Okay trivia buffs, where’s the highest control tower in the world? Before you say Quito, La Paz or Kathmandu, an extra qualifier–the highest above the landing surface. The answer is Vancouver, British Columbia. But not the tower at Vancouver International Airport, whose cab is a puny 142 ft above the airport surface. The world champ is in the city’s downtown district, where at 465 ft msl atop a high-rise office building sits the Nav Canada tower controlling traffic at Vancouver Harbour Airport (BC7), a seaplane aerodrome.
Last year, the harbor tower oversaw 59,970 landings and takeoffs and 33,782 overflights, up from 57,781 and 29,411, respectively, in 1999. Roughly 60 percent of these were seaplanes and 40 percent were helicopters, with the latter arriving and departing from a four-pad heliport just off the shoreline. Almost all the landings and takeoffs were by commercial and scheduled traffic, while the overflights include sightseeing tours, banner tows and, on weekends, recreational fliers. Overflights also include movie shoots, the result of Vancouver’s seeming transformation in the summer into Hollywood North, with sound trucks and miles of cable snaking along the waterfront streets.
The fixed-wing floatplane traffic runs the whole gamut, from small Cessnas to Twin Otters, with an occasional Beaver, Otter and–a rare bird–Noorduyn Norseman adding spice to the mix. The Twin Otters are the mainstay of the traffic, flying scheduled passenger services between the harbor and Nanaimo and British Columbia’s capital, Victoria, both of which are on nearby Vancouver Island.
The helicopter traffic is almost exclusively composed of Sikorsky S-76s operated by Helijet on scheduled passenger services. But with almost 25,000 helicopter landings and takeoffs last year, Vancouver Harbour is by far the busiest heliport in Canada. In fact, if you juggle the total number of movements vs the small volume of airspace it controls–12 by four miles, from ground level to 2,000 ft–BC7’s tower may be setting other records as well.
While the tower was commissioned in 1978, Nav Canada has ensured that it stays on the cutting edge of new technology. During AIN’s visit to BC7, controllers were just transitioning to touchscreen radio voice-switch technology, which gives them instantaneous, fingertip channel selection for communications with aircraft and ground-based aviation services. This touchscreen technology is stated to be the first of its kind in North America, and so far has been implemented only at Nav Canada’s next-generation control tower at Toronto Pearson International, with installations planned at all other towers and ATC facilities across Canada.
ATIS is also provided, and the harbor tower has a radar display linked to the main Vancouver ATC radar, although this is used for traffic monitoring and does not provide conflict resolution or vectors. Although the harbor has no dedicated navigation or approach aids, it does have two public nonprecision GPS approaches and nine separate company procedures assigned to Helijet and Twin Otter operators West Coast Air and Kenn Borek Air.
But even when there’s no air traffic to watch, the panoramic 360-deg view from the top is still breathtaking, with the city of Vancouver spread out behind, Pacific-bound vessels moving out to the west, snow-capped mountains to the north and, directly below, Alaska cruise ships loading and unloading tourists at 2,500 passengers a clip.