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Seaplane operators to fit fleet with new door handles

A member of Harbour Air's ground crew cleans the window of a floatplane in Vancouver's Coal Harbour June 3, 2010.

John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

They look just like car door handles. They work just like car door handles. And four of them, fully installed, will cost about $10,000.

After 60 years, the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver aircraft door handle - counterintuitive to use, and difficult to reach for passengers on the centre bench - is getting an upgrade.

The improvement is part of an ongoing effort to make it easier for float plane passengers to escape in a worst-case scenario, said Philip Reece, director of Salt Spring Air.

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The original handle is a recessed horizontal bar, about the width of a coffee mug. To open the door, simply insert hand and turn the bar, as you would a knob.

Sounds easy enough, right?

The problem, Mr. Reece said, is that in an emergency situation, when the goal is to escape the six-seat aircraft as quickly as possible, most passengers would be reaching for something more familiar - such as a car door handle. (Pilots will keep the old handles, on the assumption they know how to use them.)

To further complicate matters, passengers on the centre bench would have to reach awkwardly over their shoulders to find the handle.

The new ones are not only easier to use, Mr. Reece said, there are more of them. Each door will now have two levers, including one at the knee of the centre bench passenger.

Designed by Viking Air - which holds manufacturing rights for de Havilland parts - the new door handles follow closely on a decision to adopt special pop-out windows after six people were killed when a Beaver owned by Richmond-based Seair Seaplanes crashed into Lyall Harbour near Saturna Island in November, 2009.

Both upgrades were industry-led initiatives, and go beyond safety measures mandated by Transport Canada.

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Each plane is expected to be out of service for a full day while it receives the new handles, Mr. Reece said. That lost service revenue, plus parts and labour, is expected to set each operator back $10,000 a Beaver.

The steep price tag is a pittance if it means just one passenger can be saved from drowning, said Seair operations manager Terry Hiebert.

"[After the crash] our passengers wanted to know we were doing everything we could to improve safety standards of our planes," he said.

Part of doing everything they could was setting aside a quarter century's worth of competitive instincts to form the provincewide Float Plane Operators Association, Mr. Hiebert said. "The very fact that we're sitting in the same room, that's a huge leap forward."

About 500 DHC-2 Beavers are flown by 55 float plane operators in British Columbia - all of which have signed up to face the challenges unique to the float plane industry by sharing best safety practices, said the association's spokesman Quentin Smith.

"Ideally, we're driving these innovations forward and pushing these changes through together," said Mr. Smith, who by day is president of the Vancouver-based Pacific Coastal Airlines.

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The first of the operators to receive the new hardware - Vancouver's Harbour Air Seaplanes - expects to have eight of its fleet in the air with the handles in place by the end of this week.

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