'It's an adventure': Pilots from around the world descend on Yellowknife for fly-in festival

Dozens of pilots are in Yellowknife this weekend for the Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-In, a biennial celebration of aviation, which at one time was Yellowknife’s lifeline to the South.

Biennial festival celebrates aviation in Canada's North

Dave Jackson stands near his float plane at the dock in Yellowknife. He estimates he spent 24 hours flying from Kingston, Ont., to the North. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Dave Jackson's yellow float plane touches down on the water in Yellowknife's Back Bay.

Taking directions from the guide on the dock, he manoeuvres the aircraft toward shore, sliding it into its spot. Another smooth landing complete.

Stepping out of the plane, Jackson reaches out to his grandchildren who waited for him there, their bear hug a reward for 24 hours of solo flying from Kingston, Ont.

"It's an adventure," Jackson said after the reunion. "I came in to see my daughter and two grandkids. It's my third time here in Yellowknife, but the first time flying in by myself."

Jackson is one of dozens of pilots in Yellowknife this weekend for the Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-In, a biennial celebration of aviation, which at one time was Yellowknife's lifeline to the South.

"This is how Yellowknife got started," explained Charles Dent, one of the organizers of the festival. "Really a lot of growth in Yellowknife was from having everything brought in by air.
Float planes sit at the dock in Yellowknife during the Midnight Sun Float Plane Fly-In. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"There were times of the year you couldn't bring things in, the water was the first way, everything got here by canoe. But in freeze up and break up, you couldn't get here," he said.

"Aviation was a critical piece in the growth and development in the North."

Though Northern pilots continue acting as lifelines to remote communities, it's not the same as those early days of the bush pilots. Large commercial airlines such as WestJet and Air Canada make daily flights into Yellowknife, while the Deh Cho Bridge keeps year-round southern access easier. 

Smaller regional commercial airlines say a Canada-wide pilot shortage is making it harder to keep pilots in the North, but the region still draws the recreational pilots back.

With their smaller planes, the trip to Yellowknife often involves stops in places like Watson Lake, Yukon, and Fort Simpson, N.W.T., as they rest and refuel. Sometimes they need to stop for repairs. Jackson arrived in Yellowknife a day late after the alternator on his plane broke. 

Russ Airey flew to Yellowknife in his homemade airplane. He estimates he's flown more than 1.5 million kilometres around different parts of the world. (Alex Brockman/CBC)
"It's awesome up here," said Russ Airey, a pilot from Windsor, Ont., who flew in on a two-seater plane he built himself. He's flown in the North many times, coming back again and again.

"When you get up here it's just awesome, you see the mountains, the streams, the glaciers, it's an awesome, awesome thing to see," he said. "Us Canadians in the South don't get to see this, especially the way you can from an airplane."   

A look at Yellowknife's Old Town neighbourhood from the cockpit of Russ Airey's airplane. (Alex Brockman/CBC)