Northern Exposure…part two

Buffalo AirwaysSomeone once described flying as; “…hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror”.

…Obviously they had never flown with Buffalo Airways!

In a region where roads are rarer than rocking horse shit, bush pilots have achieved something of a legendary status in the wilds of northern Canada. In Yellowknife, the ‘Ice Pilots’ of Buffalo Airways continue a pioneering tradition that can trace its roots back to the years following the end of the First World War. Started by the legendary Joe McBryan (‘Buffalo Joe’) in 1970, the distinctive livery of Buffalo Airways has been blazing a trail across the skies of the Canadian Arctic for over four decades, delivering supplies and equipment to remote Arctic communities, in conditions that many of us wouldn’t even take a dog out in. What makes their performance even more remarkable is the fact that they ply much of their trade aboard aircraft that saw their heyday above the beaches of Normandy in 1944.


Phil and I had gone to Buffalo Airways with no real expectations of anything but a cursory look around the place and maybe a couple of shots of the planes. Phil really wanted to get a shot of Joe himself, but we had already resigned ourselves to that being a non-starter. However, we had failed to take into account the YK-factor…where all things are possible! Not only did we get our shots of the planes…and of Joe, but we got the full tour and a flight down to Hay River on a 70 year old Dakota DC3 into the bargain. I reckon if we had hung around any longer we could have found ourselves on the payroll!

We got the full tour from Scott Blue; not only the coolest named pilot in Canada, but also the tallest! Scott flies the C-46 ‘Commando’ transport planes and the CL-215s…mainly because he can’t fit into the DC3s! Seriously, the man is too tall to fit in the cockpit. Scott would need to be sat somewhere in economy to stand any chance of getting a DC3 off the ground. He did prove a great tour guide though and took us through the hangar, the workshop and practically every plane in the fleet. In fact, the only place we weren’t allowed was the runway! They say that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. Believe me, toys don’t come much better than a fully working Douglas Dakota or a CL-215 water bomber!…I think it took me and Phil about 15 seconds to decide to fly down to Hay River!


The 45 minute flight takes you across the vast expanse of the Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America and the ninth largest in the world. I very rarely get excited about flying these days, but somehow, the thought of making the journey in a plane whose historical antecedents included every major airborne operation of World War II had me fidgeting in anticipation. This was proper flying. The plane was so old that even mobile phones couldn’t interfere with its navigational instrumentation. Hell, I’m not even sure it had navigational instrumentation! I felt that I should be wearing a fedora, or at the very least a parachute. I loved it, especially when about 20 minutes into the flight ‘Buffalo Joe’ himself wandered out of the cockpit and asked if we wanted to go up front.

IMG_1941…I beat Phil through the door and was sat in the pilot’s seat before he had even picked up his camera!

IMG_1943We spent the night at Hay River, staying with Peter Magill and his lovely wife, Dian. We had never even met Peter until two days previously, when we wandered blindly into his office at Buffalo Airways looking for help and inspiration. But, in the true spirit of the north, he and Dian had invited us to stay with them. How little they knew. They were probably both still regretting it the next morning when we all awoke at 5.30am, suffering from the effects of too much wine and an excess of monosodium glutamate! Peter takes the flight between Yellowknife and Hay River to work every day, winter and summer. I suppose it does help that your office is next to the runway, but even so, his commute is shorter than many who have to endure the daily grind of rush-hour.

…And, personally speaking, give me a septuagenarian aircraft over the London Underground any day.

IMG_1935With thanks to: Scott Blue, Peter & Dian Magill, Mikey McBryan and, of course, the inimitable, ‘Buffalo Joe’ himself.

  1. Reg May said:

    The Oxford dictionary should describe Buffalo Airways and staff as Hospitality personified >>

  2. Gail Taplin said:

    The truth is Trev, you just YEARN for a 9 to 5 weekdays job where you can sit on your arse all day with your feet under the table…….dont you!!!!

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