In February 1983, helicopter pilot Mr. Louis-Claude Boudreault, left Abbotsford, British Columbia (Canada) for a five day trip heading to Pelly Bay (Akviligjuaq) and Resolute Bay as part of the Polar Continental Shelf Program. As defined by Natural Resources Canada, the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP), established in 1958, assists scientists from around the world to better understand Canada’s final frontier: the Arctic.
Nobody on board the aircraft had any experience with the Arctic, so they all received a formation given by the Canadian Coast Guard prior to departure to learn the basis of how to navigate and survive in the Arctic. Mr. Boudreault stresses the point that they didn’t have GPS or any other elaborate navigation device back then, and due to the lack of reference points, being a helicopter pilot in the Arctic was not easy. At that time he was using a time heading system based on time zones, as well as the Decca Navigator System, which were much more complicated than current day GPS systems.
After a five day trip, they reached the base camp, which was on the ice. Mr. Boudreault remembers that the temperature was changing very quickly. Temperatures of -50 C and wind reaching 60mph were common.
Part of their job was to take measurements every 100m on the ice, so it was imperative to master the Decca Navigator System.
Mr. Boudreault states that some people on the team had problems dealing with the cold or living with other people in the camps, implying that not everybody was able to cope with being in the Arctic for an extended period of time.
One day he left the camp with a technician to take some measurements. On their way back to camp, the weather quickly turned badly, forcing them to land the helicopter near a snow bank. They had to dig a hole in the snow to make a shelter, and removed the seats in the helicopter so they could sit on them to reduce the risk of hypothermia. They also removed the batteries from the aircraft to prevent them from freezing.
At some point the technician went out of the shelter and told Louis-Claude that the sky had cleared up. Since they did not know how long the clear weather would continue, they hurried up and got everything back into the helicopter, called base camp and left. “I knew enough about the Arctic to know that I did not want to stay there”, remembers Mr. Boudreault.
Shortly after take-off, the weather behind them started to return to the previous bad conditions and was catching up quickly. They reached the camp, but Mr. Boudreault wasn`t able to stop the helicopter since the wind was too strong and the helicopter wasn`t equipped with a rotor brake. He idled for about 40 minutes and, fortunately, the wind calmed down, allowing him to land the aircraft before running out of fuel.
The bad weather persisted for four days. “If we hadn’t left when the sky cleared up, we could have been stuck in that snow bank for four days. We would have been in trouble”, said Boudreault.
It is also important to remember that in the Arctic at that time of the year, there are about 2 hours of daylight, and then it’s dark again. This, combined with the bad weather, made their job difficult and it was frustrating for them because they were not able to do their tasks.
This first trip to the Arctic lasted from February to April.
In a second trip to the Arctic, Boudreault went to Mould Bay to assist scientists who had to get instruments that were placed under the ice. They had to melt the ice with hot water to make a hole and have a robot go in the water to grab a cable so they could get the instruments.
To pull the instruments out, they were then using a winch to roll the cable, which was about 300 feet long. However, one of the engines broke on the winch, so they decided to hook the cable to the helicopter and asked Boudreault to take off in order to pull the cable. “I had to fly 300 feet above the hole”, explained Boudreault. Everything ended up working, and they got the instruments out.
On their way back to Mould Bay, Boudreault ran into bad weather again. Added to the fact that he was flying a helicopter equipped with a minimum flight instruments for an IFR approach, the bad weather sure was not helping. Thankfully, Mould Bay airport was equipped with a NDB instrument (Non-Directional Beacon), which allowed him to land through the clouds despite the white out. Since the ground was covered in snow, it was very hard to land. “I was worried. I would not do it again. I was lucky to make it to the ground”, concluded Boudreault.
Rotor Story by Stephanie Cotnoir