CFS ALERT, NUNAVUT — “Picture a curling rock on a skating rink.”
Capt. Mike Strosack picks an aptly Canadian analogy to describe the challenge of landing all 220,445 kg of his CC-177 Globemaster III, a massive four-engine military transport, on the ice and snow-packed runway in Alert, an isolated outpost at the tip of Ellesmere Island.
At 240 km/h, no less.
On this day, Strosack is the aircraft commander of Canadian Forces Flight 85, a weekly resupply flight that hauls personnel and gear between the air base in Trenton, Ont., and Alert, the most northern inhabited place in the world.
In the jet’s cavernous hold, passengers sit on seats along the side of the fuselage. Pallets of cargo take up the space in the middle, including skids of bottled water, construction supplies, two containers of de-icing fluid to support the flying operations, a container laden with fresh goods and a few mail bags, all of it held in place by a webbing of tightly secured tie-down straps.
There’s also the curious sight of a blue minibus, which was damaged in an accident at Alert several months ago and is now being returned following repairs.
It’s early afternoon when the jet sets up for its approach to Alert but it might as well be midnight thanks to the Arctic winter, which means 24 hours of darkness.
The white runway lights outline the 1,676-metre-long landing strip. It looks impossibly short for Strosack’s big bird. He will make an assault-style landing, aiming to touch down in a 150-metre zone at the start of the runway to ensure he’s got enough room to stop.
“You run all calculations on the computer so the computer guarantees that if you land in that 500-foot window, you’ll stop in that (distance) available,” Strosack says.
“So as long as the math says it will work, then you’ve just got to hang on for the ride,” he said.
Touchdown. Engines are pulled into full reverse thrust, brakes on and the jet slows sharply. Strosack and fellow pilot, Capt. Jason Fawcett make easy work of it.
Indeed, for this flight, the landing was the easy part. Getting here was the challenge, a four-day ordeal marked by bad weather and technical woes.
Icing conditions had scrubbed Tuesday’s scheduled departure from CFB Trenton. On Wednesday, more weather concerns forced an overnight stopover at the U.S. air force base in Thule, on Greenland’s northern coast.
On Thursday morning, the sight of air force technicians opening panels and poking flashlights into the recesses of the right wing of the military jet suggested another change of plans.
The frustrating delays drove home the logistical challenges of supporting the Canadian presence in Alert.
“This is the reality of working in the North. Things happen. You just have to roll with it,” said Lt.-Col. Cathy Blue, the logistics and engineering officer at 8 Wing Trenton, who also oversees the support of operations at Alert.
The crews at 8 Wing Trenton are responsible for the air bridge that keeps CFS Alert stocked with food and other essentials. In addition to the weekly resupply flights, there are two big flying operations each year, known as Operation Boxtop, to shuttle dry goods and fuel from a stockpile in Thule to stock the station for the winter months.
It can be dangerous, unforgiving flying and memorials near the runway in Alert pay testament to the risks.
In 1991, a Hercules transport crashed into a hillside during its approach. Survivors huddled in the shattered fuselage for 36 hours in minus-23C weather awaiting rescue. Five died in the accident and there were 13 survivors. In 1950, a Lancaster aircraft crashed during a resupply flight, killing all nine crew and passengers.
On Friday, the fuel problem is fixed and the Globemaster is ready to fly. But after flying for more than an hour, the predicted good weather at Alert has turned sour, making it impossible to land. So it’s back to Thule to wait for better weather.
“The challenge in the North . . . it just changes so rapidly,” Strosack says.
After lunch, the crews make another attempt to get to Alert and this time succeed — four days later than planned. It’s a quick turnaround. Cargo is unloaded, personnel disembark, replaced by new passengers headed south, all eager to see loved ones — and the sun.
Alert is alone and isolated once again.