Riding the Seaplanes of Canada

Standing on the ground in Vancouver, you’ll see something unique about the skies overhead. Seaplanes are everywhere. They’re easily identified by the heavy set of footwear they lug around that allows them to take off and land from the water.

Why are water-landing aircraft so big in Canada? It’s not because they’re the most efficient way to fly. They’re not. To ensure it can take off and land on water, the plane can’t be too large and it can’t move too fast. Most seaplanes can carry about a dozen people at the most. They tend to top out around 150 miles per hour, hardly comparable to a commercial jetliner’s 600 miles per hour.

The answer, instead, is Canada’s geography. More than 75 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border. Residents of the rest of the country—and it’s a huge country, 3.8 million square miles, second only to Russia—reside in some hard to reach places, inside canyons and beside towering mountains and glaciers. To build a landing strip in some of those areas simply isn’t possible, nor economically worthwhile. But a seaplane can land pretty much anywhere that’s wet.

We took a ride on a seaplane over Vancouver. There’s a thrill of jetting across the water and then, suddenly, finding yourself airborne. Our pilot also took us, I could’ve sworn, about 20 feet next to a forest of trees. I was permitted to sit up front in the copilot’s seat on the condition that I touch nothing.

I asked our pilot, semi-seriously, how many flights he had made. He scoffed, albeit politely. Any kid who wants to be a commercial airline pilot in Canada has to start with seaplanes. Up there, the demand is so great that it’s simply a way of paying your dues.

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