Wings Magazine

Seaplane operator says change in attitude is needed

June 7, 2010, Vancouver - The decades old "bush-pilot'' attitude needs to change in order to improve safety in the float plane industry, says the head of the world's largest seaplane operation.

June 7, 2010  By The Canadian Press

Greg McDougall, CEO of Richmond, B.C.-based Harbour Air Seaplanes, said Thursday that when he started in the industry three decades ago, the attitude was different.

"The definition of a good pilot in the `bush-pilot' industry was somebody that would get you there when nobody else would,'' he told reporters. "And you can imagine the implications of that.''

The seaplane operator arranged the news conference in the wake of two high-profile float plane accidents that have claimed 10 lives in the past six months in British Columbia.

The most recent crash last Saturday killed the pilot and three passengers near Tofino, B.C. Last November, six people, including a baby, died when a Seair de Havilland Beaver crashed in Lyall Harbour off Saturna Island. Neither involved Harbour Air.


The crashes prompted federal Transport Minister John Baird to announce a federal review earlier this week.

Among the suggestions for rule changes, some believe passengers should wear life jackets in flight.

But McDougall said life jackets would pose an even greater risk to passengers if they had to wear them in the cabin of the plane. His company discourages the practice.

The bulky life jackets should only be inflated when the passenger makes it outside, he said.

"The chance for a passenger to inflate the life-jacket inside the aircraft and thereby blocking exits and endangering their lives and others…,'' he said. "At this point we're not convinced that that risk outweighs the risk of not having them.''

Harbour Air is the world's largest seaplane operation, moving about 400,000 passengers a year and employing 70 pilots.

After a devastating accident in 1998 where five people including the pilot were killed in Kincolith, B.C., the company embraced a culture of safety. The company has even adopted safety standards used by the larger airlines such as Air Canada and WestJet.

But he said other float-plane operators may not have the same attitude.

"If people subject their pilots to implied pressure, to economic pressure, to all of those things they enhance the chance of an accident,'' he said.

Kirsten Stevens, of the group Safe Skies, agrees. She said the smaller operators often need to pinch pennies.

"And so they're pushing guys to fly in bad weather or with undermaintained aircraft, the list just goes on.''

But she disagrees when it comes to in-flight life jackets.

Stevens' husband died after a float plane crash in February 2005. But he was the only one wearing a floatation jacket and did get out of the aircraft, before succumbing to hypothermia.

She believes had others been wearing life jackets on that plane they may have been able to stay together and survive.

Those who run egress training, which teaches people how to get out of a float plane in an emergency, say that if you don't have your life jacket on at the time the plane goes down, you won't get it on, Stevens said.

"You're not going to get it out of that plastic wrapper,'' she said.

While some say the device would trap a passenger in the plane, Stevens said at least by wearing the jacket people would know whichway is up in a situation that can be very chaotic and confusing.


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