Vimy to Tuk

My husband and I met Joe Harrington during a “Battlefields Tour” of Europe. We hit it off, and were fascinated with this avid pilot who had hand-built his own airplanes. We invited him to visit us in Dawson City one day – and he took us up on the invitation.

This is the story of Joe Harrington and his friend Brian Wilson, who popped in to Dawson City – enroute to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories – in their homemade airplanes.

Turns out one of the reasons that Joe, who lives in Lethbridge, Alberta flies is because of his father’s service in the Canadian Armed Forces. Joe’s dad, an Royal Canadian Air Force flight engineer, built ultralight plane to satisfy his longings to become a pilot. In 2006, Joe attempted to fly the ultralight that his dad built to Tuktoyaktuk, only to be turned back by high winds over the Richardson Mountains. Joe’s terrible experience motivated him to try again, this time in a plane Joe built himself that he completed in 2016.

Joe’s plane started as a three-inch stack of aluminum sheets piled up in his shop some seven years ago. He built himself a Zenith CH 750. He cut the sections, riveted the pieces together, and spit-polished this beautiful flying machine.

Joe was not alone in his passion for building planes. His friend, Brian Wilson, had spent his childhood years dreaming of becoming a professional pilot until at 17 years of age his vision prevented him from pursuing this dream.

Not to be discouraged, Brian decided to build his own plane (actually three planes) and enjoy flying as a personal passion.

Brian had his own plane lying on the shop floor for some three years – it was completed in 2013. It was a labour of love to assemble his Avid Magnum. What an amazing feat, to build and fly one’s own plane!

Joe completed his plane in 2016.

Both Joe and Brian are members of the Lethbridge Sport Flyers, a southern Alberta flying club. Joe has had his pilot’s license since 1988. He turned in his motorcycle for a plane!

Brian, the veteran, has been on the wing since 1970. Their mutual passion for planes, talent as fabricators, and hunger for adventure brought these men together.,

After some discussion the destination of Tuktoyaktuk was selected and Brian and Joe set off, each in their own planes at a cruising speed of 80 mph and an elevation of between 4,500 to 8,000 feet above sea level with some mountain ridges merely 500 feet below them!

Their story encourages us to make our dreams a reality.

Joe’s earlier experience of being turned back by the high winds blowing out of the northeast across the Richardson Mountains, dogged his thoughts while trying to make logistical decisions about reaching Tuktoyaktuk. Multiple small airstrips along the Dempster Highway proved invaluable, giving the pilots a safety net, should the weather force a landing during their journey.

On their way north, they took us up on our invitation for a visit in the Klondike.

Upon touchdown at the Dawson City International Airport, Joe and Brian enjoyed a tour of the local goldfields and a trip to an active gold mine, which they called a highlight of their trip!

The experience made Robert Service’s words from “The Spell of the Yukon” come alive:

“I wanted the gold, and I sought it; I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.”

The journey began in Lethbridge at 08:45 on June 24. These pilots were amazed and delighted with the daylight hours as they winged their way north during the long lazy, hazy days of a Yukon summer.

Careful calculations and access to in-depth, current weather reports facilitated the flight plans from Lethbridge to Tuktoyaktuk! Yes, Joe and Brian dipped their toes in the Beaufort Sea!

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