On a summer day, Larry Whittaker steps out of his cabin onto the sandy beach front. He takes in the morning breeze and looks out toward the hills rising in the distance and the green trees mirrored perfectly in clear waters. The only sound is the subtle ripples of water lapping the beach and the panting dog at his side.
“There’s something about being in the real wilderness and being on your own that I find quite attractive,” Whittaker says. “I can tell you right now, for my wife and I, that’s probably our favourite place in the whole world.”
Whittaker built the cabin back in 2010 about 110 miles south of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, where he has lived for the last 51 years. There are no other cabins nearby and the only way Whittaker and his wife can get there is by airplane.
Luckily, the two can jump into his homemade aircraft (with the body, wings and tail of various Piper models) at any time—landing on the lake with skis in the winter and floats in the summer. Whittaker wouldn’t have built the cabin so far out if he didn’t have his trusty airplane to get him there. That’s the beauty of flying and one of the reasons why he decided to get his license, back in 1982.
“This is pretty remote country up here and really the only practical way to get around any distance is by boat,” Whittaker says. “But you can’t go inland with a boat, so the airplane is ideal. We managed to see a lot of the country with an airplane that we couldn’t have seen any other way.”
Although owning a private airplane sounds pretty luxurious, Heather Bourassa says it also proves helpful to her family and the rest of her fly-in community.
Bourassa and her father Jack are the only two pilots living in Fort Good Hope, NWT. There’s no all-season road into the community of about 500, making it difficult to get in and out when the winter road isn’t open. Bourassa’s single-engine Cessna 172 comes in handy when she wants to go out for a meal or visit the nearest bank in Norman Wells. She even flies her husband out for Wing Wednesdays at the nearest pub, about 45 minutes away.
“You could feel isolated, but just knowing that you have a plane at the airport that you could take out at any time gives this other level of independence and freedom,” says Bourassa.
And it’s not just freedom for her and her family. Bourassa’s neighbours have come to realize they can always rely on her and her father when they really need it. She’s done supply drops for community members stuck out on the land when the ice is too frail or the waters are too dicey to get home right away.
“I went through a period of time with my dad where we were putting together little orders that people would bring to me and say, ‘Oh, can you bring this to such-and-such a cabin?’ Then I would fly there and throw the thing out the window to them,” she explains. “I’m so glad that I have this plane and now this person can get their medication or even cigarettes [until they’re able to safely get home].”
Whitehorse is nowhere near as isolated as Fort Good Hope, but John Faulkner’s 1943 Beech Staggerwing is still a treasure to him.
In 2020, his plane was one of about 30 soaring through blue skies, with wings tipped to greet the spectators below. Faulkner’s was the oldest and only biplane at the 100 Years of Yukon Aviation event, standing out with its shining red paint and art deco-style swirls painted along the body. That event was the only way for the Yukon Transportation Museum to celebrate the major milestone (due to COVID-19 restrictions), but it was a magical experience for Faulkner, whose love of flying has lasted a lifetime.
“I was the proverbial little kid who always looked up when I heard an airplane go over,” he says. “I’ve never flown professionally. It’s always just been a passion.”
He bought his first plane, a Cessna 182, shortly after finishing university. He has owned a few others since, but the Beech Staggerwing may be his most prized possession.
“It’s hard not to give a nod to the Beech,” he says. “They were the first product of the British Aircraft Company. Walter Beech decided in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, that that was what the world needed… it was hugely expensive to build and buy. It was the price of about four houses. But amazingly enough, it was a commercial success.”
About 400 Beech Staggerwings were built in the 1930s and then another 400 during the Second World War for the U.S. military. The taildragger Faulkner owns was built for the U.S. Navy. After some bargaining, he bought it from the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in the 1990s. It has required quite a bit of maintenance over the years. Its fabric-covered wings are made of Sitka spruce and mahogany plywood, so these days it stays in the hangar for much of the winter. Still, its rich history is something Faulkner cherishes.
“It’s funny, there’s a lock box in the door where you get in and out of the cabin of the airplane…with a combination lock on it. In my mind’s eye, I sort of imagined some admiral sitting back there and flying on important missions with top secret documents tucked into that little lock box.”
Bourassa’s Cessna was made later, in the 1950s, but when she is up in the air, she sometimes thinks about the family legacy she is carrying on. Her grandfather Johnny was a WWII fighter pilot and later a pilot for Yellowknife Airways Ltd. before he and his plane went missing in 1949. Johnny’s story is well-known throughout the North, so Bourassa’s path to becoming a pilot was almost expected—not that she minds.
“My dad, he took me flying [as a kid] and he opened my eyes to that as an experience and the thought that that could be me and that I could do that,” she says. Now that Bourassa’s a pilot, she shares the experience with her own kids. “Growing up where I flew around with my dad, I felt like it was really special and I loved it, so I’m happy that I can give that to my children and they can fly around with me.”
Faulkner’s son, Jeff, also followed his father into the skies. Today, he’s a pilot for Alkan Air Ltd.
And though Whittaker’s sons haven’t taken up flying, he’s grateful to share the sense of freedom he feels every time his plane’s wings lift him off the ground.
“The airplane is pretty precious to us,” he says. And who can argue that? With an aircraft at hand, the sky’s the limit.