The problems plaguing Canada’s isolated, fly-in First Nations communities are well-known: dependence on welfare and public housing, a high cost of living and few educational or employment opportunities. The best and brightest often leave for the South, while those left behind live with crumbling and ill-maintained infrastructure and experience high rates of depression, suicide, domestic violence and substance abuse.
The Indigenous lobby mainly argues for still-more taxpayer funding. This tired tactic is unlikely to produce the desired results, however. If we are to raise the standard of living in fly-in First Nations, we above all need to find ways of generating wealth in and around these communities themselves. Overcoming the daunting barrier imposed by their physical isolation is a necessary condition for new economic activity. Given the challenges, how best could this be done?
The answer could lie in a new twist on an old concept: airships. Yes, those gas-filled, lighter-than-air, cigar-shaped behemoths that arose early in the last century but that went literally and figuratively up in flames in the mid-1930s. This time, however, they would be revived by exploiting the full range of modern design, engineering, propulsion and safety. If we can’t afford to punch through hundreds of kilometres of boreal forest, muskeg and tundra, why not just float over?
Several companies are eagerly at work on modern airship designs, claiming they represent the future of low-carbon, low-cost transportation. France’s Flying Whales is developing a gigantic, 154-metre-long cargo airship with a 60-tonne payload whose major distinguishing feature is that it can pick up or deliver loads without even touching down – or so the company hopes. Flying Whales’ LCA60T (or Large Capacity Airship 60 tons) is forecast to have its first flight in 2022. The venture is subsidized by various branches of the French government and has a major Chinese investor.
In Canada, Winnipeg-based Buoyant Aircraft Systems International (BASI) is developing an electrically driven airship specifically designed to cope with the wide temperature swings in Canada’s North as well as avoid several major cost categories that, it implies, make other airship approaches intrinsically uneconomic. The bottom line, the company says, is that any airship design must be able to transport cargo cheaper than fixed-wing aircraft or roads. BASI’s concept would carry 30 tonnes and would land and take off from a rotating pad that keeps the aircraft pointed into the wind.
The American giant Lockheed Martin Corporation may be the furthest ahead, having flown a successful prototype, LHM-1, in 2006. This airship can carry about 21 tonnes of cargo and 19 people. It relies on inert helium for its lift and uses roughly one-quarter the fuel per tonne of cargo transported of a comparable jet aircraft, thereby holding down operating costs and reducing C02 emissions. The LMH-1 can land on any cleared surface, avoiding the need to build and maintain complete airports. The company has already inked a deal to provide Britain’s Straightline Aviation with a fleet of 12 that could be in the air as early as next year.
From time immemorial, efficient transportation that could overcome the challenges of distance, terrain, unforgiving climate and (in the sub-Arctic) dense boreal forests has been the key to success in the North. Entire cultures were based around transportation technology – or were displaced by strangers wielding new methods. Indigenous innovations – the canoe and the kayak – were brilliantly adapted to moving long distances quickly, using entirely local materials that could be crafted with tools of stone and bone. They became the basis for hunting, trade, migration and warfare.
The canoe was eagerly adopted and enlarged by British and French explorers, traders and early colonists. Later, the York Boat dramatically increased cargo capacity and speed along traditional riverine trade routes. The automobile, barge and bush plane (and, to a much lesser extent, the railway) opened up the modern-day North. But in our own era of seemingly unlimited innovation, there has been no transportation breakthrough aiding Canada’s North since invention of the bush plane nearly 100 years ago.
Modern engineering and equipment enable building roads essentially anywhere. This is somewhat of a brute-force approach that, in the absence of a major resource project, simply isn’t cost-efficient for linking tiny, isolated settlements hundreds of kilometres to existing roads. Ice roads and even year-round roads are viable in some areas, but not in the most thinly populated and underdeveloped areas. Water- or airborne transportation seems intuitively better. Yet while fixed-wing aircraft have gotten larger and somewhat faster, they remain very expensive, while waterborne transportation is limited to the short northern shipping season.
The airship seems suited to overcoming most of these challenges. Its combination of large cargo capacity, bare-bones infrastructure needs and apparent versatility could drive down the cost of goods in fly-in communities, facilitate exploration and development of promising natural resource opportunities and transport high-value goods for sale in southern markets. Once proven to be safe and reliable, airships could even lower the cost of passenger transportation, reducing the impetus for local people to leave permanently and better maintaining connections with those who choose to move away.
Consider how Torngat Metals proposes to use airships in northern Quebec. Torngat plans to hire Straightline Aviation to help it reach the Strange Lake area, about 1,100 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. Strange Lake has a major deposit of valuable rare earths. These hard-to-find, high-value minerals are required for the manufacture of communications technology including smartphones, electric vehicles and critical military hardware. Currently, China controls production of the majority of the world’s rare earth metals, a situation the U.S. government is intent on shifting. Rare earth metals are so valuable that Torngat Metals considers it cost-effective to send the raw ore by airship 250 km from the mine site to a processing facility at Schefferville, Quebec.
Professor Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, also believes that airships could prove vital in helping First Nations extract natural resources. Prentice is a longtime airship enthusiast and a part-owner of BASI who spent years working on scaled-down prototypes. He thinks they could be instrumental to initiate work on early-stage resource prospects that can’t justify road construction.
Ontario’s famed Ring of Fire, for example, is a vast chromite deposit potentially worth billions of dollars that lies trapped roughly 300 kilometres from the nearest provincial highway or rail line. For years, politicians have been talking about building a road to the Ring of Fire. It’s a risky and politically-fraught proposition. Among its political impediments is that the road would link only a few of northern Ontario’s fly-in reserves to the provincial highway system. As well, it would cost at least $1 billion to build plus millions more annually to maintain.
By comparison, each LHM-1 Airship is expected to cost about $50 million. A fleet of 10 would represent half the upfront cost of building a road to the Ring of Fire. The airships could transport the necessary equipment and people to work camps, while hauling the processed minerals to ships on Hudson Bay, to a terminal on the Trans-Canada Highway or to the underused, Crown-owned Ontario Northland Railway connecting Moosonee with the South.
The airships would be able to service all 49 of northern Ontario’s First Nations communities plus many more in Manitoba, Quebec and the Far North. They could transport consumer goods like groceries, building supplies and nearly all the necessities and conveniences of modern life, driving down costs, improving nutrition and reducing poverty. Airships could make life in a fly-in reserve affordable while helping those communities act on local economic opportunities. A 2015 research paper by Prentice and Matthew Adaman concluded that airships would reduce the freight costs of food by 31.6 percent in northeastern Manitoba and by 38.3 percent in northwestern Ontario.
Airships could also provide a much-needed, low-cost passenger service. Affordable transportation would liberate residents to seek jobs and business opportunities, attend post-secondary education, access advanced medical treatment or simply get away for travel. It would reduce the disadvantages fly-in residents face compared to those living in road-accessible communities.
Members of the Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta, for example, can commute by road to jobs in Fort McMurray for what it costs to fill up their trucks. Not coincidentally, Fort McKay generates a remarkable $506 million in revenue annually, and its residents have achieved a Community Well-Being score that is 17 points above the average for First Nations and only three points below the average for non-aboriginal communities, the Fraser Institute reports.
By contrast, there is no year-round road to Kashechewan First Nation on Hudson Bay or Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba. These communities are effectively cut off from the broader economy. But a flight by bush plane from Kashechewan to Timmins, Ontario or from Shamattawa to Thunder Bay costs in the range of $650. If airships work as intended, buying a ticket for a seat on a quiet, smooth, electrically driven 21st century blimp should be considerably less expensive.
When things up North go wrong, airships could also be deployed for disaster relief, quickly delivering tonnes of food, medical and other emergency supplies to the most isolated disaster zones, as well as rescuing populations threatened by fires or floods, Prentice points out. With vastly greater cargo capacity than even the largest helicopters, and far lower operating costs, they might also be useful in fighting fires – although their vulnerability to high winds would likely limit this role. They could, however, haul supplies to fire bases, including cheaply transporting the smaller fire-fighting helicopters, which are costly to ferry long distances.
Airships do have innate disadvantages. The main one is their low speed. The LHM-1 will have a cruising speed of just 111 kilometres per hour, a fraction of a jetliner’s approximately 900 km/h. Yet 111 km/h – or about 60 knots in aviation parlance – is still far faster than ships and is comparable to trucks and trains (as well as being shorter). This makes airships just fine for all but the most time-sensitive freight. Nor is this speed all that much slower than bush planes. A float-equipped DeHavilland Beaver, the queen of bush planes, rolled out in 1947 and still flying today, cruises at just 110 knots. A Dash 8 takes two hours to fly the 414 kilometres between Kachechewan and Timmins. Airships would take about four hours to cover that distance, assuming no major head-winds, plus take-off and landing times, but would be far cheaper. And affordability is what people in the North need above all. A super-fast flight that’s financially out-of-reach is no flight at all. If airships put long-distance travel within reach of northern people, they could prove nearly as revolutionary as the canoe or the bush plane.
Portions of the public are still aware of the fiery 1937 Hindenburg crash. Once airships were about to start plying the northern skies, the news and social media could be expected to stoke those memories, doubtless scaring some prospective passengers. Yet the explosive hydrogen that kept the Hindenburg aloft remains banned in the U.S. and Canada. The new generation of airships would be filled with inert helium, at least for now. And, as Professor Prentice notes, eight decades of advances in science and engineering would make even hydrogen-filled airships much safer than the Hindenburg.
How could this vision take flight? The Ontario government could kick-start things by soliciting proposals to use airships as an alternative route to the Ring of Fire. Since about two-thirds of band budgets are made up of government transfers (even more on fly-in reserves), Ottawa would likely need to get involved, possibly by allowing airship companies to raise capital from the Canada Infrastructure Bank. That does, of course, pose the risk of creating yet another costly federal boondoggle, but those risks shouldn’t be seen as sufficient to forestall at least trying airships.
Using fleets of airships to unleash what could be the “third revolution” of northern transportation might just become the type of nation-building project that appeals to governments of any stripe. Former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper both understood that the isolation of fly-in reserves is one cause of their abysmally low living standards. Both PMs mused that these communities might need to abandon their outposts and migrate closer to economic opportunities, an idea overwhelmingly rejected by First Nations.
But rather than embracing defeat and concluding these reserves are forever too isolated to participate in the broader economy, governments should harness the spirit of daring and entrepreneurialism that previously propelled French, English and Indigenous explorers. If they could connect Canada’s vast distances hundreds of years ago to trade beaver pelts and consumer goods, surely we can find a way to reach the rare earths buried in the wilderness and connect isolated reserves with the broader economy. The solution could be floating just overhead.
Josh Dehaas is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. Find him on Twitter @JoshDehaas.