Return to Northwestern Ontario 2017 Part I “YQT” Thunder Bay + Norseman + 419 Squadron Updates
Last year’s field trip to Northwestern Ontario proved to be the usual fantastic experience (scroll back to find our in-depth coverage for 2012). 2017 took me back to my first adventure here away back in the summer 1961, when I flew in to the old Fort William Airport on a TCA Viscount. I’ve returned many times. For 2017 I got rolling on July 19 by stepping aboard a spiffy Porter Airlines Q400 at Toronto Billy Bishop Airport — “YTZ”. Smooth, fast and quiet, this is definitely the most enjoyable way to YQT. You start by climbing out over the sprawling GTA. Toronto Bay, the iconic Toronto Islands and the massive city skyline are right there out your window. But the city soon gives way to scenic rural Ontario as you pass Lake Simcoe on the right and head over Georgian Bay and Lake Huron ‘til you’re looking down on Sault St. Marie. Then comes the long, straight leg (pretty well 250 miles) all the way across Lake Superior to your landing at “YQT” Thunder Bay. The whole flight covers about 550 miles from YTZ.
A Guided Tour
As is usual for a bright summer’s day, YQT was busy this morning with all sorts of airplanes in their many colours. First stop was the airport manager’s office to check in for my pre-arranged airside photo tour. YQT went all out, providing a vehicle and a staff member who knew every nook and cranny. Here are a few of my photos. To see a photo full frame, click on it once.
A typical scene on descending via Porter Q400 to land at Thunder Bay on a fine summer’s day. Highlighted in this grab shot out the window is the city’s historic waterfront. Even though by now a shadow of its former self, the old industrial shoreline still has its landmark grain elevators and you also can spot the modern development. At the very top (on the horizon) I barely caught “the Sleeping Giant”.
Thunder Bay International Airport as you’ll find it– an attractive example of functional airport architecture. YQT is at the heart of a vast region sweeping across Northern Ontario from Bearskin Lake 400 miles to the north, and northeasterly 400+ miles to Moosonee. Westward it’s a straight line 370 miles to Winnipeg. From Winnipeg to Moosonee are dozens of small, mostly “air only” communities that look to Thunder Bay and Winnipeg for their daily necessities. The chief east-west carriers between Winnipeg and Toronto are Air Canada, Porter and WestJet. The main local carriers are the ever busy Bearskin, North Star Air, Perimeter, Thunder Airlines and Wasaya. YQT is an impressive operation. For 2017 it handled a record 845,000 passengers and supported about 5000 jobs. As noted by the airport authority in January 2018, “TBIAA receives no government funding for the operation of the airport. Economic activity … is responsible for an estimated $645 million dollars in GDP …” For more YQT info see http://www.thunderbayairport.com.
Porter Q400 C-FLQY at YQT with the Ornge air ambulance base as backdrop. “LQY” was delivered to Porter in April 2010. For 2018 Porter had 29 74-seat Q400s in the fleet and was operating 5/6 daily Lakehead flights. The comfortable and speedy Q400 cruises at 360 knots. In 2018 Porter opened a crew base in Thunder Bay, the first such in Northern Ontario for any major airline. To book your Porter Q400 trip, go to http://www.flyporter.com, right!
One of Westjet’s 78-seat “Encore” Q400s during a YQT turn-around on July 19. Encore’s fleet totals 43 Q400s providing regional service from BC to the East Coast. Porter concentrates on Ontario, but also flies as far east as Newfoundland and to US cities from Chicago to Boston and south into Florida.
One of the most important northern workhorses is the Swearingen/Fairchild Metro III and IV series (and predecessors). The Metro IV (also known as the Metro 23) of the late 1980s is the epitome of Ed Swearingen’s life’s work that began by tinkering with Beech Twin Bonanzas and Queen Airs at his Texas base in the 1960s. His efforts led to the Merlin light corporate twin using PT6 or Garrett turboprops. Further development resulted in the SA226 Metro series, first flown in 1969. In the 12,500-lb, 19-passenger category, the Metro steadily evolved. Of the whole Merlin/Metro series, some 700 planes were delivered until production ceased in 1998. Here’s Bearskin Metro IV C-GYTL at YQT on July 19. See http://www.bearskinairlines.com and Air Transport in Canada Vol.2 for more good Bearskin coverage.
Metro “YTL” has been retrofitted with 5-blade composite propellers. The Metro cruises at around 250 knots. It’s been a good performer on the gravel strips that typify the north. Its 1000-hp Garrett TPE331s are among the most reliable light turboprop engines in aviation history. Of all the 19-seat types over the decades, the Metro has proven itself best to the people of this vast hinterland. Sure, it’s noisy and cramped, but it’s fast, reliable, safe and makes a profit. Bearskin’s sister company, Perimeter Airlines of Winnipeg is another longtime Metro operator. Appearance of the Metro let operators in this region quickly replaced their hodgepodge of old piston-pounders from the Aztec to the DC-3.
Bearskin Metros – C-GAFQ included — undergo scheduled maintenance checks at YQT.
Bearskin/Perimeter’s 2017 route map gives an idea of the vast region served by the Lakehead’s northern air carriers.
(Below) The Confederation College YQT campus. Hundreds of young pilots have graduated from “Confed” over the decades. The 2018 fleet includes 16 Cessnas and three flight simulators.
An important part of the scenery at YQT since 2011 is Pilatus Canada/Levaero, a regional centre for PC-12 sales and service. The history of this operation dates to 1985 when bush pilot and entrepreneur Frank Kelner founded Kelner Airways at Pickle Lake. A visionary, he introduced the Cessna Caravan (first flight 1982) to Northern Ontario c1990. In 1996 his company morphed into native- owned Wasaya Airlines. After modernizing much of northern aviation with the Caravan, Kelner did the same with the PC-12, importing 105 of the Swiss-made planes between 1997-2011, many more since. More recently Kelner brought the PT6-powered Basler DC-3 to Northwestern Ontario under the North Star Air banner. In 2016 he sold his Pilatus interests to his partners, but remained to head the board. In 2017 he sold North Star to the Northwest Co. of Winnipeg for $31M. See the Kelner story in detail in Skies magazine on line January 27, 2012: New Horizons – Skies Mag https://www.skiesmag.com › news › Skies Online (Features)
One of North Star’s Basler DC-3s at YQT on July 19.
When lucky enough to have a guided tour at YQT, any fan with a camera has no trouble keeping busy for a good couple of hours. You’ll always see courier and cargo planes awaiting their next trips. Present on July 19 were First Air ATR-42 C-FIQR and FedEx resident Caravan C-FEXF. With any such planes, there usually is some interesting history. “IQR”, for example, for decades was the registration on one of Canada’s most historic DC-3s, CF-IQR. First in Canada in 1956, “IQR” served such companies as Wheeler Airlines, Nordair and Bradley Air Services. Its flying days finally ended in a 1977 crash. Today’s “IQR” also is registered to Bradley Air Services, parent company of First Air. The ATR-42 broke into the northern market especially due to its standard cargo door. This gave it a jump on the Dash 8-100, which started appearing with such operators as Perimeter in the 2010s, but without a cargo door. Recently, however, cargo doors have been retrofitted to Dash 8s, broadening their usefulness in the north.
Way out in YQT’s “Back 40” sits this old clunker of an ATR-42 that along with HS748 C-GBCY is used in training EMS personnel in emergency scenarios.
Here are a couple of other vintage planes on the YQT tiedowns on July 19: 1966 Cessna 337A C-GAMY and 1959 Cessna 175 C-FLIO.
(Above) There invariably are some interesting transients at YQT. In summer these often bring sportsmen north for some world-class fishing at the region’s famous outpost camps. On July 19 I spotted these beauties. Piper PA-46 M600 Malibu (US$3M basic new price) C-GTNO was at the Shell FBO. Waiting nearby was Citation 560 Citation N535GR (G&R Aviation) on a charter from Louisville.
Another stalwart on the YQT scene for decades is the Mitsubishi MU-2 “Rice Rocket” (first flight 1963). Once the MU-2 started reaching the hand-me- down stage in the 1980s, it found lots of work in northern Canada as a speedy air ambulance, while still doing general duties. MU-2B- 60 C-FFSS of YQT’s Thunder Airlines was sunning itself on the ramp on July 19. Parked in the bone yard around the corner was a superannuated MU-2 that probably still was useful for particular spare parts. As do so many older such planes, C-FFSS has its “history”. In one case (September 27, 1991) it almost met a brick wall. As explained on the Aviation Safety Network, that day it was on a cargo flight from Utica, NY: “During the climb, one of the four propeller blades on the No.2 engine separated from the propeller hub, damaging another propeller blade and the fuselage… The rotational unbalance was accompanied by extreme vibration and resulted in distortion and damage to the engine/cowl assembly and the wing. The upper portion of the engine cowl was deflected upward over the wing at an angle of about 30 degrees, resulting in distortion of airflow, buffeting and degradation of roll control. Due to excessive drag, maximum power was required on the No.1 engine in order to control the rate of descent and land successfully. A metallurgical examination disclosed evidence of fatigue cracking of the propeller hub arm. The NTSB determined the probable cause to be: “Fatigue cracking of the propeller hub… Aircraft repaired and returned to service.” The Rice Rocket is one tough old bird! Like the Metro, it uses the Garrett TPE331.
Also at YQT (on its last legs) on July 19 was Wasaya’s HS748 “801” C-GLTC. Originally delivered to the West German government in 1969, “LTC” came to Canada in 1986. It joined Kelner Airways in 1990, then Wasaya in 1992, where it toiled for 25 years. The end of 801 left Wasaya with just one in these historic planes on the go. The sight of “LTC” reminded me of the time a few years ago when I interested the CEO of First Air in offering a 748 to Canada’s national aviation museum. First Air agreed to fly its most historic 748 into the museum at Rockcliffe and “hand over the keys”, but in its wisdom Ottawa said “No thanks”. Soon there won’t be one 748 left flying in Canada. Will the last one go for pots and pans, or will one of Canada’s more visionary museums smarten up and grab itself a 748?
Also sitting “in the weeds” at YQT was Metro 227DC C- GSOQ, one of the famous Australian Metros vintage 1993. I heard that when Bearskin purchased several of the “Down Under” Metros, they came all the way across the vast Pacific to Thunder Bay on single-pilot ferry trips.
A Wasaya Beech 1900D and Dash 8 sit on the tarmac — but not for long. At this time Wasaya’s fleet was listed as: three 748s, four Dash 8-100s, one Dash 8-300, eight Beech 1900Ds, three Caravans and four PC-12s. The Dash 8-300 was operated for Goldcorp to rotate miners in and out of an isolated gold mine.
All day long commuter planes buzz in and out at YQT. Above is Westwind’s 1994 ATR-42 C-GLTE was on lease to North Star during a busy spell.
As a Beech 1900D, Metro or PC-12 taxis out, something new arrives at YQT from the north. Here’s a nice pair – Dash 8-100s of Wasaya and Perimeter. I flew on the latter (C-FPPW) to Sioux Lookout soon after my whirlwind YQT visit. “PPW” had spent from 1994-2010 in the US as N827EX. Note that Wasaya Dash 8 C-GJSV has the rear cargo door mod. Built in 1987, “JSV” spent is life in Canada starting with Air Ontario then finally joining Wasaya in 2016.
There are some famous names on the street signs around YQT. This one honours the great Orville J. “Porky” Weiben, a legendary Canadian aviation hero. During the war he was a test pilot for Canadian Car and Foundry at Fort William, flying Hurricane fighters and Helldiver dive bombers as they came off the Fort William production line. Weiben’s Superior Airways was the local air carrier through the 1950s-70s. On the other side of the field today is Derek Burney Drive, named in honour of Burney, whose credentials include such highlights as Canada’s ambassador to the USA and president of CAE Inc of Montreal. Naturally, there also is Kelner Drive at YQT.
Have a look next week to see where I travelled after leaving Thunder
Bay on July 19. Cheers … Larry
PS … on March 20, 2018 YQT released its current progress report. Have a look:
Thunder Bay Airport (YQT) volumes hit an all-time high by hosting 844,627 passengers in 2017. Traffic grew by 4.6 per cent over 2016 volumes. Traffic volume growth was supported by a number of positive factors. Additional capacity offered by a number of airlines into northern destinations has contributed new volume.
The early start of the winter charter season also brought new passengers to the airport. Airport volumes also benefitted significantly from the Under 18 World Baseball Championships and the rise of international student enrolment at both Lakehead University and Confederation College.
Volumes are expected to be similar in 2018 according to president and chief executive officer, Ed Schmidtke. “Special events hosted by our community will support airport volumes going forward,” he said. “The Canadian Chamber of Commerce Annual General Meeting in September consistently draws 450 delegates. The Victory Cruise ship will see 400 passengers arrange air travel components through Thunder Bay Airport.”
Passenger traffic growth has necessitated terminal building expansion. The secure departure lounge and the Customs Clearance Hall will both be expanded by the fall of this year. Speaking on the expansion, Schmidtke said: “As Thunder Bay continues to grow its reputation as a national and international destination, the airport will invest in facilities that will welcome our visitors and cost effectively support our daily operations.”
Some 2018 Norseman News
Bruce Roberts in Georgia has been doing some very serious Norseman archaeology. While hiking one day, he discovered a Norseman wreck on a Georgia mountain top. Here’s Bruce’s story. Add this to what you already know from our 2-volume Norseman history and all the follow-on material that’s arisen since on our blog. Here’s Bruce’s story:
“Hi, Larry … I came across your website while researching Noorduyn Norsemans, after finding an old crash site on a mountainside near our home in north Georgia. Thought you might be interested in seeing some of the photos. To date I have been unable to find any record of the crash, after checking online Norseman records as well as US civilian and military records. Local inquiries haven’t uncovered anything yet either.
“The site is at approximately 3760 feet in a wilderness area just south of the North Carolina state line, near Hiawassee, Georgia. We are wondering if perhaps the crash occurred on the way to or from the Augusta, Georgia location of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., which handled surplus US Army UC-64 Norsemans. But that’s just conjecture.
“We also think the aircraft may have been salvaged, since a number of large components are missing. Including the engine, engine mount, firewall, landing gear and wheels, wing struts, instrument panel, control stick, one wing, etc. Although, I don’t know how these large parts could have been salvaged, since it is very difficult to even hike to the site today, and the old 1930s logging roads never reached such steep parts of the mountains.
“I have made 3 climbs to the site so far, including my initial discovery (when I thought the fuselage was part of some old communications tower or similar) This link goes to an index page, and clicking on the pages in numerical order will take you through the exploration chronologically.” See all the details at: http://www.be-roberts.com/se/snant/nors-index.htm
419 Squadron Update: George Sweanor a.k.a. “Ye Olde Scribe” Shares Some History and Philosophy
PS … I’d like to direct you to George Sweanor’s blog. A WWII bomber navigator with 419 Sqn, George flew several operations before his crew was shot down in their Wellington. He then spent some 800 days as a POW. In February 2018 George was visited by several pilots from today’s 419 Sqn stationed at Cold Lake. If you refer to your CANAV Books library shelf, you can find some bits of George’s RCAF history in Sixty Years: The RCAF and CF Air Command 1924-1984, and Aviation in Canada: Bombing and Coastal Operations Overseas. George runs an erudite and always informative blog at www.yeoldescribe.com This is the recent news item about 419 Sqn “then and now”:
A 98-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Second World War veteran and former Prisoner of War now living in Colorado Springs, Colo., received a surprise visit Feb. 23, 2018.
George Sweanor, a retired RCAF Squadron Leader, was met by members of 419 Tactical Fighter (Training) Squadron at the Colorado Springs Airport following the unit’s training mission in El Centro, Calif.
Sweanor was one of the founding members of the squadron that stood up in 1941 in the United Kingdom as the third RCAF bomber squadron overseas.
Members of 419 Squadron talked with and listened to Sweanor for more than an hour as he reminisced about his time with the squadron and his experiences during the Second World War.
“It was an honour for us to meet such a distinguished veteran and founding member of 419 Squadron,” said Maj Ryan Kastrukoff, deputy commanding officer of the unit.
During the war, Sweanor served with the RCAF in the United Kingdom with 419 Squadron. In 1942, he was shot down and captured after multiple flights over enemy territory, spending 800 days as a Prisoner of War.
Sweanor was also involved in a daring escape from Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp in Zagan, Poland, in 1944 and acted as a security lookout during the excavation of the escape tunnel dubbed “Harry.” This event was immortalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.”
Following the war, Sweanor remained with the RCAF. Also of note, he was one member of a group that opened Cheyenne Mountain, former home to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
His last assignment was in Colorado Springs, where he retired and began teaching at Mitchell High School. He is also a founding member of 971 Royal Canadian Air Force Association Wing in Colorado Springs and regularly attends events as a special guest, along with members of the Canadian Armed Forces serving at NORAD.
As part of the visit, Squadron members presented him with a book commemorating the 75th anniversary of the squadron, a current squadron patch and a squadron patch with his name stitched into it.
Sweanor has written one book and continues to write his own blog.
The current 419 Tactical Fighter (Training) Squadron was formerly known from 1941 to 1945 as No. 419 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force.