Vancouver is a fantastic city, one of the most pleasant I have visited. It has a winning combination of being close to both water and mountains, along with an attractive city centre featuring some superb parks and open spaces.
From an aviation photographer’s point of view, the Vancouver Harbour Water Airport offers some unique opportunities to photograph some very smart floatplanes which ply their trade between Vancouver and some of the outlying communities, such as Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
Biggest player in the floatplane business is Harbour Air, which claims to be the world’s largest all floatplane airline. It has become an even larger company since acquiring West Coast Air, previously its largest competitor. Although now in common ownership and sharing facilities at the Water Airport, both companies’ aircraft retain their separate colours.
Harbour Air operates the DHC-2 Beaver and DHC-3-T Turbine Single Otter in its own colours, with West Coast Air also flying Beavers alongside the larger DHC-6 Twin Otter. Most common sight are the Turbine Otters of Harbour Air – the company has 18 in service.
On previous visits to Vancouver I have not had time to actually take a flight on a floatplane, but this time around I was lucky enough to have a free day, without any time pressure to get back to the city, so I decided to head down to the airport (along with Steve and Elliott, two good friends that I was working with) to see if there was any chance of getting on a flight. We’d originally intended to fly to Victoria and then catch the ferry back to Vancouver later in the day, but the Victoria flights were extremely busy, so there were no seats available.
After hanging around for a while, we decided to have a chat with the staff and see if they could suggest any other destinations that might be a bit quieter. We were very lucky to get some superb help from one of the duty managers, who suggested we might like to take a round trip to the Gulf Islands. This would involve visits to three destinations before returning to Vancouver – plenty of flying and some superb scenery – perfect.
The flight was aboard one of Harbour Air’s Turbine Otters. When our flight was called, we headed down to board the aircraft from the jetty (ironic really in that it was an actual jetty rather than an airbridge). With passengers loaded and briefed by the single pilot, doors were closed and the engine started. The aircraft are surprisingly manoeuvrable on the water – the floats have rudders for steering and the pilots also use liberal amounts of reverse thrust in place of wheel brakes.
We taxied out to the departure runway – all operations take place on defined areas of water, so this is not quite as daft as it sounds – before the pilot opened the taps and off we went. The takeoff was surprisingly quick and smooth and we commenced a left turn on course, levelling off at 900 ft. Our first stop was to be Maple Bay, which involved a fairly long transit of about 40 mins, across the open water of the Strait of Georgia towards the Gulf Islands, off the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
We approached Maple Bay, which turned out to be a fairly narrow inlet surrounded on all sides by hills. The pilot set up for his approach, with the flaps being hand cranked and (of course) no need to check that the landing gear was down and locked! As with the take off, the landing was also very smooth and lacked drama – the only excitement being provided by the noticeably nose down attitude adopted by the Otter on final approach!
We pulled up at the jetty where two passengers were waiting. We had brought a groundcrew member with us on the flight to assist as there seemed to be no staff at our destinations. As we approached the jetty, the crew member jumped out onto the jetty to tie the aircraft up to allow the pilot to shut down the engine to allow the passengers on and off the aircraft.
The unloading and loading process took a few minutes and then it was time to start up and retrace our steps for departure. This time we departed in the same direction we had arrived and made a right turn for the short hop to Ganges. The flight lasted less than five minutes and really consisted of a lob into the next valley – and I thought LHR/MAN was a quick flight!
After another brief stop we once again departed and headed on a slightly longer sector to Bedwell Harbour. There were plenty of boats to deal with on arrival and departure, with the aircraft operating area not being as defined as at Vancouver. Bedwell Harbour was our final stop before heading back to Vancouver, and I was fortunate enough to bag the seat alongside the pilot for this last part – the Otter is a single pilot aircraft provided with controls from the left hand seat only, so the right hand seat is a passenger seat.
The flight back to Vancouver took about 35 minutes and we climbed to an altitude of 2500 feet for the transit back over the Strait of Georgia, passing over some big container ships on the way.
Our higher altitude allowed us to pass over the top of Vancouver International en route back to the city. Interestingly the international airport has its own floatplane terminal to the south of the main airport. Apparently this terminal is also home to an excellent bar/restaurant which I fully intend to visit in the future!
We contacted air traffic control at the Water Airport and commenced our descent into the harbour area – the views of the city and Stanley Park were really spectacular, especially during the final approach. I can also confirm that while the final approach might look steep from the outside, it feels VERY steep from the cockpit!
After another very smooth landing we made our way back to the terminal and, after a quick chat with the pilot, headed back to dry land, having thoroughly enjoyed our taste of floatplane flying.
A little under a week later I found myself back at Vancouver on another trip, which gave a good opportunity to shoot some more floatplanes. Since my last visit almost a year ago, a new airport terminal has been built in Vancouver. Currently there are a few issues which have meant that so far Harbour Air has declined the opportunity to move in. The new airport has allowed a couple of smaller operators to offer flights from Vancouver for the first time, so there were a few new colour schemes to be seen including Seair and Tofino Air.
Last movement before I had to leave was a real surprise however – a Canadian Forces CH-149 Cormorant, the Canadian version of the Merlin helicopter. The Cormorant dropped into the military base on the edge of Stanley Park and was only on the ground for a few minutes before departing. It made for a great sight in its high vis SAR colour scheme and provided a fitting end to a pleasant couple of days spent in the Vancouver area.
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2011-07-09 - Mark Munzel
Good on you, Paul, for taking a ride with Harbour Air. As many enthusiasts as there are who like to shoot floatplanes, I suspect most have never discovered the magic of float flying. (Having written that, I'm now feeling a bit guilty myself!)
Next time you're in Vancouver, try to visit Brockton Point in Stanley Park. Departing float traffic usually comes around the point, in a bank at low level, on its way out of the harbour. In the afternoon you can get some excellent views of Beaver and Otter topsides with the harbour and moutains behind.
2011-07-04 - Peter Fleetwood
Excellent, Paul! Your first article on floatplanes in Vancouver was great, but this gives a totally new view, especially as you had that trip out to those marvellous-sounding places. The aircraft photographs are superb, but I am grateful to get a much better idea of the city from the other shots you have included this time. Like others, I find these articles quite an encouragement to head out to Vancouver. Many thanks.
2011-07-04 - Thomas Pitts
Vancouver and in particular Harbour Air's Floatplanes have been on the wish list for a very long time. This blog is excellent! In fact i'm hoping to sample Harbour Air's Malta operation in September when I go over for the airshow and some climbing.
2011-07-04 - Greg Bishop
Bet this great photo spread will influence more than one visitor like me! They are fascinating aircraft, and the aerials are excellent, Paul! You've done them justice!
2011-07-04 - Alec Walker
Vancouver is my favourite city in the world and I am incredibly jealous, but you have some excellent shots and a cracking article which has really done it justice!
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