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Now taking off, an Arctic aerospace indusry

Nunavut city is finding that its bone-chilling winter weather is a hot commodity for aerospace manufacturers
Cold, but not cold enough (Photo: Master Films / H. Goussé)

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Unpredictable weather is something of an occupational hazard in the aerospace industry.

But, when you are a town that markets itself on being an ideal destination for airplane manufacturers seeking a place to conduct cold-weather testing, unpredictable weather is more of a problem.

Not that it wasn’t cold in Iqaluit this past weekend when 48 Airbus technicians arrived in the northern Canadian city aboard one of the aerospace firm’s A350-900, a model expected to compete with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Thermometers at the time testing was to begin registered -19 C, a full six degrees too warm to test the plane’s winter survival equipment.

Temperatures did eventually fall enough for the crew to complete their tasks. But, in an ironic twist of events, the crew had to scamper off early ahead in order to avoid being delayed by a blizzard that hit the area on Sunday.

SEE VIDEO: Airbus Arctic test of A380 (at end of article)

Despite the unseasonably warm weather, this will not be the last time an new Airbus airframe touches down in Iqaluit.

Since the 1990s, Airbus has used the airport and its 2.7km runway for testing, including a 2006 visit by an A380, the world’s largest airliner. In all manufacturers including Boeing, Dassault and Eurocopter have arrived in Iqaluit 25 times since 1996 for cold-weather testing.

Iqaluit is blessed with a cold, dry climate that is (normally) perfect for testing engines, cabin comfort and cold weather safety. But it also has city official who have understood that being a successful destination has requires a bit of travel of their own.

The city set aside C$40,000 ($35,000) this year for its promotional efforts, an amount it calculates comes back 30-fold in terms of direct payments from manufactures testing their wares, as well as related income from ground service and hospitality providers.

Familiarity breeds confidence
City officials are regulars are major air shows, including Paris, London and Dubai, where they can thump other qualities other than extreme cold and a long runway. For example: their proximity to major flight paths, hotel availability, hospital and medevac capacity makes Iqaluit an ideal site to for an emergency landing.

More importantly, though, they are hoping that testing of full-size airframes will just be the start of what they hope will be an Arctic aerospace industry.

“We have the right mix of products and geography that’s very attractive to (manufacturers),” Mark Morrissey, a city councillor who led a delegation to the Paris Air Show in June, told Nunatsiaq Online, a regional news website.

He pointed to component testing – parts of an aircraft, instead of the whole thing – as one area. Another one, he said could be unmanned aerial vehicles – best known as drones.

In December Nasa, the US aerospace agency, and group of other organisations, conducted the first flight of a civilian-use drone over Arctic territory. The flight was a success, and others from the city’s aerospace businesses said manufacturers of unmanned planes have expressed an interest in conducing tests in Iqaluit.

As for the technicians who escaped the blizzard, their next destination was Qatar, for warm weather trials. They had just been in Bolivia, for high-altitude tests.

Airbus airframes, according to the company, must pass testing in a number of extreme environments – but they must also survive merciless technicians.

“We have no limitations, we just come and we see how the aircraft reacts,” Pedro Dias, the crew’s flight operations manager, said.

As it turns out, the A350’s recent visit to Iqaluit showed there are, in fact, two limitations to their work: time and weather. Which makes them not unlike anyone else who flies.