His childhood as an Air Cadet in Ladysmith must seem a long way off for Chris Staples, who now braves below-freezing temperatures to pilot vintage aircraft in remote areas of the Northwest Territories.
It's not something many people can do and only a tiny percentage of pilots can fly the C-46 Commando aircraft that Staples takes out on a regular basis .
What makes it all the more remarkable is that Staples is only 23, currently the youngest pilot in the world to fly a C-46.
With a wingspan of more than 30 metres and twin 2000-horsepower engines, the C-46 is a beast built for war, and as far as planes go, it's near-indestructible, said Staples. However its weakness is in how challenging it is to fly, and as a result there are only approximately 12 C-46s in the world that are still in operation.
Two of those are at Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife, where Staples lives and works, and which is the subject of the documentary series Ice Pilots NWT on the Canadian History channel.
The series just wrapped filming for its fifth season, and Staples will feature on the show for the first time since he was hired by the airline in the spring.
"The company started in the '70s and our boss Buffalo Joe got it from one plane to where we are now. Most of the mines here were built because of Buffalo Airways within the last 20 years, so it's got quite a history," said Staples.
Some of the cargo the company transports is food for the remote communities up in the Territories. In the winter there is some access via ice roads, but for much of the year, the only way to get supplies in is by plane.
"The C-46 is the best bang for your buck, it will carry up to 13,000 pounds, and we can go to all four communities that we serve on a regular basis, and bring them a week's worth of fresh groceries.
"There's no other plane out there that can do that for the price. Especially because we're in the middle of nowhere, we're not landing on runways that you'll see in Vancouver or Toronto. It's only dirt or gravel, and it's only a few thousand feet long," said Staples with a chuckle.
This makes for some difficult landing situations, because one of the characteristics of the C-46 is that it has a huge tail with a rudder that, comparative to most planes, is proportionally tiny and causes the pilot to have to fight the winds throwing it off-kilter.
"You're trying to land on a little dirt strip that's barely 50 feet wide at some points. There's not much room for error - and if you go down, there's nowhere to go," he said.
Working in frigid winter temperatures that can dip to -40 C, and stay there for weeks, presents its own challenges, said Staples.
"The oil will turn to molasses when it's that cold. When it's minus-30 and minus-40, a hot cup of coffee will freeze in about eight minutes. You can imagine how fast your engine will freeze on you," said Staples.
Without gloves, the 30 seconds it takes to walk from his truck to the door of his apartment is almost unbearable.
"You go inside and your hands are red, and they feel like they were burnt," he said. "You have to take your gloves off a lot when you're working, and it hurts, especially when you get your finger on the metal. The fluid in your eyes will sometimes start to freeze if you get a wind chill and you're looking into it. You'll blink and then your eye will get stuck shut."
The heating systems in the planes generally function well, though the C-46's can only be turned on when the plane reaches 140 knots, added Staples. However, stories of heating system failures still linger in the memories of the other pilots and captains who work at Buffalo Airways.
"I've heard stories of a heater going out on the pilots on their second or third stop and they still have one more stop and then have to get home, and it's minus-40," said Staples. "What can you do? You're just sitting there, for two hours. The guy I talked to said he just wanted to cry. But he couldn't cry, because his eyes were frozen."
Despite the hardships, including days that start between 3: 30 to 5: 30 a.m. in the winter, and never really conform to a regular schedule, Staples has never wanted to do anything else.
As a child, he was fascinated by airplanes, especially the one his grandfather built before he was born. When he was old enough, he tagged along with his father, who worked as an aviation refueller. By the time he was 18, he got his private pilot's license. Three years later he earned a full commercial license with a multi-IFR rating, which means he can theoretically fly a plane blinfold-ed, on instruments alone.
The draw of Buffalo Airways in particular was its fleet of vintage planes, though Staples acknowledges that due to their use of aviation gas rather than jet fuel - which most planes use now - he is unsure of their future. Another problem is sourcing parts, so the pilots take care with their handling of the planes, using brakes sparingly on landings so as to not wear out the tires.
"It's a love affair kind of a thing. We're just a bunch of guys who love these old airplanes and are trying to keep them going for as long as we can. In the majority of the world they just don't care, it's all business," said Staples softly. "Every day, I say to myself that I was born 30 years too late." The fifth season of Ice Pilots NWT is produced by Omnifilm Entertainment Ltd. and will be broadcast in the fall on the History Channel.
[Of Omnifilm Entertainment Ltd.] / Chris Staples braves below-freezing temperatures to pilot a vintage C-46 Commando aircraft into remote areas of the Northwest Territories.; / STAPLES;
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