You could always take a leisurely ferry along the Inside Passage, the nearly thousand miles of fjords and snow-capped mountains that stretches from Washington state to the Alaska Panhandle. But if you’re in a hurry to reach one of the estimated 40,000 islands dotting the waterway, it’s much faster to hop a ride on a float plane.
Harbour Air Seaplanes — the largest all-seaplane company in North American and among the largest in the world — has been shuttling fliers through this pristine and remote region since 1982. Today it transports about 450,000 passengers around the Inside Passage each year.
Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Harbour Air boasts a working fleet of 35 aircraft, many of them vintage prop-driven float planes designed and built by de Havilland Canada, a subsidiary of renowned British aviation innovator de Havilland Aircraft.
“Since we occupy such a unique niche in the industry, we often have to design our own solutions to challenges,” says Gerry Egan, Harbour Air’s VP of Maintenance and Operations. Among those challenges? Boeing bought de Havilland Canada in 1986 and pulled the plug on manufacturing most of the float planes in Harbour Air’s fleet.
Puddle Jumpers Built to Last
All but three of the company’s float planes were built before 1965, but de Havilland designed them so well that they still fly beautifully today and are still widely used around the world. Keeping the planes in top working order is a team of about 100 designers, technicians and engineers based at Vancouver International Airport, conveniently located on the water right at the start of the Inside Passage.
“De Havilland built bulletproof aircraft that were designed to last forever,” says Egan. “We’ve since rebuilt and enhanced the airplanes with our own modifications that have been approved by both the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and Transport Canada, the national aviation regulator.”
The backbone of Harbour’s fleet is the DHC-3 Turbine Single Otter, an aluminum-framed, single-prop float plane that flies at 130 mph and carries up to 14 passengers. In addition to its 23 Otters, the company also flies 10 smaller, single-prop DHC-2 Beaver planes that carry six passengers, two 19-passenger Twin Otters and a new Caravan EX that zips between Seattle and Vancouver.
“The biggest operation worry we have are floating logs, which sometimes can be hard to see, or maybe a collision with a wharf or a pier,” says Egan. “The Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines we use are highly reliable, but if there’s ever a problem, we can fly in a technician or team pretty easily.”
Unlike conventional airlines, Harbour Air faces an added maintenance challenge because its aircraft fly in such a harsh environment. In fact, de Havilland originally created the Otter to provide bushpilot service to the thousands of freshwater lakes that dot the Canadian north, not for coastal flight.
“These aircraft were actually never designed to be on saltwater all day,” says Egan. “So we have to deal with unusual problems such as barnacles, saltwater corrosion, water in the avionics and so on.”
Making New Parts for Old Planes
Harbour Air’s maintenance goes above and beyond what’s required by national aviation regulations, due to the environmental conditions its planes face.
The service team uses sophisticated analytics for trend monitoring to get better insights about when, for example, an engine should be overhauled. “We pull engine temperature, cycles, hours and other basic information that is monitored by service personnel,” says Egan.
Over the years, virtually every part in every aircraft in the fleet has been replaced, often multiple times, according to Egan.
Luckily for Harbour Air, in 2006 aircraft manufacturer Viking Air of Victoria, British Columbia, bought the designs for all of the original out-of-production de Havilland float planes and can fabricate some replacement parts. Parts that Harbour Air can’t source from Viking, the company’s team designs and makes itself in Vancouver. Sometimes, team even manufactures and exports parts for other operators of the aircraft.
We pull engine temperature, cycles, hours and other basic information that is monitored by service personnel. — Gerry Egan, Harbour Air’s VP of maintenance and operations
“We’ve converted the majority of our fleet to turbine or turboprop,” says Egan. “Turbines are far more fuel-efficient, and are more powerful than piston engines, although we limit the power on the engines to save even more fuel.”
Building a Team to Rebuild Planes
Since Harbour Air does all of its servicing and upgrade work itself, the airline is always looking for new technicians, but Egan says finding them isn’t always easy.
“Recruitment of experienced techs is a challenge for the aviation industry all across North America,” he says. “In the past, kids might have learned basic mechanical skills by buying an old beater and figuring out how to keep it running. That’s pretty rare these days.”
Harbour Air tries to keep its talent funnel full by providing paid on-the-job training that leads to certification.
“Working on aircraft is super challenging compared to other trades,” says Egan. “There’s so much variety in what you’re going to do. You need to know how to be a plumber, electrician, sheet metal worker — the list goes on.”
One reason Harbour Air needs to continually recruit a steady supply of talent is because its business keeps expanding. One of its fastest growing routes is the Cascadia Corridor, connecting tech companies such as Amazon and Microsoft in the Seattle area with their growing satellite operations in Vancouver.
“We’ve started offering what some are calling the ‘Nerd Bird,’ flying executives up from Seattle,” says Egan. “You can hop on a float plane on Lake Union or Lake Washington and land right in downtown Vancouver.”