fiord and lands on a 1,600-foot airstrip which only a few airplanes dare to land on. Maxie describes her attitude to these dangers as follows: “As a young pilot, you quickly have to know your abilities, learn where your limits are, restrict yourself where the two meet and do what’s safe. Trying to be a hero in any circumstance is never a good idea.”

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Standing at the 80 degrees North sign in Eureka, Nunavut.

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Calm morning flying over the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, on the way to Taltheilei Narrows, NWT.

“As a young pilot, you have to know your abilities, learn where your limits are and restrict yourself where the two meet – trying to be a hero is never a good idea.”

Whether flying cargo or passengers, carrying miners or engines worth millions of dollars, Maxie is always in a Dornier 228. “This airplane is capable of doing almost anything we do here at Summit Air – I love how robust,
versatile and responsive it is.” And it is capable of doing anything Maxie wants to do. She wasn’t interested in her company’s offer to switch to another aircraft: She enjoys the freedom and the variety of work the Dornier brings to her. The same love of a challenge is reflected in her choice of leisure activities: She plays hockey in two different leagues and has set up a training room in her basement. This room is mainly used to prepare for the Red Bull Ice Cross World Championship. Ice Cross is an extreme sport where you race down an iced track on a
walled course with sharp curves and high vertical gradients in direct competition with other riders on the same run. Needless to say, Maxie loves the adrenaline – and loves to do things her own way: “In a Dornier 228, I’m on my own in a good way. I’m fully responsible for doing my job on time and correctly. How I do it is entirely up to me. I can plan every detail of my flights directly with the first officer – and that’s exactly what suits me as a person!”

And that’s exactly the type of person you need to be when flying near the Arctic Circle: to have the ability to step outside of your comfort zone, to enjoy interacting with different cultures and to have great dedication to flying. In Maxie’s words: “You must be willing to solve different challenges every day and work hard without complaining about the little things.” Because in her eyes, the reward is absolutely worth the effort. Flying in the North is a unique experience, and pilots like Maxie have understood something very important: “Life is about the journey, not the destination. My goal is to have a job I’m passionate about until I retire – and I can recommend that to anybody!”

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Dropping off some cargo and workers on Lockhart Lake, NWT.

Maxie in action at the Red Bull Ice Cross World Championship

Watch her take gold in a breathtaking race

>> VIDEO

 

Meet Maxie after her victory in Japan

>> VIDEO

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