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The days are short, and the air is frigid — at least for about five months of the year. This description applies to several locations north of 60, but in this case, we’re focusing specifically on two of Canada’s most northern cities: Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and Iqaluit, Nunavut.
While the cold temperatures in these locations may deter some visitors during the winter months, it is the very thing that attracts others. Particularly, aircraft manufacturers who must successfully complete cold weather testing as part of the aircraft certification process.
Over the last several years — and in recent months — numerous airframe OEMs have paid a visit to either Yellowknife, Iqaluit, or both to put their aircraft to the test under extreme cold conditions. Bombardier, Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, Dassault, and Pilatus are a few of these airframe manufacturers.
What does the cold weather testing process look like at airports such as Yellowknife Airport (CYZF) and Iqaluit International Airport (CYFB)? First, we must understand the reasons behind this rigorous testing.
Finding the Flaws
Aircraft manufacturers, and the regulatory authorities that certify their aircraft, must be satisfied that an airplane or helicopter will operate safely in all possible conditions. While commercial jets regularly fly at high altitudes where the air temperature can range from -40 C to -57 C (-40 F to -70 F), that is not necessarily what cold weather testing is about.
Rather, the idea is to test how the total aircraft as a system will function after exposure to cold temperatures. This can be done through ground and flight tests. Prolonged exposure to the cold on the ground — where an aircraft sits on an apron for at least 10 hours at -35 C (-31 F), or colder — is referred to as a “cold soak test.”
Aircraft engineers are then able to evaluate how parts like fuel lines, filters, batteries, gaskets, and hydraulic and other fluids will perform as part of a larger machine after sitting in the cold. Parts will cool differently in an aircraft than they would on their own, so cold weather/cold soak tests are critical to uncover potential issues.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Yellowknife and Iqaluit as cold weather locations.
‘Land of the Polar Bear’
Yellowknife’s climate plays a huge role in making it an ideal spot for cold weather testing. The city has more favorable conditions than other northern locations that are impacted by ocean effects, according to Randy Straker, regional airport manager.
“Our climate is cold and dry, which the OEMs seem to favor,” said Straker. “We don’t get the humidity and the wet snow here.”
The Northwest Territories is nicknamed “Land of the Polar Bear” — an appropriate moniker considering the average temperatures during the winter months. From late December through most of February, Yellowknife sees overnight lows in the -32 C to -35 C (-25 F to -31 F) range. And daytime highs average around -25 C (-13 F).
“It’s not uncommon to hit a prolonged cold stretch,” said Straker. “This year, I don’t believe we hit above -30 C (-22 F) for what seemed like eight weeks. And it’s not uncommon to get overnight lows well below -40 C (-40 F).”
One of Yellowknife’s recent visitors was Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), which brought its Light Armed Helicopter to CYZF for cold weather testing.
“That was a whole new kind of venture for us, in that it was a military aircraft and a foreign aircraft outside North America,” said Straker. “We were trying to find contacts with Transport Canada and the Canadian government to try to facilitate their efforts to come here… so they could be successful.”
Part of the KAI team arrived during the last week of November 2021. The helicopter itself — along with the rest of team — arrived on Dec. 6 via an Antonov An-124, and departed in early February 2022. The team of 40 consisted of pilots, technicians, and support staff.
Prior to that, in March 2021, Airbus brought its C295 to Yellowknife Airport — the aircraft that was selected for Canada’s fixed-wing search-and-rescue role.
Other aircraft that completed cold weather or cold soak tests at CYZF include the Lockheed CP-140 Aurora and Embraer’s E195-E2 Profit Hunter, which were the airport’s most recent visitors to date. Additional noteworthy aircraft include the Bell 525 Relentless helicopter, the Airbus H160, the Saab 2000 turboprop, and the Bombardier C Series (now Airbus A220).
A typical day of cold weather testing at CYZF could see aircraft perform some on-airport testing as well as flights from the training site adjacent to the airport. “The training site is NOTAM’d out, and [the manufacturers are] basically given free rein within that envelope to do the testing they require,” explained Straker.
For on-airport testing, “typically we’ll open up our Runway 10-28, and a helicopter, for example, will do a slow hover, side hover, a lot of elevation changes, etc. And that’s where Nav Canada really becomes an important partner in all this.”
Yellowknife is an ideal cold weather testing location, not just for its cold weather, but for its available airspace.
“Pre-pandemic, we were moving close to 650,000 passengers a year through [CYZF],” said Straker. “Tourism was booming. And we have around 52,000 aircraft movements a year, which is incredible for a city of our size. But in saying that, it’s peak and valley, and we have a tremendous amount of airspace available for use.”
In order to best assist the airframe manufacturers that travel to Yellowknife, the airport works with third-party logistics companies that provide the OEM teams with any of the services they need during the testing period. Most recently, CYZF worked on multiple projects with Indigenous-owned company, Det’on Cho Logistics, “and that was very successful,” said Straker.
Yellowknife’s winning formula as a cold weather testing location, according to Straker, “comes down to the consistent cold and dry climate, as well as the team that’s been developed here and the partnerships between all areas of the operation and logistics support — all working together to try to make these programs successful for the manufacturers.”
‘Top of the World’
In Canada’s most northerly territory, Nunavut, the capital city Iqaluit is also known for its extreme cold temperatures. During Iqaluit’s cold weather testing window — December to March — temperatures average in the -30 C to -35 C (-22 F to -31 F) range.
Nunavut has been referred to as the “top of the world for cold weather testing,” since the majority of the Territory sits inside the Arctic Circle.
Some of the airport’s most recent visitors, in terms of airframe OEMs, include Dassault and Embraer. The former brought its Falcon 6X to CYFB in December 2021 for testing, and returned a second time in late February.
Embraer visited Iqaluit — in addition to Yellowknife — with its E2 Profit Hunter in late January for cold soak testing, and was accompanied by Transport Canada inspectors. (Back in 2004, the Canadian regulatory authority made cold soak testing a requirement “to ensure satisfactory cold temperature functioning of the aircraft.”) Embraer said its flight team flew the E2 after the cold soak to “check its flying behavior,” and ground crews checked the aircraft again after it landed.
Another major OEM, Airbus, frequented Iqaluit in the past, bringing its A320neo, A350, and A380 aircraft for cold weather tests. Thanks to Iqaluit airport’s long runway, there were no issues bringing in the massive A380 double-decker plane.
According to Paul Crenson, manager of Iqaluit airport operations, CYFB’s 8,605-foot by 200-foot (2,623-meter by 61-m) runway is one of the airport’s many pros as a cold weather testing location — in addition to the cold weather, of course.
“Iqaluit’s uncongested airfield and airspace allow OEMs to operate with minimal restrictions,” he added, “allowing for efficient operations, which might not be the case if testing was conducted at a larger airport like Winnipeg or Edmonton.”
So, if cold temperatures and adequate infrastructure are among the key elements for such testing, why not choose a climatic laboratory that can simulate extreme cold conditions?
“There’s quite a cost associated with that, in terms of electricity and energy,” said Crenson. “And certain tests like emergency braking, for example, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to conduct in a hangar. So there’s quite an advantage to doing the tests somewhere like Iqaluit, from a cost perspective.”
Speaking of costs, Crenson added that CYFB’s landing fees are “extremely reasonable.”
He added: “Our landing fees are very competitive, even when compared to similar-sized airports. Iqaluit is a critical piece of infrastructure for cargo being distributed to all the other small communities. Most of the airport operators in Canada are considered not-for-profit, but in Iqaluit we really look at it as a public service rather than a business.”
When it comes to supporting the OEM teams that travel to CYFB for cold weather testing, the airport relies a lot on its fixed-based operator (FBO) partner, Frobisher Bay Touchdown Services.
“The FBO has all the supplies to help the manufacturers wherever they can,” right down to winter gear, said Crenson. “When Embraer comes from Brazil, they don’t have the winter boots and those kinds of things that you need when spending hours on the ramp. The FBO has all those supplies, so the teams don’t necessarily need to bring all that stuff.
“They’ll also do all the fueling, etc. And we have Canadian North here as well, which has a large workforce of AMEs.”
Crenson said the airport works hard to ensure that the testing process with the aircraft manufacturers runs as smoothly as possible, “because we want them to come back in the future since there are major benefits to them coming here.”
The greatest and most obvious benefit is the positive impact on the surrounding economy.
The OEMs “usually send a large team, anywhere from 15 to 25 personnel, or more, including flight engineers, pilots, people from the regulators, and even sometimes media,” said Crenson. “They definitely inject money into the hotels, restaurants, and ancillary businesses that Iqaluit has,” in addition to the fuel, support equipment, and hangarage that is required.
Straker offered a synonymous response in terms of the economic benefits cold weather testing brings to Yellowknife. Between the recent Bell and KAI programs, just over $4 million was spent in the local economy. “It’s significant dollars,” he said.
Aviation has brought many benefits to both Iqaluit and Yellowknife. It serves as a critical link that connects surrounding communities, and connects those communities with the rest of the world. Moreover, it is a way of life for many residents.
Now that both cities have made a name for themselves in the cold weather testing market, the aviation culture is sure to flourish into the future.