Old Crow Airport Enjoys Community's New Fuel Depot

Victoria Soukup
Published in: 

Fuel is more than a revenue stream at Old Crow Airport (YOC) in Canada's Yukon Territory; it's the very lifeblood of the region. Located north of the Arctic Circle, the small community of Old Crow is only accessible by air. When the local government recently replaced the aging fuel farm that supplies crucial heating and automotive fuel to the community's 250 aboriginal residents, YOC's ability to store and deliver aircraft fuel was also improved. 

The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, which governs Old Crow, owns the fuel depot and allows YOC to use it. The community's new nine-tank system is located at the airport, and dispenses five different types of fuel: jet-A1, 100LL avgas, home heating oil, unleaded gasoline and ultra low sulfur diesel. Total storage capacity is 270,000 liters.

Given the depot's crucial role on so many fronts, its opening in September was a major event. Then again, so was designing and building it. Weather was a formidable and constant issue; some equipment had to be airlifted to the remote project site; and concrete, a staple fuel farm material, could not be used. Further complicating matters, cell phone service was spotty at best, and Old Crow had no hotels for workers. 

Project: New Fuel Farm
Location: Old Crow (YT) Airport 
System Owner: Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation
Estimated Cost: $6 million (CAN)
Tanks: 9  
Total Capacity: 270,000 liters
Fuel Stored/Dispensed: Home heating oil; unleaded gasoline; ultra low sulfur diesel; jet-A1; avgas
Design: Began in fall 2013
Construction: April - Sept. 2015
General Contractor: W.S. Nicholls Western Construction 
Design Build Engineer: Argus Consulting 
Fuel Supplier: Air North
Noteworthy Detail: Because airport is north of Arctic Circle, some equipment had to be specially designed & airlifted to project site; town & territory created a temporary winter road to facilitate other deliveries

"Logistically, this was the most challenging project we've ever done - and we've done all types of remote projects," reflects Brent Easter, vice president of general contractor W.S. Nicholls Western Construction. 

Despite many obstacles, Nicholls completed the estimated $6 million (Canadian) project under budget, on time and on schedule. Initial figures for the recently completed project indicate the cost will be 10% under budget, notes Easter.

Roger Kyikavichik, chief of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, notes that a new fuel system was greatly needed. "This project, designed to increase fueling capacity, efficiency and safety in our north area while ensuring environmental regulations are followed, is a plus not only for our people of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, but for the other resource users who will benefit also from this new fuel farm," says Kyikavichik.

The community's previous fuel system was located across the street from the airport, and aviation fuel was kept in separate tanks owned by the Yukon government. It was common knowledge that the dispensing equipment was outdated, the tanks were old and the system's location complicated the transfer of fuel from delivery aircraft using YOC's 5,022-foot gravel runway.

In addition, local leaders wanted an automated system, so the new depot would not have to be staffed by an attendant. Previously, residents could only pick up fuel during limited hours on certain days of the week. "The idea was to centralize more of their fuel receiving and dispensing activities safely, with environmental protections, in a more cost-effective and efficient manner," summarizes Easter. 

Longer hours were established for community members, and the depot's new self-service dispensing system accepts credit cards or proprietary cards issued by Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Pilots can pump jet fuel or avgas 24/7.  

Extra Special Delivery

YOC's location (67 degrees north latitude) proved to be an overriding challenge - not only for construction crews, but also for Argus Consulting, the firm that provided engineering services for the project. "There's no road into the town, so everything we designed, whether it be tanks or the pump enclosures, had to fit into a C-130 Hercules to be airlifted in," explains Dan Frank, vice president of engineering at Argus.  

The company began working on equipment design and logistics in fall 2013 to ensure everything would fit onto the transport aircraft. A few months later, however, the Yukon and First Nation governments announced they would plow a 260-kilometer "winter road" between Old Crow and Dempster Highway, a major transportation route. The gesture was significant, because a temporary route hadn't been established there in 10 years. Further, it meant that contractors could transport some equipment and components for the project by land instead of air.

The winter road was also exciting news for the community, which promptly put it to good use by arranging the delivery of large items such as building supplies, appliances, vehicles and outboard motors that are expensive to ship by air. About 50 trucks were expected to travel the winter road, which was not available for public use and would only be open for three weeks, due to weather and logistics. 

Because the road was so popular and temporary, not all equipment needed for the fuel system project could be driven in.  "We had to do two very large airlifts by the Hercules aircraft, totaling nine loads to get the rest of the equipment into the site this past spring," Easter reports.

Long, Cold Journey

Each of the five different fuels stored at the new depot has its own pump, filtration and metering system, which were designed by Argus and built and tested on skids at Nicholls' Vancouver facility. The systems are housed inside 32-by-9-foot enclosures made with steel frames, aluminum exteriors and 3 inches of insulation to protect components against the area's extreme winter weather. 

Due to the complicated logistics of traveling to the project site, the team emphasized minimizing potential surprises in the field. "We tested each system with fuel at Nicholls' facility prior to being shipped up to the site; so everything was able to be pre-commissioned before it went up to Old Crow," Frank remarks. 

Fuel is trucked from Whitehorse, YT, up Dempster Highway to Fort McPherson, NWT, where it is loaded into a Hawker Siddeley 748 aircraft for the 40-minute flight to YOC. Seven tanks fit inside the aircraft, enabling it to carry 6,000 liters of fuel on each of its quarterly deliveries. 

"It's quite a process just to get the fuel there," Frank muses. The supplier, Air North, takes the seats out of the airplane and attaches the fuel tanks to the seat rails. After finishing the two-week fuel haul, it pulls out all the tanks and switches back to passenger service.

The new depot at YOC makes it easier for crews to off-load the fuel. "The plane can taxi up and park near the first enclosure, where the appropriate unloading hose is unreeled and the respective pump is activated to transfer all the fuel from the aircraft tanks to the fuel depot storage tanks," chronicles Frank.

The enclosure contains five hoses for off-loading (one dedicated to each product) and a sixth hose for single-point loading of jet-A1. "That way, if an aircraft comes in that has single-point fueling, we can service the aircraft at about 200 gallons a minute," he continues.

The system also allows for over-wing dispensing of both jet-A1 and avgas for general aviation aircraft.

The hoses lead to hard piping that connects to one of three other enclosures, where the pumping and filtration equipment is located - one for jet-A1 and avgas, another for gasoline and diesel, and a third for home heating oil. From there, fuel is pumped to the appropriate storage tanks.

No Concrete?!

YOC's remote location, brutal weather and rough terrain conspired to create unique engineering and construction challenges for the project. Because Old Crow sits on the banks of the Porcupine River, which has a history of spring flooding, it was essential to secure equipment. Normally, concrete foundations would be used to provide ballast; but it was too expensive to transport Portland cement to the site, Frank explains.

So the Argus team turned to local resources instead. Engineers devised a system that uses large gabion baskets filled with rocks from a nearby quarry to secure the enclosures, tanks and pumping systems in the event of high water. Large cables running through the baskets hold the ballast rock in place. 

Another challenge was timing construction so work wouldn't disturb the permafrost. "Being so far north, we had to get in and place 4 inches of insulation across the entire site early in the spring, prior to the thawing of the active layer of the permafrost," Frank notes. A fuel-resistant liner and gravel was then laid on top of the insulation for further protection. "We wanted to eliminate any heat transfer."

The prep work was critical because if the permafrost thawed, the tanks and piping could settle and cause the system to malfunction.

Harsh weather was another impediment. At one point, heavy rains caused a riverbank to wash away at Fort McPherson, NWT. With ferry service suspended, trucks hauling fuel for commissioning the project could not get across the river for the flight to YOC, causing several days of delay. 

"It seemed there was always weather on one end or the other of the fuel haul," says Frank.

Gimme Shelter

Feeding and housing workers even proved to be a challenge. With no hotels in town, Nicholls rented a small home, with sleeping capacity for four, and hired a local resident to cook for the team. But the company had up to 12 workers in the town at any given time from April to September; so other workers bunked in private residences, bed and breakfast style. 

With milk from the local store costing $13 a gallon and ice cream priced at $20, Nicholls chartered an aircraft and flew in thousands of dollars of more moderately priced food in a series of delivery trips. 

Easter credits the Vuntut Gwitchin government for hiring Argus and W.S. Nicholls to provide the new fuel depot. "They let us do the design, the construction, the optimization and the enhancements to suit what they needed," he relates.

"They didn't micromanage; they let us provide them with a premium product."  

As Vuntut Gwitchin chief, Kyikavichik concurs: "From start to finish, the key to the success - we worked together as a team."

Fuel Operations

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