Gillam runway too soft for Calm Air, flights cancelled

"Soupy" runway conditions have made a mess of Calm Air's flight schedule to the northern Manitoba town of Gillam, following above-average precipitation that has made it unsafe to land larger planes on the gravel runway at the town's airport.

"Now that the frost is coming out of it, it is wet and soupy and we are having a really hard time landing," Calm Air president Gary Bell said.

"You sink in too much, leave huge ruts on the runway — which is a big issue — but also if you sink in too much you just start tearing up propellers, so it is just unsafe to land there."

Calm Air has had to scuttle scheduled flights to the town — which is 700 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg — for several days. It was able to land during a brief window Monday when the temperature dropped.

"There was three, four days where we couldn't get in there and there's probably going to be a few once the weather turns warm again where it is going to be an issue again," Bell said.

"If it is not in freezing conditions to make the runway hard, we're going to have to wait until it thaws out and dries out."

Bell said it isn't unusual for Calm Air to see these conditions in other northern Manitoba airports, but it is a first for Gillam.

Gillam airport officials agree.

"To the best of my knowledge this hasn't happened [before] at all," said Denise MacDearmid, who is the town's emergency services manager.

"I did speak with the [previous] airport operator … and he said he can't remember it ever happening to this degree," she said.

"Between the snowfall and the rapid thaw there wasn't anywhere for the water to go, and because it is frozen underneath, the surface of the runway, it isn't draining as well as it could be."

'Hope that Mother Nature blesses us'

The northern town received an unprecedented amount of rain last fall.

"In September, Gillam received 40 per cent higher-than-average rainfall, and then in October there was an average amount of snow but almost 300 per cent of the normal rainfall," said CBC meteorologist John Sauder.

"At that time of year it would saturate the ground and then freeze," Sauder said. "What it does is turn any snow that is melting into runoff."

Additional snow removal equipment is running at the Gillam Airport eight to 10 hours every day. By noon Tuesday, airport officials reported that six semi truckloads of snow had been taken away.

Graders are also out on the runway "turning the earth so that more air can get to it so that hopefully we can get it dried up," MacDearmid said.

"All we can do is hope that Mother Nature blesses us with some sun and some wind."

Despite the soft, mucky conditions, the Gillam Airport hasn't closed and medevac services have not been impacted by the runway conditions. Smaller planes have been able to land at the airport.

Calm Air said its Gillam-bound customers have been rerouted to Thompson, Man., more than 200 kilometres away.

"So long as they are still able to get between Thompson and Gillam, that's a decent solution," Bell said.

"But my understanding is the province was even considering closing the highway [Provincial Road 280] for those same days because of the same conditions on that road — the same kind of gravel and moisture conditions on there. They were getting buses stuck and everything else on that highway."

Airport looking at infrastructure upgrades

Manitoba Hydro, whose employees and contractors use Calm Air to get to Gillam, says the impact has been minimal on its northern operations.

"Our employees and contractors who rely on direct flights from Gillam to Winnipeg for time off, vacations or medical appointments … have had to drive to Thompson to fly to Winnipeg."

Hydro acknowledged spring conditions on PR 280 haven't been ideal. Delays, one-lane traffic and speed reductions should be expected depending on road conditions and construction, the province says. Hydro said it is working with the province to improve conditions on PR 280.

"This area received a large amount of snow and more recently rain," Manitoba Infrastructure said in an email statement to CBC.

"The province has had all available equipment working on the northern roads to improve conditions. Road conditions are expected to continue to improve, provided the weather co-operates."

The Gillam Airport is working on an analysis of its infrastructure to figure out if upgrades are needed. One of the things it will now look at is whether it needs to take action to prevent this problem from happening again.