If you’re looking to travel from Bella Coola to Bella Bella, you might want to check your lottery numbers first. The closure of Bella Coola Air in the summer of 2017 has left a gaping hole in air travel services, especially on the central coast.
Right now, the only airline servicing the central coast in a direct way is Wilderness Seaplanes, based out of Port Hardy. They are providing flights between Bella Coola and other coastal communities, but it is costly.
“You’re looking at between $1000 – $1200 from Bella Coola to Bella Bella,” said Operations Manager Vince Crooks. “Right now there just isn’t the demand for a scheduled service.”
The company has three aircraft, the Grumman Goose, the DeHavilland Beaver, and a Cessna 185. However, only two are suitable for landing in Bella Coola.
“Because the sea plane dock in Bella Coola can be unpredictable with weather we are limited to which aircraft we can use,” said Crooks.
The company currently has an aircraft in Bella Bella and is contemplating moving it to Bella Coola for the summer, but so far has not been able to find accommodation for its pilot.
“We are exploring the idea of moving a plane to Bella Coola for the summer and perhaps offering a scheduled service between Bella Coola and Bella Bella,” said Crooks. “If people are interested in this I really encourage them to contact us directly so we have an idea of what we’re looking at.”
It wasn’t always this way. A few decades ago the airline industry on the coast was hopping busy and employed dozens of people. Wayne Sissons, the founder of Bella Coola Air, remembers an entirely different time.
Sissons started his career with Wilderness Airlines in 1972. At that time, the airline operated near the mouth of the Bella Coola river downtown, across from the hospital.
“In 1973 Wilderness Airline had 23 airplanes between its three bases at Bella Coola, Nimpo Lake and Williams Lake,” said Sissons. “Every Monday morning we would fly over 100 local loggers out to South Bentinck and every Friday afternoon we would bring them back again. We worked dawn till dusk.”
Sissons loved his job. It wasn’t unusual for him to log over 18,000 miles in a single month.
“It was really fun, those were the best days,” he recalled. “We used to have to shut down for three months because the river would freeze, and during eulachon time the gulls were so thick it could be challenging to land, but I loved it.”
The 70s and 80s, were a very busy time for the Airline. In addition to its’ charter service, Wilderness (having moved to the airport in 1979 once the runway was paved) progressed to supplying scheduled service to Vancouver twice daily, purchasing four Navajo Chieftain aircraft and later upgrading to a 13-passenger King Air pressurized aircraft (they operated to four at one point).
Often, extra flights were added to accommodate the many passengers. “Wilderness did up to 850 flights a year to Vancouver and moved 250,000 pounds of freight,” said Sissons. “They also did many of the Medevac services for the area.”
Wayne and his wife Laurie branched out on their own and started Bella Coola Air in 1996. Wilderness Airlines was eventually bought by Pacific Coastal in 1998 and the name was retired.
In 2002, business began to slow down once the large forestry companies such as Interfor moved out of town and the Ministry of Forests District office soon followed. The Sissons weathered this major shift in the industry but remain confident it’s still a viable business. They sold Bella Coola Air in 2015 and were disappointed when the new owners closed it up after just two years.
“I started Bella Coola Air as a charter service in 1996 and operated it for 20 years. I believe the business is still there and it is a necessary service to the community, but it will take the right person,” said Sissons.
Pacific Coastal is bumping up scheduled flights from Vancouver – Bella Coola to two per day in the summer, but that does little to help those needing to get around on the central coast.
Anne Fletcher, administrator of the Bella Coola Legal Advocacy Program, said the services Bella Coola Air provided were essential.
“My program owes its success on the outer coast to the Sissons and Bella Coola Air,” said Fletcher. “I know the need for flights is high here in the community between all the service providers and I pray Wilderness can establish a base here. I am concerned about how to take my outer coast work into the future with the way things are right now.”