Boeing 727 supports mining ops in far north

 - April 25, 2008, 6:50 AM

Emerging from a ragged overcast ceiling, captain Rick Van Nest has almost 30 deg of crab on the Boeing 727 to maintain his VOR approach track. Half a mile ahead through the gloom a single stream of flashing white sequenced approach lights marks a path to the dusty gray 6,400-ft gravel runway at the Lupin gold mine.

Though it is early summer in the Western Arctic, the faded orange and white windsock beside the strip catches snow flurries blowing horizontally across the runway. The flight service station operator’s voice crackles in the headsets advising the crew that the temperature is 1 deg C (30 deg F), and the winds are nearly straight across the Runway at 23 kt, gusting to 34. He also confirms that a truck has made a pass down the runway to ensure the strip is clear of migrating caribou and musk ox.

With little margin for error, Van Nest picks his spot and drives the 727 down, planting the aircraft where the 1,000-ft markers would be if they existed. As soon as the mains and nosewheel are on the ground, he pops the three reverse thrust levers just into the idle detent, but is careful not to spool up the number-one and -three engines closest to the ground, to avoid ingesting gravel. By the time the aircraft slows to taxi speed there is 1,000 ft of runway to spare.

That’s about par for the course for pilots working for Echo Bay Mines. Twice a week, regardless of season, they make a vital 751-mi trip north from company headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta, to support the remote Lupin mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories, just south of the Arctic Circle. With the exception of a temporary ice road plowed across the tundra each winter, the company 727 is the only lifeline the mine has with the south for most of the year. Operating this large corporate jet in the Arctic for such a purpose naturally presents a variety of challenges, but for this Canadian mining company the pros outweigh the cons. The key to making it work, though, is a high degree of specialized experience and a novel interpretation of corporate aviation.

“Echo Bay Mines has grown up with aircraft and that makes all the difference,” said chief pilot Don Siddle. “To step back and do this work with another carrier would be more expensive with fewer benefits...but you need the experience and infrastructure to do it yourself.” Indeed, while other companies may have the budgets to run a similar operation as Echo Bay, few have the necessary expertise derived from decades of corporate aviation in the Arctic.

Startup Operation
When Echo Bay started mining in the north, few commercial operators were capable of doing what the company required. As such, the company created its own dedicated flight service in 1975, leasing a DC-3, followed later that year by a Convair 640. Since then the aviation department has run the gamut of aircraft types, including several rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft used for everything from crew changes and freight hauling to offstrip and executive work. In 1980 the aviation department went big time–a Lockheed L-100-20 (C-130) Hercules was purchased to perform heavy-lift duties for the construction and development of the Lupin mine. The aircraft’s accomplishments were staggering: between 1980 and 1982, during peak construction of the mine, the airplane flew around the clock six days a week, airlifting more than 47 million pounds of freight into the mine in a single year.

In 1984, when the mine was completed, Echo Bay’s needs shifted from mine construction to gold production. It wanted to replace its Hercules and Convair 640 with a single, faster airplane, one that could haul both cargo and people.

But finding a suitable low-time “combi” jet for gravel operations was challenging since the field of aircraft to choose from was–and is limited. (The inherent risk of foreign object damage to turbofan engines renders most modern airplanes unacceptable for gravel operations.) In the end, the choice fell between a combi version of either the 737-200 or the 727-100.

Both airplanes are well suited to gravel operations, but the 727 has one distinct advantage for Echo Bay–the third crewmember. “Having the flight engineer on board works well for us,” said Siddle. “Working in a remote environment, it’s nice to have a qualified engineer on board in case we break down.” This, combined with the higher engine clearance and greater payload–not to mention one sweetheart of a deal–made the choice obvious.

In any event, finding the right airplane is one thing–operating it effectively in the Arctic is another. To begin with, you need experienced flight crew. Expecting the unexpected and managing it with foresight is crucial to any flight crew, but when the nearest alternate is 250 mi to the southwest, local experience becomes critical for safe and efficient operations. For this reason, all of Echo Bay’s flight crews are “high timers” who have been doing northern gravel operations their entire careers, most of the time with Echo Bay.

This sits well with the mine crews riding in back, who prefer having company drivers at the helm. “It instills confidence in the miners to fly with guys they know,” said Rick O’Neill, maintenance supervisor at the Lupin mine. “You know you’re going to get in safely. It’s not quite as comfortable flying with people who aren’t familiar with this area.”

Certainly one advantage Echo Bay’s flight crews have is an intimate appreciation of the regions’ wild card–weather. The arctic climate is mercurial at the best of times, but especially so during late spring and autumn, when thousands of ice-choked lake surfaces in the region are in “break up” or “freeze up.” At these times, localized weather phenomena–not always evident in area forecasts–are common, frequently hampering Echo Bay’s flights into the mine airstrip. So significant is the effect of weather that Echo Bay hired retired military meteorologists to staff a flight station at the mine, where they provide some of the most accurate weather observations “north of 60.”

Wind is another problem. Being above the treeline in the “Barrenlands,” the Lupin mine and its gravel runway are exposed to hundreds of miles of fetch, which regularly results in extraordinary high winds. In winter, blowing snow often results in white-out conditions, even on perfectly sunny days. “Weather is a huge factor for us,” said Van Nest. “We won’t even leave Edmonton unless we have a reasonable expectation of getting in.”

For Echo Bay the unpredictable weather highlights the convenience and flexibility of having its own aviation service. “If you have a charter aircraft and you miss a weather window, you may not be able to get the aircraft again when you want it,” noted Jerry McCrank, vice president of operations for Echo Bay.

Cost Effectiveness and Service Are Key
Still, for all its advantages, operating a single Boeing 727 is a complicated and expensive undertaking. “The bottom line is cost effectiveness and the service you get. We wouldn’t be here otherwise,” said Siddle.

True enough, but the costly infrastructure and logistics required to fly the 727 into the mine go beyond the norm for a corporate aviation department. Not only is Echo Bay tasked with flying an unusually large corporate combi jet, it has the added responsibility of building and maintaining its own airstrip at the mine year-round. Furthermore, the company has to service its own navaids and approach lighting. And then there is the collection of essential support personnel. Loadmasters, ground crew and warehouse personnel deal with load preparation and aircraft handling; flight attendants are responsible for the high volume of passengers; and station operators at the mine relay crucial information to the flight crews.

The keystone to success in all this requires a departure from the conventional understanding of corporate aviation.

Central to Echo Bay’s philosophy is the effective use of employees. When the airplane isn’t flying, numerous secondary duties occupy aircrew and assorted personnel–pilots are tasked with various administrative duties and essential miscellaneous tasks, while flight engineers don their coveralls and go to work on the shop floor. “We all wear about five or six hats here,” said Siddle. “Everybody pitches in because we don’t have the budget to allow guys to sit around watching other people break their backs. Everybody gets involved, whether it’s reconfiguring seating, loading the aircraft or doing paperwork.”

The aviation department also places a heavy emphasis on self sufficiency. “You don’t want to be paying middlemen all the time. In our situation, everything is under one roof,” said Siddle. Echo Bay, he noted, does all its own training in house, and all maintenance–except for major overhauls–is performed by its own technicians.
These tactics help to cut expenses, but another dimension to cost effectiveness is cost recovery. For the most part, the company accomplishes this through a number of agreements and contracts with outside agencies and businesses.

“Echo Bay is cognizant that we have a facility that is of use to the region,” said Siddle. At Lupin, the company provides navaid services and weather reporting for federal agencies, and it acts as a logistical hub for northern air carriers wanting to operate in the area. At the company base in Edmonton, similar efforts to recover costs involve leasing terminal and hangar space to other companies.

Regardless, given the whims of gold prices, sometimes no strategy is cost effective. When the price of gold tanked in the late 1990s (hitting 20-year lows of just above $250 per ounce–it’s now trading slightly above $300), Echo Bay temporarily shut down Lupin and sold off its entire aircraft fleet, with the notable exception of the 727, which was leased out for cargo operations. Siddle said, “The 727 was retained with the intent that when the mine reopened it would be put back to work. It is a vital part of the operation.”

Undoubtedly several arguments could be marshalled against maintaining such a complex operation for the sake of a single aircraft. Yet despite all the operational and logistical challenges associated with operating a large corporate jet in a remote and difficult environment, Echo Bay Mines remains committed to the specialized aviation department it has cultivated over the past 27 years.

Ultimately, not only does the air service provide an essential link between company headquarters and the mine, it satisfies the company’s need for convenience, flexibility and security at a cost more effective than outsourcing the service. That is, of course, provided the price of gold stays high enough.