B.C. float-plane operators 'turn page in history' to form safety association
BY LARRY PYNN, VANCOUVER SUN
OCTOBER 8, 2010
Continuing float-plane crashes in B.C., including the deaths of six passengers in a tragedy off Saturna Island, have prompted what the industry is calling historic action to improve safety.
B.C.'s commercial float-plane operators wrapped up a two-day workshop organized by Transport Canada on Thursday with a commitment to create a new association dedicated specifically to safety.
"It's a huge first step," Quentin Smith, president of Pacific Coastal Airlines, said in an interview immediately after the closed workshop. "It's turning a page in history and going forward, breaking down the competitive barriers we've had in the past.
"Clearly, the loud message is that we have to work as a team with one voice and sharing information. This is going to be industry-driven, not government. It's about creating an industry standard."
Bill Yearwood, regional manager of the federal transportation safety board, said he attended the workshop as an observer and was encouraged by what he heard. He said an association would provide a more formal structure for allowing float-plane operators to meet and exchange safety ideas and encourage "best practices."
The safety board has been pushing Transport Canada for years to improve safety on float planes through initiatives such as mandatory use of life-preservers during flights and egress improvements that would allow passengers to escape more readily in a crash at sea.
"An association can do a better job of raising the bar," Yearwood said. "The board has tried to identify the risks and solutions on a broad-based level. If the risk is managed voluntarily by all the operators, that would be great."
Last Nov. 29, six passengers, including a mother and her infant daughter, died after they were unable to escape a Seair Seaplanes de Havilland Beaver float plane that sank shortly after crashing into Lyall Harbour off Saturna Island. The pilot and one other passenger survived.
The safety board report into that crash is expected to be released later this year.
The Vancouver Sun published a six-part series into float-plane safety last May and June.
Aviation safety advocate Kirsten Stevens, whose husband was among five men who died in an MJM Air crash off Quadra Island in 2005, noted Transport Canada has given assurances that the operators' safety association will not replace government oversight of the industry.
"I'm coming away with a positive feeling," she said. "The formation of a safety association is something I've wanted to see happen."
Transport Canada, which invited 55 float operators around the province to the workshop, refused to provide anyone to be interviewed Thursday.
Industry representatives will meet again Nov. 4 in Richmond to discuss more details on how the association will be established.
Viking Air of Sidney, the "type certificate holder" for the Beaver, gave a demonstration at the workshop of emergency pop-out windows it has designed for the aircraft. It has also manufactured new easier-to-use door latches similar to those in a motor vehicle, and put two latches on the cabin doors to make it easier for passengers in the forward and aft cabin seats to use them.
Transport Canada has so far not forced industry to implement these safety fixes, but several operators have voluntarily ordered them.
Yearwood said he was also encouraged to hear that the majority of operators have voluntarily installed satellite tracking systems on their aircraft to allow search-and-rescue officials to find downed aircraft faster and help save lives.
Richmond-based Mustang Survival also gave a presentation at the workshop of its life-preservers, which can be worn by pilots and passengers during flight then inflated manually once they escape the aircraft, reducing the need to search for preservers under the seats during a crash.