Quiet Skies: A General Aviation Transect of Canada

By Scott Spangler on July 20th, 2017

JW-2On the eve of the Congressional vote to privatize the US air traffic control system, I made an informal, unscientific general aviation study of a nation—Canada—that privatized its system in 1996, when Transport Canada sold its air traffic control and navigation services to a private, nonprofit company, NavCanada. Without getting into the vociferous politics involved, the common denominator for a privatized service formerly provided by the government is user fees.

To gauge the consequences to general aviation, during a 3,057-mile transit of the TransCanada Highway, which began on Canada Day (July 1) at the Abbotsford, BC, border, and concluded at the Ogdensburg, NY, border on July 11, I would keep a sharp-eye pealed for GA airplanes flying within my constantly moving visual hemisphere. And I would explore GA airports that were not too far off the highway and talk to any aviator I happened to meet at them.

JW-5I started my survey without expectations. By landmass, Canada is the world’s second largest nation. NavCanada’s website says it manages 12 million aircraft operations annually for 40,000 customers in the 18 million square kilometers (6,949,838.85 square miles) that stretches north from the US-Canadian border to the North Pole and from Pacific West Coast to the North Atlantic, the world’s busiest oceanic airspace, which averages 1,200 flights a day to Europe.

On my Canadian transect, I saw nine aircraft. Four of them were turboprop ag aircraft at work in the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. On Canada Day, walking back from dinner at Hope, British Columbia, I saw a single-engine prop plane with a long, thin high wing, whose make and model I could not identify. The pilot I saw enjoying a beautiful evening over Blind River, Ontario, was flying a Cessna 172. At the Dryden Regional Airport, an A-Star 350 hovered and landed at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources base, and on the other side of the airport, a Metroliner arrived to exchange its passengers. And on my survey’s last day, what looked like a Cessna Mustang business jet was on its final approach to Ottawa, Canada’s capital.

JW-3At first, this didn’t seem like a lot of activity, and then I recalled the number of GA aircraft I see from my backyard, 10 miles west of Oshkosh. For 11 months out of the year, I’m lucky to see 10 a week, depending on the training schedules at the Fox Valley Technical College and Sonex Aircraft. For that 12th month, usually the two weeks on either side of EAA AirVenture, the sky above is a bell curve of aerial activity.

Seeking a transect baseline, I wandered about the Transport Canada website and learned that of the roughly 35,000 aircraft registered in Canada, 85 percent – 29,750 – are involved in general aviation operations at 1,900 aerodromes scattered across Canada. Like GA airports south of the border, the website said small town fields face financial viability and noise issues, with airports near larger populations facing limited expansion space and pressure for redevelopment.

On the road, Canada makes it easy to identify what segment of aviation an airport serves with standardized signs. The planform of a single-engine Cessna-like airplane identifies a local airport. The shadow of what might be a de Havilland Twin Otter denotes a regional airport, which might have some level of commuter airline service. And the outline of a swept-wing Boeing 707 points a commercial airport.

JW-6Passing only four airports that were close to our route, I visited two and made drive-by exams of the others. I would have liked to visit the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum at Manitoba’s Brandon Municipal Airport, but passing at 0745, it was closed and the airport was dead quiet, except for the ag airplane working in the fields west of the airport. Ontario’s Wawa Municipal Airport, across the street from the famous Wawa Goose, was similarly quiet. The hangar door was open, but I saw no humans within or where about it.

Alberta’s Bassano Airport was deserted as well, but like all the others, it was well kept. The grass was neatly trimmed and there were no signs offering empty hangars for rent as storage lockers, as I’d seen at several airports on my Route 66 examination last year. The surprise was seeing that six of the 10 hangars looked new. And they were good sized, with plenty of room for a Beech Baron and a boat. Turf taxiways connect them to a large paved ramp overseen by a new terminal, a frame building maybe 12-foot square. Gravel roads connect the hangars to the roadway.

JW-4Parked along the fence of Ontario’s Dryden Regional Airport were three trikes—and a human. Finally—someone to talk to. Patrick LeMay, with two of his trike-flying friends, was on his way home to Quebec from Calgary, a one-way distance of 3,838 kilometers (2,385 miles). It took them eight days, and so far, they’d lost another eight to weather.

His English was much better than my preschool French, and he didn’t have much to say about NavCanada during our through-the-fence conversation. His only real interaction with the organization was prearranging the trikes’ arrival with the Area (Air Traffic) Control Centre responsible for the nontowered Dryden aerodrome. There seemed to be no user fees involved with their adventure, but I have a nagging suspicion that my questions about “user fees” didn’t accurately hurdle the language gap.

JW-1Given the random nature of my Canadian GA transect, my conclusions are limited to the similarity of quiet skies on both sides of the border and last year’s visits to small US airports. In general, Canadian small towns seem to take better care of their airports. It’s an unfounded assumption, but maybe that’s because there are so few GA airports north of the border, so the pilots who call them home invest extra effort to them. And that begs the question, will American aviators make the same investment when the number of small town GA airports declines to half or less of their current total? – Scott Spangler, Editor

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