Flight Into History

February 23, 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the flight of the Silver Dart airplane, an historic first for powered flight in Canada and the British Empire. The National went to Baddeck, Nova Scotia to be part of the centennial celebration, and also took the opportunity to highlight some other high points of aviation in Canada.


Reporter's Notes

Twin Otter Meets White-Out

What went on behind the scenes during the making of videojournalist Saša Petricic's documentary about the Twin Otter

Field Notes by Saša Petricic

I knew there was something wrong when the co-pilot came back to talk to me in the Argentine Air Force Twin Otter turbo-prop.

We were off the coast of Antarctica, glacier-covered land on the horizon… ice-filled water below.

Sea temperature: -3°, air temperature: -25°.

If the plane crashed, we’d be about 300 km away from the nearest human being, thousands of kilometers away from anyone who could help us. We were in the only plane the Argentines had in Antarctica.

So the troubled, disappointed expression on his face really meant bad news.

Yes, he said. It’s not good. The clouds are low and the weather is getting worse. We may be flying into a white-out at any time. He frowned.

You see that ice floe down there?

I did. It was flat and white, that much I could tell. The size was hard to estimate, but it seemed much smaller than the proverbial football field.

We won’t be able to land on it, as we had hoped, he said. We wanted to show you how the Twin Otter can land on its skis, just about anywhere. But the weather just won’t cooperate.

His plan had been to land, drop me off with my camera, then take off… leaving me to shoot him landing again. On a piece of ice. In the middle of the ocean.

At that moment, it struck me how dedicated these pilots are to their plane… and confident in it. I’ve interviewed lots of pilots, and most of them like the machines they fly. But when your survival truly depends on the reliability of a small contraption made of aluminum (with bits of balsa wood in the construction), you really have to believe in it.

The Twin Otter is that kind of plane. Never mind that this particular one was thirty years old and that parts had to be ordered in from the other side of the world. The military pilots who fly it every day, on the coldest, iciest, most desolate continent on earth know what it can do, and can’t stop bragging about it, or showing off.

To them, the fact that it was designed in Canada, in a country that also knows cold, where the landing strips can be just as rough and unpredictable, explains it all.

We never did land the Twin Otter on an ice floe that day… but I realized that given half a chance and any reason, these pilots would.