Interview article

Major R.D. Morrin

Flying Twin Otters with 440
PETER PIGOTT  |  Jul 15, 2011

FrontLine correspondent Peter Pigott was recently in Yellowknife researching material for his latest book “From Far and Wide: The History of Canadian Arctic Sovereignty” when he interviewed Major Robert D. Morrin of 440 Squadron.

Major Rob Morrin, Deputy Commanding Officer at 440 Transport Sqn, in Yellowknife. On graduating from Queen’s University, Robin joined the military after several years in Europe. Beginning with flying Sea Kings in 443 Sqn, he went to Moose Jaw and trained on the Tutor and the Harvard before being posted to Alaska with the United States Air Force. Robin went to NDHQ in Ottawa to work on the JUSTAS UAV project, and before 440 Sqn, worked as the Staff Officer to the VCDS, Vice Admiral Denis Rouleau.
440 Squadron Yellowknife consists of 4 CC-138 De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, and a complement of 50 people: 12-15 pilots, 8 flight engineers, and 25 maintainers, support staff and reservists.

Major Morrin, what is the mandate of 440 Squadron in the North?We are the only designated air asset in the North. So we live the North, it’s our backyard. We know the area, we know the weather, and we know the people. And we operate from smaller and more austere locations than any other squadron in the Canadian air force. We fill a niche role. Our bread and butter is more left to right than north to south – Dawson City, Inuvik, Eureka, up to Alert, down to Northern Quebec, working with the Army in Churchill Falls, Rankin Inlet, these are all regular stops. We have big operations throughout the year such as OP Nanook, Nevus, and Nunakupt, and then there are smaller operations that we support. There are daily taskings, such as inserting Canadian Rangers, supporting the RCMP, providing VVIP support to various levels of government, regional outreach, and a myriad of other missions. Interspersed with all this, we still have to maintain the aircraft, upgrade our qualifications, and take our leave. This squadron endeavours to maintain a strong operational focus.

Given the operational terrain and that more people are going to the Arctic, I am surprised you didn’t mention Search and Rescue (SAR).
Every CF air asset has SAR as its secondary role. We do SAR as it comes up. That is different from 30 years ago when it was a primary role for us, which is why the aircraft are still painted yellow. But it is a misconception; we are not a SAR unit per se. We don’t carry SAR Techs, or “jumpers,” as we have the advantage of having small aircraft that have the ability to land just about anywhere. We do not maintain an alert posture, however 440 is regularly called on to assist in searches in the North.

The Twin Otter first flew in 1965 – that’s a long time ago. How do you keep a 46 year old aircraft going?
Yes, it is a challenge to keep them in the air. It’s a Canadian icon, and our trick is to use it for what it was designed. Our techs are half mechanic, half magician – extraordinarily well trained and resourceful. If there are spare parts out there – we get them. Sometimes we need to have them made, which can cause significant delays. Serviceability is a challenge, but it’s a robust, capable little plane. The age of the aircraft has more to do with the supply of spare parts to keep it flying than the limitations of the technology. The airplane flies just fine. The avionics can be upgraded, which will allow us to integrate with higher density, automated, modern aviation procedures – things like the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) modern approach systems – equipment that we don’t currently have, that most modern aircraft do. It’s more to do with having access to a supply of parts than to just flying an old plane. Old planes that are properly maintained, just like any other machinery, will fly just fine. The techs are that good, the training is that good.
Could you give me an example of the Twin Otter’s uniqueness?
I was involved in Exercise Northern Bison in February. There were 300 Army – regular force, reserves, and Canadian Rangers – and their goal was to deploy onto the sea ice. We took two Twin Otters out to Churchill to re-supply them, and we were landing on ice and snow – right bedside their camp. We were the only lifeline for the Army to supply food, fuel, and medevac support . We went in there expecting to have Herc and Challenger support. The weather was brutal, strong winds and low visibility, coupled with very austere gravel and ice strips. When we returned from a mission we were told that neither the Herc nor the Challenger were able to get out. We all play on the same team, but the crews were especially proud of “the little engine that could” that day.
How difficult is it to land on sea ice? How do you know the ice will support the weight of the aircraft?
Sea ice is the tricky one, well, all ice is tricky. Landing requires experience – and a lot of practice. We overfly the ice to verify if it looks right, and then we do a series of proving measures, land with power on and then come back and look at our tracks. We put a little bit more pressure on next time – we call them “drags” – your first landing, you land with your nose wheel off, 50-60 knots, fly down, overshoot, come back for another pass. If the tracks look clear – no water, no cracks, then you come back and do another drag. This time you put a little bit more weight on, and then you might put the nose wheel down. The next pass you land but keep your power up so you can go at a moment’s notice. Then the flight engineer jumps out and drills the ice to verify how thick it is. There are different thickness for training, and different thickness for operations. You prove the whole landing strip area – realizing that the ice up here can get 5-10ft thick (they drive 18 wheelers on it).
Sea ice is tricky, not so much because of the strength but because of the surface conditions – ice boulders, crevasses, pressure cracks. You determine where to land by doing lots of low “recces,” choosing your place, and then hitting your landing zone. You use your flaps and engines to brake, although snow gives you much more resistance than the runway.
What are some of the unique requirements for operating the CC-138 in the Arctic? Are there any special take-off procedures?
Many of the places we go to are very austere with very extreme weather. We usually don’t have the luxury of hangars, so if we come into a place that is going to be –40° overnight, we have to find a way to keep the aircraft’s fluids warm and the wings clear so that we can use the aircraft the next morning. We have canvas covers (we call them skins) that cover the wings and the tails, blanket covers for the engines, as well as electrical heating blankets for the batteries. In the morning, we start it up, but the throttles are freezing. There is no heat in the cockpit and you still have to do your checks for take off – by now there is so much condensation in the cockpit, it’s hard to see. One of the characteristics of the Twin Otter is no interior heat until the engines are running fast enough. Having to do all your procedures in –40° is something I was not familiar with. We certainly have unique environmental conditions.
I’ve heard that you also fly teams of huskies around. That must make for some stench-creating flights.
One of our roles is to support and supply the Canadian Rangers during exercises – these are Inuit communities on the ground with dog teams or skidoos. The RCMP also use canine units, and we can be called on to move their animals. Sometimes we have to bring dogs from A to B (they are in cages), but putting them in the aircraft with the cockpit not closed off – you can imagine the smell from disoriented dogs. Soldiers coming out of the field after a month on the land can also be a little ripe. We wash the aircraft just like you wash your car, we hose it down. We give it a good scrub, we have all sorts of washing equipment, and then polish it off.
This is the only squadron in the CF that operates Twin Otters – and only four at that. How do you maintain optimum serviceability?
We have challenges with the Twin Otter in that it is a unique airframe. So unlike a Herc fleet or a Griffon fleet, where you have people who circle through, go away, do other jobs, come back as Master Corporal and they develop an expertise on that machine. We don’t have that continuity here because people come here for three or four years, and usually don’t come back. Because we have one squadron, one type of aircraft in the country, they usually move on to bigger and better things and that experience goes with them.
Because of that, it is very difficult to build up corporate knowledge. We have three reservists on squadron; these are guys who have gotten out of the military, joined the reserves and stay on as pilots. They form the bedrock of our experience because they don’t get posted and because they bring tremendous maturity and experience that is difficult to develop in a one, three year tour. So for me they’re key. 440 Sqn is one of the best examples of reserve/ reg. force integration that I have ever seen. The specific individuals we have here are a cut above, which makes my job easier.
If you want to use a dog team analogy – you’ve got two lead dogs that are mature, competent, and knowledgeable, who are leading the pack – that makes management’s job much easier. On the floor, the same thing – a couple of techs that have been here for 10-15 years – they know everything about that aircraft and they can train the new guys.
What are the unique challenges of being posted to Yellowknife?
There are the personal challenges inherent in any move – new schools, new doctors, new jobs, new mechanics – added to this, housing is a challenge here. House prices in the Yellowknife housing market are very high – you’re looking at three to four hundred thousand dollars for a trailer. That is beyond the reach of many of our staff, and while the government housing is adequate, it is more modest than traditional military [quarters]. The cost of living is also a challenge – and while we are well compensated, the environment and isolation are ever present. You don’t have the ability to jump in your car and drive to Toronto for a weekend. You drive five minutes out of Yellowknife and the next stop is Edmonton… 16 hours later! The climate and darkness are also an issue for many. The trick to surviving a Yellowknife winter is to embrace it.
Are there advantages to being posted here?
The education system is very good, schools are well funded. This is a small unit and it’s a long way from headquarters. It’s a unique adventure for all of us – not many of our peers get to say they’ve lived here. The flying is also second to none. In our trade, [there is something] equivalent to social climbing – pilots try to “airframe climb” from the Tutor to the CF-18 to the Airbus. Why would someone want to go from the Airbus to the Twin Otter? The attraction of flying the Twin Otter in the North is probably similar to people racing vintage Harleys.
There’s an ego element in all flying. Flying the Twin Otter is stepping back to a more pure way of flying, a manual way of flying. And the Twin Otter has that Canadian icon status, you’re flying in the North, there’s a certain pioneer element to it. That can give people a sense of operational satisfaction. Bring all of those together and you end up with an extraordinarily rewarding flying tour. Flying a Canadian icon operationally in the vast and rugged Canadian North is a seductive proposition for any pilot with a sense of history.
What is 440’s role in Arctic sovereignty?
We are a unique presence in the North. The Hercs and Auroras come up here regularly, but most of our work is presence on the ground, presence in the communities – a military aircraft landing in Old Crow, they don’t see a lot of federal government assets in Old Crow – or people in flight suits walking around Resolute Bay. This is a military presence, a Canadian government presence, and for some communities we are the only visible presence they see.
It’s important not to give the idea that we are up here chasing Russian submarines, but we are out there waving the proverbial flag – letting the people of the North know that they are not alone and that we are here to support them. That is our role.
The personnel I’ve met here are clearly highly motivated.
The happiest time on any squadron is when crews are flying hard and exhausted. When the aircraft are broken and they are sitting around with nothing to do, that becomes a challenge. The guys are so uniquely motivated to fly – you have to restrain them – not motivate them. The maintainers are also highly motivated to push these planes out the door.
FrontLine correspondent Peter Pigott was recently in Yellowknife researching material for his latest book “From Far and Wide: The History of Canadian Arctic Sovereignty” when he interviewed Major Robert D. Morrin of 440 Squadron.   
© FrontLine Defence 2011