BUFFALO AIRWAYS HISTORY
Before the highway to Yellowknife was built in 1968, Hay River was the end of the road and it still is the northern terminus of the railway line connecting it to the continental railway system. The direct route across Great Slave Lake is the shortest route to fly supplies to the fast growing town of Yellowknife. Even after the road was built, there are times when there is no road access to the capital: every spring and fall the ferry across the Mackenzie River is out of service for a few weeks during break-up and freeze-up, and all the critical supplies have to be airlifted in during that time. This made Hay River the ideal place to run an airline. All this is coming to an end as soon as the bridge across the Mackenzie River is built and opened to the traffic – planned for some time in 2013.
Joe McBryan, affectionately known as ‘Buffalo Joe’, established Buffalo Airways in Hay River, NWT in May of 1970 when he bought the operating license from Bob Gauchie. His first two planes were a Noorduyn Norseman and a Cessna 185. The first DC-3 followed soon after.
Because of the importance of Yellowknife and all destinations to the north and north-west it is no wonder that a second base was established in the capital city of Yellowknife. Business was brisk and more DC-3’s and DC-4’s were acquired to serve the small – mostly fly-in only – communities along the Mackenzie Valley and the many mining companies to the north of town.
Buffalo Joe McBryan family still lives in Hay River, on the south shore of Great Slave Lake during the week, and in Yellowknife to the north across the lake on the week end. He commutes on the daily ‘sked’ between the two bases: Monday to Saturday morning northbound and Sunday to Friday evening southbound. Joe usually spends Saturday nights in Yellowknife’s Back Bay, at the house where Mikey lives as well.
Kathy McBrian oversees the operations in Hay River, including the all important courier service which transfers the daily shipment of parcels from truck to plane here.
During a major downturn in the mining industry in the early 1980’s Buffalo Airways was forced to sell all their planes except for one DC-3. After declaring bankruptcy, the company was re-started to serve the developing new diamond mines. Additional DC-3 and DC-4 aircraft were added again and today Buffalo Airwys flies over 50 aircraft, mostly DC-3, DC-4, C-46 Commando and lately Lockheed L.188 Electras for cargo and a few for passenger service. In the fire fighting role the Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina / Canso has been replaced by Canadair CL-215 and DC-4 aircraft and two of the four Electras are being converted to tankers. Most of the Bird-Dogs are Beechcraft BE-55 Baron and BE-95 Travel Air.
Later, a third base was established, this time at the Red Deer Regional Airport CYQF in Alberta. This is the maintenance base for the airline – watch for a later article about this site.
Buffalo Airways is involved in scheduled passenger (Yellowknife – Hay River is the only regular passenger route served by the venerable DC-3) and scheduled cargo services (Deline, Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells and Tulita, the ‘Valley Run’, mustly operated by the Curtiss C-46 ‘Commando’), but it offers charter passenger and cargo flights (by DC-3, DC-4, C-46 and Lockheed L.188 Electra), as well as firefighting (PBY Catalina in the past, now Canadair CL-215 and soon L.188 Electra) and fuel delivery services (mostly DC-4 with a capacity of 10,000 liters in two tanks).
Another downturn in the economy forced Buffalo to sell off two of its Canadair CL-215 tanker aircraft to Turkey. They were flown to their new home via St. John’s, the Azores and Malta – quite an adventure in itself!
The cash helped the airline to bridge the lower revenue, but the water bombers were certainly missed! Luckily there were a few other CL-215′s on the market and one was bought in North Caroline and two others joined the fleet from Newfoundland and Labrador.
BUFFALO SCHOOL OF AVIATION
An aircraft maintenance engineer program is offered by Buffalo under the name of Buffalo School of Aviation. This should not surprise anyone as it becomes more and more difficult to find trained and experienced engineers for the radial engines and the vintage aircraft operated by Buffalo Airways. Rod McBryan, the oldest child of Buffalo Joe, is the director of maintenance at Buffalo Airways.
BUFFALO AIR EXPRESS
In 1982/83 a courier service was started under the name of ‘Buffalo Air Express’. Cargo is trucked overnight from an Edmonton warehouse to Hay River where it is transferred into the ‘sched’ DC-3 every morning to be flown to Yellowknife for further distribution throughout the NWT.
In association with Global Interline Network Buffalo can send and receive cargo to and from around the world.
Buffalo Airways has been in the business of aerial firefighting for many years. The iconic PBY Cataline / Canso has now been retired and replaced by the more modern Canadair CL-215 amphibs and some converted DC-4′s. CL-215′s have been bought and sold several times in the past and they are the backbone of the wildfire suppression work done for the government of the Northwest Territories.
The Canso has two 960 US gallon tanks (7,200 kg) for the water / fire retardant and has served in the tanker role for many years after WW2. Now retired there is only one example remaining on the fleet list of Buffalo Airways.
Of the same vintage is the DC-4 / C-54 which is still in service to this day. This aircraft type carries 2,400 US gallons (9,100 kg) of water and fire retardant in an external belly-tank.
A more recent tanker is the Canadair CL-215, an amphibious aircraft built especially for the purpose of fighting forest fires. It holds 1,450 US gallons (5,400 kg) of fire retardant in two internal tanks. These are filled in a scoop of about 10 seconds while skimming over the water.
Recently Buffalo Airways purchased 4 Lockheed L.188 Electras. Two of these are used as freighters and the two others are converted into tankers, similar to the ones used by Conair in Abbotsford and Air Spray in Red Deer. These aircraft typically carry around 3,300 US gallons (12,500 kg) of water / fire retardant and hopefully we’ll see them in action in the summer of 2012.
Of course every air tanker operation is also using bird-dogs to guide the tankers to where they can be used to the greatest effect. At Buffalo Airways several Beech 55 Barons and Beech 95 Travel Air’s play this role to great effect.
‘ICE PILOTS NWT’ TV-SHOW & ON-LINE STORE
In 2007 Buffalo Airways branched out once again: In step with the start of the TV reality show ‘Ice Pilots NWT’ produced by Omni Film Productions, Mikey McBrian, Joe’s youngest son, started to produce a clothing line with t-shirts, hoodies and hats. With the success of the TV show the sales increased in leaps and bounds and more product was added to the online store. Soon a real store was established in a small room off the main hangar in Yellowknife – to be enlarged twice over the coming years. Mikey is a tech-wizzard and is connected to the world by facebook and manages to increase the full service product website very successfully.
The filming of Ice Pilots NWT is ongoing and it seems that the Buffalo crews and the film crews have found a way to co-operate in a way that each one does not interfere with the job to be done by the other. For some in the Buffalo Airways ‘family’ the filming became too much and a few have left the company because of it. Others do not mind and some obviously enjoy the fame the TV show has brought them.
As for the positive effect the TV show has brought to Buffalo Airways as an airline? It seems that it has increased the interest in the ‘piston-pounders’ they are flying and it has generated a few extra charters with the DC-3 passenger plane.
When I was in Yellowknife in August of 2011 with a group of private pilots, we chartered a DC-3 for a flight to Hay River, had a tour of the town, lunch and of course a visit to the Buffalo base at the airport, complete with a walk around the many DC-3′s and DC-4′s (see article ‘Hay River & Buffalo Airways). But, as Mikey pointed out, there is no real financial gain attributable to the TV show – except of course for the sales in the merchandise store! There business is hopping.
THE FUTURE OF BUFFALO AIRWAYS
It seems to me that Buffalo Airways is doing very well these days, but a few dark clouds are visible on the horizon: Buffalo Joe, is getting up there in age and it is not quite clear what will happen if or when he decides to retire. His three kids are happy doing what they are doing now, but none of them is keen on running the whole operation, so it is quite possible that the new face of the company will be someone not related to the McBryan family.
Joe McBrian is the founder and head of the company and it is very clear that any and all decisions are made by him. Even though he is portrayed as a grumpy and snarly boss, I met and got to know him – before the filming of the TV-series started! – as a friendly and somewhat quirky man. He has an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience and it is pretty much impossible to replace him with one person alone. But he has to think about the future of his company.
Rod McBrian, the Director of Maintenance is happy – and certaibly busy enough – to keep the growing fleet in the air. It is no small feat to keep all those radial engines running, the planes in good shape and have an handle on the huge amount of spare parts! He has no desire to run the company.
Kathy McBrian still lives in Hay River with her family. She is the local manager for Buffalo Airways and handles the Buffalo Air Express business. She has no ambitions to manage the whole company or to move to Yellowknife anytime soon. She expressed her interest to manage the whole Courier Express Business, but that is enough for her.
Mike McBrianor ‘Mikey’ is officially called ‘General Manager’, but he is happy with the part he is playing now, especially with the role he is playing with the TV-show and the merchandise business. There is no doubt that he is doing way more than smile for the camera, but he is not interested to run the whole operation and quite frankly, I can not see how he would.
Aside from the management issues there is also the question about running an airline with mostly very old aircraft. For a long time it was feasible to run these planes profitably because they are so cheap to buy and for many years AvGas was cheap enough – and available. With fuel prices going up it may be more and more difficult to compete with this kind of aircraft on a market with more modern turbo-prop aircraft. But, at least for the C-46, it is getting more difficult to get spare parts and so it is becoming more expensive to keep them in the air. It would be wonderful to keep the old prop-liners flying, but there may be an end to this story in the not too distant future.
For more articles related to Buffalo Airways go to:
‘HAY RIVER & Buffalo Airways’ at http://aeropics.ca/articles/?p=580
‘YELLOWKNIFE & Buffalo Airways’ at http://aeropics.ca/articles/?p=587
’FLIGHT ON A BUFFALO AIRWAYS DC-3′ at http://aeropics.ca/articles/?p=681