Resolute Bay Airport plays a critical role in military and Arctic exploratory operations, as well as linking CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s second-most-northerly civilian community to the rest of the world.
Wednesday April 18th 2012 - Sarah B. Hood
The new CBC program, Arctic Air, is the latest in a series of aviation-related television shows focusing on flying in the far North.
Far from fictional, the Resolute Bay Airport (CYRB), situated on the south coast of Cornwallis Island in Nunavut, is the real deal. Serving a tiny hamlet of about 200 residents, the modest facility welcomes Arctic explorers and survivalists in training, while providing a strategic launch point for CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s military presence in the North.
At 74.7169Ã‚Â° north, Resolute Bay is not in fact CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most northerly airport. That distinction goes to AlertÃ¢â‚¬â€open to military aircraft onlyÃ¢â‚¬â€which is located on northern Ellesmere Island, a mere 817 kilometres from the North Pole. However, Ã¢â‚¬Å“[Resolute Bay] is one of the more northerly [airports] in Canada, for sure,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Brian Crocker, operations manager for Kenn Borek Air, which has been flying into Resolute Bay for more than 30 years.
Kenn Borek Air is based in Calgary, Alta., but operates Nunavut bases in Resolute Bay, as well as Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit; and Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories. During the summer high season, the company may deploy as many as six of its 24 de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters to Resolute Bay, and sometimes uses turbine Douglas DC-3s. One Twin Otter remains at CYRB year-round.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“During the spring and summer seasons, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a lot of expedition support for north polar exploration,Ã¢â‚¬Â Crocker said. The airline carries out science support for the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP)Ã¢â‚¬â€Natural Resources CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s (NR Can) ongoing project to assist some 1,100 scientists every year. The researchers are collectively engaged in more than 165 projects that study the ArcticÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s land, sea and weather, and the living creatures that call the region home. Their work brings about a better understanding of a wide range of subjects, from climate change to Inuit traditional knowledge.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We actually donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t start working with [the scientists] until they arrive at Resolute Bay,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Crocker. Ã¢â‚¬Å“From there, we support whatever science theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re doing on various Arctic islands. The science groups would usually travel self-sufficient, so all we do is weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll land them off at their destination with their camping supplies, food and whatever else they need, and come back whenever they want us.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Besides Kenn Borek Air, First Air has been operating out of Resolute Bay since 1973, when the company established its major staging point for high Arctic charters there. Today, besides providing scheduled passenger service, First Air is responsible for transporting food shipments to Grise Fiord in the high Arctic, the northernmost civilian settlement in Canada.
Operated by the Government of Nunavut, Resolute Bay Airport has a single, lighted 1,981-metre (6,500 foot) gravel runway. Like many other northern airports, it has seen a slight increase in total airport movements in recent years. In 2008, the uncontrolled facility saw 3,101 total itinerant and local movements over 331 reported days; in 2010, the number rose to 3,275 over exactly the same number of days.
Apart from the local community, some of the air traffic moving in and out of Resolute Bay services travellers en route to Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island, or to the recently developed Tupirvik Territorial Park campground in the town itself. A small RCMP detachment operates out of Resolute Bay; the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue has trained search and rescue technicians in igloo-building and other extreme cold weather survival skills at its Ã¢â‚¬Å“Camp Crystal City,Ã¢â‚¬Â and Resolute is often a strategic location for the annual Canadian Forces Ã¢â‚¬Å“Operation NanookÃ¢â‚¬Â, a joint Navy, Army, Air Force and Special Forces northern sovereignty and patrolling operation. (Military personnel participating in the 2011 edition assisted at the scene of the tragic plane crash that occurred near the airport last August.)
Resolute Bay was named for a British ship that became trapped in Arctic ice in 1854, somewhat ironically while searching for members of the lost Franklin expedition, a doomed British-led Arctic exploratory mission. Abandoned by its crew members, HMS Resolute eventually drifted free and was restored by American sailors to England. In 1947, Canada and the U.S. established an airstrip at Resolute Bay Ã¢â‚¬â€œ then uninhabited Ã¢â‚¬â€œ which lies at the halfway point of the Northwest Passage; a Royal Canadian Air Force base was added in 1949.
In the early 1950s, the Canadian government relocated small groups of Inuit to the area, which has given it the distinction of being, after Grise Fiord, CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s second-most-northerly civilian community. In Inuktitut, Resolute Bay is known as Quaasuittuq, Ã¢â‚¬Å“the place with no dawn.Ã¢â‚¬Â The airport passed into the hands of Transport Canada (then known as the Department of Transportation) in 1964; and in 1995, it was transferred to the government of the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut).
Resolute BayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s strategic location is essentially the reason for its existence. In August of 2010, on an Arctic tour, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated a strong message of CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Arctic sovereignty. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a topic that has been increasingly aired in recent years, as the apparent shrinking of polar ice formations makes Arctic navigation more tempting for nations such as Denmark and the U.S.
Retired Col. Pierre Leblanc, former commander of Canadian Forces Northern Area, is one of those who have called on the federal government to expand its presence in Resolute Bay. In a 2007 letter to The Ottawa Citizen, he noted that the Resolute Bay Airport is Ã¢â‚¬Å“capable of handling C-130 Hercules aircraft and gravel-kitted Boeing 737sÃ¢â‚¬Â, and that an expanded facility would allow for cost-effective patrols of the Arctic archipelago by long-range maritime patrol aircraft, Ã¢â‚¬Å“better monitoring of flights over the ArcticÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“support to search and rescue operations in the Arctic.Ã¢â‚¬Â Leblanc also advocated the Ã¢â‚¬Å“addition of air traffic control radar that could feed information to the NORAD North Warning System.Ã¢â‚¬Â
In late December of 2011, David Pugliese of The Ottawa Citizen fanned the flames of speculation when he reported on a possible proposal by the RCAF to undertake a major expansion of the Resolute Bay airport, potentially to include Ã¢â‚¬Å“the construction of a 3,000-metre paved runway, hangars, fuel installations and other infrastructure.... proposed as part of an effort to support government and military operations in the North.Ã¢â‚¬Â
However, Philip Anido of Canada Command Public Affairs stated via email that, Ã¢â‚¬Å“There are no CF/DND [Canadian Forces/Department of National Defence]-approved plans for long-term expansion of the airport runway at Resolute Bay at this time. The Royal Canadian Air Force Arctic Management Office presentation, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Engineering the ArcticÃ¢â‚¬Â, which was presented in June 2010, was a conceptual document to encourage discussion. It does not represent CF/DND, or Government of Canada, intent.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Anido noted that, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Planning officers at Canada Command are examining near- and long-term capability requirements to support safety and security events in the North. This is part of normal military operations planning and will examine potential requirements out to 2050. Canadian Forces activity and sustainment in the North is highly dependent on airlift, which requires suitable airfields. The current infrastructure capabilities at Resolute Bay allow the CF to effectively conduct operations from this central location, including CC-130 Hercules and CC-177 Globemaster airlift.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Canadian Forces are currently partnering with NR Can to expand on the PCSP in Resolute Bay, to facilitate the Arctic Training Centre Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a project that will Ã¢â‚¬Å“encompass warehousing for equipment and accommodationsÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“provide the Army much-needed infrastructure to enhance their ability to operate in the North,Ã¢â‚¬Â Anido added. At this point, he said, there are no further Ã¢â‚¬Å“approved plans for expansion of CF/DND facilities in Resolute Bay.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Until such time as it may be needed for higher-profile duties, Resolute Bay Airport will continue to serve the needs of military operations and northern explorersÃ¢â‚¬â€as it has for the past 60 yearsÃ¢â‚¬â€whether they are seeking scientific knowledge or just a taste of the true north.
Sarah B. Hood is a Toronto author and journalist who has contributed to dozens of newsstand and trade publications. She has been shortlisted for both the National Magazine Awards and the Kenneth R. Wilson Awards for business writing.