As late as the mid-1950s, fieldwork in the Arctic Islands relied on dog-sledging in the spring, and boats and backpacking in the summer. In 1956, Weldy Phipps, a skilled aviator and brilliant engineer, demonstrated a Piper PA18A Super Cub aircraft he had modified to Geological Survey of Canada geologist Raymond Thorsteinsson, who was conducting stratigraphic studies in the Arctic.
Phipps’s modification consisted of oversize, low-pressure “tundra tires,” which enabled the aircraft to operate without a prepared landing strip. This was a game-changer – here was an airplane that could land on unprepared ground such as a gravel bar or a raised beach.
Thorsteinsson was impressed: “The distance we covered in an hour’s flight would have taken several days of surface travel.” In the summer of 1958, Thorsteinsson and Survey colleague Tim Tozer used a single Super Cub piloted by Phipps to map the western Queen Elizabeth Islands, covering an area of 42,700 square kilometres. They made 400 off-strip landings in 246 different places.
Several Survey projects in the Arctic used the modified Super Cub, and tundra tires were eventually fitted on larger aircraft such as the Beaver, Otter, and Twin Otter. Off-strip flying is now standard operating procedure in support of fieldwork in the Arctic Islands.