On Final: Establishing a sea change

February 24, 2011
Written by DAVID OLSEN
Float-plane safety has become a major issue after four fatal crashes and one non-fatal crash on the B.C. coast in two years. Last October, Transport Canada (TC) convened a float plane safety workshop in Vancouver, and the CARAC Technical Committee considered an issue paper on the subject at its Nov. 15-17 meeting in 2010. Wings correspondent David Olsen recently interviewed Martin Eley, director general of Civil Aviation, to get his take on the issues.

WINGS: After a May 2010 fatal float-plane crash near Tofino, a Victoria newspaper stated “float planes are inherently more dangerous than land-based aircraft.” Do you agree, or is the real issue that the float plane-operating environment is less forgiving?

ELEY: Float planes are certified to the same standards as the corresponding land-based aircraft, so they are not inherently less safe. The major difference is that if things go wrong the aircraft becomes inverted. There are particular challenges in the West Coast environment but more regulation will not help if it is not the right type of regulation. The issue is, what are the best practices; what are the operating environments; are there any gaps in the system? A few accidents will not give us a full picture and that is what we want from the float-plane community. We are looking at water aerodrome regulations to introduce the same rigour as at land airports.

WINGS: Flying boats are designed for a water-operating environment, but float planes are just land planes on floats. Do you believe that more should be done to design operational safety into float planes, and should Canadian manufacturers look at something like an updated Canadair CL415 amphibian?

ELEY: Canada probably has the largest commercial float-plane operation in the world, employing a wide range of aircraft. The advantage of a fleet based on landplanes is that the landing gear can be changed for different conditions. There is no standard design in the industry – operators use the design that suits them best, which is a commercial decision. A specialized aircraft [such as the CL415] is outside the price range of most commercial operators and, in a passenger-carrying version, I’m not sure the economics would work.

WINGS: It is almost 11 years since water airport regulations and standards were agreed to by CARAC, but they have not been implemented. What is TC’s action plan this year?

ELEY: The justice department has completed drafting of the proposed regulations and the associated standards, and the Treasury Board has approved our regulatory impact analysis statement – a check and balance to ensure due process. We are getting ready to table them for Gazette I and we believe that is going to be in Spring 2011.

WINGS: Float-plane accident reports often infer pilot error. What new actions are being placed upon operators and pilots?

ELEY: From the human factors perspective, there is usually a reason for pilot error. The focus is on what we can do to improve the pilot’s work environment, to help reduce pilot error. If you expect pilots to do too much with too little information, or if they are preoccupied, does that mean there are inadequate procedures for the way they should be doing things? There are a lot of practices and guidance that, if robust, reduce the opportunity for pilot error to cause an accident. Make sure good information is available and ensure clear and consistent interpretation of the rules, especially in bad weather. Is something lacking in our guidance material? Is there an aspect of training where we don’t focus enough on how to behave in certain conditions?

WINGS: Given that passengers in an inverted sinking float plane are under extreme stress and only seconds from death, is not the prevention of accidents equally as important as emergency exits and life jackets?

ELEY: TSB did a study of float-plane accidents in 1994 [updated by TC in 2010] and there is no question that accident prevention is what we want to do and is one of the drivers for SMS. That said, there will be times when things go wrong and, in the last year, we have paid renewed attention to ensuring that passengers understand the risks and what they can do to enhance their chances of surviving an accident.

It’s a two-pronged approach – prevent accidents but help passengers because of the unique situation of float planes. To reiterate – although SMS is not yet regulated, voluntary early implementation will enhance accident prevention and a proactive safety culture will deal with little things before they turn into a tragedy.

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