Life on the Westcoast of British Columbia by Bill Pennings

It was a day in the fall of 1975. Rain and poor visibility in the forecast and I was dispatched to do the Gulf Island scheduled service. From Coal Harbour to Saltspring Island in a Beaver on floats. Betty, the local Customer Service Agent, gave me my orders to take six passengers to Ganges. Here I was to load another six passengers in the Beaver and take them back to Coal Harbour.

I was not overly eager to do the sked that morning as the weather was poor. During the commute to work in the car, I had a good feeling what the day would bring. The rain was coming down hard and the spray thrown up by cars driving in front of me made the visibility less then a few hundred yards. It was still raining when I walked out of the office and announced that the flight to Ganges was about to leave. Six passengers got up from their seats in the waiting room and followed me to the aircraft.

The walk from the waiting room to the aircraft was only about a hundred yards but it was long enough to make the overcoats and raincoats of my passengers wet from the rain. I knew that this was going to be a difficult flight. The rain from the overcoats would slowly evaporate in the aircraft and the moist saturated air would keep the windows fogged up for most of the flight. We arrived at the aircraft and all the passengers huddled under the wing to get some protection from the rain. After I had all the baggage loaded in the back of the aircraft, I looked at the size of some of my passengers. They were all males and I selected the biggest to sit up front with me. The two lightest were directed in the back and the other three were stuffed like sardines in the middle seat. I asked all the passengers to tighten their seat belts for the duration of the flight and refrain from smoking. This did not go over to well with some of these passengers as it was not often heard that smoking was prohibited. But six passengers and myself in a small aircraft for about half an hour with the majority smoking was to much for my liking and that is why the order was given. I closed the door of the passenger compartment and started to untie the aircraft ropes. The ropes were left to trail on top of the floats.

After I had pivoted the aircraft over the trailing edge of the left float to about 45 degrees with the dock, I took a big leap and jumped from the dock on the float and clambered in the pilot seat through my own door. Primer open, two shots of prime, throttle open a quarter inch, mixture full rich, engage the starter and both magnetos on and with a loud rumble the PW985 came to life. About 800-900 RPM would give me enough forward speed to have good control over the water rudders. Brakes on a float aircraft do not exist. If you have to stop, the only way to do that is to cut the forward pulling power of the propeller, i.e. stopping the engine. It would be imprudent to have to much forward speed on as there are many boats that do use the same water as the aircraft. As silly as it sounds, aircraft are at the bottom of the list of the right of way.

I slowly made my way out of the harbour towards the area were we normally take-off. The windows started to fog up and with a big wad of paper towel, that I had stuck under my seat, I wiped my window clean on my side and then gave the paper towel to my passenger. He’d seen from my actions what I would like him to do and in short time all the windows were clean from condensation. The weather was not good, about 1 mile visibility and a grey overcast with a continuous rain. After I’d taxied out far enough and given my radio transmission about my intentions to other aircraft, I applied power and started my take-off. Slowly the nose of the aircraft started to rise. When it would not rise anymore a slow forward push on the control column would help the aircraft on the step. It was now planing on the bottom surface of the floats and the forward speed increased rapidly. A continuous look out was important for debris and boats. It didn’t take long before we were airborne and with a gentle turn to the left we headed for the Lions Gate Bridge and the exit of the harbour.

The windows started to fog up again and after a couple of wipes with the paper wad we had this under control. With all this fog and rain outside of the cockpit it is imperative that the inside windows are clean and free of condensation. Flying to the Lions Gate Bridge from the harbour is relatively easy as there is land on both sides. To the right is the North Shore and to the left is Stanley Park. This land contact, in the peripheral vision, is very comforting. After leaving the Lions Gate to the west, this comfort disappears very fast and a large grey area of water is all that greets you. The water and the horizon all become one without any visual references to maintain attitude. The visibility had dropped down to much less as it was in the harbour. I knew that this was only because I could not see the shore line any more and I set heading for Point Grey, five miles further, with the knowledge that landfall would show up soon. I had lowered my altitude from 500 feet to about 300 feet to stay clear of the clouds as I was flying unintentionally in them.

Soon Point Grey loomed out of the fog and I was now under control by the Vancouver Airport. Clearance was requested and granted and I was on my way to cross the Georgia Straight to the Gulf Islands. Navigation aids were not available and you flew on your own with just a compass and directional gyro. The aircraft owned by the company were not very well equipped with any more then the mandatory minimum instruments.

Every now and then a piece of driftwood or fishing boat would come in view and disappear behind me. After about five minutes you started to wonder if the course you had selected would be the right one. Shouldn’t it be another five or ten degrees to the right or left? Out of experience I knew that the first heading would always be the best one and any change would undoubtedly be the wrong one. It became an extra sense to translate the angle of the waves and swells and I continued on my first heading.

The visibility was at some places a little worse. If the visibility dropped to less then you were comfortable with then the speed of the aircraft could be brought back to about 60 miles per hour and, with the flaps set to land, would have you ready to drop down and land if the water conditions were good enough. After about fifteen minutes I made contact with Porlier Pass exactly were it had to be, and another ten minutes following the shores to Ganges for my first landing.

At Ganges I off-loaded my passengers and waited about fifteen minutes for my return flight to Vancouver. Waiting by the aircraft in the rain was cold and uncomfortable. I looked forward to the arrival of my passengers and the departure from Ganges. The return flight was always somewhat easier as you knew from personal experience what the weather was going to be. After take-off I set course to Active Pass as I could not get over the landmass because of low cloud and poor visibility. At the east side of Active Pass I contacted the Vancouver Traffic Control and ask them for clearance through the control zone at 500 feet. To my surprise this was denied as the weather had deteriorated and was now officially below Special VFR . This meant that I had to circumnavigate the control zone. The zone is 9 miles around the centre of the airport and without the proper navigation equipment it would be almost impossible to do an arc that would keep me clear of the control zone. If I would descend too low then the radar would not be able to pick me up. The equipment at the Vancouver Airport was appallingly poor and outdated. I told the Vancouver Traffic Control that I would circumnavigate the zone and switched to the dispatch frequency to tell them of my delayed arrival time in Vancouver Harbour.

Dispatch told me that the weather in Vancouver Harbour had also come down and several pilots had turned back and cancelled the flight. That was easy for them to do as they were in the safe confinements of the harbour but I was out in nowhere trying to make it to a safe landing side. I continued on my heading and jotted down the time. I knew that it would take me a given amount of time to get abeam the airport and then I would alter my heading every minute by a set amount of degrees to the right. I had done this before with good results and I could do it again.

The weather was surely deteriorating. The wind had dropped down to nothing. This made the water conditions bad as I would not be able to see the surface. Just a small amount of wind would have been better than nothing. This wind would ripple the surface and would make it visible. Now I was without this help but I was at 200 feet and as long as I maintained this two hundred feet I would be OK. My time had come to change heading to the right and this I dutifully did. Every few minutes I would change some more to this heading and eventually I would be on the proper course to enter the harbour with Point Grey to the right of me. I was only two or three minutes away from Point Grey. I could see it on the water conditions, they were now influenced by the current and the run-off from the North Arm of the Fraser River. It was somewhat easier to fly as I could see the surface again. By my estimation I would have been about one mile offshore but I had no visual contact with land yet. I decided to call radar and tell them of my plight.

The report came back that I was in the control zone by a slight margin and I was heading straight for Point Grey. I should have seen it by now as I was by the report from radar exactly one mile from landfall.

The tension was getting somewhat high in the cockpit and I had reduced my forward speed to 60 mph and I had landing flaps selected. Were was this shoreline? It was getting scary now and I was ready to turn to the left when I saw this dark thin line. There it was! With a turn to the left I intercepted the shore line and was now back in familiar territory. I switched from the Vancouver Airport to the harbour advisory frequency and told all aircraft in the vicinity of my position and intentions. I was not talking to anybody as there were no other airplanes flying around in this crud. I headed for Third Beach at Stanley Park and flew over several ships anchored in the outer harbour. After passing the beach it was only another mile and then I would be on final to land in Coal Harbour. After landing I turned around to taxi back to the dock and off-loaded my passengers. This would not be the last trip of the day, there were still about 8-10 hours to go before the day was over.

Bill Pennings