A Day Aboard an Air North Hawker Siddeley HS748 August 2006 by Henry Tenby
Although built in substantial numbers and remaining in service in various remote corners of the world, the Hawker Siddeley 748 is getting scarcer. In August, 2006, I was fortunate enough to spend a day plying the Air North network from Whitehorse aboard one of their three examples of this classic British airliner. And here is my story.
Air North of Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory, operates three Hawker Siddeley HS748s on their Northern scheduled flights. The type’s success in Canada is owed to the fact that there is no replacement for a 748, other than a 748. Quite simply put, the rugged 748s do a job that no other aeroplane can match. They safely operate from grass, gravel or dirt airstrips in extreme weather conditions, can easily rotate between passenger and freight duties, and the aircraft is an extremely easy aeroplane to fly, as well as a steady money maker for her owners.
Rugged DC-3 replacement
Air North acquired their first two 748s (C-FYDU and C-FYDY) from New Zealand’s Mount Cook Airlines in 1996, where they had spent their previous years flying passengers to the Mount Cook airstrip. Air North acquired the two 748s to replace the DC-3s that had been the company’s workhorses pretty much since the company’s founding by Joe Sparling and Tom “Ace” Wood in 1977.
The DC-3s served the company well, but the airline’s operation had outgrown the DC-3s, and none other than the HS748 was deemed the perfect replacement. Air North was so pleased with their first two 748s, that a third 748 was acquired two years later in 1998, in the form of C-FAGI, a Canadian 748 veteran having previously served in Manitoba and Quebec with other operators.
Designed by Avro (which later became Hawker Siddeley), the HS748 boasts a two-wheel nose gear, and unlike its main competitor the F27 which only has a one-wheel nose gear, the 748 with its equally rugged main gear, was purpose designed by Avro to meet an RAF requirement that the aircraft could safely operate with a 12,000 pound payload, from muddy, bumpy, non-paved strips, as typical of the English country side in winter.
This was exactly the same requirement Air North needed to satisfy in providing safe, reliable and profitable air service to Old Crow, an isolated Aboriginal community situated 800 kms North of Whitehorse. The village of Old Crow is the most northern community in Canada’s Yukon, and is located at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine rivers, and today, is the home of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, which numbers 300 people. Old Crow has a short gravel airstrip, and everything must be flown into the community, as there is no road. Many other northern Canadian and Yukon airstrips are unpaved, and the HS748 is perfect for serving these destinations.
Very few Northern Canadian communities are large enough to support schedule air service in their own right, specially with a large aircraft like the HS748. Therefore the communities have to be linked together by a milk-run service, and Air North’s impeccable 748s do just that. During winter months, the fleet of 748s maintain Air North’s Monday through Friday Whitehorse-Dawson City-Old Crow-Inuvik-Old Crow-Dawson City-Whitehorse schedule, which involves approximately 6.5 hours of flying time and 8 hours traveling time for the round trip. During the summer tourist season, the schedule is modified with twice weekly service to Fairbanks, Alaska (replacing two of Inuvik services).
On August 17, 2006, I had the opportunity to sample a full day on Air North’s HS748 C-FYDU on that day’s schedule to Fairbanks. The flight crew consisted of Captain Darnell Kiriak, First Officer Cory Hermansson, and flight attendant Edith Thompson. Our first leg of the day was to Dawson City, and as typical for late summer, morning fog had formed in the Dawson City valley. With safety being the paramount concern, Captain Kiriak decided to wait for the fog to clear at Dawson City before departing Whitehorse.
As such, our 0800 am departure was delayed until 0930, allowing relaxed time to have an extended breakfast in the airport coffee shop overlooking the apron and runway. The waiting small group of passengers met Edith at the security check point at 0930, and a few minutes later we were all escorted out on the apron towards our loaded and patiently waiting 748. For simplicity, Air North’s 748 flights are all open seating, so on this sector I chose the port side window seat about four rows up from the back, abeam the trailing edge of the wing, which also afforded a nice view the engine and spinning props.
Rugged DC-3 replacement
In short order we had all taken our seats and secured our seat belts, the rear steps had been retracted and rear door closed. I could hear the forward freight door thunking shut, and in no time, we were starting engines. Edith was making her pre-departure safety demonstration to the background song of two Rolls Royce Dart engines coming to full life. The first two or three rows of seats were blocked off as they were loaded with seat packs containing cargo destined for Old Crow.
We quickly taxied to the north end of the airport under clear but cloudy skies for a departure on runway 13R, and at 0945, we were positioned at the end of the runway, and throttles were slowly advanced to take-off power. As the Rolls Royce Dart engines approach full take-off power, their high pitched song is transformed into a whommm. whommmm .. whommmm sound. We were probably loaded close to max take-off weight, weighted down with cargo, but we still leapt to the air after what seemed a rather short take-off roll, specially when compared to flying on jets.
Soon after take-off, we did a full 180 degree turn around to the east of the airfield and were heading northwest passing abeam the airport and downtown Whitehorse at about 5000 feet, in a gentle climb to cruise altitude. We more or less paralleled the Yukon River and the Klondike Highway (Yukon Route 2) from Whitehorse all the way to Dawson City, with the road and river both visible through the cloud breaks below.
About fifteen minutes after take-off, Edith served the passengers a drink and small bun as a snack, and in what seemed like no time, we were descending and circling the Dawson City airport in preparation for landing. We touched down at 11:07 am with a wheels-to-wheels flight time of 82 minutes.
As the rear door opened and the steps unfolded down to the apron, our flight was met by Air North’s local station manager. During our thirty minute ground stop, a few passengers deplaned and a few got on, while the pilots unloaded some of our cargo and then did their pre-flight walk around and engine oil checks.
Some passengers got off the plane to stretch their legs and investigate Dawson’s cozy little terminal building. The airport is situated right on the Klondike Highway so cars are zipping past on the other side of the airport fence. Edith was soon escorting the passengers and the few who joined us back onto the aircraft. In no time we were all fastened in, and this time I selected a port side window seat a few rows forward closer to the prop. Engines were started and we were on our way to the end of the runway for our departure to Old Crow.
Flock of Geese Causes Aborted Take-Off
Engines were advanced to take-off power and we commenced our take-off roll. About five seconds into the roll, power was abruptly cut and the take-off was aborted, although there was no heavy use of the wheel breaks. Captain Kiriak immediately announced over the PA that we had to wait for a flock of Canadian geese to clear the airfield, as they had abruptly headed towards the runway, which is not uncommon in the North! So we taxied down to the other end of the runway, and as the wind was calm, we simply waited a few moments for the Geese to vacate the area, and we were once again throttles up for take-off and airborne for Old Crow at 11:38 am.
Our very pleasant flight attendant Edith again came through the cabin offering drinks and snacks as we plied our way across the dark green forest, lakes, and rolling mountains below. Peering through the 748’s large oval windows from 20,000 feet, one can’t help but marvel at the vast emptiness of Canada’s thousands of square miles of uninhabited hinterlands.
Not being able to see any sign of mankind for as far as the eye can see, it is easy to debate the hypothesis in one’s mind that the planet is becoming over crowded. Certainly not in these parts was my conclusion! With the pleasing hum of the eagerly working Rolls Royce engines filling the cabin, several passengers (including myself) indulged in a short nap in preparation for the remainder of the day.
After a very enjoyable 68 minutes in the air we were landing on Old Crow’s gravel airstrip, which is situated immediately adjacent to the Old Crow township.
The longest road in the area is the road that connect the airport and the town, a distance of about 2000 feet! A crew of men, a pick-up truck, and a loader were waiting for the 748’s arrival as we taxied into the parking area in front of Old Crow’s new, rustic terminal building. Once again, some passengers got off to stretch their legs, but there was much work to do in a short order of time.
The bulk of our cargo out of Whitehorse was destined for Old Crow, so the forward freight hold had to be unloaded, as did the remaining seat packs. I could see that even with the waiting help, there was much work to be done, so the crew kindly accepted my offer to help with the unloading of the seat packs. A three-person human chain was formed between the cabin area where I was unloading the seat packs (which on this flight primarily consisted of heavy packs of canned soft drinks) and the forward cargo door. This allowed Captain Kiriak to start his walk around and prep the aircraft for the next leg of our journey.
Once the forward cargo hold was empty, and the cabin was emptied of the seat pack cargo, Edith went back to the terminal building to collect the passengers. Quite a few passengers joined the flight at Old Crow for the onward sector to Fairbanks, although some of the passengers were actually destined for Whitehorse (and onward to Vancouver) as well as Dawson City, but they had to board the flight in Old Crow as the summer schedule does not route the aircraft back through Old Crow on the return journey.
International Sector to Fairbanks
We were on the ground in Old Crow for 39 minutes and were once again airborne for Fairbanks at 13:25, with almost a full passenger cabin. For those that wanted, Edith served a somewhat larger sandwich on this leg along with the usual drink service. Reason being that Old Crow-Fairbanks is the longest sector of the day, with a 90 minute flying time. A number of passengers were tourists on their way between the Yukon and Fairbanks, with some being European and others being Canadian. Everyone was enjoying their journey, talking about their travel plans and reading guide books, while Edith did a fantastic job delivering Air North’s famous Northern hospitality, specially considering that she had only been on the job for less than a few weeks!
The time passed quickly, and after about 75 minutes in the air we were approaching what seemed to be the suburbia of a large North American city. We were approaching the outskirts of Fairbanks across the border in Alaska, and it is quite remarkable how large a city Fairbanks has become. The city is fed by en extensive freeway system not unlike Seattle, and it seems completely out of place when compared to the other communities in the region. The urban sprawl, road networks, and industrial infrastructure of Fairbanks dwarfs even Whitehorse. We landed at 1435 after exactly 90 minutes flight time from Old Crow, and the aviation enthusiast’s attention is immediately drawn to the collection of active DC-4s and DC-6s that deliver cargo and fuel to the isolated communities of central and Northern Alaska.
We taxied to our parking position abeam the main Fairbanks terminal building, situated between a Condor 767 on one side, and an Alaska 737-800 on the other side.
Air North’s Fairbanks representative met the flight, and all passengers including the itinerants had to deplane and be cleared by US Customs and Immigration officers. It took about twenty-five minutes for all the itinerant passengers to be cleared, while the 748 was fueled and serviced, and then Edith led us all back into the sunshine and across the ramp to our waiting 748. Once we were boarded and comfortably seated, the Fairbanks originating passengers were boarded, all in a very leisure and relaxed manner, and once again, the flight was pretty close to full for the return journey to Dawson City and Whitehorse.
Heavily-Laden Flight to Dawson City
Our very efficient ground stop at Fairbanks of only 40 minutes passed all too quickly, with only enough time to catch one Northern Air Cargo DC-6 roaring off the runway loaded to the gunnels with cargo. The throaty roar of a heavily loaded DC-6 on take-off is to be savoured, as their days are surely numbered. Again seated on the port side of the 748 abeam the engine, a clear view of Fairbanks’ well-stocked propliner compound was on offer at the far east side of the field, just before we made our turn onto runway 24 for departure.
Captain Kiriak opened the throttles to full power at 1605 (Yukon time) and we were rolling down the runway under sunny and warm conditions, with our take-off roll being a bit longer due to the heavy passenger load and the warmer air. Soon after take-off, we were tuned around and heading east towards Dawson City, and the late afternoon sun was brightly illuminating the easterly meandering Tanana River below us. Edith once again graced the cabin with here terrific Northern hospitality, and everyone was thoroughly enjoying their afternoon aboard our HS748 as we serenely cruised over the vast wilderness below.
The flight time to Dawson City was 88 minutes and the flight was uneventful, although the weather started to deteriorate as we approached the airport. The mountain weather conditions at Dawson were again not cooperating entirely, and we landed at 1733 amidst what appeared to be torrential rains.
Once the engines were wound down at the terminal, Captain Kiriak explained that the weather was going to further deteriorate, and we would simply need to wait it out for the weather to clear. All the passengers quickly clambered down the airstairs and over to the side of the terminal building, where we had to queue to enter the terminal and clear Canadian Customs.
Given the collapsing weather conditions, the Customs officer was very kind in processing us as quickly as she could. Within about five minutes, all the passengers were comfortable and dry inside the little terminal building, while outside, mother nature performed a spectacular thunder and lightening show complete with teaming sheets of rain. It all seemed to pass very quickly, and after ten or fifteen minutes, Captain Kiriak announced that we needed to board rather quickly to avail ourselves of the brief lull in the weather.
The rain had ceased altogether, and within five minutes of the Captain’s announcement in the terminal building, all the passengers were on board and fastened into their seats, the rear door was closed, and we were staring engines!
The downpour had eased sufficiently to allow us to get airborne at 1818, after 45 minutes stranded on the ground at Dawson City. Climbing through the murk en route back towards Whitehorse, I reflected on what a fantastic day it had been, having experienced a typical day in the life of an Air North HS748 and her very professional crew, undaunted by any challenges put before them.
Our initial delay had turned this into a very long day, particularly for the crew, and Edith faithfully made her rounds through the cabin, clearly enjoying her job, and attending to the needs of her passengers. I was the only passenger aboard who spent the entire day with the aircraft, and few other passengers probably could appreciate the hard work, professionalism and dedication of our crew in quite the same light I could.
After 76 minutes in the air, we finally landed at Whitehorse at 1934 local time, with a straight in approach to runway 13R, still in daylight with the summer sun starting its decent towards the Northwest horizon. As we taxied to the terminal building, I savoured the reassuring melody of our Dart Engines, for they would soon shut down, and it would likely be some time before I’d meet their company again. We parked on the apron at the north end of the terminal building in the exact same location we left from earlier that morning.
The passengers collected their belongings and were discussing their holiday plans and evening plans as we deplaned down the 748’s folding, self-contained airstairs. Looking back at the ruggedly built under-belly of the HS748, my mind flashed back to an old, historic photo taken on January 29, 1962. The photo shows Avro test pilot Jimmy Harrison standing in the same location by the rear belly of the second prototype 748 G-ARAY, examining the ploughed up mud and stone surface at Martlesham Heath where he was to fly the 748 from, to demonstrate the type’s suitability for the RAF’s demanding needs as the Andover C.1 transport. On that day Harrison not only successfully flew two circuits with a 12,000 pound load from that muddied strip, he repeated the performance with a 15,000 pound load, to the approval of the RAF onlookers. And as the saying goes, the rest is history! Sadly, Jimmy Harrison passed away on April 16, 2007, having flown no less than 93 different types of aircraft, including no fewer than 13 prototypes.
Air North operates year round scheduled Boeing 737 services to Whitehorse from Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. Two night air and hotel packages from Vancouver to Whitehorse start at a bargain rate of only $310 CAD per person plus taxes (current as of Fall, 2006). Those interested in sampling Air North’s HS748 flights for themselves can purchase a Whitehorse-Dawson City round trip ticket with year round fares from $220 CAD plus taxes.