In the early 2000s I lived in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, about as far west in Canada as you can be without falling into the Pacific Ocean. Â Victoria is at the most southern tip of 460 km (290 mile) long Vancouver Island, about even with Whidbey Island, Washington. Â Business would take me to downtown Vancouver regularly, a straight-line distance of about 110 km (70 miles). Â I could drive to the ferry terminal, wait, have a nice 90 minute ferry ride, then drive in traffic to downtown Vancouver. Â Total trip time? Â 3 hours, if traffic was light. Â Cost? Â About CA$70 each way. But I could also fly harbour to harbour in about 30 minutes. Â As a fellow AvGeek, which one do you think I enjoyed more??
There are 2 regular airline services flying between Victoriaâ€™s and Vancouverâ€™s harbours. Â Both harbours are Transport Canada certified airports, with designated water â€œrunwaysâ€. Â You can fly fixed-wing on Harbour Airâ€™s 14 passenger DeHavilland Canada DHC-3 Turbine Otters or 18-seat DHC-6 Twin Otters. Â Or you can take a helicopter – Helijet flies 12-seat, twin-engine, Sikorsky S-76s or 4-seat Bell 206L LongRangers. Â Which way to go? Â Letâ€™s have a look at the two airlines.
Note: the fares I’ve listed are just a â€œsnapshotâ€ from the airlinesâ€™ websites, and Iâ€™m sure can and will change, anytime. And for our U.S. readers, “harbour” is spelled with a “u”, here in Canada.
I have to be honest â€“ I love floatplanes. Â I learned to fly floats a bunch of years ago. Â The flying part is always fun, like any other plane. Â The challenge is getting on and off the water, and getting to and from the dock. Â When you do it right, the water â€œgets out of the wayâ€ of the floats as you smoothly touch down. Â The transition from an airplane to a water craft can be imperceptible. Â And the pilots at Harbour Air know how to fly (and sail) their planes.
Harbour Air has been in operation since 1982. Â Theyâ€™re the largest float-equipped airline in the world, with over 50 planes. Â They serve a large number of communities on BCâ€™s coast with a varied fleet of Cessna 185s, deHavilland Canada DHC-2 Beavers, DHC-3T Turbine Otters, and DHC-6 Twin Otters. Â The 14 passenger Turbine Otters and 18 passenger TwinÂ Otters are scheduled on the high-demand Victoria-Vancouver route. Â The Twin Otters came into the fleet when Harbour Air bought their competitor, West Coast Air, a few years ago.
Harbour Air operates as a daytime-only, visual flight-rules (VFR) airline, which means they donâ€™t fly at night or when the weather is down. Â The flight time between Victoria Harbour (YWH) and Vancouver Harbour (CXH) is about 35 minutes. Â Their Vancouver Terminal is part of the new Vancouver Convention Centre, and Harbour Airâ€™s move to the new facility wasnâ€™t without controversy and cost. Â But itâ€™s a really beautiful terminal. Â In Victoria, theyâ€™re planning to build a new floating terminal in the Inner Harbour to replace the current, old dock. Â When passengers arrive, Harbour Air provides a shuttle bus to locations in both downtowns. Â On a nice day, I used to walk from my office in Victoria to the dock, and from the Vancouver dock to my meetings.
The flights were always great. Â The turbine Otters operate with a single pilot, so the right seat is available (at the pilotâ€™s discretion) for whomever gets there first. Â Ummmâ€¦I didnâ€™t always sit there, really! Â When I did, though, I always watched and learned from the pilotâ€™s technique and enjoyed the view along the route, over the beautiful Gulf Islands and usually right over Vancouver International Airport (YVR).
Harbour Air provides earplugs for passengers — youâ€™re sitting not very far behind a PT6 turbine so it isnâ€™t exactly quiet in the cabin. Â And there are 2 PT6s on the wings if youâ€™re flying in the Twin Otter, the plane I think is the worldâ€™s best floatplane. Â Pilots can make that plane dance on the water, with twin engines and reverse pitch on the props. Â Who needs wheels and brakes?
Full fare for Harbour Airâ€™s Victoria-Vancouver flights are CA$189 each way and seniors/students can get discounts. Â However, Iâ€™ve seen fares as low as CA$65 for seat sales, promoted on their Twitter account @HarbourAirLtd.
I have to be honest â€“ I love helicopters (notice a trend here?).Â I know about the aerodynamics of helicopters and how the controls work and stuff, but really, itâ€™s magic. Â To be able to lift vertically off the ground, transition to flight, and then, if you want to, just stop in midair â€“ amazing!
In operation since 1986, Helijet is arguably the most successful scheduled helicopter airline in the world. Â In addition to their scheduled services, Helijet has a busy medivac and charter operation. Â The Victoria â€“ Vancouver schedule is usually flown by the Sikorsky S-76. The S-76 is a twin-engine helicopter, with both turbines feeding power to the rotors through a central gearbox. Â Helijetâ€™s S-76s can fly at night, and can fly in Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) conditions. Â So unless thereâ€™s fog at the helipads, the S-76s will usually be flying. Â During the beautiful West Coast summer, the Bell LongRanger takes over the schedule, with a 45 minute flight time.
Victoriaâ€™s heliport is at Odgen Point, a bit of a hike from the Inner Harbour, but Helijet provides a shuttle bus to make it easy to get into town. Â The Vancouver heliport is right beside the downtown transit hub, and is a short walk from the city core if you donâ€™t want to use the shuttle bus. Â Both terminals are utilitarian on the outside, but comfortable with all services inside.
All flights arrive and depart over the water. Â With Transport Canada oversight, Helijet has created instrument approaches to both heliports for use when the weather is bad. Â I guess the pilots could actually bring the S-76 to a hover at the â€œDecision Heightâ€ just offshore, but that never happened when I was onboard. Â With the short 30 minute flight time, the crews usually know what kind of weather to expect at the other end before they take off. Â But sometimes the weather changes quickly and the flight diverts either to Victoria International (YYJ) or to Helijetâ€™s base at Vancouver International (YVR). Â Itâ€™s a bit of an inconvenience, but when that happens Helijet shuttles passengers to the heliports by van. Â Safety always comes first!
A flight in one of Helijetâ€™s S-76s is pretty smooth. Â Thereâ€™s some vibration from the rotor systems, but the helicopter cuts through any turbulence really well. Â The cabin is…cozy. Â 3 rows of 4 seats each, with doors on both sides of the â€˜copter. Â In spite of some soundproofing in the cabin, I think earplugs are pretty well a necessity, and provided. Â You’ve got 2 turbines screaming about three feet above your head, and the main rotor blades beating the air into submission just a few feet higher.
Fares on Helijet are between about CA$150 for off-peak travel and CA$305 in peak times, each way, depending on the time of year. Â Their peak time summer fare is CA$199 right now. Â Helijet does offer daily specials as low as CA$73 on limited seats. Â The specials are tweeted by their feline mascot, Rotor [@RotorCat], who is the official â€œPest Control Coordinatorâ€ at the Vancouver heliport.
So, which way to fly?
Back then, my office in Victoria was a short walk to Harbour Airâ€™s dock, and the right seat in the Turbine Otter was always calling. Â But when the weather was down, or when I was travelling from November to April or so, I was often on one of Helijet’s S-76s. Â Sometimes flights were sold out at popular times so I would switch to the other airline. Â I think a lot of other corporate passengers did and still do the same.
And when the weather was nice, it was always a beautiful flight on either airline. Â Sparkling water, San Juan & Gulf Islands, Mount Baker, boats, and sometimes pods of orcas. Â Love it!
Which way would you go? Â Fly Helijet or Harbour Air, or take BC Ferries? Â Leave a comment and tell us.
|This story written by…Â Howard Slutsken, Correspondent. Â Howard has been an AvGeek since he was a kid, watching TCA Super Connies, Viscounts and early jets at Montrealâ€™s Dorval Airport. Heâ€™s a pilot who loves to fly gliders and pretty well anything else with wings. Howard is based in Vancouver, BC.@HowardSlutsken|