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One of a kind (almost)

Story and photos by Rich hulina – first published spring 1998

Slate Falls Caravan C-GSFA

With an up-gross kit and non-amphibious straight floats, Slate Falls’ Cessna 208 Caravan is a hot performer. Until the arrival of Air Tindi’s Yellowknife-based Caravan (C-GATY) in June 1999, C-GSFA (above) was indeed one of a kind in Canada.

The question most frequently asked by the accomplished fishermen from the South is, “What kind of airplane is that?” Visitors are more familiar with the ear-shattering, blunt-nosed, oil-dripping radial-engined aircraft that have carried them around since they first started wetting their lines up here. In fact, the sleek, low-sitting floatplane is not that common at any waterbase in the North, and on straight floats it is somewhat of a Canadian rarity. This brightly painted Caravan can be found at the end of Highway 72 in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. Owned and operated by Slate Falls Airways for the past year and a half, it is definitely the centre of attention.

When Slate Falls president Verne Hollett tired of buying cylinders for his Otters, he decided to look for something modern. Turbo Otter conversions were considered, since two piston Otters were already tied to the dock. However, we would still be working with 40-year-old airframes. The only available aircraft that could do similar work was the Caravan. Once Hollett had made his decision, the next problem was the choice of floats. Currently, the only ones available are Wipline 8000s manufactured by Wipaire of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. Our market didn’t require amphibious floats, which were also 300 pounds heavier. Only two sets of straight floats had ever been made for a Caravan, one set being destroyed with another aircraft in Alaska, the second set being rebuilt along with the airplane Hollett wanted to buy.

The Slate Falls 208 had flown in the Maldives for Maldivian Air Taxi. It sank at a dock in rough water and returned to Canada to be completely refurbished by Kenn Borek of Calgary. A Wipaire up-gross kit was also incorporated. Purchased in August 1996 fully reconditioned with fresh paint, C-GSFA was ferried to Sioux Lookout by Steve Tanton. Tanton had piloted the 208 in the Maldives and performed all our initial checkouts. John Goulet, on holidays from his job flying amphibious 208s for Pan African Airlines, also did some follow-up training with us. Soon, we were on our own.

Making it work
Flying the airplane was not a great adjustment, as all the Slate Falls pilots had several thousand hours of float time. The most difficult challenge was getting prepared for a trip. Fuelling was a nuisance since the caps are located on top of the wings like any typical Cessna. Single-point refuelling is available for the Caravan; however, cost and equipment setup puts it out of reach for small bush operators. When you have no ready method of getting onto the wing, the cockpit doors become very helpful. Fuel nozzle in one hand, you stretch across from doorsill to wing strut, which is located a foot behind the wing leading edge, reach as far as you can, flip the cap open to jam the nozzle in, and hope you don’t lose your balance. The same method has to be used on the other side–this time, unfortunately, over the water. No one managed to take a dip, but this tricky process certainly lengthened turnaround times.

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