Tying Canoes to Bush Planes, Canada, circa 2013

Starting in late winter and on through spring, we get a steady trickle of inquiries from canoeists wanting to charter a floatplane with a canoe tied to it.    Their goal is to find an affordable way into or out of the north country at the start or end of a canoe trip.  Sadly, this flying of canoes (and kayaks, and small boats) strapped to floatplane struts has become quite difficult.  The difficulty is not the process (which, with some strong rope and a little common-sense airmanship, is stone simple), but the legalities and technicalities. 

There is one obvious solution, and that is to turn the clock back 110 years to the time before airplanes, and ask “what did people do then?”  Clearly paddlers in 1902 did not make recreational trips down the Back River, for instance, but they did go canoeing all around the North.   

And there is another solution, which I will mention at the far end of this post.  (Skip to there and go outside, if you like.)

Here it is tempting to rush in and say “Well if they really want to go on a wilderness canoe trek, they should just paddle from start to finish, and skip the airlift and its mechanized boost.” This is a sentiment which I have been known to utter, sometimes in exasperation, but it is good to remember that almost every wilderness trek involves some mechanized transport.  Even if you are going to go on a wilderness freedom walk,  hiking naked and barefoot with your burlap satchel slung over your shoulder on a spruce pole, you will – unless you depart from your front door (or climb out of the front hole of your burrow) – almost certainly arrive at your starting point with a mechanical boost from a car, motorcycle, bus, ferry, train, or airplane…

The history of “external loads” (as canoes on floatplane struts are poetically known in Transport Canada and F.A.A. vernacular) is one of increasing regulation and, unfortunately, much confusion and upheaval  in recent years.   Back a decade or so ago, it was pretty much “do it safely and train your pilots to do it safely, and proceed with caution, but go ahead and tie a canoe onto the struts of a floatplane.  Use common sense.”  Like so many things in our society, the lawyers and insurance underwriters and bureaucrats have unearthed another vestige of that old common-sense approach to life, and banished it more or less forever.   “WARNING!”, says the label on the woodstove:   “HOT WHEN IN USE!”  Really… who thinks of this stuff?

On December 31, 2010, a mere 30 months ago, those good old days of common-sense  compliance with relatively straightforward rules came to a halt.  I gather (but have not researched) that at about that same time, a similar change took place in the U.S.    Up until that date, we who operate commercial bush plane services in Canada were hauling canoes under an “exemption” to the Canadian Aviation Regulations – our beloved “CARs.”  We had all written External Load chapters and diagrams into our government – approved Operations Manuals.  So long as we documented our canoe-hauling, did a test flight after tying the canoe on and prior to carrying passengers, logged that test flight, and filed some year-end paperwork for the purpose of record-keeping, we were happy and legal when it came to canoe-hauling. 

That is all gone.  Now each operator must obtain what is called a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) or at least a Limited Supplemental Type Approval (LSTA) from Transport Canada, in order to carry canoes strapped to the struts.  Perhaps this is progress.  The real problem for small operators is that each STC must be specifically approved for each aircraft type and model, and – depending upon who at Bureacracy Central  is answering the question  that day – maybe even for the specific length and beam and make and model of canoe you are carrying! 

As a final nail in the coffin of the “common-sense external loads on small commercial bush planes” the mandatory flight testing evidently has to be done under the auspices of a designated aerodynamic consultant, and signed off by a Minister’s Delegate..  I say evidently because no one seems to say for certain that this is the only way to do the testing.  Checking into the possibility of doing this with our Bush Hawk, we received an estimate from a consultant, of $20,000 – with the caveat that any hardware, drawings, and so on would be extra costs on top of that – as would all the costs of doing many hours of test flying.  “Testing” something which was done safely and well by competent pilots for something like 75 years, mind you.  (Don’t get him started…)

In short, I have not completely given up on a return to the common-sense days of tying a canoe to the float struts and hauling canoeists back and forth from the tundra, but it is not a priority for us.   I do sympathize with the plight of the canoe parties too small to justify a larger aircraft, and I would like to provide this service, but right now we cannot do so.  The hours and dollars and piles of paperwork  just don’t match up with the benefits. 

On a lighter note I have tried to point out to the gurus at Transport Canada that Orville and Wilbur Wright were “external loads” at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but no one seems to find this quip quite as poignant and hilarious as I do.   

Bottom line – don’t despair, canoeists, because there are still many small bush plane services which can still legally tie canoes onto their planes, and they are scattered across northern Canada.  What the situation is in the U.S., I am not sure. 

As for our little company, all I can say is that a person has to choose his battles.   I am not sure I am going to fight this one. 

If I may be so bold as to predict the future, I would say that within fifteen  years or so the cost and complexities of chartering a floatplane of any size (from a Cessna to a Twin Otter) will have risen to the point where this mode of starting and ending northern canoe adventures will be relegated to a bygone era.  Already paddlers starting trips in the central Barrens are seeing charter bills for parties of six (with three canoes stuffed into a Twin Otter and a separate plane carrying the passengers)  upwards of $24,000. 

Even when split six or eight ways,  a bill of over $20,000 makes a very convincing argument for finding more affordable ways to reach the remote parts of the north.    Truck, boat, commercial airline, trains, combined with the one truly magical solution (however difficult for some paddlers to embrace):  – collapsible, i.e. take-it-apart-and pack- it-in-a-bag, canoes and kayaks.  

Not as pleasant to paddle as that old reliable Kevlar or cedar-strip or what-have-you, but perfectly welcome on any airline, train, bus, ferry, or floatplane.  Because it’s just a piece of baggage, and last time I checked we can still carry baggage in airplanes.  However, I think someone in Ottawa is looking into the baggage question, so stay tuned.  We may soon be even more protected from ourselves than we already are.

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