Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “The Ice Pilots”

Mike  Vlessides

Mike Vlessides

December 2011

What made you want to start writing about Buffalo Airways and The Ice Pilots?

Having lived in the North for a number of years -- one of them in Yellowknife -- I was well aware of the mystique surrounding Buffalo, and especially President and Captain Joe McBryan. Writing The Ice Pilots afforded me an opportunity to get behind the scenes, and there was no way I was going to turn that down!

Many people in North America feel like they know the team at Buffalo after seeing the TV series of the same name. Will people find new information in the book and get a different sense of the individuals involved?

I think they will. The TV show is wonderfully done, but at the end of the day, a TV program is not able to drill to the same depths as a book. The sheer length of a book allows the writer and reader to get into detail about things TV programs can only scratch the surface of. I wonder how many fans of the show know that Jimmy Essery -- ďThe IndianĒ, as he is known -- almost lost his life in a blizzard while prospecting on the tundra. Or that Joe used to spend his childhood days playing in the cockpit of a bush plane that crashed near the mining camp he grew up in.

What was your biggest surprise when investigating Ice Pilots and the Buffalo team?

Two things: the soft side of Joe McBryan and the business acumen of his son Mikey.

When I first agreed to write the book, I knew Joe like most northerners did: he was an irascible, stubborn, hot-tempered maverick who did things his way and only his way. I learned that once you get past the manís hard surface, though, there is a helpful and tender side to him that is truly admirable. Everybody you meet, it seems, has a story about how Buffalo Joe helped them out in a bind. From flying sick animals to the SPCA in Yellowknife to helping pilots crashed in the bush, Joe was there.

Equally surprising is the business acumen and philosophical outlook of Mikey. I didnít know much of Mikey. The show portrays him as a bit of a goof, and he kinda looks like one. But if you're lucky enough to spend some time with him, you realize that heís on the ball. He is not one to sit around and accept the status quo. He is always looking up and out, trying to find ways to diversify the companyís revenue. Fascinating guy!

There's a huge audience and fan-base for WW2-era planes across North America. Did you find learning about the planes was a steep learning curve? And what can aviation buffs hope to expect from the book?

The beauty of Buffaloís planes is that they're simple. Yet despite their mechanical simplicity, they are steeped in a rich history that sets them apart from most other planes in the world. So there was definitely a bit of a learning curve for me, the aviation neophyte. But in sifting through all that material, I uncovered a variety of interesting stories -- both related and unrelated to Buffalo -- that will keep aviation buffs of all stripe interested.

You previously ghostwrote Les Stroudís bestselling Survivorman books. Were there any parallels between Lesís adventurous, Ďsurvivalí instincts, and the characters you met when researching The Ice Pilots? What draws you to write books about the subject of man vs. nature?

I love a good novel. But for me, nothing compares with the excitement of having someone tell you a true story as intriguing as fantasy. And few places offer that kid of excitement as the great outdoors, especially when the great outdoors is as indomitable as the Canadian North.

One of the things that Les always talks about is the importance of preparedness. The people at Buffalo know this. From the pilots to the people organizing cargo, everyone understands that when your livelihood is played out a few thousand feet over the Canadian Arctic, you have to be ready for anything that might come your way. People have died taking the place for granted.

How did previously living in Yellowknife influence your research of the book and your understanding of the jobs that Buffalo Airways does?

Having lived in Yellowknife afforded me a huge advantage in terms of my ability to get at the core of what Buffalo is and does. The Canadian North is one of the most unique places on Earth, so itís difficult to walk in from a southern Canadian city and understand what makes this place tick. To truly understand it, you have to have lived it.

So what are the main differences (apart from the cold, the remoteness) between living up North and in a Southern Canadian city? 


The people. Itís said that people come up North either because they're running from something or they donít fit in with the rest of society. I think thatís an oversimplification, but the people who live there are definitely not cut from the same cloth as the rest of us. They are mavericks, people who donít particularly enjoy being told what to do or how to do it. As a result, you are bound to meet the greatest variety of personalities in the North...like Joe McBryan. It can make for some uncomfortable moments, but it certainly makes life interesting!

What are some of your favourite adventure stories from the books?

There are honestly too many to count. Personally, my favourite moment came when I flew for the first time in a DC-3. But the book is peppered with dozens of stories about flying in the North.

Wow - tell us about the first time you flew in the DC-3! Any rocky moments?

Take-off was unlike anything Iíd ever experienced. The engines roared to life with a throaty growl, then burst into a mechanized frenzy as A.J. gunned the throttle. The DC-3 rumbled down the tarmac like a runaway train. The plane was bouncing, shaking, and creaking, and for a minute I thought it might be the last flight of that particular DC-3. Then, with a grace that belied her age, it lifted gently off the ground.

The flight from Hay River to Yellowknife clocked in at around fifty minutes, but time stood still for me that morning. Until that trip, I had been strictly a sidesaddle rider in aircraft, occasionally looking outside at the landscape beside me. Sure, you get to see the world outside, but itís almost like looking at things in the past tense. But to be in the DC-3ís cockpit and look at the world as it unfolds in front of you is to be thrown upside down in time and space. This is looking at the world in the future tense, a chance to see and feel the limitless potential humankind holds in its hands.

And I saw clearly, perhaps for the first time in my life, what it really means to fly.

Get your copy of Ice Pilots today! Order here.

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