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.

Flying High in Yellowknife

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be in Yellowknife, NWT for the Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-In doing research for my book on northern Canadian aviation history. Here’s a little photo album from this amazing event:

It may be ranked one of the coldest places in Canada during the winter, but July was warm, sunny, and surprisingly bug-free!
After a great meet-and-greet on Friday night and a pancake breakfast Saturday morning hosted by the Piro family, I boarded a Buffalo Airways Douglas DC-3 along with 20-odd other passengers for an aerial tour of YK.

Our pilot was “Buffalo” Joe McBryan (below) himself, and co-piloting the aircraft was Tyler Sipos. And of course they have a few good luck charms, like this polar bear I’m holding.

Joe is an aviation history buff and it didn’t take long for us to get to chatting about northern aviation, his role in it, etc. The next thing I knew, he was inviting me to tag along on a Norseman flight with a group of folks.

I guess I behaved okay (and didn’t get airsick), because he then invited me to join him, his granddaughter, and the director/videographer of Ice Pilots NWT for a trip down memory lane for a 50th anniversary special. Up we went in the Norseman again, this time bound for Gordon Lake.

By dinnertime we were back at the old Ward Air float base (that’s Max Ward’s turbo Otter behind us below) for the Ice Pilots Jamboree.

To recognize Joe for all his generosity toward the fly-in and the Fox Moth Society, reps from both (Yvonne Quick and Mike Burns, respectively) presented him with a model of his beloved Norseman – which he promptly flew off-stage, grinning!

It was a gorgeous night, and all the fly-in folks enjoyed mingling with the Ice Pilots crew. So much so, that a bunch of us went out afterward to the Monkey Tree and closed it down!

There was no sleeping in the next day for me, though, as I had an interview lined up at 8:30am with a local aviation legend. Then at 9:30am I was back in Joe’s orange jeep headed to his dock in preparation for the bush pilot memorial fly-by.

After a bbq lunch it was tour time at the Buffalo hangar, where I got to see Joe’s office just full of aviation history books, photos, and even a motorcycle!

Sunday night was the wrap-up banquet and auction. My new friend from Cold Lake, Terry, gallantly bid my book up to $100 – so I thought he deserved a kiss to go with it!

After the banquet, some of us wanted to keep chatting – and I didn’t want to miss out on any good stories! Next thing I knew it was 1am (hard to tell by the photo below, eh?)
Monday after a big day doing research at the archives (in the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre), I was invited to a friend’s house for supper. Then we set off for a short hike at Cameron Falls – at 9pm!
But when you’re in the land of the Midnight Sun, the days really do go on forever… I think the memories will too!

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.