Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017
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Flying Beavers in BC

The world’s largest all-seaplane airline is a West Coast institution

The Flying Beaver is not your typical airline terminal. People come for the food, the drink, for the views out over the water and, occasionally, to board a plane.

This is home base for Harbour Air, which bills itself as “the world’s largest all-seaplane airline.” It operates out of a pub on the Fraser River in Richmond, BC, in the shadow of Vancouver International Airport.

From here, and another dedicated terminal in downtown Vancouver, island-hopping planes dart back and forth every half-hour to Victoria, Nanaimo, Langley and the Gulf Islands. It’s a novel way to sightsee while getting to where you’re going. The charter side of the business flies into the backcountry to anywhere they can land a plane on water.

Outside of the bar, there’s a scale beside a small desk where I checked in. My bag was 4.5 kilos over the 22.5-kilogram limit. I was asked if this was my first time on Harbour Air, which it was. The planes have limited capacity and if the 14-seater was fully booked, my bag would have to wait for the next flight. Then I was handed a 20-percent discount coupon for pub grub from the menu.

The cosy bar has a stone fireplace with trophy fish on the mantle, leather stools and picture windows that look out onto the dock and watery runway. No airport I’ve been to feels this homey; the place recalls the early clubby days of flying.

The planes themselves are relics of a bygone era. The de Havilland Beaver and Otter were the workhorses of the sky, Canadian bush planes built in the ’50s and ’60s. Harbour Air began service in 1982 with just two seaplanes to service the forest industry and has grown to a fleet of 34 vintage craft that are scrupulously maintained and fitted with modern turbine engines. Some fans of these propeller planes believe they could fly forever.

Plane spotters Jim Hay and Jane Robinson are such people. They are tucking into Dungeness crab cakes and calamari when we strike up a conversation. “We come here to eat and watch the planes take off,” Jim said. Just then, a seaplane dropped from the sky and skimmed the surface with the lightest touch.

Unlike most flying experiences, the food on Harbour Air is excellent. Maybe it’s because it’s served before you leave the ground. The airline owns and operates the Flying Beaver. I ordered a wild BC salmon burger. This one didn’t make it back alive to the Fraser, where millions of salmon return to spawn, so I raised a glass of the local brew called Red Trunk Ale to the ones that did and bit into the crisp skin and succulent flesh.

The pub manager, Paddy Gallagher, said locals stop by for live music on weekends and a rock-and-roll trivia contest on Saturday nights that everyone gets into. “The Flying Beaver reserves the right to party your butt off all night long.” Paddy didn’t say that. It’s written on the menu. It’s that kind of place. He tells me the airline will open a similar dockside pub in Victoria this summer called the Flying Otter.

So, when it came time to board, I did so with some regret. How many airports can you say that about? The sunny deck was filling up with regulars and I left a conversation about the merits of Vancouver hosting the Olympics next year. Most in this crowd were against the idea because of the disruption and tight security measures.

For a taste of what the games will bring to the area, I looked upriver from the dock at the Richmond Olympic Oval. The handsome new facility will host the speed skating competition and anyone can lace up now and skate all summer long. After the games, it will become a well-equipped community rec centre with everything but the ice.

I spotted my bag being loaded into the storage area in the plane’s pontoon and climbed aboard the Otter. There were 11 passengers bound for Nanaimo and I settled in behind the captain with a clear view of the instrument panel.

“Who needed a taxi at the other end?” asked captain Art Booth. That kind of personal service comes naturally to crewmembers when they share the intimate experience of flying with only a handful of passengers.

Last year, Harbour Air carried 175,000 passengers on 17,000 scheduled flights, which averages about 10 people at a time. The majority are business customers who don’t have time for the two- to three-hour ferry crossing between the Lower Mainland and the islands.

The plane’s cramped confines shook and rattled as we lifted off from the Fraser River, banked over the Oval and turned out across the Georgia Strait for the mountains of Vancouver Island. Despite the knee-touching close quarters, there’s not much incentive to talk over the engine noise. Besides, flying at 1000 metres lets you take in the scenery of passing ships below. I’m told pods of orcas are clearly visible when migrating through the Inland Passage.

In no time, we were buzzing over the pine-topped island of Gabriola and made a smooth descent into Nanaimo harbour. There’s no downward tipping, no sense we’re dropping altitude. It’s as if the surface of the water rises into view and the plane starts to ski across the waves. For those afraid of flying, there’s a psychological security blanket to landing on water instead of pavement. We taxi to the dock 17 minutes after taking off.

Randy Wright, a senior vice-president of the airline says tourists replace business flyers from mid-June through September. That’s when the airline also offers 20-minute flightseeing tours around Victoria, a 90-minute Rugged Mountains and Wild West Coast excursion and a Fly and Dine package to Butchart Gardens.

Harbour Air recently added a carbon-neutral policy that offsets not only emissions from its aircraft but also the corporate footprint of the company’s vehicles and buildings. “I think we’re the only ones in the world doing this,” Wright said.

When I asked about the Olympics, he admitted security will slow them down but added that in February, service is already reduced because these planes can only fly in daylight.

“We’re looking to the aftermarket once the games are over. When three billion people see the beauty shots of BC on their TVs, we think they’ll want to come and see it for themselves.” In other words, better book your tickets now.

Harbour Air (tel: 800-665-0212; www.harbour-air.com).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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