Calgary

Kenn Borek Air: Canada's low-key, daredevil airline

It's the Canadian airline that doesn't always use runways. That's how company president John Harmer succinctly describes Kenn Borek Air. The Calgary-based company sends its aircraft to remote locations and dangerous conditions.

Flying to the ends of the Earth on wheels, floats and skis

A Kenn Borek plane flew to the South Pole last month for a medical rescue in the darkness of Antarctica's winter. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

It's the Canadian airline that doesn't always use runways.

That's how company president John Harmer succinctly describes Kenn Borek Air. The Calgary-based company sends its 40 aircraft and 240 employees to some of the most remote locations, through dangerous conditions and on difficult terrain.

We do work that a lot of people won't do or don't do.-Gerald Cirtwill, Kenn Borek maintenance engineer

Recently the airline has flown planes in Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Turkey and in the Maldives, transported oil workers in Africa and travelled in East Timor. Crews are often switching the landing gear between wheels, floats and skis.

Some of its assignments include performing surveys and supporting the scientific community on every continent and travelling to both poles. 

"We do work that a lot of people won't do or don't do because they don't have the skills to do it," said Gerald Cirtwill, a maintenance engineer with the company.

All the while, the company shies from the spotlight, despite garnering headlines around the world for some of its riskiest missions. Interviews with the company are rare; its website is basic and it doesn't have any social media accounts. 
The rescue crew began its return journey to the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera station after resting for 10 hours at the South Pole. (National Science Foundation)

Tight-lipped company

Cirtwill was part of the recent medical rescue of two workers at the South Pole. The company had a short press conference afterward, following a flood of requests from journalists. 

The mission involved landing on the remote continent in the dead of winter, with –60 C temperatures and total darkness. The risks in such a rescue are obvious, but Kenn Borek staff don't dwell on danger. Workers focus on the job at hand and treat each flight the same. 

In addition, many of the company's flight crews have travelled to Antarctica dozens of times.

"There is risk with everything. You can slip and fall on your front step because it's icy," said Cirtwill, who has worked with Kenn Borek for 11 years and in Antarctica for parts of nine years. "If you do your job, the risk goes down. It's not that bad." 
Maintenance engineer Gerald Cirtwill doesn't dwell on the danger of the job. (CBC)

Days before the two planes left Calgary to head south, the pilots had to be taken off other jobs in Yellowknife, Fort St. John, B.C., and Iqaluit.

They weren't asked to be a part of the mission, they were told. And they didn't mind. 

Despite global attention during the Antarctica mission, the flight crew were unaware of all the press they were receiving, largely because they didn't seem to care. They still don't. 
A Twin Otter operated by Calgary's Kenn Borek Air arrives at Rothera station after rescuing two patients from an Antarctic research facility at the South Pole. (National Science Foundation)

The flight crew are quite anti-Hollywood when describing the mission or the effect on their personal lives. The pilots and engineers say they weren't preoccupied during the mission by the hazards they faced, nor were their families gripped to their phones waiting for each update. 

Pilot Wally Dobchuk jokes that his biggest fear during the midwinter flight to the bottom of the Earth was running out of spicy Thai soup. 

They are a light-hearted group, but have a no-nonsense approach to their work. 

"It is a long flight, and you never really stop thinking. You just keep thinking about what you have to do to make it in properly and get this plane on the ground," co-pilot Sebastien Trudel said.

Upon landing they paused to relax, briefly. "Then we went back to work." 

Despite its many prolific globe-trotting adventures, the company tries to keep a low-profile.

"Just another day at work, yes it was," said Harmer, who became the company's president eight years ago. "It's part of the culture of the company, I think."

Kenn Borek has come a long way from its days as a bush plane company. The airline was created by Kenn Borek in 1970 to provide support to his construction company, which cleared land, hauled machinery and provided other services to farmers and the oil industry in northern Alberta. Today, as the airline has grown substantially in size and scope, it is still owned by the Borek family. 

Watch footage from the medevac rescue in Antarctica

6 years ago
Duration 0:30
The Kenn Borek Air team made the perilous 10-hour journey from Chile to Rothera, Antarctica in order to transport two sick people to a hospital.

History of successes and failures

The daring journeys have come with a cost, including an October 2010 crash that killed one person and injured nine others in northeastern Alberta. More recently, three men were killed after a plane crash on an Antarctic mountainside.

"Obviously, that was not pleasant," said Harmer. "We did a tremendous amount of analysis work and risk assessment. You have to. You can't just accept that an incident happened and move on. Every time something happens, it changes the way you operate." 

The airline made several changes to improve safety including taking over flight-following in the Antarctic from a third-party organization. It altered its GPS standard operating procedures to prevent incorrect data input and improved the accuracy of aviation navigational charts in the Antarctic, according to the Transportation Safety Board's report

Memories of such disasters are likely why Harmer was uneasy during last month's mission to Antarctica. Kenn Borek has flown to the continent in the dead of winter before, but it's rare.

"We were very lucky. The weather could have been a lot worse, it could have been a lot colder," he said. "I wasn't comfortable sleeping until they got back on to the South American continent." 

John Harmer explains how the company has grown up over the decades.

6 years ago
Duration 2:22
The CEO of Kenn Borek Air walks through the company's history in Calgary, Canada and the world.

As daring as the recent medevac mission was, it may not even rank as the most courageous, considering all the company's adventures around the world every year. 

I wasn't comfortable sleeping until they got back- John Harmer, Kenn Borek Air

After the crews arrived back in Calgary from the South Pole, there was pride in a successful mission, but no lavish celebration or time off. The planes were scheduled to fly north less than a week later. The crews also dispersed on different assignments.

It's just how the company operates. Instead of dwelling on success, it focuses on the next assignment to whichever continent, on whatever type of terrain, at any time of year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kyle Bakx

Business reporter

Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with the network business unit at CBC News. He files stories from across the country and internationally for web, radio, TV and social media platforms. You can email story ideas to Kyle.Bakx@cbc.ca.

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