Speech on Motion M-177 Flight School Training

November 21, 2018

Video Link:  https://youtu.be/TicaaQzKlHM

 Richard Cannings (South Okanagan—West Kootenay)

2018-11-21 17:35 [p.23727] 

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak here today in favour of Motion No. 177 supporting flight training schools across Canada. The member for Kelowna—Lake Country represents a neighbouring riding to mine, and I respect his history as a pilot in our Armed Forces. My father also served in the air force, so I kind of share that tradition. 

Motion No. 177 would instruct the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities: to undertake a study of flight training schools in Canada and be mandated to: (i) identify the challenges that flight schools are facing in providing trained pilots to industry, (ii) determine whether the infrastructure available to flight schools meets the needs of the schools and the communities where they are located; and that the Committee present its final report no later than seven months after the adoption of this motion. 

To begin with, I, like many of the people here, have several flight schools in my riding. I have standard flight schools in Penticton and Grand Forks where people can get a flight licence. 

For over 40 years, Selkirk College, in Castlegar, had an aviation program teaching flight skills, but unfortunately, that program closed in 2014. The reasons for this closure are diverse, but I am sure that if this motion passes and the transport committee takes on this important subject, it would do well to hear from Selkirk College to get some insight into the challenges the program faced and why it was forced to close. 

I would like to spend much of my time today talking about a unique flight training school in my riding, a very successful school, called HNZ Topflight. HNZ is one of the premier helicopter flight training schools in the world. I will start with some of its history, because it is an interesting history. 

The story of HNZ Topflight began just after the Second World War, in 1947, when three RCAF veterans joined forces to form a small company called Okanagan Air Services, based in Penticton. The company consisted of pilots Carl Agar and Barney Bent and mechanic Alf Stringer. They bought a Bell 47 helicopter and offered crop-dusting services to farmers and orchardists in southern British Columbia. 

I did not know this before researching this speech, but I thought it very interesting that helicopter flight was very new at the time. Igor Sikorsky had, in fact, only invented the first truly functioning helicopter in 1941. Another company, Bell, brought the first commercially available helicopter, the Bell 47, to market in 1946, and Okanagan Air Services was one of its first customers. 

After a year or two of working exclusively as a crop-dusting operation, Okanagan Air Services expanded to work in topographical surveys, timber cruising and mineral exploration. It serviced the Palisade Lake dam project in 1949, and then in the early 1950s, the company really spread its wings, or rotors, I guess, and helped build the massive Kemano hydroelectric project. For that, the company bought a couple of huge Sikorsky helicopters, from Igor Sikorsky himself, to add to its growing fleet of Bell 47s. 

Realizing that helicopters were really the future of aviation for many transportation, industrial and military applications, the company's owners changed its name to Okanagan Helicopters. By 1955, they had 90 employees. By 1958, they owned 54 helicopters. It was the largest helicopter operator in the world, and the company continued to grow, expanding around the world. 

In 1987, Okanagan Helicopters was bought by Craig Dobbin, of St. John's, Newfoundland, who combined its operations with a couple of other helicopter companies to form Canadian Helicopters. 

Just as an aside, I want to mention that I had the opportunity to meet Craig Dobbin once. I was driving a Memorial University jeep down to Cape St. Mary's, almost a four-wheel-drive road, and up drove this brown Cadillac. I had broken down and Craig helped me out by driving me to the lighthouse where I was living, so I had that little interaction with him. 

Recently, a reunion of the company in Osoyoos, British Columbia, attracted 250 people from around the world. 

In 1951, Carl Agar and Barney Bent began training pilots in Penticton through a subsidiary company that eventually became known as the Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training. As a kid growing up on the West Bench of Penticton, just above the airport, I remember those early flight training operations, watching those Bell helicopters, basically a glass bubble attached to an open frame of metal girders, land and take off from the grasslands just south of our house. 

The flight school has been operating continuously in Penticton for more than 60 years. The diverse terrain and variable winds of the Okanagan Valley and surrounding mountain areas provide flying challenges that are ideal for the study of the mechanics of mountain winds and advanced flying techniques. 

Among the company's many innovations was Agar's “bump jump” process for high-altitude takeoffs. Someone who has flown a helicopter in the mountains would know this technique involves tipping the helicopter over the side of a cliff and waiting until the air is heavy enough for the rotor blades to operate. It is quite a feeling. It also invented the Monsoon Bucket for use in forest fire suppression. 

The company was rebranded as HNZ Topflight after Canadian Helicopters bought HNZ, a New Zealand company. Flight training at HNZ not only includes advanced mountain flying, but also emergency auto-rotation training and night training with and without night-vision goggles. 

Over the years, HNZ Topflight has trained thousands of pilots. The school is known for providing training to government, military and special forces, law enforcement, commercial and private groups from all over the world and the instructors are rightfully proud of the school's heritage. Over 300 students pass through the school each year, and their activities generate a big boost to the local economy in the South Okanagan. The company generates over $8 million per year in direct revenue but the spinoffs are considerable, including more than 3,000 hotel nights per year. 

HNZ Topflight is a good community citizen. One of the most popular charity auction items in town is the scenic flights it offers, often combined with a gourmet picnic on an alpine mountaintop catered by one of the local restaurants. 

Much of HNZ Topflight's training takes place in the spectacular mountains southwest of Penticton, much of which is in provincial protected areas, primarily in the Snowy Protected Area, but also through the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area. HNZ must obtain permits to operate in these areas to ensure its activities do not negatively impact local wildlife populations. These permitting processes are thorough and the company is in the process right now of spending $300,000 on a study to back up an application for a 10-year operating permit in these areas. 

The company has concerns that a proposal to convert the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area to a national park would impact its operations. Parks Canada has assured it verbally that previous provincial permits would be honoured and future permitting processes would be similar, but until those promises are on paper that concern will linger. 

I would like to mention now that there are a few downsides to having a successful flight training school in one's backyard. One of the obvious ones, and this goes for many flight training schools across the country, is the noise coming from the repetitive takeoffs and landings that take place around the airport day after day. Penticton airport is relatively small, though it does have scheduled flights through Air Canada and WestJet. There are over 10,000 aircraft movements every year from the airport and many of these involve takeoffs and landings by flight schools. These repeated flights are of concern to many citizens who live in the area around the airport. I can attest that having a helicopter over a house in the middle of the night does cause some concern, wondering in a groggy state whether the special forces are landing in the backyard or whether it has just rained in the night and the local cherry orchards need a blow-dry. 

These are serious issues in some small communities with large flight schools and must be addressed through proper planning processes involving governments at all levels, including Transport Canada. 

The NDP has proposed an amendment to this motion asking the committee to also study the effects of noise pollution on community members and I would obviously support that amendment. 

It is clear from this debate that Canada needs more pilots in all sectors. If this motion can help us to reduce that problem, I am happy to support it.