Hay River’s Merlyn Carter Airport played host to a dozen maintenance workers from smaller airports all over the territory for a 10-day training course beginning on June 10.
“Hay River is perfect for this,” said airport manager Kelly O’Connor. “We’re one of two big-six airports with a gravel runway, and we have two runways, so we can shut one down during the day.”
O’Connor said the airport has been hosting the course – offered by the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) in partnership with the Department of Transport (DOT) – for the past seven years. This year, men from Tulita, Paulatuk, Jean Marie River, Deline, Gameti, Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour and Wekweeti learned how to run graders and other machines needed to maintain airstrips in the summer months.
“Hay River also has a lot for the guys to do in the evenings when they’re done,” said O’Connor. “Some of them come from communities with either one or no restaurants, and I think they have a good time going out while they’re here.”
Participants spent three days on the runway and seven in a classroom with instructor Ralph Sanguez, learning things like the proper protocol for speaking on the radio and the difference between a crowned and crossfall runway.
Beyond the airport’s capacity, Hay River has an advantage in that it can commandeer equipment from the Department of Transportation’s highways team. That allows more than one participant in the course to practise operating the machinery simultaneously and makes it easier to host larger groups.
“We’ve trained hundreds of people from the small community airports,” O’Connor said. “We used to run the program on our own, but it just made better sense for MACA and the DOT to do it.”
The course is mandatory and included in contracts for airport maintenance staff in the Northwest Territories, but MACA and the DOT cover all expenses and travel, barring the participants’ wages for the 10 days.
The big-six airports – Hay River, Fort Smith, Yellowknife, Fort Simpson, Inuvik and Norman Wells – require more extensive training for their staff, but facilities in smaller communities with only the one gravel runway ask for 20 days of instruction, 10 in the winter and 10 in the summer.
At the larger airports, the process runs about three years to be an airfield maintenance specialist (AMS), after having worked as a heavy equipment operator beforehand, and involves an outside certification from another airport. There are currently four trained AMS working at the Merlyn Carter Airport.
“There are 27 airports in the NWT, so that’s 21 little guys,” said O’Connor. “Our goal is to get as many of their workers trained up so they can go home and show their guys some of the best practices and skills.”
While the course does focus on practical and technical aspects of runway maintenance, some of the participants said just getting together with other people on the job was a learning experience in itself.
“We get to meet operators from all over the North,” said Justin Gon from Gameti. “It’s good to work together and share stories and talk about best practices.”
Gon said it was interesting talking to participants from areas where there are few trees about the different maintenance challenges they face compared to airports “in the bush.”
“I want to take the knowledge I got over here back home,” he said. “And maybe teach some of the guys there, too.”
Darren Nasogaluak of Sachs Harbour agreed the opportunity to speak to, and work with, other maintenance operators was invaluable, but added the course was good for growing confidence, as well. While he used to work in construction, he started at his local airport in November of last year and took the winter session of the course in February.
“I learned not to beat yourself up if you don’t get something right at the start,” he said. “Everything can be fixed.”