The story of the Bella Coola Airport sounds familiar to its much more famous counterpart – the building of the Hill. Once again, the dedication of locals and their determination to get things done resulted in the construction of what is now an essential piece of Valley infrastructure.
The airport had humble beginnings. According to the CCRD’s historical records, it was initiated in 1966 by Milt Sheppard and Gideon Schuetze, who promoted the Bella Coola Valley Flying Club and created a nucleus of interested persons and an organization to co-ordinate the efforts for an airstrip.
The search for a suitable site led to three private landowners, Olaf Odegaard (48.8 acres), Melvin Nygaard (10.3 acres), and Ken Stranaghan (38.5 acres). Each agreed to the use of their land for a one dollar a year lease. In addition, 38.4 acres of Crown land was obtained.
Work began on August 7, 1966 and in the three weeks 3,168 feet had been cleared and was ready for use. In that time 320 equipment hours, 429 man hours, and hundreds of gallons of fuelhad been donated. The first plane landed on August 28, 1966. Additional clearing and improvement continued on a volunteer and donated basis, and the first commercial plane (Harrison Airways) landed on September 14, 1966.
The gravel runway was paved eleven years later in September 1977, and since then the airport has continued to evolve with the times. In 2017, Transport Canada identified several obstacles, primarily trees and a large gravel berm, that were infringing both ends of the airport runway and work is now underway to remove them.
“In 2017, Transport Canada required the CCRD to surrender our status as a certified aerodrome until we were able to address the removal of these obstacles,” explained Alison Sayers, Chair of the Central Coast Regional District. “As a result, the Bella Coola Airport is limited to a single type of aircraft and air carrier that can provide scheduled air service. The existing carrier providing scheduled air service is also required to manage departing loads based on the presence of the identified obstacles. This can result in a reduction in passenger loads, especially in warmer weather conditions.”
Pacific Coastal Airlines is the only commercial airline to offer regularly scheduled flights to Bella Coola, and demand for this route has only increased in the past few years.
“Demand for the Bella Coola route has increased substantially over the past two years,” said Kevin Boothroyd, Director of Business Development and Corporate Communications with Pacific Coastal. “Our sense is that the demand has increased, especially during the peak season, due to overall increase in tourism traffic into Canada and BC in general. In addition, Destination BC and local tourism organizations have done excellent work marketing the area.”
The fact that demand for the route has increased for peak season has presented additional challenges for airline and the airport. Restrictions have been placed on the number of passengers and cargo the aircrafts can carry due to the obstacles, something this project intends to address.
“I can’t speak specifically to all of the obstacles, but the trees at the end of the runway are still the most important limitation to our ability to increase capacity (add more seats) to this market,” said Boothroyd. “At present, we are forced to curtail the number of passengers on our aircraft and it is worse in summer, during peak season when demand is highest.”
Unbeknownst to many passengers, warmer weather can be just as challenging as the dreaded “bus day.” Hot air is less dense than cold air, meaning aircraft require more engine power to generate the same thrust and lift as they would in cooler climes. This situation is exacerbated when you factor in short runways and smaller planes.
“In very hot temperatures, a plane may no longer meet the safety margins for a particular runway. Climb gradient parameters and the weight is determined for every take-off based on weather and runway length,” explained author and pilot Patrick Smith in his book, Cockpit Confidential. “Hot air is less dense than cold, negatively affecting both lift and engine performance. Full tanks or a heavy payload can put you up against the limits, and cargo or people will sometimes need to be bumped.”
Sayers said during the CCRD’s annual strategic planning process in late 2016, the Board identified the airport as the top strategic priority for 2017. In addition, meeting Transport Canada’s requirements will also open up funding opportunities not otherwise available.
“Removal of obstacles will allow the CCRD to apply to Transport Canada to regain status as a certified aerodrome,” said Sayers. “This is important because it allows CCRD to access considerable capital funding through federal grant programs that are critical to maintaining and improving our airport. As a certified aerodrome, scheduled air carriers also have more options on what aircraft can service Bella Coola.”
The current work is being funded though grants from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Rural Dividend Fund, and Northern Development Initiative Trust.
As much of the work is taking place on private land, the CCRD also wanted to acknowledge its appreciation of those landowners, as well as the support of the Nuxalk Nation throughout the project.
“The CCRD would like to acknowledge the generous cooperation of several local land owners in facilitating removal of obstacle trees located on their private lands, as well as providing access to adjacent work areas. Most land owners have been very accommodating and understanding of the situation. The CCRD would like to extend their sincere appreciation to these land owners,” said Sayers. “The CCRD would also like to acknowledge the support of the Nuxalk Nation, who have supported the consultation process, assisted with an archaeological overview, provided work crews for brushing and fence work, and have been actively involved in discussion of various aspects of the project. The Nation also provided a support letter for the amendment of our Snootli Park license and actively supported our grant applications.”
As we approach another tourist season, it’s likely that demand will continue to increase.
“Every BCVT business owner I’ve spoken with said they’ve seen a substantial increase in reservations compared to the same time last year,” said Bella Coola Valley Tourism President Tom Hermance. “I attribute the increase to BCVT’s web and social advertising campaigns as well as BC Ferries’ January/February promotional marketing of the Northern Sea Wolf’s direct route. We’ve also benefited from the route’s news worthiness in print and on TV and radio.”
The CCRD says work on the project is being carried out by local contractors, something the CCRD has said it is committed to supporting, and is expected to continue into 2019.
“The CCRD encourages local contractors and service providers to make sure they are registered with the Regional District under the hourly contractor program in order to be considered for hourly contract work,” said Sayers. “Contractors are also encouraged to check the Coast Mountain News, post office bulletin boards, and the Regional District Website for contract opportunities.”