Review of Michael Vlessides’ The Ice Pilots

Since the television series Ice Pilots, NWT debuted in 2008, thousands of devoted fans have tuned in weekly to watch the Buffalo Airways team keep vintage aircraft like Douglas DC-3 Dakotas, DC-4s, and Curtiss C-46 Commandos flying in Canada’s North. Viewers are equally riveted by the show’s “characters”: the McBryan family, headed by no-nonsense “Buffalo” Joe; the pilots and ground crew who have the tenacity to stick it out in this tough environment; and the many hopefuls who don’t.

In The Ice Pilots: Flying with the Mavericks of the Great White North, author Michael Vlessides captures the show’s winning formula. Like the series, expect to find expletives sprinkled liberally throughout the text, often coming out of the mouth of Joe, his son Mikey, or the various pilots, engineers and rampies Vlessides interviewed while embedded at Buffalo during the summer of 2011.

Fans will also enjoy Vlessides’ detailing of Buffalo’s fire suppression work with Canadair CL-215s. As the author notes, this makes up over fifty per cent of its business but gets short shrift on the program because it takes place during the summer filming break. While the blistering cold may make for better television, aviation enthusiasts will appreciate this side of Buffalo’s operations, and Vlessides’ account of flying two CL-215’s to Turkey across the Atlantic in 2008 makes for engaging reading.

The author also spoke with Yellowknife-area bush pilots not employed by Buffalo, such as Carl Clouter, and he shines when detailing their exploits. Other northern flying legends such as Max Ward, Fred Carmichael, Lorna DeBlicquy, Willy Laserich, and Merlyn Carter, and two major stories from NWT aviation lore – Chuck McAvoy’s disappearance and Martin Hartwell’s amazing survival story – get mentions as well.

The book is meant to accompany the show, however, and so the focus is on contemporary operations and is packaged to appeal to the casual reader. Researchers will be disappointed if they go looking for any substantial history of Buffalo, Joe McBryan, or northern aviation more generally. There are no references for follow-up, no maps, and very few photos. This is not to say that Vlessides is not interested in the history. In fact, he writes that on several occasions he tried to corner Joe for information on the airline’s past. He was generally rebuffed by the busy owner who sees the show (and by extension the book) as son Mikey’s domain. Mikey, unfortunately for aviation historians, is only interested in the company’s future. Nevertheless, he is responsible for bringing the excitement and adventure of Buffalo Airways, and Canadian frontier flying more generally, to people around the world through the show. And now with the publication of The Ice Pilots, he and Vlessides have captured Buffalo’s stories and personalities in a well-written and enjoyable book.

My film debut

I am sitting in the Ottawa International Airport (YOW – my favourite airport code!) after a whirlwind trip to my hometown, and am now awaiting a flight to my newly adopted hometown of Edmonton.

Not much would have lured me away from the chaos of my first house and all the accompanying DIY projects, but I can’t turn down an exciting opportunity (by history geek standards). And being interviewed for a documentary on one of the world’s most interesting aircraft trumps tearing down ceramic wall tiles – as fun as that was!

I first heard about this proposed ‘bio-pic’ on Douglas DC-3 “Sister Ann” last June when I was stranded in Regina on my For the Love of Flying book tour. Through the magic of the internet a film production crew from Colorado Springs found my website and contacted me. After all, “Sister Ann” aka CF-POY was registered to Laurentian Air Services from 1971 to 1980.

Since then we have stayed in touch and when it came time to conduct interviews in Ottawa, they asked me to speak to the DC-3’s importance in Canada, the type of work it did with Laurentian, and so on. And while the timing for me wasn’t the greatest – my hairdresser found various colours of paint stuck to my strands yesterday! – it is perfect for the history of the Dakota, Dak or Gooney Bird. This year marks its 75th anniversary and in July 50-odd aircraft will do a mass fly-in at Oshkosh. Gosh!

It will be many months before they wrap up interviews in India and other locations, and piece together the footage they’ve collected. In the end, I’ll be a tiny piece of the puzzle, just one talking head among many in a feature-length documentary. And it’s so cool (in a history geek kind of way).

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.