Parking the aviation drivers – A planned park expansion threatens operations at HNZ Topflight
By Rick Adams
Canadian forces, NATO forces from Germany, Denmark, and Norway, the U.S. Navy SEALS, and other military and law enforcement operations may be looking for a new place to train advanced helicopter mountain flying and rescue skills after April. And the South Okanagan area of British Columbia could be in danger of losing Penticton airport and its limited commercial airline service.
By Rick Adams
Why? The resurrection of a 15-year-old proposal to create a more than 650-square-kilometre National Park Reserve in the South Okanagan and Lower Similkameen valleys threatens to oust or restrict the long-time activities of cattle ranchers, hunters, other recreational and commercial users of the targeted land, and HNZ Topflight, formerly known as the Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training, which has operated there since 1951.
HNZ’s permit to operate on public lands, through the provincial government, expires on May 1. But the permit renewal process just got far more complicated in October when the federal and B.C. environment ministers, together with local First Nations chiefs, announced the re-opening of talks – dormant for the past five years – to create a park plan within the next two years.
Richard Cannings, Member of Parliament for South Okanagan-West Kootenay, called HNZ Topflight “a significant economic driver in the south Okanagan,” adding, “They now operate under permit with B.C. Parks and would have to obtain a similar permit from Parks Canada when a new park is established.”
Federal Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna reportedly assured HNZ that the helicopter training will be grandfathered into the plan. However, commercial helicopter operations are not permitted in other Canadian national parks, and HNZ general manager Dave Schwarzenberger is concerned that Parks Canada could arbitrarily pull the mountains out from under the training operation or reduce the areas in which they operate. “The ‘trust us’ approach is just not acceptable; we need to see something in writing,” he emphasized.
Topflight is currently permitted to use several protected areas for training, including Vaseux and White Lake Grasslands, Mount Kobau and Snowy Mountain, as well as Cathedral Lake Provincial Park. A 2010 draft park concept encompassed about 20 per cent of HNZ landing zones, significant enough to eliminate whole modules of the specialized three-week training course. “These traditional training areas of ours are crucial,” said Schwartzenberger. “Basically, 80 per cent of our business relies on these training areas. We feel our business is in jeopardy without very clear commitments.”
“We provide life-saving training to our Canada Forces and we have contracts with the German army, German air force, the Danish air force, the Norwegian air force. There is a reason they come to Penticton. They have lots of mountains in Europe, but they come here because of our expertise and our history and what we can provide them.”
“I can’t move ahead with providing this training and promising that we’re going to do this for five- or 10-year contracts, knowing that the government has a permit where everything is in their favour and they can call me in and shut down operations at any given time,” he said. “If we didn’t get the permit we’d be out of business. We’d be looking for substantial compensation from government for the loss of business.”
Greg Norton, a spokesman for the Grassland Park Review Coalition of ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts, which has opposed the new national park idea since its inception, warns that “HNZ accounts for 65 per cent of activity at the Penticton Airport. Helicopter training isn’t allowed in national parks. They will move.” If the airport loses such an important customer, Norton speculated, Transport Canada could close it. The airport has only four daily commercial flights, three to Vancouver via Air Canada Express and one to Calgary by WestJet Encore.
“We’re kind of the main reason this airport is viable and has been for the last 66 years,” said Schwartzenberger. In 2012, HNZ built a new $5-million facility at the airport.
The anti-park Coalition states: “The National Park Act is too blunt. While the Act does allow for special provision for non-traditional uses in a national park, it also empowers Parks Canada to withdraw those provisions at any time.”
Norton said government officials sounded sincere. “They made lots of promises about having input and transparency. We’re very skeptical. Parks Canada is an entity unto itself, so time will tell.”
Rick Adams is chief perspective officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy in the south of France, and is the editor of ICAO Journal.