Yellowknife

Historic plane’s final trip takes champion sled dogs to Norway, via NWT


“These planes are rarer than rare. Considering that I fly one of the rarest airplanes as well, it just makes it really cool.”

Buffalo Airways pilot Jamie MacDonald landed back at Yellowknife Airport – already home to aircraft that first flew in the Second World War – just in time to welcome another old-timer on Monday.

Ordinarily the pilot of a wartime-era Curtiss C-46, MacDonald was able to catch sight of a vintage 1956 Douglas DC-6 in the middle of its epic final voyage, carrying an unlikely cargo.

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The DC-6, one of the first airliners operated by former Norwegian airline Braathens SAFE, refuelled in Yellowknife while travelling from Alaska to Norway, where it is to be retired and put on display in the Norwegian Aviation Museum.

It’s a fairytale story.

THOMAS WAERNER, IDITAROD CHAMPION

The final journey of the aircraft, painted in Braathens SAFE’s 1960s colours, has become a minor media sensation in Norway. The flight received a guard of honour on arriving in the country on Tuesday.

“What I like about these planes is that they just packed so much history,” MacDonald told Cabin Radio after admiring the DC-6’s radial engines and nose art. (The nose reads “social distancing, Nome to Norway 2020,” in tribute to the airliner’s final voyage.)

Not only was the plane a historic treat, but the cargo on board was hard to beat. The flight carried this year’s Iditarod Trail sled dog race winner, Thomas Waerner of Norway, and his team of 16 dogs.

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Waerner had been in Alaska since late February to prepare for the 1,500-km annual race. He planned to come home in March after competing but, because of Covid-19, his travel plans were thrown for a loop.

On Tuesday, while driving past the fjords of Norway on the final leg of his journey home, Waerner recounted to Cabin Radio: “There were no planes going with dogs and there were no cargo planes going. So it was impossible to bring the dogs home.”

With no way to transport the dogs, Waerner was stuck in Alaska and ended up away from home for more than three months. That’s when one of his sponsors, dog food brand Qrill Pet, stepped in.

The company sponsored the aviation museum’s acquisition of the plane – which had been put on hold when dollar values began to surge – and its flight to Norway, all to make sure Waerner and his team got a ride home.

“It’s a fairytale story,” Waerner said. “How can this happen? How can you have to find the plane 10 minutes from where you’re living and get a ride to Norway?”

Nose art on the Braathens SAFE-liveried DC-6

Nose art on the Braathens SAFE-liveried DC-6. Photo: Patrick Jacobson

Kennels on board the aircraft

Kennels on board the aircraft. Photo: Patrick Jacobson

During his layover in Yellowknife, Waerner said he and the plane’s crew were greeted by something of an “airplane fan club.”

Patrick Jacobson, a former Buffalo Airways dispatcher, was there.

When he discovered the DC-6 would be landing briefly in town, he didn’t waste time grabbing his camera to snap a couple of pictures.

“It was bigger than I anticipated,” Jacobson said of the plane, adding the four radial piston engines made quite a sound.

“Even just firing it up on the ground there, it definitely has a rumble to it,” he said. “It’s those old engines [that] can vibrate through you a little bit, so it’s exciting.”

As the plane refuelled, Jacobson even helped take the sled dogs for a little stroll, giving them a chance to go to the bathroom and stretch their legs.

“The first one that was handed to me was a little more docile, but the second was pulling like a sled dog,” he laughed.

A view of the DC-6 at Yellowknife Airport

A view of the DC-6 at Yellowknife Airport. Photo: Patrick Jacobson

The Braathens SAFE DC-6 prepares to leave Yellowknife for Norway

The Braathens SAFE DC-6 prepares to leave Yellowknife for Norway. Photo: Patrick Jacobson

For their part, the dogs were well-behaved on the flight. They handled the long commute even better than Waerner himself, the dogsledder joked.

“Dogs are a lot better than humans,” Waerner said. “They don’t worry about things, you know, as long as they are feeling that they are safe and have a nice place to sleep.

“So, they just went to sleep. They slept the whole way.”

With the plane safely landed, Waerner was looking forward to seeing his family after the prolonged separation.

When the plane is finally put on display at the Norwegian Aviation Museum, he is going to make a point of seeing it.

In the meantime, he’s already ready to return to Alaska.

“It’s the place to be, Alaska,” he said. “I’m looking forward to coming back next year.”

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