Anyone who has travelled or lived north of the 60th parallel in Canada is aware that the area is known to most Canadians as “The North”. It is a special place. It covers the area of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. If the North were an independent country, it would rank seventh in surface area, covering approximately 3.9 million square kilometers. The North accounts for almost forty percent of Canada’s landmass.
Roughly 100,000 people call the North home, with one fifth of them residing in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. Yellowknife is at the end of the road, where the average temperature is below zero degrees Celsius for more than six months of the year. With lower late summer temperatures, trees start changing their colors in mid-August. Yellowknife is a place where the sun is up in the sky or below the horizon for twenty hours a day, a place where the sounds of radial engines still fill the air, and where Buffalo Airways calls home.
On February 3, 1967, Robert Gauchie was flying solo in a deHavilland Beaver from Cambridge Bay to Yellowknife when he was running low on fuel. He was pushed way off course by foul weather and was forced to land on a frozen lake some 400 kilometers from Yellowknife. He survived an incredible 58 days before being spotted and picked up by an overflying aircraft. The official search had long been called off. After months of recovery from his ordeal, he went on and launched Buffalo Airways. In 1970, a young pilot, Joe McBryan, who would later become known as “Buffalo” Joe, bought the charter license from Gauchie.
Buffalo Airways originally operated out of Fort Smith, located near the Alberta – Northwest Territories border. Today, its headquarters is in Yellowknife where the majority of the airplanes and employees are stationed. It also has facilities and operational bases in Hay River, which is on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake, as well as in Red Deer, Alberta.
Joe McBryan, a colorful character, is described by his son Mikey as a cross between Howard Hughes, a famous aviator, and Al Bundy, a fictional character from the TV series “Married with Children”. He has been owner and acting president of Buffalo Airways since 1970.
“If you really want to experience flight in this life,
then you have to strap a DC-3 to your ass,
let the wings extend out,
and that’s the closest thing
you will come to a human flying.”
“Buffalo Joe” McBryan
After over forty years of operation, Buffalo Airways has gone through many ups and downs. It has operated many types of aircraft including the deHavilland DHC-2 Beaver, the DHC-3 Otter, and of course the classic Douglas DC-3. In the 1970s and 1980s it had several helicopters in its fleet like the Hiller 12E, the Bell 206, the Hughes 500D, and the Gazelle. Since then it has expanded its fleet to include Douglas DC-4s, Curtiss C-46 Commandos, L-188 Electras, and Canadair CL-215s.
Today, Buffalo Airways offers a scheduled passenger service between Yellowknife and Hay River, aerial photography, aerial surveys, forest fire suppression and charter and cargo services throughout the North. Buffalo Air Express was formed in 1983 as a separate entity from Buffalo Airways. It provides courier service to Yellowknife and other northern communities with the bulk of courier freight coming out of Edmonton, Alberta.
Buffalo Airways’ mission is to provide courteous and prompt service to all the communities in the Northwest Territories & Nunavut. Buffalo staff have a much simpler mission: “We at Buffalo get’r done!”
Starting in 2009, Buffalo Airways gained international attention when the documentary series Ice Pilots NWT began broadcasting on television networks around the globe.
Everything shown here is a small part of the “Buffalo Airways – Home of Ice Pilots” book.
To find out more or to purchase the 12×12 hardcover, please click here.