Parked float plane sinks during testing, increases concerns over new Vancouver facility

Harbour Air Otter found half submerged in Vancouver Harbour

Harbour Air was hesitant to commit to using the new Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre based at the north end of the Vancouver Conference Centre for several reasons.

The Nanaimo-based company now has two more.

On Saturday, one of Harbour Air’s $1.6-million DeHavilland single Otter float planes was discovered floating half submerged in Vancouver Harbour.

The plane was provided to assist in an overnight engineering assessment on the facility’s east dock to determine if the dock is suitable to safely secure floatplanes.

Because of the way the facility was built, Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall has contested it is not adequate  to house his fleet, and has instead opted to use a temporary facility at Coal Harbour.

“We’ve been concerend about various aspects of facility,” he said. “One of the aspects is we weren’t consulted on it at the time it was built. Our docks are designed to absorb waves and to flex with them and this is a dock that is almost a solid object, so anything that is up against it has a tremendous amount of action, so that has been our concern.”

Engineers equipped the plane with sensors to determine the effects of swell, waves and wind while the plane was tied up.

It didn’t go well.

The plane was found with its tail end submerged in the harbour early in the morning.

McDougall said his concerns had grown after two of four ropes securing the same plane to the same dock had snapped on Nov. 3.

“After we found the ropes had snapped, we believed that continuing on with the test was worth taking the risk,” said McDougall. “We simply didn’t think that the plane would sink.”

Though an investigation is underway, McDougall said early indications suggest the structure of the east dock is too rigid and too high, and doesn’t allow any for absorption from wind and wave energy.

Early indications suggest water began to seep into the most vulnerable part of the plane’s floats, through vents at the stern, causing them to fill with sea water.

When it was discovered, the tail of the plane was submerged and water had reached the rear of the cabin.

“Fortunately, we got it it up and out of the water before the power and avionic systems were affected,” McDougall said. “Though the plane suffered fairly extensive damage, all of the vital stuff is OK.”

Because of high insurance deductibles, it’s expected Harbour Air will be responsible for the repairs.

An investigation team is looking at surveillance video of the plane to determine exactly what happened.

There were no injuries.

Prior to the weekend test, no sea plane company had used the exposed east dock overnight due to safety concerns. Float plane operators say the finger extends too far into the harbour, exposing docked planes to strong swells, waves and wind.

Two companies regularly use the flight centre’s west dock, but McDougall said after a plane was damaged earlier at that dock as well, he’s wary of the entire facility and will opt to use the temporary facility at Coal Harbour until a solution can be provided.

“In our 30-year history of operating out of Vancouver Harbour, we have never had an aircraft sink at our docks,” said McDougall.

Many float plane companies are also concerned about a $12 passenger fee that would be imposed on all tickets to help service the debt for the $22-million facility, a levy Harbour Air has refused to pass on to its customers.

Last February, several south coast mayors, including Nanaimo mayor John Ruttan, met for a fact-finding mission to address the concerns of float plane operators regarding the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, which is a private project built by the Ledcore and Clarke groups.

reporter2@nanaimobulletin.com

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