Hauling Diesel

Hauling Diesel

I loved flying in the Yukon, amazing scenery with unforgiving weather and the some challenging airstrips scattered throughout some of the most awe inspiring places on the planet.  The company I flew for started out as an air tour operation taking tourists on flights over Kluane National Park. The park is home to Mount Logan Canada’s highest peak, and is surrounded by the largest “non polar ice cap” with glaciers miles wide and deep that traversed valleys. Sitting passively flying over it even for the hundredth time would leave you gobsmacked in awe of nature. I believe that more foreigners have seen this part of our country than Canadians. It saddens me to think that we spend thousands flying all over the globe seeking adventure when we have so much to offer right in our own backyard.

The tourist flights kept the lights on and contributed many lines in the logbook for myself and other new pilots. Flying tourists from all over the world is a great way for a young pilot to hone their skills not only as a pilot, but also as an ambassador to general aviation. Nervous flyers could be a challenge but if handled right you could make a lifelong supporter of aviation and perhaps inspire some to pursue a career.

My go to trick was to seat them in the front right seat and give them a flying lesson, by the end of it they usually weren’t nervous and I recall one father saying “gee thanks, this will cost me allot in flying lessons”…. Sorry.

The real fun of the Yukon was being cut loose on the bush flying side of things. Pretty soon after I arrived at the company I was checked out in the company’s BN2A Islander. The other pilot who normally flew those missions had caught gold fever and would go on to make a career out of mining, he even made an appearance on the show Gold Rush!

The Islander could only be described as a British invention that turned Avgas into noise. Some affectionately referred to it as the “jiggly bus” for its stiff straight wing that would make you feel every bump while plodding along at 140 knots. The six pack of gauges in this plane are suspended by small shock absorbers to prevent the gauges from cracking under the stress. Thank goodness I was “mostly VFR” I can only imagine the fun one has starring at bouncing gauges in the soup all the while having yourself being jerked around in turbulence.

For all its short comings the plane was a tank and could haul a good load out of very short strips and with its wide stance and four main wheels it took every nasty strip I threw at her and asked for more.

Hauling fuel into gold mining airstrips was one of our specialties, our tanks we could haul 1000 Litres of diesel to most airstrips around the territory. One of the main clients was at Scroggie Creek, the airstrip was in good shape but was up a tight valley one way in and out. Once you committed to the “trench run” as I affectionately referred to it, you were committed.

It seemed to me that some mad man had placed all the airstrips in the Yukon in such configurations just to test ones fortitude, one chance, no margin for error.  If you screwed up your at the mercy of the elements and unforgiving terrain, typically the valleys rose sharply with no chance of you out climbing it.

At Scroggie Creek you would enter the valley descending without sight of the strip, select full flaps, half way down the entrance to the valley you would see the “threshold” hugging the left side of the valley as you would angle in for landing.

Once on the ground the Honda pumps would get to work draining the diesel from the hold. Then you blasted off empty and repeat the task. Mcquesten which is a grass/gravel strip close to the Klondike highway that goes from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Mcquesten had nothing other than it was an airstrip, we used it because it was closer to Scroggie Creek than Dawson City and we could have trucks dump off fuel drums for the plane to burn and fuel tankers full of diesel to haul. If memory serves me correctly a standard haul would be 40,000 Litres or 40 trips in the Islander which worked out to be about 40 mins round trip flying time. I recall a few 80,000 litre hauls, your mind would be numb from listening to the drone of the engines and repetition of the task. Land one way, shut down by the tanker trailer and drums, fuel the wings with the hand pump, fill the diesel tanks depart the other way back to Scroggie Creek. I was solo, a one man show for most hauls, occasionally we could find a swamper to help but this was rare.

Another airstrip that I hauled a few loads to every year was called Lammers, this strip was a real pain in the butt with a knoll off the end of the landing way in. Winds would always mess with ones chi when flying in an out. I swear it could be dead calm everywhere else and you would get the hell kicked out of you landing there every time.

The airstrip also featured a wrecked BN2A the very same type of plane I was flying, the only recognizable piece left was the nose section. The wreckage sat like a gargoyle watching every move you made, kind of creepy if you ask me. I would talk to it like Tom Hanks would to Wilson in Castaway, sometimes I would be flying around for days with very little human interaction. Thankfully I had purchased a mini disk player that I could plug into the aircrafts audio panel and would listen to the same pirated music I had download to it over and over again. FSS when in range kept you updated on the world and they diligently tracked you like a hawk. Sometimes it would seem they were just voices and didn’t seem real, most of the time you were not in range of anyone so there I was alone in the middle of nowhere flying with just your thoughts to keep you company. Landing at the strips you might encounter other people for a few minutes then off you went again but for the most part they would be working the claim or drilling core samples.

These hauls became routine and I did get to know some of the miners quiet well as I would stay in camps overnight, they were there to work as where you, so sometimes grab food hit the sack and off again in the morning. The first haul of the year was always a nice time catching up but the spring weather could be unpredictable to say the least. On one particular  morning I woke up and the weather looked good, I called Flight Service and the nearest airports with weather where Dawson City and Mayo both reporting clear skies. I departed to Mcquesten to start my day of hauling diesel, as I headed for Mcquesten I noticed low level fog hanging over the Stewart River. This didn’t strike me with much concern as it seemed localized but as I drew nearer I could see that the far side opposite the oxbow where the airport was located was completely covered in thick fog. I quickly turned back for Scroggie Creek thinking I know its open and I can make a call on the sat phone. As I turned I realized that my spare drum of fuel was not yet positioned at Scroggie Creek. The first haul of the year usually began with loading the islander up with the equipment and tanks from the main base and positioning to Mcqueston then hauling one avgas drum over and  a half load of diesel to start the season.  This time was different we had received a call from the folks at Lammers requesting a haul out of Dawson of a few thousand litres that he was unable to get into his tanks on the ice road that winter so he could bridge the gap until he could barge it in when the river was free of ice.

I returned to Scroggie and landed, “now what” I thought, I don’t have a spare drum of gas and now I burnt precious fuel on this hop. We only carried enough for the flight out and back plus a 30 min reserve and maybe an extra bit as we were close to gross weight with the diesel load. I had just burnt 15 to 20 minutes of fuel coming over and another 15 on my excursion so I was down to 40 mins of gas.

I kept checking in with flight service but they were still calling clear skies, I didn’t know what to do maybe blast off and head for Mayo it’s a 35 min flight away. What if I blasted off and shut an engine down hey that would give me more time in the air but slower cruise speed. I quickly calculated my gas on a piece of scrap paper. Yup that is what I will do at a reduced cruise speed with single engine I can fly to mayo with at least 20 mins of gas at that speed and “economy cruise”. I headed off towards Mayo and shut one engine down, she still maintained 100 knots as I recall and I was making better time than I figured I would. McQuesten was on the way to Mayo so as I fly closer the fog was lifting and moving off, I could see half the runway. I turned for the strip and landed single engine, I unloaded a tank and rolled a drum of fuel in the back and continued with my mission. Stupid yes, I should have just waited for a drum I could have had flown in by the 206 from base. Young and dumb for sure, another grey hair sprouted that day I suppose.

The summer days in the land of the midnight sun where long and it was hard to tell day from night and recall a few times I would look at my watch and realize that I had been flying for…. lets just say an extremely long time. 9pm looked no different than 9am, I guess I wanted to make hay while the sun shined. Young and dumb and wanting to build hours fast was my thought.

Kyle was the son of a local chopper pilot, a few times he came along to help out and make some cash loading the plane or helping with fuel hauls. He knew the ropes and had been around helicopters and planes his whole life, smart and strong kid. He fueled the plane while I uploaded the diesel, I figured if someone was going to spill diesel all over the plane I might as well be the one. Kyle would hop up on the ladder connect the hose into the fuel hole and start pumping, 80 or 90 strokes of the pump per side. We had it down to the science of an Indy car pit crew. This hot summer day was no different, we might have been 20 trips or 20,000 litres into a 80,000 litre haul. I blasted off solo, Kyle sometimes stayed behind and played his guitar or took a nap, heading for Scroggie Creek I unloaded as per the routine and departed back to the Mcquesten Airstrip.

I landed the opposite way I departed from as was my standard routine even if there was a tail wind,  we had staged the drums and tankers at the one end near the river.  I would land filler up with diesel and avgas turn around and head off to Scroggie. This occasion was no different, I landed taxied in, Kyle put the ladder up by the wing with the hose and yelled over “There is no fuel cap!” “what!?” I asked. He repeated himself and I took a look confirming his observation. Puzzled I dipped the tank and it was bang on where it should have been for such a flight heading out and back it was dead even with the left side. I always keep an eye on my fuel gauges and I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary on the flight.

I thought logically it must have fallen out on landing here at McQuesten, I figured the tank would have been sucked dry in flight was my logic. The fuel caps on the BN2 are the large type you would find on a Turbo Prop or larger aircraft not the smaller ones familiar to most GA pilots, basically filling a 3 inch round hole on the top of your wing.

We quickly looked around the immediate area turning up nothing. So we walk the runway to where I landed and see if we can spot it.  We grabbed the shot gun as there was bears kicking around the area, they would sometimes need to be motivate away from our comfort zone. We walked the entire runway scouring it for the cap but turned up nothing.

As we walked back to the plane I noticed something red near the end of the runway exactly where I would turn around and depart. I got closer and sure enough it was the cap! The gravity of what just took place too a minute to hit me, I had just flown a fully loaded near gross weight Islander to Scroggie Creek and back without a fuel cap on one tank.

If that tank had ran dry on departure or anywhere along my route of flight and I was unable to switch tanks fast enough the remaining engine would have taken me to the scene of the accident a little quicker. On those flights I would never climb more than 1500 feet above the ground. I wouldn’t have long to sort myself out before impact.  The prospect of one thousand litres diesel behind me slamming forward to squish my 160 pound body to the dash makes me shudder today.

It was a hot day so I went over to the bank of the Stewart River and dipped my head in the cold fast moving water. If the shock cooling of my head in a cold river wasn’t enough of a wakeup call, this was. Complacency kills and if I was to survive at flying around this territory I would need to do things smarter and don’t trust anyone with my safety but myself. Kyle was and still is a good guy but we both learned something that day, this day stuck with me throughout my career and I still bang the caps on my Jet today and think of that day.

As for the Islander, maybe those British engineers knew a thing or two about design when they placed that hole on the drafting board.