In keeping with Buffalo Airways tradition, about 150 employees, family and friends of the iconic company piled into the Riverview Cineplex in Hay River last Wednesday night for the season opener of Ice Pilots NWT, the award-winning documentary television show that is a window into their lives for thousands of fans around the world.
“Buffalo Joe” McBryan, the gruff, no-nonsense president and patriarch, was front and centre. Despite his on-screen impatience with the business of making reality-documentary TV, “he’s a real fan of the show,” which is entering its fourth season, says son Mikey, Buffalo Air’s general manager.
The show and season opened on a somber note, as the North’s close-knit aviation community reflected on the risks inherent in their chosen line of work and grieved for the loss of passengers and crew in three separate crashes in the late summer and early fall of 2011.
“The safety theme comes up again and again through the season,” Mikey McBryan told The Journal.
Landing gear problems put Buffalo’s crews in tense situations, including an emergency landing in Yellowknife when Captain Ray Weber brought a turbo-prop Lockheed Electra in without a right wheel – a mishap that cost the company $1.8 million in repairs.
Season four takes Buffalo and viewers on some spectacular flights beyond the Arctic, from delivering water bombers to South Korea to a treacherous landing strip deep in the fjords of Greenland, and another in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Mikey and family go to Billund, Denmark, for the opening of a Buffalo Airways inspired attraction at the Legoland theme park, where there are likenesses of Mikey and Buffalo Joe constructed from Lego bricks.
Fans of the show will notice a gradual transformation in Mikey. As the season unfolds, he begins a regimen of exercise and healthy eating that trimmed more than 90 pounds from his 6’4” frame. He has kept the weight off, he said, through regular sessions with his personal trainer in Yellowknife, Tara Newbigging.
Slimming down got Mikey a seat on a CF-18 at last summer’s Yellowknife Air Show, and viewers will be able to share that thrill and a few others, including Mikey’s tour with the Canadian Forces, “in the middle of their war games.”
Viewers will also ride along when Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson joins Buffalo Joe in the cockpit of a DC3 on a flight from Edmonton to Hay River and Yellowknife.
“The season is bonkers, there is just so much stuff. Five stories in every episode, and there are 13 episodes,” Mikey said.
Visitors are always dropping in on the Yellowknife hangar, including Australian tourists, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and, to the annoyance of Buffalo Joe, the entire cast and crew of Arctic Air, another hit show spun off of Ice Pilots by Omni Productions of Vancouver.
“We’re brothers in TV,” Mikey said of Adam Beach, the Arctic Air star. “I really like their show and we’re really good friends. I’m the working man’s Adam Beach.”
Mikey delivered the opening address to the NWT Tourism conference in Yellowknife last week. Along with Beach, and “Ice Road Trucker” Alex Debogorski, the stars of Ice Pilots have been tapped to use their international popularity to promote travel to the NWT.
Ice Pilots NWT is known across the United States, enjoys popularity in Britain, New Zealand and Australia and, said Mikey, is now in Russia.
“We had 30 or 40 Aussies who flew all the way to Yellowknife just to see the green airplanes, and they have never seen snow.”