PITT MEADOWS, B.C.— From his office in the terminal building at Pitt Meadows airport, Tom Drybrough tries to put into words the feeling that came over him the first time he took a flying lesson there in 1967.
It’s not that he forgets, but describing it would be like trying to describe the colour blue or the taste of ice cream, he says.
Some 52 years later, Drybrough is still flying. He’s a float plane instructor, and he’s made a career and a life for himself in B.C.’s float plane community. Students from all over the world have come to Pitt Meadows to train with Drybrough and others.
As a consequence of his position, Drybrough is also resigned to the inevitable criticisms that come when the industry bears witness to tragedy — as it did twice last month, with two fatal crashes along the West Coast near Ketchikan, Alaska.
“Aviation is like any other business. People start thinking about it when they’re children or they have a certain amount of interest for certain things,” Drybrough says, recalling the times as a kid when he put a seat and a couple of boards on a sawhorse and pretended to be a fighter pilot.
On this rainy day, as the poor weather prevents him from teaching, he’s sitting in his small, grey office, wearing a rain jacket and cap. There’s a framed picture of a float plane on the wall, and dozens of real aircraft parked just outside in hangars — from 1940s relics to shining new models.
The airport is the size of a suburban shopping mall, with a paved runway tucked behind the fronts of about half a dozen charter and commercial flight outlets and schools. On the other side of the parking lot is a different kind of runway: a stretch of the Fraser River with a launching pad float planes use to enter the water then take off.
That stretch of water is Drybrough’s real office.
“There’s different personalities that fly helicopters and there’s different personalities that fly float planes. They’re all different,” Drybrough said. “Float pilots would be very highly focused people. Very highly focused. They typically like being alone — not alone socially, but they like being in command and they like being responsible.”
Far from the eager boy playing fighter pilot, the 71-year-old today speaks of flying cautiously. He has no favourite aircraft, he says, just experience, and a will to pass on his knowledge to pilots in training, choosing his words carefully as if not wanting to betray too much enthusiasm for his craft.
“It’s more exhilarating than just flying airplanes,” he admits of float flying.
“There’s a real — how can I put this so people won’t freak out? — it’s very technical.”
Last month’s float-plane crashes — one a collision between two float planes — left eight people dead, including Canadian Elsa Wilk, her American husband and her brother. Of the three planes lost, two were owned by the same float-plane operator.
Even before the Ketchikan crashes, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board had float-plane charter flights on its radar. This year, the agency sought to establish flight-data monitoring implementation for such flights.
In March of this year — following criticism it had acted slowly in response to a 2009 crash — Transport Canada updated the Canadian Aviation Regulations to require passengers and crew on the smallest seaplanes (another name for float planes) to wear life jackets, and for crew to have mandatory training on how to get out of a float plane that’s crashed. In most cases, when there’s a fatality on a plane downed in water, it’s not because of the impact, but because passengers and crew can’t get out of the aircraft.
That’s what happened in the 2009 Seair crash at Lyall Harbour — a tragic accident where six passengers drowned in a float plane after it crashed off the coast of Saturna Island in B.C.
Last year, a sightseeing plane departing from Pitt Meadows crashed into Tyaughton Lake, killing two people. One of the victims was Chris Holmes, a young, well-liked float-plane pilot who was a passenger at the time.
Like many in the float-plane industry, hearing about crashes makes Drybrough sigh with a mix of sadness and dread. Everyone in the industry knows of and has mourned someone who has died in an accident, or at least had a close call. But to those who live and breathe float planes, he says, it’s not a dangerous pursuit. Not until something goes wrong.
“For instance, you’re driving your car from here to work, you have to go on the freeway. It’s nice, it’s fun until you come across someone who crashed in front of you,” he said. “And then it’s not fun anymore.”
Yet float-plane crashes seem to inspire a panic that car crashes don’t. And a public that rarely thinks about the decades-old industry can quickly turn a critical eye upon it when crashes make headlines.
“People have a lot of fear,” Drybrough said. “And actually, to be very honest with you, I think a lot of people like to go fast in their cars because they’re afraid. I think people like to take on dangerous jobs because it brings the adrenalin.”
Part of what drives anxiety about seaplanes is the chilling image of drowning in a machine not much bigger than a car. But critics also get stuck on the age of float-plane technology.
“‘They made those airplanes in the ’40s, people could die in those things,’” Dryborough said, paraphrasing critiques he’s heard from those outside of the industry. “I’m sorry, I have a really difficult time with that.”
Transport Canada accident data show that of 150 aircraft accidents in B.C. between 2014-2018, 111 involved private operators rather than commercial outlets. Nine of the 35 accidents that occurred on commercial flights involved seaplane operators. The accident that killed Chris Holmes was the only fatal crash by a seaplane operator in the past five years.
Transport Canada says it wants float-plane flying to continue — especially because of the tourism and transportation opportunities it affords some of the country’s most remote communities.
B.C. remains a major hub for float operations. Dozens of fishing and hunting seaplane charter businesses carry guests to Bella Coola, Port Hardy and other destinations. The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association says Canada has more landing places for float planes than any other country in the world. People travel to B.C.’s coast from all over the world to gain experience as float plane pilots in challenging terrain and weather conditions.
Vancouverites can see flights from Richmond, B.C.-based Harbour Air, the large seaplane airline in the world, flying over the water multiple times a day all year, as they ferry people to Vancouver Island, Whistler and beyond. Three months ago, the company announced that it plans to convert all its planes to electric aircraft, ushering the industry into a new era of clean flight technology.
Outside of the commercial flight routes urbanites are familiar with, there are British Columbia’s “bush pilots.”
Bush piloting has a long and storied history in B.C. Its popularity was sparked at the end of the Second World War, when logging was in full force in remote parts of the province and plane technology was improving.
Lloyd Garner, who got his start as a bush pilot in the mid 1940s, wrote a book on the topic that’s still famous in the industry.
“I’ve tried to show what it was like, flying alone and sometimes caught in bad weather or knowing that a prospector or even a mining company was depending on my arrival,” Garner wrote in the introduction of the book, published in 1990. “Bush pilots really were popular everywhere then, and there was a lot of fun times; but these were balanced by the loneliness, which came from having to be away from family too much.”
Around the time Garner flew, Drybrough was a young boy, and the only planes zooming around regularly were early DC-3 propeller-driven airliners. But decades later, Drybrough would spend years doing the same solitary work as Garner, conducting fire patrols around Whistler and Vancouver Island.
Bush piloting has changed in B.C., but it hasn’t diminished. The next generation of bush pilots bring into reach the province’s most remote hunting and fishing areas.
Olivia Kunze has an eye to bush piloting in British Columbia. The 19-year-old is the first recipient of a scholarship in the name of Chris Holmes, the pilot who died last year, that’s meant to help her get her float rating.
She’s currently getting her multi-engine rating in Abbotsford, which will qualify her to fly a plane with multiple engines.
Kunze grew up in Mission, where her family runs a 14,000-bird chicken farm.
“We have chickens. And since they’re in such a controlled environment you have to check the lights are working, check the heat is working, the food the water. There’s so much you just check. Check again, and check again. Because it’s all dependent on you,” she said. It’s good training for taking on the responsibility of an aircraft.
“Don’t expect people to give you things because it’s not going to happen,” she said. “You need to work for it and prove that you can do it.”
Kunze discovered at a young age that unlike her two older siblings, she had a mechanical mind. Her brother would break things and ask her to fix them. She would stare at the tractor and wonder how it worked.
Kunze always knew that she wanted to be a pilot. And a sense of adventure drives her toward seaplanes — where she can fly in remote areas transporting goods and people, working with the closest thing to a bird’s-eye view of B.C.’s landscapes that any career could afford.
“Doing bush pilot stuff you’re flying by the seat of your pants,” she said. “You never know what you’re doing from one day to the next. You’re going to places that nobody goes.”
And seaplanes have their own magic for Kunze, who watched them land off Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, where her family went camping and fishing.
At the Chinook helicopter and flight school in Abbotsford, Kunze carries herself like a learner in her element. It’s not her job to have all the answers — it’s her job to ask questions and earn her stripes. Before taking off in a Diamond Twin Star four-seater with her instructor Dale Nielsen, she stops another pilot and asks about the wind.
“This is really a people profession,” she says. “It’s talking, talking, talking.”
Kunze has known people who have died in crashes, and takes the responsibility of completing her float training in the name of a pilot who died seriously.
“To be calm is good. Even if it’s an emergency,” she said. “My flight instructor, he was in the military. And he’s always telling me that in the old days they used to tell you: light a smoke. By the time it’s gone, you will have figured out what your problem is.”
In command of the Diamond Twin Star, Kunze stays as steady as she was on solid ground — dictating the steps she’s taking and making adjustments without hesitation on Nielsen’s instruction.
Post flight, Nielsen tells Kunze her landing was “near textbook.”
In two years Kunze hopes to have a business degree, her pilot’s licence, and maybe an instructor rating. That, she said, will open so many doors.
“I’m so excited to do the float plane and touch down on the water,” she said. “I’m sure there’s no experience like it.”
On Monday, when the rain has cleared, Tom Drybrough’s office is transformed.
Mountains of the Garibaldi Ranges tower over the paved runway and airplane hangars, and Drybrough jumps into a half-truck with student Johann Roux in the passenger seat, towing his Cessna-172 float plane toward the river.
While Roux stands on the plane to gas up the wing, Drybrough gets out of the truck and turns around to look at the scene.
“I talk like it’s another day in the office,” he says. “But it can be just beautiful.”
Drybrough and Roux take off from the river with a thunderous roar from the plane’s engine, as the machine slices through the calm river water leaving behind a vital wake.
Roux, who came from a French town two hours outside Barcelona to study with Drybrough, would later say it’s impossible in a moment of takeoff to think about anything else — not problems at home, not whether you’ve fed the cat. “You’re flying.”
For Drybrough’s part, he says he’ll never retire. If he can’t pass a medical exam enabling him to fly one day, he’ll run the business from the ground.
“Why would you retire, what would you do? I don’t like gardening,” he said. Walking through the airport, Drybrough points out the old air traffic tower and a building with a blue door — the door he walked through in 1967 before his first flying lesson.
They’re both scheduled to be demolished, he said. But he’ll still be there.
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering wealth and work. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen