A Brief Guide to Yellowknife’s Aviation History

The first airplanes flew over parts of the Northwest Territories in 1921. Imperial Oil used two Second World War Junkers F 13s to support the oil-staking rush at Fort Norman (now called Tulita). At times, these ‘strange birds’ were riddled with bullets. Starting in the mid-1920s, aircraft were used to deliver mail (letters, fur and general cargo), and for mineral exploration. By airplane, previously unexplored remote areas of the North could now be accessed within a few hours, instead of weeks or months by canoe and dog team. The use of airplanes for mineral exploration led to the discovery of several new deposits, and the NWT’s first mine, Eldorado Mine at Port Radium on Great Slave Lake. Most were canvas-covered, single-engine airplanes made by Fairchild, Stinson, Bellanca, Fokker, and Junkers. They’re long gone now but they’ve been immortalized on Yellowknife buildings and street names (although interestingly, there are no streets called Fokker or Junkers).

A new generation of planes was designed after the Second World War. These all-metal airplanes with enclosed cockpits were better for remote northern areas. De Havilland of Canada produced a series of short takeoff and landing ‘bush’ airplanes with unique mammal names including the Beaver, Otter, Caribou, Buffalo and Twin Otter (initially called King Otter). By far, the most popular bush plane is the Cessna 172. Most likely, if you see a small, single-engine high-wing airplane on skis or floats, it is a Cessna 172. 

The northern skies are still traveled by many converted Second World War vintage airplanes. The Beech-18 is a small, twin-engine bush plane often seen on floats on Yellowknife’s Back Bay. Larger transports include the DC-3, DC-4 and C-46 operated by Buffalo Airways. These airplanes are easy to maintain, cheap, and tough bush planes on gravel runways. More modern twin-engine airplanes include the generically named Dash-8, ATR-72, Do-228, and Skyvan, while modern four-engines are the Dash-7, Lockheed Electra, and Hercules. Many Yellowknifers will recognize the sight and sounds of the bright yellow and red Canadair Cl-215 water bomber, since these were used to help extinguish the fires at the city dump. Finally, although not technically designed as a bush plane, the Boeing 737s used by First Air and Canadian North have been modified with extra-large cargo doors and rock-chip deflectors for use on gravel runways.

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