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Chinook rescues stranded Canadair CL-215 ‘duck’ from northern lake

By Lisa Gordon | November 17, 2023

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 33 seconds.

A CH-47 Chinook Helicopter from Billings Air Service lifts a stranded Canadair CL-215 Scooper aircraft over snowy terrain. Photos by Benjamin Tessier

A small island on Mitchell Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT) has been named “Duck Island” after a Canadair CL-215 Scooper aircraft was stranded there for more than two months before being airlifted out by a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.

Known as “ducks” for their nimble capabilities on water, the CL-215 aircraft is a twin-engine, high-wing amphibious waterbomber that is a staple of northern aerial firefighting efforts. This past summer, the north endured an especially severe wildfire season. According to the NWT government, 303 fires were recorded in 2023, with more than four million hectares burned.

On Aug. 28, a 1968 CL-215 belonging to NWT operator Buffalo Airways Ltd. was scooping water from remote Mitchell Lake, 30 miles (48 km) due north of the city of Yellowknife.

“We were at a low water cycle,” recalled Joe McBryan, founder of Buffalo Airways. “It was four feet lower than normal. We had scooped 78 loads off that lake, but this time the aircraft struck a rock reef.”

The rock punctured the underbelly and the resulting fast flow of water into the keel buckled its front structure, rendering the plane unserviceable. Spying a small island nearby, the pilots managed to taxi the plane over and tied it to a small tree before they were rescued by helicopter.

The CL-215 is a twin-engine, high-wing amphibious waterbomber, and a staple of northern aerial firefighting. Benjamin Tessier Photo

“It was a little northern toothpick tree,” laughed Benjamin Tessier, a technician in aerospace engineering at Buffalo Airways. He was part of the crew that was sent in to prepare the waterbomber for eventual airlift, while McBryan began making calls to find the only helicopter that could possibly airlift the CL-215 – a CH-47 Chinook.

Meanwhile, Tessier and five of his co-workers descended on Duck Island.

Their mission: reduce the CL-215’s empty weight to somewhere between 18,000 and 18,500 pounds and get it out of the water.

“We did everything in September to prepare for the takeoff,” Tessier told Skies. “We took the engines and props apart and removed them, took all fluids out (oil, fuel, foam agent), got rid of the radios, pump systems, all to lighten it up. We removed 10,000 pounds of equipment plus about 13 drums of fluids. All of that took about two weeks.”

Tessier said the props and engines were removed while the aircraft was still on the water.

“We cut trees and built a raft that we craned the engines onto,” he recalled. “We supported all the weight of the engines on that raft and a Bell 205 helicopter lifted them from there.”

Meanwhile, McBryan had contacted Travis Mizera, general manager of Alberta-based Airborne Energy Solutions (AES). During the summer firefighting season, the company had operated three CH-47 Chinooks owned by Billings Air Service in Montana. However, by the time the accident happened, the Chinooks were back at home in the U.S.

Several support helicopters, including this Bell 212HP from Great Slave Helicopters, assisted in the project. Benjamin Tessier Photo

“We told Joe (McBryan) that they only come up for fires and there had to be a special exemption in order to move the CL-215,” said Mizera. “So we applied for the exemption on Sept. 19 and it took a month to get it from Transport Canada.”

Meanwhile, Buffalo Airways grew more concerned about the aircraft freezing into the lake as winter approached.  

“We knew we were trying to beat the weather,” said Tessier, who described how he and five others hand-winched the waterbomber out of the lake.

“We couldn’t lift it from the water; the keel was full of water and it would be too much weight. The biggest tree we found on the island was just six inches in diameter, but there were rocky platforms. We had the idea to put steel anchors into the rock bed and attached winches from there, with five-ton ratchets on each end.”

The six men took turns hand-cranking the aircraft out of the water, inch by inch — a painstaking process that took three days. They had to lower the landing gear in the water to pull the plane out, building a rock ramp to support the aircraft as it slowly emerged from the water. Finally, the aircraft perched on the edge of Duck Island, lightened up and ready for the ride home.

The Buffalo crew had to use trees they cut down on the island to build a “pirate raft” that engines were craned onto, then they were lifted right off the raft by Bell 205s. Benjamin Tessier Photo

On Oct. 28, a Billings Flying Service CH-47 Chinook left Montana to rescue the stranded duck.

“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with Billings for 70 years now,” said Mizera. “They are under our AOC (air operator certificate) when they’re here fighting fires.”

He described how Buffalo and AES worked alongside Billings to get the job done.

“We talked about the rigging with Buffalo. The biggest issue was the rotor downwash on the tail of the aircraft,” said Mizera. “During forward flight at 50 knots there was 3,000 pounds of aerodynamic downforce. We didn’t want the nose to come up too high when it was being flown home. The flaps were removed and lift spoilers were used on the wings.”

Tessier said the tail straps were shortened by four inches to get the right pitched-down angle for the flight.

Monday, Oct. 30, dawned with just 10 knots of southerly wind and very high overcast. It was moving day.

Once more, three Buffalo mechanics, a mechanic from Billings, and Mizera himself arrived on Duck Island aboard an Acasta HeliFlight Bell 407. Helicopters from Airborne Energy Solutions and Great Slave Helicopters also supported the operation, including previous removal of the crew camp, parts, tools, and drums of fluid.

“The one thing we realized on site was that we were committed to this lift. There was no room on that island to set that aircraft back down,” said Mizera. “Plan B was not ideal and would require us to set the aircraft back down in the water, erasing all the hard work Buffalo’s crew had already completed.” 

A Bell 407 helicopter from Acasta HeliFlight removes items from the airlift site with a longline. Benjamin Tessier Photo

Soon, they could hear the distinctive sound of the Chinook on approach, its big tandem rotors beating the cold northern air.

“It happened so fast,” recalled Tessier. “It was so bizarre to see such a big machine in remote little Mitchell Lake on Duck Island. They didn’t waste any time at all. Everything the pilot did was deliberate. He positioned himself in the wind, cable already dangling. We had a 50-foot extension cable going from the plane to where he hooked on. As soon as tension was there, it just went up. The Chinook didn’t budge, didn’t seem to struggle, there was no noticeable change in engine noise.”

The heavy-lift helicopter headed south to the Buffalo Airways hangar, a flight of roughly 45 minutes. Coincidentally, the pilot had previously worked in Yellowknife, so he was familiar with the airport layout. The damaged waterbomber was set down on the south side of the runway to protect hangars from the helicopter’s downwash.

“We all worked together and we all provided a different view,” Mizera said of the successful operation. “Buffalo and Billings, they brought some good perspective. AES is from the oil field and focused on safety, so we brought a risk management perspective.”

Tessier said the experience will be hard to beat.

“I learned a lot. I really value how powerful a team effort can be. This is something you accomplish with a lot of people and it also goes to recognizing the others’ skills,” he said.

Along with Tessier, the Buffalo Airways crew included Jay Caldwell, John Morison, Brian Mumert, Brandon Weiss, Johnson Ngini and Dorian Watson.

The crew from Billings Air Service included Kerry Fodie (PIC), Ryan Cartmill (SIC), and A&P mechanics Robbie Prehemo, Jason Leblond, and Chris Schrack.

As for Buffalo’s Joe McBryan, he said everyone involved did an excellent job.

“I don’t normally talk to the press, but in this case I made an exception because of the excellent job they did,” McBryan told Skies.

“The success of this job was really centred around a very competent crew with a very good aircraft. They helped with the logistics of preparing the plane, preparing the sling load, working on risk management and SMS (safety management systems). Once I met the crew, I knew we had a program that would be very successful.”

Coincidentally, McBryan said he purchased a helicopter from Mizera’s grandfather, Ken Mizera, and “spent a lifetime” dealing with his father, Kim Mizera.

“Now, I’m dealing with the grandson. So, I gave Travis’s invoice to my own grandson, Kenny McBryan, who handles Buffalo’s finances, and I asked him to pay it,” laughed McBryan.

Repairs to the damaged waterbomber are expected to take most of the winter, but it will be back fighting fires in the spring.

Crewmembers work as the stranded ‘duck’ floats in shallow water. Benjamin Tessier Photo

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1 Comment

  1. Compelling story of great team spirit, good co-operation and hand on ingenuity. Good job.

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