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Trouble in the air?

Pilots voice concerns over CARS conversion
Fact file
The conversion to CARS in Fort Simpson is scheduled to take place on Jan. 25 at 2 p.m.
Fort Smith, Hay River, Resolute and Baker Lake have already been converted to CARS.
The three-year CARS contract for Fort Simpson was awarded to ATS Services of Fort Smith, who also have the contract for the Fort Smith airport.
The contractor will decide whether five or six observer/communicators will replace the five flight services specialists. An additional experienced observer/communicator will be brought in temporarily during the first few weeks of the transition.
The Fort Simpson airport is to remain operational 24 hours per day.
Weather observations will continue to be provided locally as in the past, as will the status of planes in the immediate area, Tibbitt noted. All other services will be provided through Yellowknife.
NAV Canada will conduct reviews of services at 90 days and one year after the conversion.

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Dec 08/00) - Ted Grant is concerned about air safety when the Mackenzie Valley pipeline substantially increases air traffic in Fort Simpson.

"There will be some major incidents that will happen in our region, trust me," said Grant, who has been flying in the North for nearly 25 years.

Veteran pilots are worried about the conversion of Fort Simpson's airport from flight services staff to a Community Aerodrome Radio Station (CARS). Grant expressed pilots' concerns to Western Arctic MP Ethel Blondin-Andrew recently.

He's skeptical that flight services specialists will be re-introduced by the government even if the number of flights rises dramatically.

"Once they've taken it away they won't put it back," he said.

Sam Tibbitt, manager of aviation programs for the GNWT, said NAV Canada is obligated by legislation to conduct an aeronautical study if air traffic increases.

Brian Stockall, NAV Canada's project manager for the Northern services review, said returning to flight services is an option if increasing traffic warrants it.

Chris Pinckard, a long-time Northern pilot, said he and his colleagues were opposed to the conversion in the first place.

"We battled it. Certainly we weren't for them changing the system from a flight service station to CARS," he said.

Jacques Harvey, also an experienced Northern pilot, said with the conversion he will be relying more on a remote frequency to Yellowknife. But he expects the traffic on that frequency to increase, potentially causing delays in response. Remote radios sometimes break down too, he noted.

Grant's concern is that flight services staff in Yellowknife won't be familiar with some of the more obscure places he flies his charters, despite passing along the co-ordinates. In the case of an emergency, such as a crash or forced landing, that could result in a time lag in rescue efforts, he said.

"Guys in Yellowknife are going to have to start calling around to find that out. The loss in time could be critical," he said.

The distance between Yellowknife and Whitehorse is about 600 nautical miles and "now all you have in between is a CARS station ... There's no doubt in my mind it's definitely a down grade," Harvey said.

However, he stopped short of saying that safety would be jeopardized.

"I think we'll be able to meet the safety requirements that we always had ... I don't think it will be life-threatening," said Harvey. The final decision is always the flight crew's."

Weather updates

Stockall said the primary responsibility of CARS is to provide weather observations and basic communications. Observer/communicators for Fort Simpson have been given 11 weeks of training, two weeks more than the minimum.

Flight services specialists, who are certified after nine months of training, are over-qualified for the requirements in Fort Simpson, said Stockall.

Grant and Pinckard questioned the level of training.

"In 11 weeks it's pretty tough to train anybody," Pinckard said. "We're going to be training them like we do new guys who come into the flight services station about little things -- familiarity with the landscape and terrain limitations."


Tibbitt said NAV Canada, along with officials from the Transport Canada, visited Fort Simpson three times as part of the review.

Grant and Pinckard maintain that NAV Canada's consultation process didn't involve much public input.

"They had already made their minds up before they came in," Pinckard said. "They did their little due diligence and wasted a whole bunch of time and money."

According to Stockall, reviews of the conversion to CARS in other communities has resulted in positive feedback.

"Without exception not one person has ever complained about the CARS level of service," he said, referring to similar changes in Fort Smith and Hay River.

"I'm confident, and I'm not just saying that because it's the company line.

"I can honestly say that we've got no indication that this isn't going to work in Fort Simpson."

Grant says air traffic in Simpson is only getting busier.

"They knew this in advance. Why didn't they hold off?" Grant asked.

They can say all they want but there will be a problem here down the road."