The Sad State of Canadian Aviation in the Arctic

The Sad State of Canadian Aviation in the Arctic

Posted on September 28 by Peter Pigott
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In the Arctic aviation plays a crucial  role in the everyday lives of people.  The railroads and highways do not connect the communities as they do along the 49th parallel and the annual summer sea lift is the only access possible for bulk freight.  Aircraft are thus the local bus, taxi, ambulance and grocery truck. Air service in these areas is not discretionary or solely for vacationers and businessmen.  Simply put, it is a daily necessity and lifeline to goods and services that Canadians who live down south take for granted.

    One of the ongoing challenges that the carriers that serve the North face is a lack of aviation infrastructure.  Much of what exists was put in place in the 1950s to build the DEW Line and what went into various communities was based on the aircraft of the time - the DC-3 of  Word War II vintage.   As a result, many northern settlements still have 2,500-foot or 3,000-foot gravel air strips- ideal for DC-3s (that today only Buffalo Airways flies)  but not the Boeing 737s that Canadian North, First Air and Air Yukon use.  For unlike the neighboring state of Alaska, the Canadian Arctic has few paved runways.  Apart from their territorial capitals, the Yukon, Nunavut and Nunavik have only one paved runway each and the Northwest Territories has five.   Not only are most of the airports gravel- based but many are also relatively short, limiting the type and size of aircraft that northern carriers can use.

    The North devolved long before the south in operating its own airports- they had to. The railway lines ended at Edmonton and Churchill and the ice roads for the trucks are for much of the year unreliable.   As dependant as they are on aviation, why couldn’t the local communities raise enough capital to modernise their own airports ?  The numbers say it all.  The combined population of all three territories is 118,000 people -  the size of the city of Kingston - and this is spread over an area the size of  Europe in locations where your construction costs are greater than down south.  "So, you want to put a little more gravel on the runway to extend it?"  Executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA),Stephen Nourse explains. "Well, it's a three-year operation - you've got to mobilize the equipment, which is a sea lift or ice road operation, then you've got to mine the rock and crush it. By the time you put it on and have the equipment out, three years have passed. You can imagine what that costs - whereas down south, you just call up the local contractor and he delivers it." 

    Only the federal government has the deep pockets to build an aviation infrastructure in the Arctic. It did so before.  My book “From Far and Wide : The Complete History of Canadian Arctic Sovereignly” details the massive effort in finance, construction and manpower that went into building the DEW Line in the 1950s. Surely we can do it once more ?

 

Peter Pigott’s latest book is “Air Canada : The History.” He is currently writing one for Dundurn on aviation safety.

Peter Pigott

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
Peter Pigott photo

Peter Pigott

Peter Pigott is Canada’s foremost aviation author. Among his accomplishments are the histories of Air Canada, Trans Canada Airlines, and Canadian Airlines. He is the author of From Far and Wide, Sailing Seven Seas, Canada in Sudan and many more books. He lives in Ottawa.