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This article was written by my father, John MacLean, and was published in the January 2000 edition of COPA's Canadian Flight journal. You can also view pictures from the trip.

Cherokee 180 Explores the Far North
by John MacLean

Since I had taken an early retirement a year ago, my wife decided to join me and also retired in June of 1999. We had the summer free and since our youngest son is a pilot for Simpson Air in the Northwest Territories, we thought this would be the perfect time to visit him and see the country at the same time.

Our plans began to take shape in June, when we purchased $150 worth of charts, did a thorough inspection of our Cherokee 180, and purchased the necessary survival gear, including a good tent. We planned to fly to smaller airports and tent by the airplane.

We began packing for the trip, scheduled for a July 12 departure. Since weight was critical, we weighed every item before it was stored and the weight and balance of the aircraft was calculated to take into consideration fuel burnoff as well as use of our supplies. We were seven pounds under gross when fully loaded, but well within the C of G limits. With the plane loaded on July 11, we were ready for an early morning departure the next Day.

Throughout the trip, I kept a detailed travel log. It is printed below.

Day 1: July 12

We got up at 6:30 am and checked the weather from Brampton, Ont., to Kenora. It was VFR. With Notams checked, we filed for Kenora and departed Brampton at 8:50 am. We called Toronto radio to activate our flight plan, scheduled for 10 hours including fuel stops, and were eventually cleared to our requested altitude of 8,500 feet by Toronto ATC with flight following. Ceiling and visibility were unlimited, with a small band of clouds over lower Manitoulin Island. We proceeded via Wiarton, Tobermory, Manitoulin, west of Elliot Lake and on to Wawa.

Our ground speed was 110 knots, and we landed in Wawa at 12:15, after three hours and 25 minutes of flight. We refuelled and departed Wawa for Thunder Bay at 12:45 pm. We encountered some haze, but climbed to 6,500 feet to clear skies.

At Marathon, we had more headwinds with a ground speed of 79 knots, so we descended to 4,500 feet where our speed increased to 89 knots. West of Marathon, our Loran red-flagged and never worked again until we returned home. I suspect the ground transmitters were not serviceable, since the set would accept input but would not navigate. The terrain below was very rugged with bush, rock and water, yet it was quite beautiful from this altitude. At 35 miles out, we contacted Thunder Bay approach and were cleared to right base for Runway 25, behind an Air Canada Airbus. We landed in turbulence after a flight of two and a half hours. To the northwest, we saw a buildup of cumulus and thunderstorm activity, and hoped we would miss it.

After refuelling at the Shell FBO, a call to the weather office confirmed our suspicions. The weather east of Kenora was IFR, with thunderstorms moving eastward in a line. We closed our flight plan, tied down the plane, and took a courtesy van into Thunder Bay to a motel. Thus ended our first Day of flying.

Day 2: July 13

We awoke to steady rain and no visibility, but a call to Flight Service indicated VFR with ceilings of 1,200 feet, improving to the west later in the Day. We checked out and set off for the airport.

Further checking with the weather office found Kenora had a 4,000-foot ceiling and 15-mile visibility with some areas at 2,500-foot ceilings with 10 to 15 miles of visibility. We filed to Brandon, Man., and departed Thunder Bay at 1:05 pm. We climbed to 2,000 feet, with ceilings of 2,500 and 3,000 broken. It was fairly turbulent, with rugged landscape below us - rocks, lakes, and bush left practically nowhere to execute a forced landing if necessary. We saw one other aircraft, a Turbo Beaver north of Atikoken, but we were not able to contact him.

Just over two hours later, we landed at Kenora, refuelled and checked the weather at the weather office on the field. The weather man gave us an excellent weather briefing, and informed us of a line of thunderstorms at Brandon and moving eastward. We decided to head west as far as we could before meeting the storms, then camp for the night.

One hour and 35 minutes brought us to Winkler, Manitoba, where we decided to camp overnight. The change of scenery, from rugged bush to flat prairie, was amazing. There was a possible landing place in every field!

The strip at Winkler is used primarily as a crop dusting base for Arty's Flying Service - the staff were excellent hosts, and one of their young pilots, Joe Ence, offered to drive us into town for supper. We were also offered the use of the club house, with cooking facilities and running water.

During the night, as the thunder and rain beat at our tent, a voice called us to invite us to go into town to a dry bed. It was one of the duster pilots who was concerned about us. We thanked him, but declined since our tent was dry and we were comfortable. We met really friendly, thoughtful and caring people in Winkler - a preview of the same attitude we were to experience throughout our entire trip.

Day 3: July 14

We awoke at 7 am to the sweet sound of radial engines starting and warming up. We had breakfast, dried out our tent and packed up, but were delayed because of the many people who just happened to drop by to chat with us.

A weather check indicated ceiling and visibility unlimited to the west, so we filed to Swift Current, Sask., and departed at 11 am for a fuel stop in Brandon. We landed in Brandon after a smooth trip at 8,500 feet over flat prairie, refuelled, and departed again.

We climbed to 6,500 feet, where we encountered headwinds all the way to Swift Current, with an indicated ground speed of 89 knots. We landed at Swift Current at 3:50 pm, after three hours and 10 minutes. Closing our flight plan, we checked the weather for Calgary High River. The weather in Calgary was IFR, with CBs moving east, so we filed to Medicine Hat, Alta., and departed at 4:45 pm.

Along the way, we encountered turbulence at 6,500 feet, but for the first time we had a tailwind, with a ground speed varying from 115 to 130 knots. From 30 miles out, we could see the weather approaching Medicine Hat, and at 10 miles the controller was reporting CB activity 10 miles to the west. On the downwind leg, we could see lightning to the west - not a good feeling. I had planned for a 180 degree turn back to an airport we had passed earlier if the weather situation had been worse. We landed at 5:50 pm, tied down, and the rain started. We closed our flight plan and a friendly young air ambulance pilot drove us into town to the motel.

Day 4: July 15

We were weathered in in Medicine Hat, with a wind chill of 6C and rain and high winds.

Day 5: July 16

I called for weather from the motel, and indications were VFR with 5,000 foot ceilings and visibility greater than 15 miles. We filed to High River, and departed Medicine Hat at 10:40 am, arriving at our destination at 11:55. We contacted Springbank FSS, closed our flight plan, and tied down at High River Air Service, which kindly loaned us their courtesy car. I contacted my sister in High River, and we visited for a few Days. Except for Thunder Bay, we were never charged tiedown or landing fees, and the service was excellent.

Days 6-7: July 17-18

We visited in High River, Calgary, and the surrounding foothills. We saw a black bear that had just killed two cows in a large pasture.

Day 8: July 19

We departed High River at 10:25 for Edmonton Villeneuve, after a weather check and flight plan filing. Visibility was 40+ miles with ceilings of 9,000 feet. We were cleared through Calgary Springbank control zones and eventually to 8,500 feet. We landed at Villeneuve after two hours and 10 minutes of flight, with the snowcapped Rocky Mountains off our left wingtip and rolling prairie below. We closed our flight plan, refuelled, and tied down for the night. We were met by an old friend from my Royal Canadian Navy Days, along with his wife, who showed us Edmonton hospitality. We relived many old Navy stories. We visited overnight and departed the next morning.

Day 9: July 20

We checked the weather for Peace River and High Level, Alta., and Fort Simpson, N.W.T. It was VFR for the whole area, so we filed for Fort Simpson and departed Villeneuve at 12:35 pm. We had a spectacular view of Lesser Slave Lake to the east. We raced a rainstorm into Peace River, and landed at 2:40 pm. After lunch, the showers had passed and we departed for High Level, where we arrived at 6:35 pm.

On our way to Fort Simpson, we climbed to 8,500 feet and detoured around rain showers until about 100 miles from Fort Simpson, where it cleared. On our way into Fort Simpson, we flew over a forest fire with an approximate width of 20 miles. There did not appear to be any communities in its path. The terrain is bush, muskeg and water, a very hostile area for forced landings on wheels. The town of Fort Simpson is located at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers, and is approximately 224 nautical miles west of Yellowknife.

Thirty miles out, we contacted Fort Simpson and they cleared us to the circuit at Fort Simpson Island. As we approached the Island, the traffic advisor told us that when we landed our son Alan was waiting for us at the ramp - a nice welcome.

After Alan gave us a tour of the town, we finally turned in at 12:40 am, while it was still Daylight.

When flying north of Edmonton, I set a fuel burn policy based on my aircraft fuel capacity and gallons per hour usage. My aircraft holds 41.5 imperial gallons, with 39 usable. The engine burns seven imperial gallons per hour, for a range of 5.5 hours.

In some cases, the fuel burn is less than seven gallons per hour when leaning practices are employed, but I still flight plan for seven gallons per hour as a safety margin. Fuel stops were planned for every two and a half to three hours, which would leave enough fuel to go to a fairly distant alternate airport or return to the airport of departure with plenty of reserve fuel. This plan worked well for the whole trip.

Day 13: July 24

The previous evening, I had met Jacques Harvey and his wife, Laverna. They operate South Nahanni Airways, flying a Twin Otter on floats off the Mackenzie River.

Harvey invited me to fly with him in the right seat of the Twin Otter into the mountains. He had a charter with six persons and three canoes into the Island Lake district, which is west of Nahanni Park. I was delighted to accept his invitation. Harvey is one of the most experienced bush pilots in this area.

We took off on the Mackenzie River, flew over the mountains into the Nahanni River Valley, and into Island Lake which is barely 2,000 feet long. I had a magnificent view of the incredibly beautiful and rugged mountain peaks and valleys from the right seat of the Twin Otter.

The aircraft is an excellent performer, and is superbly suited for this type of flying. On our return, the plane jumped off the lake and climbed rapidly. Harvey flew over a glacier at 10,000 feet, for a spectacular view that few people have ever seen. Photographing this scenery does not capture the real beauty of the mountains.

We returned to land on the Mackenzie River after a three and a half hour flight. This was the most enjoyable flight I have ever had.

Day 14: July 25

Weather checked, we filed for Yellowknife and departed Fort Simpson at 3:20 pm. The terrain was once again bush, water and muskeg. En route, we talked with our son, Alan, who was on a charter flight to Trout Lake. Thirty miles out, we called Yellowknife arrival and were cleared to the circuit.

We landed and went to the Air Tindy ramp, where Alan had made arrangements for us to park. Since it was Sunday, we were not able to find a car rental agency, so the friendly ramp person at Air Tindy drove us to Fred Henne Campground, which was next to the airport.

Days 15-16: July 26-27

After finally renting a car, we visited Yellowknife and saw the old town and local museums. The old town area is still a beehive of aircraft activity on floats.

Day 18: July 29

We were up early to check the weather, with the news that VFR was expected by 3 pm. We filed and departed Yellowknife at 3:20 pm, with variable ceilings of 2,000-3,000 feet and 15 miles visibility, with some rain showers to dodge. We stayed south of the Horn Plateau, where the ceiling was much lower and the elevation was 2,600 feet ASL. We landed at Simpson and parked once again at Simpson Air.

Day 20: July 31

The weather forecast called for ceiling and visibility unlimited, so we gassed up and set out for Trout Lake to camp and fish. Over the Trout Lake gravel strip, we called Simpson FSS to close our flight plan and landed. We were met by Don Payne, a friend of Alan's, who loaded our gear into his van, gave us a quick tour of the village, and transported us by boat to the campground.

Days 21-22: Aug. 1-2

We camped, and each Day Payne came to take us fishing. We caught large northern pike lake trout and pickerel, and had a most interesting visit with our host. It turned out that Payne is a school principal in the north, and had gone to teacher's college at the same time as my wife in Hamilton, Ont., in the early 1960s. We thanked Payne and his family for their incredible hospitality, packed up, and after calling FSS, we filed for Simpson and departed at 9:50 pm. One hour later, we landed at Simpson in bright Daylight.

Day 23: Aug. 3

Hot, clear skies enticed us to fly to Nahanni Butte for a visit. We flew to the mountains, then veered north and flew through the first gap into the South Nahanni River valley, where we proceeded 20 miles up the river admiring the scenery.

Returning to the Butte area, we were contacted by our son, who was just landing at the Butte. He told us to fly north to the river flats where buffalo were sleeping on the sand. We were able to get some photos of the animals in their natural habitat.

We landed at Nahanni Butte, visited with our son for a few minutes as he had to leave on another charter, then walked into the village. We did not stay very long because the mosquitoes attacked in force, but were able to talk briefly with some American canoeists who were on the Nahanni for two weeks.

Day 26: Aug.6

Alan had arranged to take us to a lodge belonging to his boss, Ted Grant, on Little Doctor Lake at the edge of the Franklin Mountains chain. We took off on the Mackenzie River in the C206 at 8 pm, and landed on Little Dr. Lake about 30 minutes later.

The lodge is on the east side of the lake, facing the mountains, with a gap through into another smaller lake and river. It is absolutely gorgeous, and so quiet that you can hear acorns falling in the woods. This is the only lodge on the lake that is accessible only by floatplane. As Alan climbed into the plane to leave, he wished me a happy birthday. This was his present to me, and it couldn't have been a nicer gift.

We had a wonderful time fishing, relaxing and boating. We were scheduled to fly out on Sunday, but the weather was below limits so we didn't leave until the next morning.

Day 30: Aug. 10

This was the start of our return trip. With the weather VFR through to Edmonton, we fuelled and filed for High River. We planned fuel stops at High Level and Rocky Mountain House, with a stop for the night in High River. After an emotional goodbye to Alan, we departed at 9:20 am for High Level.

Two and a half hours later, we landed at High Level and refuelled. Because of the increasing number of available airports as we proceeded south, I continued on to Rocky Mountain House, where we landed to refuel after a flight of three hours, 40 minutes. The fuelling station at Rocky Mountain House is self-operated, self-paid and on the honor system - a refreshing idea.

We departed at 4:40 pm, and Calgary approach diverted us nine miles to the west to maintain 5,500 feet, then cleared us to High River where we landed after closing our flight plan with Springbank FSS. Two hours after we landed, the weather went IFR for the next five days.

Day 36: Aug. 16

The weather to the east and south finally cleared, and after calling U.S. Customs and filing a flight plan, we departed for Sweet Grass, Montana. We landed on the grass strip at Sweet Grass, where we were met by a pleasant young customs officer who completed the necessary paperwork and welcomed us to the USA.

Sweet Grass has a grass strip which is parallel to another strip, just yards to the north, across the border between the U.S. and Canada. During World War II with lend-lease in effect, U.S. aircraft were flown to Sweet Grass where they were shut down and towed across the border to Canada. They were then flown to Canadian Air Force bases. The Canadian town across the border is Coutts, Alta.

We departed Sweet Grass for Glasgow, Montana, and flew over rugged badlands and cattle ranches. We climbed to 7,500 feet to get out of turbulence, but had unlimited visibility. Between Havre and Glasgow, the vacuum pump failed but the GPS filled in the directional gyro function.

We landed at Glasgow, where I checked the vacuum pump to determine that the shaft had sheared and nothing would interfere with the engine operation. We continued on, and landed for the night at Beulah. N.D., on a 4,000-foot paved runway. A friendly local who was in the process of rebuilding a Cessna 180 chatted with us, and advised that we could get a vacuum pump at Executive Air Taxi in Bismark.

Day 37: Aug. 17

We departed Beulah at 9:50 am, and landed at Bismark at 10:25. Approaching Bismark, the tower asked me to keep my speed up as he was fitting us in front of a DC9. I offered to do a 360degree turn and let the DC9 in ahead of us, but he said it wasn't necessary. I set up for a short field landing on Runway 21, and turned off at the first taxiway. The DC9 captain thanked me for my consideration as it made his approach much easier.

We were guided to Executive Air, where I was able to purchase a new pump and repair my plane. Refuelled, we departed at 2:05 for Rapid City, South Dakota. Fifty miles out, the engine began to vibrate slightly. I immediately turned toward the nearest airport 20 miles east. I suspected a fouled spark plug, but when I retrimmed the mixture the engine smoothened out and ran normally, so I again turned on course and experienced no further problems. We decided to bypass Rapid City and landed at Custer County Airport instead. We were able to set up our tent and visit the area, guided by the hospitable airport manager who arranged a leased vehicle for us.

Day 38: Aug. 18

We toured the state park, Deadwood City, the magnificent carving of Crazy Horse, and attended the evening light show at Mt. Rushmore. The presentation at Rushmore is spectacular. 

Day 39: Aug. 19

Up at 7 am, we departed for Branson, Missouri, through Nebraska and Kansas. We did not refuel because of our aircraft weight. The weather was ceiling and visibility unlimited, and we climbed to 7,500 feet for the two-hour flight to Broken Bow, Nebraska, for fuel. We departed for Branson, where we had excellent service from the FBO, took a courtesy bus into town to our motel, and that evening attended the Bobby Vinton show.

Day 41: Aug.21

We departed Branson at 8:55 am, for a fuel stop at Frankfort, Indiana. From Frankfort, we continued on to Jackson, Michigan. After refuelling, we called Canada Customs and filed for London, Ont. We were routed past Detroit and as we approached London, I cancelled flight following because of low ceilings and no other traffic in the area. We landed in London at 6:50 pm, where we cleared customs. The flight home to Brampton was 45 minutes long, and we arrived at 8:05 pm. It was the end of a fantastic trip.

Flying VFR across Canada and the USA is not a difficult task, as long as proper pre-flight planning is carried out and all available weather information is studied. Current maps, a VFR supplement, and an AOPA airport directory are essential, as well as a good GPS if available. Plan to be grounded by weather often. Do not push the weather. Set your limits and abide by them, and you will have a safe and successful flight.

During our unforgettable 41 day trip, we flew 59.2 hours, travelled 6,517 nautical miles, used 415 imperial gallons of fuel, had an average ground speed of 110 knots, spent a total of $1,809.14 on fuel, and had an average fuel bum of 7.0 imperial gallons per hour.

We flew: 59.2 hours
We travelled: 6517 Nautical miles
We used: 415 imperial gallons of 100LL fuel (1,884 Litres)
Average ground speed: 110 Knots
Total fuel cost: $1809.14 CDN
Average fuel burn: 7.0 Imperial gallons per hour

Fuel Prices (100LL):
Location Price per Litre
Wawa Ont 95.0
Thunder Bay 94.7
Kenora 95.5
Brandon Man 96.0
Swift Current Sask 94.0
High River Alta 85.0
Edmonton Villeneuve 83.0
Peace River Alta 97.0
High Level Alta 91.5
Fort Simpson NWT 86.9
Yellowknife NWT 94.0
Rocky Mtn. House Alta 87.0
Glasgow Montana 61.0 (US)
Bismark North Dakota 58.0 (US)
Broken Bow Nebraska 54.0 (US)
Branson Missouri 57.0 (US)
Frankfort Indiana 50.0 (US)
Jackson Michigan 46.0 (US)

John MacLean is a commercial pilot and former flight instructor who owns a Piper Cherokee 180C, and has been flying for over 37 years.

This page copyright 2000 John MacLean