Sightseeing by Seaplane in Vancouver

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Visitors walking around, driving around, or just sitting on a bench around Burrard Inlet, English Bay, False Creek, or Stanley Park find it hard to miss the seaplanes taking off at Coal Harbor, climbing out or letting down to land or just cruising overhead.  

That’s because seaplanes are a denizen of Canada and Alaska and not many other places. These are more precisely called floatplanes because of the two pontoons mounted on struts below the fuselage instead of the conventional wheels.  For the most part residents seem either oblivious to them or annoyed with their engine exhausts perhaps but to the aviation crowd they are a big city version of what is the Canadian heritage of the bush pilot.   

Bush pilots do exactly what it sounds like, fly farther north, into the back country and land on mapped or unmapped lakes.  Fishing parties are the center of the trade now, but dating back at least to the 1920s a small, usually single engine float plane was the only way to get into or out of the roadless and railess North woods.  So these airplanes hark back to a fascinating era of what once was called seat-of-the-pants flying: few instruments, no electronic navigation systems, no autopilots, no traffic control. Rather it was mostly eyeball and feel, with an airspeed indicator, a tachometer for engine revolutions, and a possibly erratic magnetic compass.

Seaplane training was still part of the curriculum for a minority of the cadets who entered U.S. Navy flight training when I went through many years ago.  This was either in flying boats or scout observation.  Flying boats were the low-and-slow PBY Catalina whose fuselage, as the name implied, was a boat hull. Designated a patrol bomber, it made a gilded reputation (radio call Dumbo the Disney cartoon elephant) rescuing shot-down pilots. Scout observation meant float planes, in my time, a single float mounted directly under the fuselage and small wing tip floats to keep the airplane from turning over on the water.     

Though I never flew a flying boat, I did get a long, long ride in one, from San Francisco to Hawaii in a classic Boeing 314 Flying Clipper that Pan American World Airways pioneered transpacific commercial airline service in the 1930s. But I never got a hop in a float plane, which mostly were catapulted from the sterns of cruisers or battleships and landed in the ocean near the ship that made a slow turn and even released oil for a slick to smooth the water to make it feasible. Nothing would do then that I take a ride in a seaplane operating out of docks stretching into Coal Harbour, a walk from downtown in Vancouver, as soon as I saw them.  Two different companies fly from there and Harbour Air had a handy office close to a kiddie water park where my daughter and grandchildren loved to play. Harbour Air is a combination airline, charter and sightseeing service and retains a link to bush flying history.  As an airline it operates scheduled flights to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Charters are often sportsmen parties that go north and scout deserted lakes and forests in the backwoods.   

Sightseeing flights are not cheap.  Mine cost something of $100 for a 30-minute tour of the harbour entrance, the inlet past the ferry terminal near Horseshoe Bay or a good look at the impressive edifice of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. Or is the operative word, for there were two trips.  My goal was a ride in the de Havilland of Canada Beaver, a classic of the Bush trade.  This airplane was designed in 1947, sold marginally until the U.S. Army bought over 600 as utility transports.  The first time I saw this airplane was from the back end of a Boeing 707 jet on final approach to Los Angeles International Airport when I happened to glance out of a cabin window and saw we were flying formation with a glistening white Army Beaver also gliding to a landing at the same time on a parallel runway. Too many visitors wanted to make that Harbour Air flight so I wound up on a newer and larger Turbo Otter.  Since I had staked a claim on the right seat where the co-pilot would sit if there was one I decided to go while I had the chance. Shorter than the Beaver in nostalgia, the Turbo Otter is long on refinement.  Besides the single turbine engine’s smoother and more powerful performance the airplane has a reversible pitch propeller that makes it possible to back up on the water as well as taxi forward. Such is important for a seaplane.  In the early days of aviation the seaplane had advantages that made it seem as that was the future for heavier than air aircraft.  No expensive airport or long concrete runway was needed, just any available modest size body of water.  It stopped very quickly on landing.  It could fly anywhere where there was open water, important in flying to parts of the world without airports.   Along with these were disadvantages.  Seaplanes had no brakes. Anyone who has traveled on an airliner knows the comforting feel when the airplane pulls up to the loading bridge and the pilot steps on the brakes for a precise stop. Left to themselves, seaplanes in a comparable situation would drift until they hit something solid. Hence their reversible propellers now.

The Turbo Otter pilot on my flight showed how easy seaplane handling on the water had become. As our flight neared  the pier when he slid the propeller control into and out of forward or reverse to make a feather light, precise docking.  Seaplanes dock like a boat, sideways. Still it’s possible to ding the pier or the airplane in a mishandled approach.   Navy lore in flight training warned of some other hazards in flying off the water.  Get the nose up at exactly the right time on takeoff or the airplane might not get off the water at all but just stick.  Another was the importance of doing the same thing on landing or the forward section of the hull or floats might dig in and send the airplane into a cartwheel. Carrier landings were the same then: get the tail down and bang the airplane on the deck or water so it sticks. The joke about flying boat landings was that a really good one popped out a few rivets in the boat hull.  Takeoff?  “This thing just flies itself off the water,” the pilot snorted. Landing?  Just about any kind of airplane can have problems if the nose is down on touchdown, land or water. Big as the splash was when we hit the water at a spot that seemed to me just a hundred yards or so from a merchant ship it was obviously the same theory.  We hardly got any closer to the ship the water decelerated us so rapidly.    

The Turbo Otter sent an exhilarating sheet of spray past the cockpit but did indeed just fly itself off the water, and faster than I expected considering the resistance of the water to acceleration.  Airborne, the Turbo Otter was slower than a comparable land plane and didn’t cruise as fast.  Headphones and a lip microphone made conversation on intercom easy and that was the subject of my first question to the pilot.  How much do the floats affect the speed of a seaplane like this one?  They do, but not as much as it might seem.  Floats are streamlined and they contribute lift to offset their drag.    Part of the fun for me was the chance to talk flying with the pilot and I had a lot of other questions.  Where, I wondered, did Harbour Air get its pilots?  From the military, as larger commercial airlines do, that trains pilots in high performance aircraft?  Not here. Pilots pay for their own training in a civilian flight school.  Then Harbour Air starts them flying into the bush for seasoning.   That brought my next question.  How do pilots handle landing at a backwoods lake that may have hazards like floating logs or snags or who knows what?  Do they drag the lake first; that is make a low altitude pass first to check for obstacles?  No, he replied. He learned to check easily what was in the water as the float plane glided toward the landing.   Chatter about flying made the sightseeing trip seem short. I had flown a couple of classic airplanes in the Navy and that always interests other pilots.  

Climbout after takeoff crossed the Lions Gate Bridge, an arresting sight from the air, then a half circle back over Vancouver downtown before another circle back to land and the deft docking I mentioned.  Fun for me but some of the tourists in the back seats, used to big jetliners, were obviously uncomfortable in a small airplane that bounced around a bit.   While the thirst for a floatplane flight was slaked, the call of the Beaver still echoed. So next year, albeit concerned about the price, I decided to take another shot.  This time it worked. Again I insisted on a seat up front next to the pilot but this was a different animal.    

The engine is another gift from the past, a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior piston engine with the cylinders arranged in a ring around the propeller shaft and producing 450 horsepower, not much more than some of today’s muscle cars.  Reliable it is, but noisy and it vibrates through the passenger cabin as piston engines do. That’s not surprising since the engine was first produced in 1929, about the time when the Ford Model T or Model A was king of the road, which had their own vibrations.  Pratt & Whitney of Canada in Montreal built the engine after World War II and the 1,600 Beavers built used a share of the 39,000 engines in the series.  While it generated the same rush of spray on takeoff, the Beaver climbed out slower and cruised slower than the Turbo Otter on what was a longer trip. This took us west over Stanley Park, a turn north over the ferry station near Horseshoe Bay then back to Vancouver itself and landing.  More flying chatter this time with the pilot and he demonstrated a landing, pointing out what he used for markers in Burrard Inlet and even added a little engine power to take us closer to the pier before the satisfying splash and instantaneous stop.  All in all, two fine afternoons, both topped with a pint of ale at the Mill Marine Bistro, an open-air pub behind the water park where the grandchildren were still splashing. Only left is a faint frustration that I couldn’t have flown one of these airplanes.

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