Flying ‘Low and Slow’ with BC Floatplane Pilots

Apr 10, 2016

The Tyee

Hop in the cockpit with a local worker as iconic as fisher, logger or realtor.

By Phillip Vannini, 17 Mar 2016,

It is common amongst the residents of the Salish Sea region to give short-term hospitality to friends and relatives hailing from far-flung corners of the globe. As pleasant as these occasions often are, they always seem to be preceded by awfully belaboured and incredibly awkward explanations of how their final destination should best be reached. “Yes, Vancouver Island is actually an island and you will need to cross the sea.” “No, really, there is no bridge option.” “Horseshoe Bay, not Tsawwassen.” “Tsawwassen, not Horseshoe Bay.” “Not on Wednesday mornings; it’s dangerous cargo day!” “Once on the island ask for the McAllisters’ home; they moved away 20 years ago, but that’s what everybody calls our house.” And so on.

Exasperated by the possibility of yet more occurrences of would-be visitors’ confused geography, some two years ago I resolved to no longer direct my distant friends’ wayward souls through a maze of ships, taxi rides, and improbable hitch-hikes and instead began to suggest that they fly on a floatplane straight to my island. “Once you get to YVR, go to the river and ask for Sean or Klaus. If it’s not too foggy or too dark you’ll be on Gabriola in no time.”

As bizarre as this cheeky set of directions may have sound, the reply I received from its initial recipient turned out to be even more surprising: “Sean or Klaus? You actually knowthe pilots’ names?”

“Huh!” I thought, “I suppose I do.” I suppose we all do, out here.

It is not so much the fact that floatplane pilots are bound by Transport Canada regulations to state their first name to passengers every time they perform their carefully-memorized safety spiel — just in case, you know, you needed to get their attention as the plane falls out of the sky — but rather the much more interesting fact that on a floatplane it is the pilots themselves with whom you deal. It is they who walk you to your aircraft, who load your luggage, who distribute earplugs in lieu of peanuts, and who sit right next to you as they take your life in their capable hands. So, “how could I possibly not know their names?” — I answered my distant friend, feeling somewhat offended by his urbanite tendency to take anonymity as the universal norm.

Photo Courtesy of Phillip Vannini, The Tyee

Photo Courtesy of Phillip Vannini, The Tyee – Doug, Gold River-based Nootka Air pilot, takes off from Kyuquot with his DeHavilland Beaver.

About a year ago, however, I felt that knowing my pilots’ names would suffice no longer. Weary of the news media’s tendency to care about floatplanes only under the most tragic of circumstances, I decided to reach out to nearly every commercial operator based in the region and asked for pilots to share with me what it’s like to be in their seat. I wanted to know how they manage to fly machines that, for the most part, haven’t been manufactured since The Doors released their debut album. I was curious about why they didn’t sign up to fly fancier heavy iron instead. And most of all, I ached to learn why they fly so low and so slow.

Read full article and watch video here.