…0612 hrs – ‘Navajo Quebec Lima Charlie’ is wheels up from Runway 18, heading northwest to St.Andrews to begin a long day of charter flying. Ceilings are 2000ft AGL and an early morning tailwind lets us clock a constant 200 knots over the ground. The Prairies are still asleep and it takes us just 8 minutes to make a full stop from base to St.Andrews – an auspicious start for sure!
The mission today – Ferrying a mechanic from St.Andrews to the Pikangikum Indian Reserve to repair a school generator which is the only source of electricity for the school. Pilot In Command is Luke Penner, who has been flying into northwestern airports for more than 12 years now. He tells me flying into the bush is a different experience altogether and I cannot wait to see it firsthand.
Early morning at St.Andrews
With clouds hanging low, and the sun beginning to just make its presence felt ,St.Andrews at this hour is nothing short of serene. Parked on Apron 2 we wait for our passenger who arrives beaming with energy, albeit a few minutes late.With the tower closed, and traffic next to none – the radio crackles ‘Quebec Lima Charlie rolling 18’.
Takeoff is uneventful and we make a direct turn to a north easterly heading , setting course to our destination. Luke tells me most of this leg would be in IFR conditions and that checks out when we encounter IMC on our climb out! There’s cloud everywhere and zero forward visibility. At this point, Luke is flying only on his instruments without any external visual references for orientation. The climb to cruise takes a bit but we breakout of the cloud layers and settle between two layers offering a decent tailwind. In cruise, we are clocking over 195 knots. Enroute radio calls are made and our expected arrival at Pikangikum is just over 40 minutes from now.
Surprisingly, this is when Luke starts to plan his arrival into our destination, beginning to run through the approach plates, frequencies and the arrival procedure. A weather check at Kenora tells us an RNAV approach into 09 is the best option and the aircraft is configured accordingly. Pikangikum area is reporting ceilings as low as 800ft AGL with light rain and no icing. The descent and majority of the 15 mile final would be once again all IMC. A quick glance at the passenger cabin reveals that our only passenger today is fast asleep, unknown to all the activity happening in the cockpit. With no intentions of waking our passenger from his nap, we plan a descent at just over 470ft per minute. We intercept our initial fix just as planned and continue on approach. The radio is silent and there’s no traffic except for a runway inspection vehicle on the ground. Luke tells me to look out and call on visual contact with the ground. We keep descending, crossing 1000ft and there’s still no visual reference. Our decision height is 200ft, which technically means that we overshoot if the runway isnt visible. Just at about 800ft, I catch a fleeting glance of some trees and barely able to control my excitement, I yell ‘GROUND!!!!’ A second later, the curtains are lifted, and terra firma greets us with a gravel runway lined up straight ahead. Landing is without surprises and we taxi to the apron.
Pikangikum First Nation is from one of the First Nation Reserve’s in Ontario and has a population of just about 2500 people. Located north of Red Lake, the reserve is home to four native Indian clans which rely on air transport.
Navajo on Final
There’s hardly a sign of population with dense vegetation and lakes everywhere. Makes me wonder how do people here earn their livelihood. The airport is nothing but a gravel runway and apron. Using the word terminal for the makeshift shelter with steel benches is an exaggeration. The mechanic heads out without giving any confirmed time of his arrival back to the airport, it could be an hour, or a day!
We now sit in our airplane, with its windows frosted looking at other Chieftain which seems to have gone technical. I complain to my pilot of the lack of activity at this airport. And almost as if supernaturally, the airport gets offended and we have a Caravan on final. Following the Caravan is a Super King Air. Minutes behind the King Air is a Beech 1900D. Within 20 minutes of our arrival at what looked like another planet, we have planes everywhere. The charter aircraft are flying in convicts and judges for court day at Pikangikum. More King Airs, followed by a couple of Navajo’s. The apron now doesnt seem to have any place left for parking except a concrete stand in one corner. And why should that stay empty – Perimeter’s Dash 8 comes in and the apron is now full. Interestingly, all convicts flew in, in Caravans and all the jury in King Airs – hierarchy indeed. One of the Navajo’s bought the maintenance crew to work on the grounded Chieftain. This is as busy as it can get in this isolated corner of the world.
Wasaya Dash 8F on a cargo run
Waiting for our mechanic is uneventful and activity happening around does help in passing time. One big saving grace for pilots flying into this airport is Wi-fi in the terminal building.
Just about 5 hours after he left, our passenger is back and beaming as always. The generator had a broken valve which jammed and broke the piston. No repair possible today. Time to fly back!! 5 minutes later, Luke announces intentions on the radio and we are airborne off Runway 09 at Pikangikum. Our return leg should be similar to the arrival, except that, there is a line of thunderstorms right ahead of us blocking our way to St.Andrews. Luke compliments the Wi-fi and how its enables him to check radar and echo tops on the ground allowing to plan a better course before even taking off. As expected. our return leg is a 40kt direct headwind, letting us barely do 145kts.
We settle for cruise over a thick layer of clouds and sun is shining in all its glory. Luke briefs us on the upcoming weather and to stay fastened as it is likely to get bumpy. We look ahead and can clearly see a wall of isolated thunderstorms growing right infront of us. The lightning detector is turned on to give us a synthetic picture of lightning and thunder in those menacing cumulonimbus clouds. Approaching the thunderstorms, we make course corrections, turning away and carefully weaving our way through those growing monsters. We cannot fly over them, or under them , allowing us to only penetrate these laterally. Even though those CBs look pretty calm from the outside, within them they have the energy of multiple nuclear bombs. Cockpit stress increases in these conditions increasing workload on the pilot. Experience compensates for the lack of a weather radar and we fly past through all of it without too much turbulence.
‘Plus’ signs indicating lightning
Arrival into St. Andrews is tricky again because of multiple rain shower cells on all sides of the airport. Turning and avoiding all unnecessary weather, we have our runway in sight. The controller clears us for landing, right behind a Cessna on short final. ‘Quebec Lima Charlie’ gently greases the runway and we are back to civilization!! Our mechanic leaves for home and so do we. The fourth and final leg takes us 12 minutes and the welcome sight of our base apron greets us.
Flying into such airports makes one appreciate the luxuries that often go unnoticed. The luxuries of something as simple as electricity which one takes for granted. Nonetheless, it is a learning experience like none other and its always good to see a new airport!