A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

May 2011   

Ice Pilots NWT

Photo by Barry Meek.


     By now, there can’t be a single pilot in Canada who has not heard of the highly successful television series ICE PILOTS, NWT.  It has been running through two seasons on the Canadian network, HISTORY TELEVISION, and this show really got me hooked.  In fact, ICE PILOTS is the highest rated Canadian-made series ever broadcast on History TV.  My winters are spent in the U.S. where this program is not available, so I turned to the internet to view it.  Without the waits for the next episodes an entire week later, I could stay up late and watch as much as I liked. 

         Just in case you’ve not had the opportunity to see the series, it’s a reality-type show with real people running a real airline in the Northwest Territories of Canada.  Based in Yellowknife, Buffalo Airways serves the north with dedicated pilots and staff using airplanes that were made before most of their people were born.  DC-3’s and 4’s, Electra’s, and Curtis C-46’s all saw service prior to and during WW11.  Somehow, obviously with a huge financial commitment, Buffalo keeps the old birds flying. 

           Normally my opinion of anything on television is that it’s not worth my time to sit down and watch it.  But this series, even with its occasional flaws and exaggerations, is very well done.  There’s a careful mixture of the dynamics surrounding the company, its operation, the people, issues and hardships they face, and of course the flying itself.  The producer does a good job of describing and showing the problems of flying in the extreme conditions of the Canadian north.  And each episode includes interesting personal challenges as they occur in the lives of pilots, engineers, rampees, cargo handlers, and even management.

              The big boss is Joe McBryan, a.k.a. Buffalo Joe.  A crusty, cantankerous, sometimes downright miserable old guy to work for, he’s portrayed firing people on the spot, putting down and insulting his staff and generally aspiring to be the boss you would least like to work for.  But they also bring out a softer, gentler side of Joe in situations surrounding his family and close friends.  He obviously has great respect for at least a few of his staff, including Arnie Schreder, the chief pilot and for one or two of the engineers.  A young, French female pilot hired to work the ramp, obviously touched a soft spot with Joe too.  And I couldn’t help feel bad for him when his beloved old dog was hit and seriously injured by a car. 

               Without Joe’s son Mikey, the television series would not have been as entertaining as it was.  Mikeys title is general manager of Buffalo Airways.  It’s obvious however, that Joe runs the entire show.  Mikeys title is symbolic.   But he has the respect of the rest of the people there, probably more because of his gentle, easy-going attitude, quite the opposite of his father.  He’s the go-between who they all confide in with problems and ideas that he in turn, takes to Joe to face the music.  Mikey seems to have the thick skin needed by someone who has to deal with a boss like Joe.  Probably the only reason he’s still working for Buffalo is he’s family.

                 I particularly enjoyed seeing how the pilots handled some of the events that occurred on the show.  The mechanical breakdowns at 30 below, the engine failures and tense situations being caught with low fuel and oil, the emergency landings, delays and weather problems, all things most pilots can relate to.   The producer spent too much time in my opinion, going on about some of the personal staff problems and dynamics.  But that kind of diversion from the business of northern flying probably rounded out the show enough to capture the interest of the thousands of non-pilot viewers. 

                  On the final episode of season two, Arnie retires from the chief pilot position, in part because he’d been there so long, and because of some personal family issues.  His daughter had been fighting cancer, and they needed to be closer to medical facilities.  Buffalo Joe faced appointing a new C.P. and no decision had been made at the close of the show.  However, it appears Justin Simle was offered and accepted the job.  His name appears on the listings now as the new Chief Pilot.   

                 I’m grateful to a friend of mine in Vancouver who used his computer savvy to locate and download the entire season two episodes of ICE PILOTS, NWT for me.  I watched all thirteen shows in about three days.  Like the good book you pick up and can’t seem to put down, this was a show that made watching television something to look forward to again for me.             

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