Thursday, December 23, 2004


Pauingassi Snares "Two More" Victims

It was the mid-'90s, some time in January. I was flying for Northway Aviation, an outfit with a hangar and facilities at Drunken Point, on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

January and February are the two quietest months in the year as far as flying goes, as it is very cold and limits people's activities, and the Manitoba winter road system is open, or soon will be. This allows for people to travel to and from Winnipeg and destinations south. The winter road system allows heavy transport trucks to supply the all-weather road inaccessible Indian Reserves, this being much cheaper than flying their goods in by air.

Pauingassi is one of the Indian Reserves in Manitoba that is very dependent on air transport. It also does not have a runway. During the freeze-up months in early winter, and break-up months in early spring, Pauingassi can only be accessed by helicopter, from a base at Little Grand Rapids, 9 miles away. Little Grand Rapids has a runway, and passengers and goods are transferred to the helicopters to reach Pauingassi. Therefore, as soon as a primitive ice runway can be constructed, it is, as this can always be accomplished before the winter road system can provide access for the community.

During this volume from the library of my life, I was the Operations Manager for the company I worked for, and had been for a number of years. As in all businesses, we had competitors. At a slow time of year business-wise, your revenue and cash-flow are reduced, therefore, some companies were willing to take more risks than others to grab what revenue is available. This was not the case in our company, as the owner of the company and I were very experienced pilots with thousands of hours flying time. We were also a little unique in the area that we both had lots of float, ski, and tail-dragger time, and had done a lot of off-airport flying. This gave us a good all-around awareness of what elements to consider when assessing risk before commencing an operation.

The ice-runway in Pauingassi was finally ready and I took our Cessna 185 to check it out. I was not impressed. The "runway", so to speak, had been hastily constructed. It ran "north to south", was only a couple of thousand feet long, and was very narrow. It would be useable, but only with our high-winged, fixed-gear aircraft. The wind would also have to be looked at as a major factor before each flight.

We used the runway, but always erred on the side of caution if conditions were marginal. Then one morning, my headset crackled; "Crazy-Wind 000 is off the ice-strip at Pauingassi, climbing to 6500' southbound". I couldn't believe it. Our competitors were using a Piper Navajo Chieftain on the ice-strip. Now, I personally have flown twin-engine, retractable-gear airplanes such as the Chieftain off of ice-strips, but not one this slippery and narrow, with high snow banks on each side. Recipe for disaster, I figured.

Both companies continued to use the ice-strip in Pauingassi, and our competitor started to obtain most of the revenue available, as we were using slower airplanes to provide a service, but much safer airplanes as per the takeoff/landing area conditions. People like to get where they are going as fast as possible, no matter what the mode of transportation. It is human nature. People from communities serviced by air also seem to have a blind faith in pilots. Anyways, both companies continued, with a few close calls by our competitor being observed. I, for one, knew it was only a matter of time.

"There has been an accident in Pauingassi, on the ice-strip!" we heard over the radio. I quickly established that it wasn't one of our aircraft, and waited for more information. We finally found out it was our competitor and on landing he had hit a truck. There was an access road to the ice-strip from the community, and a truck had just started to access the ice-strip when the competitor's Chieftain landed. Due to the length and breadth of the strip, the pilot couldn't stop, and smoked the truck. When the snow finally cleared, it was determined that no-one was hurt, although the airplane wing hit the cab of the truck, and the propeller just missed it.

The outcome of the incident was positive in respect to injuries or death, but it could have been much worse. There are limits and standards to be adhered to, and compromising standards for revenue or ego will always leave you with egg (or blood) on your face, no matter what business you may be in.

The RCMP finished their investigation, and the aircraft was salvaged. We all had a chance to see the mating of the truck and airplane and personally ponder with our private thoughts. Our competitors stopped landing retractable-twin airplanes on the ice-strip, and our passenger travel increased somewhat. The ice-strip was finally lengthened and widened, allowing more diverse types of aircraft to use it. When all was said and done, I was glad the incident didn't happen to our company. Don't get me wrong, I'm not glad it happened to them, either. It was just nice to know that because decisions we make in life can be far-reaching and have an effect on other people, we felt we had made the right decisions.

The city-boy pilot displayed a classic case of "Ice-Road Rage" as he tried to get the last available parking spot.... Posted by Hello

The wrestling match was considered a draw, as "Jumpin' GM" had "Ratty Piper" by the wing, but "Ratty" had "Jumpin" by the box.... Posted by Hello

Hi i just wanted to say,to your
letter there,for i too am a resident of pauingassi reserve
but i am a a training pilot and
i totally agree with you that
the runway was too narrow that it
needs to be wider for bigger planes
to get in there.
but personally no onehas the experience to know what they are doing??
so i'm glad that no one got hurt!~
well thats all i have to say!!

but in the future i hear there
gonna build an airstrip just north
west of pauingassi about 2km
i hope that they do!!
Thanks for your input. I hope Pauingassi finally does get a runway. They could have built one north of the community, but they built the new school there. Good luck with your flying!
hi there. i have worked with pauingassi for years and just came across this blog ~ interesting! i have to think it's bolton aka skynorth you're talking about?? those runways in winter are crazy ~ but i have to say it's still better than driving across a winter road that's CLOSED and getting stuck in the slush. i must say i thought i was dead! thanks for interesting story!
Hey "Anonymous", thanks for your comment! No, it wasn't SkyNorth or Bolton Air, the aircraft belonged to defunct SoWind Air.


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