Designed for duty in the toughest conditions
by Matthew Beattie
The late founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, once famously said, “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.” Great design not only fulfils a function, it also anticipates the needs of users – and it fits in seamlessly with its environment. But what if that environment is one of the least hospitable regions on earth?
The combined passenger and cargo doors of the Dornier 228 provide easy access to the load area. The cabin can be adapted quickly and easily to accommodate passengers and cargo – or a combination of both.
The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard lies some 1,260 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and 966 kilometers from the North Pole. For Lufttransport AS, operating passenger and cargo flights within such a remote region presents some unique challenges and demands the utmost flexibility from crew and aircraft alike. Situated around 800 kilometers north of mainland Norway, between the Barents Sea and the Greenland Sea, Svalbard is incredibly remote. There are just five permanent settlements, of which Longyearbyen is the largest with a population of around 2,100. Road and rail links are nonexistent. Everything that comes in must either be transported by air or sea. Lufttransport AS has been keeping these communities – as well as research groups and shipping in the region – connected with the outside world and supplied with essentials since 1976. The company has been flying Dornier 228 aircraft for more than twenty years. For them, the design and flexibility of the Dornier makes it the ideal machine for their operation.
Tom-Are Stølsdokken is Lufttransport’s Base Commander and a pilot for the Dornier. He has been flying for the company for ten years. “The main advantage of the Dornier is its ability to operate up here,” he says. “Runways are short and unprepared. Then there’s the operational reliability, which is excellent.”
Flexibility and teamwork
However, one of the most important factors for the crew is the flexibility of the aircraft’s design. They fly both cargo and passengers – often in combination. “It is very important that we can adapt the cabin quickly,” Stølsdokken explains. “With the Dornier it is a very quick fix to change the configuration.” At his home base in Longyearbyen, Stølsdokken is part of a threeman Dornier crew, comprising two pilots and a technician. It is normally the role of the technician to fit and remove seats from the aircraft; however, with pilots flying anything between two and eight operations a day, reconfiguring the cabin is often a team effort to save time, “I would say it takes us a maximum of 20 minutes if we all help each other – which we usually do,” says Stølsdokken. “The technician normally removes and installs the seats, while we pilots help him by loading them onto the aircraft.” In the case of combined cargo and passenger operations, the crew can remove just a few seats, while the rectangular design of the Dornier fuselage allows them to stack cargo and make maximum use of the 14.7 m3 of cabin space and 2.6 m3 baggage compartment.
Stølsdokken and his fellow pilot don’t just play a handson role with cabin reconfiguration, “We need to be team players up here,” he says. “Here, we don’t just fly as pilots. We have a lot to do with our passengers and
sometimes do check-in. We also load the aircraft with cargo, carry out controls, tow the aircraft in and out of hangar, and take care of refueling – we do pretty much everything.”
Dogs might fly
Just as there is no such thing as a typical day for the crew in Longyearbyen, there is no such thing as a typical cargo. The company transports food, equipment and spare parts – everything the remote communities of Svalbard might need. Some of the cargo is even of the four-legged variety; “Dogs are very popular in the arctic, so we frequently fly with stacks of dog crates strapped into the cabin.” One of the regular destinations for Stølsdokken and his colleagues is the research community of Ny Ålesund, in the north of Spitsbergen, “We also fly a lot of research equipment and supplies for the mission up there,” he adds.
Hitting the target
Besides transporting cargo and passengers between Svalbard’s three airports, Stølsdokken and his colleagues are also often called upon to fly ad hoc operations. These can range from airdrops to surveillance work at sea – the waters around Svalbard are popular fishing grounds for trawlers. For both types of operation, the Dornier’s maneuverability, together with its capabilities at low speeds and low altitudes are significant advantages. Landing consignments of supplies in their designated drop zones is an exercise in precision – and teamwork between pilots and an onboard technical specialist. Here too, the flexible design of the Dornier is a significant asset. Airdropping is made possible because one of the Dorniers they operate is adapted to accommodate a roller door that can be opened in flight. The roller door is quickly fitted in place of the large combined passenger and doors at the rear of the cabin, providing a generous 1.34 m by 1.28 m opening through which cargo crates can be easily maneuvered and pushed from the aircraft midflight. It is the role of the onboard technician to operate the roller door and coordinate drop positioning with the pilot. Airdropping is often the only way of getting vital supplies where they are needed – such as to ships or remote research stations.
A changing climate
You might expect that operating so close to the North Pole, it would be the cold that presents the biggest challenge to operations; however, Stølsdokken insists that this is not the case. “The climate here in the arctic is changing,” he says. “Previously, winters up here were very cold, but in recent years temperatures have become much higher. We are getting more of the same winter climate that they have on the Norwegian mainland, with snow showers and quite high temperatures. What stops us are low visibility and low ceilings due to clouds or precipitation.”
The Arctic landscape, as seen from the cabin of one of Lufttransport’s two Dornier 228 aircraft. Such an unforgiving environment demands highly skilled pilots and the utmost reliability from the aircraft.
Climate change and a reduction in sea ice are also having another effect on the islands. With their traditional hunting grounds diminishing, Svalbard’s polar bear population is becoming an increasingly present risk to human
residents. “The airport authorities are quite good at keeping polar bears away from the airport,” says Stølsdokken. “During surveillance missions, we always carry a gun on board in case we have to ditch the aircraft on the sea or the ice. Then, of course, you need some protection.”
No ordinary location
From November 14th every year, Svalbard is shrouded in perpetual darkness; daylight does not return again until January 21st; between April 20th and August 23rd, the sun never drops below the horizon. Although last January and February were unseasonably warm, winter temperatures generally average minus sixteen degrees centigrade; in summer the mercury rarely rises into double figures, yet for Stølsdokken, Svalbard is a truly special place – remote, but stunning. “In March or April, when the sun returns, we enjoy some beautiful scenery. The landscape is totally snow covered; we might see some wildlife; it is really great.”
Lufttransport pilots and ground crew work as a team to prepare the Dornier 228 for its next flight. The STOL capabilities of the aircraft make it ideal for the short, unsurfaced runways of Svalbard.