A First Air Hercules has taken off from Yellowknife for the last time.
The company, once the owner of two Hercules aircraft, operated its final flight with the turboprop freighter on Tuesday.
First Air’s sole remaining Hercules will be transferred to Lynden Air Cargo and based in Anchorage, Alaska.
Lynden Air Cargo expects the aircraft to make regular return visits to the NWT, providing charter services to First Air, subject to regulatory approval.
But Dr Brock Friesen, First Air’s president and chief executive, said operating its own Hercules out of Yellowknife no longer made sense.
“It’s a momentous occasion,” Dr Friesen told Moose FM.
“On the one hand, we’re stopping a line of business we’ve done for many, many years. In that sense, it’s a bit of a sad moment.
“On the other hand, we have looked after the needs of our customers by forming a partnership with Lynden Air Cargo. That enables us to provide all the services we provided before, but this time on a more economic and sustainable basis.”
Bert van der Stege, First Air’s vice-president of commercial operations, added: “For a long time the Hercules made perfect sense, but markets are changing.
“The cost of operating and maintaining Hercules freighters has risen significantly in recent years. It is no longer viable to keep Hercules in our fleet.”
Lynden Air Cargo says it owns the world’s largest Hercules fleet. Until now, First Air was the only civilian owner-operator of the aircraft in Canada.
The Yellowknife airline took possession of its first Hercules in 1997, adding another (which has also been sold) in 2006.
First Air said the plane’s ability to transport heavy, outsized cargo to short, gravel runways made it “the ideal cargo aircraft for many charter customers” in the North.
The Hercules has also become a fixture in Yellowknife as the star of an annual “Herc Pull” contest to raise money for Special Olympics NWT.
“Our customers, the mines and the North won’t really notice the difference, other than the airplane isn’t parked here all the time,” said Dr Friesen. “But their needs will be met.
“We’ve left it as long as we could. The economics just don’t get better quickly enough, and the arrangement we have with Lynden is just so much better than what we were doing on our own.
“It was timely, there’s no other way to put it.”
Dr Friesen argues the Hercules flights were “always a side business” compared to the company’s core scheduled operations, across the NWT and Nunavut. Financially, he believes, selling the aircraft “won’t make a huge difference”.
Rick Zerkel, president of Lynden Air Cargo, told Moose FM he expected the Herc to be back in Yellowknife before long.
“We understand how the community feels. We will take care of the aircraft, we will serve the community, we will be here when required,” said Zerkel.
“It’s a three-and-a-half hour flight, 24-hour-a-day service. Call us, we’re here.”