March 12, 2010 By Paul Dixon
The Olympics will be long gone by the time you read this, though as I write it we are just into the first week of what the British press have dubbed “a hockey tournament with some skiing thrown in.”
The Olympics will be long gone by the time you read this, though as I write it we are just into the first week of what the British press have dubbed “a hockey tournament with some skiing thrown in.” A long time coming and then a couple of blinks, and it will be gone. Ironically, after a November that saw the heaviest snowfall on record for both Whistler and Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, El Nino took over and presented us with the warmest January on record, duly followed by the warmest February.
Apart from wreaking havoc on the venues dependent upon snow and sub-zero temperatures, the warm weather brought heavy rain, low cloud and swirling mists. The weather in southwestern BC is a series of micro-climates. When the locals say, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change,” they’re not kidding. If you can’t wait, then just move a few kilometers up or down the coast. Rain in Vancouver can turn into a blizzard in Whistler, with 80 kmh winds along the way over Howe Sound. On the best of days, flying in this region is challenging, let alone under the pressure of Olympic schedules and security issues.
The week before the Olympics, reports by British media made Vancouver sound like an armed military camp, with closed air space, jet fighters criss-crossing the skies and helicopters swarming overhead. For all the hype and buildup to security we saw locally over the past year, we would have expected this to be the case, but in fact security in general is relatively low key, especially the military. If you know where to look, you can find the various military components around metro Vancouver, but it does take some sleuthing.
There are a couple of CF-18 Hornets under canvas at YVR. Against today’s low-bypass turbofan, there is no mistaking the throaty roar of the unrestricted F404-GE-400, even at low idle. The sound cuts across an entire airport, much the same as a ’68 Cuda with a 426 hemijet might stand out amongst today’s throng of hybrids. A couple of times a day the Hornets can be seen making a high pass over downtown, but otherwise they are pretty much out of sight.
The CP-140 Aurora was a frequent sight in the week before the Olympics, making a series of low and slow passes over Vancouver, presumably building a video profile of the region. The grey ghost flies so quietly, that apart from the four-toed carbon footprint in its wake it goes unnoticed by those on the ground.
There are a number of CH-146 Griffons in the region, but their presence seems to have been restricted to orientation flights in and around Vancouver. I was at Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in the city of Vancouver, and had the opportunity of watching a Griffon flying circles around the adjacent Olympic curling venue for several minutes and then move off to spend half an hour noodling around over the downtown core of Vancouver.
At least one RCMP helicopter is in the air over Vancouver almost 24/7, with three over the downtown core on the Friday of the opening ceremonies. Interestingly enough, when U.S. Vice-President Biden was moving around Vancouver in his mega-motorcade there didn’t seem to be any police helicopter involved in the sideshow.
Local commercial aviation operators seem to have had some success in getting some compromises or plain common sense from Olympic security organizers. A year ago there was concern that everyone operating out of Vancouver harbour might be shut down by the security concerns from operating so close to several venues and downtown hotels hosting heads of state and IOC officials. While all passenger names had to be submitted for security checks and passengers were required to go through airport-style screening before boarding, it appears that the screening was made available at more points outside Vancouver that had originally been planned by organizers. The initial security plan had the potential to create great hardship for several of the smaller operators, but it appears that a united approach by local industry reps was able achieve a breakthrough with the security organizers.
In the end, unexpected work for air cranes moving snow and hay bales for the downhill ski events brought needed revenue to some operators. There was also more flying time than expected ferrying VIP athletes and spectators between multiple venues, hotels, and airports. Altogether, these games may have been more profitable than anticipated by both operators and their local supply chains. Welcome news indeed.
Paul Dixon is a freelance photojournalist living in North Vancouver.