Canadian North will dispense with its last Boeing 737-200, a specially modified jet aircraft capable of landing on gravel airstrips, following a final flight on Saturday.
Most jet aircraft aren’t compatible with gravel runways because of the risk that flying pebbles could either damage the undercarriage or be sucked into the engines themselves.
The 737-200, however, can be equipped with a special kit from Boeing that installs gravel deflectors behind the landing gear, reinforces protection around sensitive equipment, and modifies the engines to help keep gravel out.
While that solution is ideal for many northern airports, the problem is that the kit doesn’t exist for later models, parts are increasingly hard to come by, and the 200-series aircraft themselves are no spring chickens.
Canadian North used to operate up to six of them at a time. Now, its last remaining 737-200 – fleet number 584 – will make its final flight on Saturday, 43 years after being built and more than two decades after being purchased by the airline.
Number 584, dubbed Spirit of Yellowknife, will depart the city on Saturday morning for Cambridge Bay before being retired. A reception will be held at the airport beforehand, though the airline clarified – following initial publication of this article – that its ceremony will be private, with no opportunity for public participation.
In an extraordinary nod to the aircraft’s past, its final flight will take place under the command of Captain Dawn Macfarlane, Canadian North said. Macfarlane is the daughter of Captain Cecil Hansen, who picked up the newly manufactured number 584 from Boeing Field in Seattle in 1980, when it was bought by Dome Petroleum, a company with a focus on Arctic exploration.
“The 737-200 began and will finish its career in the Arctic,” Canadian North said in a press release.
“This aircraft is part of the community and many aviation families. Generations of pilots have flown the 737-200 and years later, following in their footsteps, many of their children have done the same.”
With the 737-200 gone, Canadian North will use ATR turboprop aircraft – which don’t require the same level of adaptation – to service gravel strips like Cambridge Bay. The airline had previously said maintaining the 737-200 was becoming increasingly difficult over time.
Canadian North’s 18 other Boeing 737s, which are of a later vintage and can’t be adapted for gravel strips, aren’t affected.
This isn’t the last 737-200 in the North. Nolinor, a charter airline with a northern focus, has more than half a dozen 737-200s, some almost half a century old. Air Inuit, which serves Nunavut, Labrador and Nunavik, has four.
The gradual obsolescence of gravel-adapted jet aircraft has led to renewed calls for federal investment in northern airfields, many of which still rely on gravel strips.
By contrast, at least one recent report has recommended that gravel be preferred to paved runways in some circumstances, as gravel strips may be less susceptible to the effects of climate change on underlying permafrost.