Montreal

'Lifeline of the north,' Air Inuit opens door to new era in shipping cargo to northern Quebec

The Makivik-owned airline teamed up with an aerospace engineering firm to cut a wider cargo door in one of its Dash 8-300 passenger planes. The modified aircraft was recently cleared for takeoff, and another retrofit is already in the works.

Modified freight compartment mean large items can be flown to Nunavik's isolated communities

Air Inuit retrofitted this De Havilland Dash 8-300 with a larger freight door, as seen here in the darker section of the fuselage, making it possible to load pallets of food and essential goods, as well as heavy equipment to the 14 coastal communities the airline serves. (submitted by Air Inuit/Duane Court)

It took six years to pull it off, but Air Inuit President Christian Busch says the completion of the arduous process of cutting a new cargo door in what started out as a 50-passenger plane means the remote Inuit communities served by the airline will now have more timely access to crucial goods.

"We had to adapt the cargo transportation of the north to today's realities," said Busch. "Important tools such as ATVs, snowmobiles, mining equipment were all increasing in size."

Air Inuit is a subsidiary of Makivik, the corporation wholly owned by the Inuit of Nunavik — the region that covers the northern third of Quebec. The airline primarily serves Nunavik's 14 communities located on the west coast of Hudson Bay, the coast south of the Hudson Strait and on both sides of Ungava Bay.

Except for the short summer season, when goods to those coastal communities are shipped in by sea, Inuit in Nunavik depend on the airline for a steady supply of staples, as well as passenger service between the communities and to southern Quebec and Nunavut.

Busch said custom-building a large freighter door on one of the airline's 30 planes to accommodate large items means the communities don't have to plan around sea shipments for many goods, and it makes it easier and faster to load and unload perishable cargo, like fresh fruits and vegetables, on pallets.

"Air Inuit is the lifeline of the north," said Busch. "So for us it was important to allow the Inuit to get these items all year round."

Long-term improvements

Air Inuit launched the cargo door project in 2016, as part of its fleet modernization program. Rather than buy a bigger plane, Busch said the company decided to retrofit one of its De Havilland Dash 8-300s. Collins Aerospace, a unit of Raytheon Technologies, was brought in to help.

The Dash 8-300 produces 30 per cent less emissions than the airline's older cargo aircraft, and Busch said it's well-equipped to handle the short, gravel runways and harsh weather conditions at airports in Nunavut and Nunavik.

Air Inuit staff along with David Vanderzwaag of Rockwell Collins Aerospace, far right, pose in front of the enlarged cargo door built into the fuselage of the Dash 8-300. (submitted by Air Inuit/Stéphanie Boisvert)

Cutting a hole the size of a car out of the back of a plane was no small feat. Busch says it took the engineering team 36 months and $5 million to make it happen. Nearly half of that funding, $2.3 million, came from Quebec's Fonds Vert program, a spokesperson for the airline said.

The most stressful part of the project was the exact moment the fuselage was cut open, said Busch. No one has ever tried to modify a Dash 8-300 this way before, and any small mistake could have led to irreparable damage.

Modifying the aircraft meant following strict Canadian regulations, but after it was satisfied that the project team had jumped through all of the hoops, Transport Canada certified the plane to fly on Feb. 3. The freight carrier took off from Montreal for the first time on Feb. 8, delivering a shipment of food and other essentials to the village of Tasiujaq, near Ungava Bay, about 1,900 kilometres north of Montreal.

Air Inuit owns 15 Dash 8-300s: three strictly for cargo, including the one with the new enlarged freight door, and 12 others that have been modified to seat 45 passengers, making room for extra luggage. The airline plans to purchase one more plane and do a similar overhaul on the cargo door, Busch said.

With the knowledge and experience gained over the past six years, Busch said, he expects the next renovation to take about half the time this one did.

"We're giving a few days off to our team," he said, laughing, "but we have already planned on retrofitting a second aircraft."

"The work will be starting this summer."

Members of the Air Inuit team stand in front of the section of the De Havilland Dash 8-300 that was removed to install a larger cargo door. From left to right: Simon Fournier, Sébastien Mailloux, Louis Gauthier and Danny Fournier. (submitted by Air Inuit)

With files from Quebec AM

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