Nanaimo FSS handling major traffic growth as region thrives

3 December 2015

Nanaimo FSS handling major traffic growth as region thrives

Nanaimo has much more going for it than magnificent scenery and a creamy, chocolaty treat that bears its name. It also has one of the mildest climates in Canada, a diversified economy and a vibrant cultural scene.

“We even have a rush hour now, a sure sign of progress,” laughs Jim Honeyman, Site Manager, Nanaimo, Campbell River and Port Hardy Flight Service Stations. Born and raised in B.C., Jim started out as a Flight Service Specialist at Vancouver FSS 40 years ago and has lived in Nanaimo for the past 25 years.

Many of the Flight Service Specialists in Nanaimo are also long-service employees, and came to the post in a seniority bid process. All consider themselves fortunate to have ended up living and working in such a desirable area.

Centrally located transportation hub

Centrally located on Vancouver Island, set between ocean and mountains, Nanaimo is easily accessible by land, sea or air. It’s a gateway to popular ecotourism destinations like Tofino, Ucluelet and Pacific Rim National Park; the fishing meccas of Port Alberni and Campbell River; and the beachside communities of Parksville and Qualicum Beach. Victoria is an hour-and-ahalf drive along Highway 1 and Vancouver is a short ferry ride away, across the Strait of Georgia.

Airport a growth engine

Nanaimo Airport (YCD) – a 10-minute drive south of downtown – is ideally situated as the most convenient departure/arrival point for customers from the mid-island area. It offers multiple flights per day, with direct access to Vancouver, Victoria, Abbotsford, Calgary and Seattle.

The airport’s service area extends north to Qualicum, west to the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, and south to Duncan and the Cowichan Valley – representing a population base of about 250,000.

An important engine of growth for the region, the airport itself has been growing at a steady clip. Passenger counts have climbed more than 70 per cent since 2008. This year, 300,000 passengers are expected to pass through the airport – five years earlier than projected. Aircraft movements have increased on average between five to eight per cent over the past five years, and now stand at about 40,000 per year, Jim Honeyman estimates.

A new, fully operational fuel supplier on site will allow the airport to continue to grow by having the ability to refuel aircraft that have longer ranges. Today the service allows non-stop flights to Calgary, but in future it could help attract carriers offering flights to the Pacific Northwest, eastern Canada or even a sun destination like Hawaii, according to a Nanaimo Airport press release.

Meanwhile, there are plans afoot to expand the terminal building, taxiway and apron, because the airport is at capacity during peak times.

Mike Bechtel, Team Supervisor

FSS serves Nanaimo and Tofino airports

The NAV CANADA Flight Service Station, to the right of the terminal building, is operated by seven Flight Service Specialists, one Team Supervisor and the Site Manager. Services provided to pilots include airport advisory, vehicle control, surface weather observations, flight information and emergency alerting. In addition to serving Nanaimo Airport, the Flight Service Specialists also provide remote aerodrome advisory service (RAAS) for Tofino, which sees 10,000 air traffic movements a year. It is particularly busy in the summer months, with tourism charters and scheduled IFR flights. Located in a rainforest, Tofino has a lot of low cloud, rain and fog. Even in the summer months, the airport is often under IFR conditions.

The Nanaimo Flight Service Specialists work on a six-shifts-on, three-shifts-off rotation. Each eight hour shift has two specialists in the cab – one working Nanaimo and the other the Tofino RAAS.

Willie Patterson, Jim Honeyman (standing) and Larry Vainio in the Nanaimo FSS cab.

Balancing act

Nanaimo falls within southwestern B.C. airspace, which is the most complex in Canada for its proximity to mountains, ocean and the U.S. border. The airport is just 28 miles west of Vancouver. South/southwest of the airport, terrain rises rapidly, with Mount Hayes (1,482 feet) a short distance away.

With planes taking off and landing on the one, 6,602-foot runway, a fair amount of coordination is required. “We work closely with the Vancouver Area Control Centre, particularly with Victoria Terminal, and our Tofino IFR responsibility has migrated from Vancouver West to the Airports Specialty,” said Mike Bechtel, Team Supervisor. (Mike transferred to Nanaimo six years ago from Red Deer FSS, and will be retiring this year.)

“We have to anticipate the arrivals and departures of our larger commercial operators. With the IFR approach oriented to Runway16 only, we work to ensure that we can accommodate the arrivals and departures with traffic that may already be established in the circuit,” says Mike.

“There is also a very active water aerodrome just north of our zone at Nanaimo Harbour. We are not normally in contact with the float aircraft operating there, but they can have an impact on aircraft using our IFR approach from the north.” The mix of commercial and private aircraft at Nanaimo is about 30 per cent IFR and 70 per cent VFR.

Fixed wing aircraft are mixed in with float planes and helicopters, all flying at different speeds. In addition, a Cadet Glider program operates on weekends in the spring and fall. Nanaimo gets a fair share of training flights too. When Abbotsford, Victoria and Vancouver airspace is congested – as is often the case – training flights are sent into the Nanaimo sector to practice arrivals and departures, frequency switches (these change multiple times between Vancouver and Nanaimo) and different approaches (ILS, NDB, RNAV). Nanaimo is also a well-known destination for pilot cross-country training.

Just off the tip of the peninsula in Washington State, is the USAF general surveillance radar at Neah Bay. The FSS must notify NORAD of any non-authorized traffic that strays into the designated Western Air Defense Sector, and they then send their fighter jets to investigate.

Close to 100 general aviation aircraft call the Nanaimo Airport home. One of them – a L17-A Navion that flew in the Korean War – belongs to Willie Patterson, Flight Service Specialist. Willie performs close formation flying at smaller airshows as part of the Fraser Blues team, which includes two former Snowbirds pilots.

“On a sunny day, everybody wants to get up there and fly,” says Willie.


The biggest operational challenges for the Flight Service Specialists are the speed at which things can happen, due to the airspace responsibilities, and the different types of airspace close to Nanaimo, says Mike. There is a frequent use of holds in the Nanaimo sector due to training, traffic volume and the terrain complexities. “Working with the mix of flight activities that take place at both of our airports is a challenge as well,” adds Willie. “It can be quite the dance.”

In 2009, a new ILS was installed, improving the reliability of the aircraft approach. New high-intensity approach lighting and runway edge lighting also improves visibility under foggy conditions. Approach limits went from 650 feet plus two miles to 250 feet plus one mile, allowing for more flights to come in. “The most challenging weather condition for us is fog,” says Willie.

“November to March, is when we’re more likely to the ‘403 syndrome’ feet of overcast and three miles visibility.” Fortunately, new technologies have resulted in fewer administrative duties the Flight Service Specialists.

“We went stripless two years ago,” explains Willie. “We had ‘EXCEDS light’ already, but during the Olympics, all of our IFR/VFR strips were migrated to EXCDS. We worked with the DSC in Vancouver to come up with the full EXCDS adaptation for our site. It simplifies communication processes with the ACC and cuts back on 80 to 90 per cent of the voice calls we used to make. There are fewer distractions, so we can be more attentive to traffic.”

Leisure pursuits

Some of the FSS staff live in Nanaimo and others in one of the neighboring communities. Outside of work, there is much to enjoy, including a people-friendly downtown core, great public outdoor spaces, walking and hiking trails, excellent fishing and sailing opportunities, music and arts festivals of all kinds, professional live theatre, public markets, British-style pubs and numerous other wining and dining options.

Each of the FSS staff has his or her own leisure pursuits and community connections. When he’s not flying, Willie Patterson belongs to a pipe band that performs internationally. Rick Rae’s nature photographs have appeared in major photography magazines. Ruth Beilman and Edith Yaworski are members of a ladies’ golf league. Mike Bechtel loves to travel and just returned from New Zealand. Larry Vainio and Rod Lomas are kept busy with their young families. And just about everyone likes to garden. With paradise at your door step, it’s a safe bet that many of the senior Nanaimo FSS staff will be staying put once they retire. Why go anywhere else?

Technical Operations, Engineering oversee ATC systems across region

CNS Technologist Ken Marianix in the Nanaimo FSS equipment room.

The Nanaimo FSS is maintained by the following Technical Operations staff, working out of the Victoria Maintenance Centre:

  • Derek Stewart, Team Supervisor
  • Ken Marianix, CNS Technologist
  • David Wang, CNS Technologist

Occasionally, they call on back-up support from the Campbell River Maintenance Centre, namely:

  • Tom Missio, Team Supervisor
  • Neil McCreath, CNS Technologist

Earlier this year, Engineering installed Radio Telecom Interface Multiplexer (RTIM) equipment at Nanaimo, on which Technical Operations conducted the usual proof of performance testing. Also planned is the replacement of the Multipurpose Information Display System (MIDS), which was installed in 1980s, with the EXCDS Weather Data Element (WDE).

Nanaimo FSS

Technologists from the Victoria Work Centre visit Nanaimo quarterly to perform preventive maintenance on the standard equipment installed there, such as:

  • Park Air radios;
  • Nican radios;
  • Voice switch;
  • Voice recorder;
  • IIDS computers;
  • Digital network equipment;
  • Weather equipment;
  • Instrument Landing System;
  • Non directional beacon; and
  • The CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) security screening equipment in the terminal building.

The quarterly maintenance visits usually involve a one-week stay in Nanaimo. In addition to Nanaimo, the Technologists also have responsibility for sites in Victoria, Tofino, Ucluelet, locations on Saltspring Island, and a navaid on Mayne Island.


Aircraft Movements: Between Feb. 2014 and Feb. 2015 the combined movements for both Nanaimo and Tofino were approximately 50,000 (roughly 40,000 for Nanaimo and 10,000 for Tofino).

FSS Hours of operation: 5:30 a.m to 9:30 p.m. Outside of FSS hours, aircraft requiring IFR clearance to depart or approval for special VFR will contact Victoria Terminal.

Runways: YCD is classified as a 3-C airport for the purpose of infrastructure development and planning. Runway 16/34 is 6,602’ x 150’ and is equipped with high-intensity runway edge lighting and approach lights leading to the threshold of runway 16. Runway 16 is certified as non-precision with published RNAV and NDB approaches. As well, ILS and Localizer restricted approaches are published in the Restricted Canada Air Pilot (RCAP). Runway 34 is certified as non-instrument and has no approach lights.

Commercial customers

  • Air Canada (DH-8 service to Vancouver and Calgary)
  • WestJet (Q400 service to Calgary)
  • Island Express (PA31 service to Abbotsford, Victoria and Vancouver)
  • Kenmore Air (PA31/C208 service to Seattle)
  • FedEx (cargo carrier)
  • Orca Airways (cargo carrier)