Connecting people and places in the remote Canadian North
by Evra Taylor
In this era of lightning-fast global travel and instant connectivity, life for people living in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT), Nunavut and Yukon, takes on a very different speed – and perhaps, as a result, a very different meaning.
Northern Lights over Downtown Whitehorse (Photo: iStock)
This is a land of striking contrasts and stunning visual displays. One of the area’s most celebrated natural phenomena, the famed Aurora Borealis − commonly known as the Northern Lights − has long mesmerized sky-watchers with lights dancing in the heavens.
Welcome to the land of the Midnight Sun, where Arctic polar nights mean just three to four hours of daylight each day. Imagine waking up at 4 a.m. to the stark barrenness of a frigid winterscape, when temperatures have been known to plummet to minus 40 °C and access to the most basic supplies and services urbanites take for granted simply doesn’t exist – except by airplane.
This is where Summit Air enters the picture. The airline is a member of The Ledcor Group of construction companies. For more than 30 years, Summit Air has been providing passenger and cargo fly-in / fly-out (FIFO) services in Canada’s Aboriginal North, primarily around Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, where the company is headquartered. Chuck Depew, the Director of Flight Operations, says: “Even though the bulk of our work is based in Yellowknife, our work reaches to the far west of the Yukon, and all the way to the far east of Baffin Island. We reach the full length of Canada and as far north as Eureka and everything in between.” The airline operates in partnership with seven First Nation and Inuit companies and communities, including Summit Kitamaat Aviation, to service the several mining and resource clients as well as support for ice road work.
Depew, who is also an active pilot, explains: “What makes this job so exciting is that it’s completely unpredictable. We never know from day to day what type of request we’re going to receive. In one unusual situation, we were tasked with flying in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) personnel and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams to handle a standoff in one of the local communities.” In another recent case, a community had a power emergency when their main generators failed and Summit Air was asked to fly in electricians to Uranium City, a settlement on the shores of Lake Athabasca in northern Saskatchewan, near the NWT border. The Dornier 228 also frequently transports crews in and out of the various gold, diamond and iron ore mines in the area.
The transportation logistics these pilots face every day might seem insurmountable to the average urbanite, but they form part of the daily routine for the airline’s cadre of 50 pilots – including two females – trained in the art of flying in even the harshest climatic conditions.
Dornier 228 Summit Air, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada (Photo: Katsuhiko Tokunaga)
Winter sport ice fishing (Photo: iStock)
Summit Air Bases
In this environment, modern aviation technology ceases to exist. “Just 25 miles outside of Yellowknife, there’s no air traffic control and no one marshals you in upon landing. Our pilots have to be incredibly self-sufficient. Daily operations are a challenge in winter. There is twentyfour-hour darkness in most of the places we fly and minus 35 °C temperatures are common. The aircraft must be preheated before takeoff,” Chuck adds.
So what’s it like connecting people in Arctic Canada? From dog teams one day to mining exploration personnel the next, it’s gratifying for Summit Air pilots and support staff to know that they’re doing good by helping the isolated communities of Canada’s North bridge geographical gaps, thereby improving their quality of life.
According to Matthew McElligott, Vice President, Business Development, Summit Air, “the Dornier 228 is like the superman of Yellowknife. It is the life link for communities that would otherwise be unreachable. Dornier 228 aircraft have been the backbone of Summit Air all along. They have helped us get to where we are today. We wouldn’t be here without them.”
Deicing Summit Air`s Dornier 228 on ground