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Taking the lead on floatplane safety

By Ewan Tasker,
Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article originally ran in the July 25 edition of Canadian Skies' electronic newsletter.

Door of floatplane after an accident
Photo of jammed floatplane door after an accident

If you knew there was a way to make your company safer today, would you do it? For many business owners, the answer is an obvious yes. Unfortunately, that's far from a universal response, for a wide variety of reasons: uncertainty, pending legislation, debate over what exactly is required—and yes, cost.

In November 2009, a de Havilland Beaver floatplane crashed shortly after taking off from Lyall Harbour, British Columbia, en route to Vancouver International Airport. Although the pilot and one passenger managed to escape, six others drowned—all of them trapped inside the aircraft.

Following a detailed investigation of the accident, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) made two recommendations. First, that floatplanes be equipped with pop-out windows and doors to assist with emergency egress; and second, that Transport Canada (TC) make it mandatory for everyone onboard to wear a personal flotation device (PFD).

Today, five years after the crash and three years after the recommendations were made, neither safety measure is mandatory. But that hasn't stopped some companies from getting the message, and taking action.

Joel Eilertsen is the owner of Air Cab, a small charter company operating out of Coal Harbour, British Columbia. His firm, which operates three Beavers and one Cessna 185, was one of the province's first to require that its pilots and passengers wear PFDs.

Eilertsen says he'd long been dissatisfied with the fact that lifejackets weren't being worn by passengers. “No one,” he says, “ever reached under their seat in an emergency to put one on. And people were drowning as a result.” So when the TSB issued an update part way through the Lyall Harbour investigation and said PFDs were one of the issues being examined more closely, Eilertsen seized the opportunity. He bought an initial set of “horse collar”-style PFDs for one plane initially and told his employees to put them on, or else.

“Surprisingly, there was no resistance from customers,” he says. “These guys, many of them loggers, are used to wearing safety gear all the time. They looked at the PFDs as just another piece of safety gear, and so they wore it—no question.” Pushback, instead, came from his own pilots, though it was short-lived. “I said they could wear the PFDs or they could find another job. And that solved that.”

With the trial run deemed a success, Eilertsen bought more PFDs, and extended the new rules to his entire fleet. Today, several years on, he has no regrets. “Tourists, in fact, love them, especially if they can't swim. They even pose for pictures while wearing them.”

Yet Eilertsen says he's still surprised when he hears of companies that are opposed to the devices. Yes, there is some cost—at roughly $120 for each lifejacket, he estimates he has spent between $2000 and $3000—but he adds, “in the grand scheme of things, that's not much. Especially when lives are at stake.

“On top of this, we've even received a break on our insurance because we've shown initiative on safety.”

Air Cab isn't the only floatplane operator taking action.

Jean Blanchard is the president and owner of Air Tamarac, a small operator based out of the village of Clova, Quebec, between Val d'Or and Lac St.-Jean. The company, which flies two de Havilland Beavers and a Cessna 185, has a clientele consisting mainly of sports fishermen and hunters.

Like Eilertsen, Blanchard also used a fatal floatplane accident as an impetus for change—though in his case, the accident involved his own company.

In July of 2011, the engine failed on an Air Tamarac Cessna 185 midway through a sightseeing flight, and the aircraft crashed into the Bostonnais River. Of the five people on board, four escaped. The fifth, a six-year-old child, drowned.

Following the crash and the subsequent TSB investigation,Footnote 1 Blanchard and his team took a long hard look at their operations and implemented a number of new safety measures— starting with mandatory PFDs for everyone, including pilots. They also began passenger safety briefings before every trip, and insisted that these address how to use a PFD. In addition, company pilot training now includes initial mandatory training in egress from a submerged aircraft, as well first-aid and CPR training.

Less than a year later, those moves looked visionary, especially when another Beaver, this time operated by Cochrane Air Service, crashed into Lillabelle Lake, Ontario. Following that accident, the TSB made two more recommendations: first, for shoulder harnesses for all passengers, and second, for underwater egress training for flight crews.

But just because he was ahead of the safety curve in some respects, Blanchard wasn't willing to stop looking for improvements. He also acquired a Supplemental Type Certificate to add pop-out windows and move the door handles on Air Tamarac's two Beavers, a move he estimates cost around $18,000. “It wasn't cheap,” he says, “but if you save one life, it's worth it.”

Blanchard says he's happy he made the changes, though like Eilertsen at Air Cab, he acknowledges some initial worries about how customers would react to the mandatory PFDs. “But it turned out not to be an issue. Reaction has been very positive.”

Two anecdotes, however, don't necessarily make a trend. To learn more about how many companies are being proactive, the TSB contacted Edward Gee, technical support manager at Viking Air. The firm, based in Victoria, B.C., is a first-tier original equipment manufacturer specializing in de Havilland aircraft products.

Gee says Viking sells a pair of modification kits for Beaver floatplanes that allow owners to add pop-out windows or change the door latches, respectively. The former kit, which Gee calls the “most significant” modification, allows someone inside to push out the windows in the rear cabin doors. (The door frame itself remains unchanged.)

Floatplane door with pop-out window
Photo of modified floatplane door with pop-out window

With the latter kit, the modification is to the latches that open the rear cabin door. Previously, Beavers had just a rotary door latch, located at the very aft end of the cabin door. With the new design, the same door now has two latches, similar to those found in many cars: one at the rear aft where the original one was, and the other, connected by a rod, which is now reachable by the person sitting in the bench seat.

Prices vary from approximately $3000 for the window kit to $4800 for the more complex door kit, and Gee says Viking has sold them to companies internationally. Pressed for specific numbers, he says sales have been “reasonable,” with pop-out windows easily being the more popular modification. “We've sold over 30 of the door-latch kits, and twice that for the windows.” He is also quick to add that TC was “very involved in the design process,” working closely with Viking to make sure everything met the requisite standards.

For its part, TC has yet to make any of the TSB's four recommendations mandatory. In 2012, however, TC announced that it had plans to introduce a requirement for all commercial seaplane occupants to wear a PFD. If this goes ahead, it is possible the new rule could take effect as early as this year.

Until that time, the onus will remain on operators to recognize the risks they face, and to take voluntary action. For those like Blanchard and Eilertsen, that's an easy decision.

“Safety is the top priority,” says Blanchard, “for us and for our customers.”

Eilertsen is even more direct: “These recommendations should all be mandatory,” he says. “If you ask me, people shouldn't wait. They should just go ahead and do it.”

Ewan Tasker has over 20 years of civil aviation experience. He joined the TSB in 2008 and is now a Regional Senior Investigator based out of Richmond Hill, Ontario.