By Lyonel Doherty
When federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna recently announced plans to move forward with a national park reserve, she made a point of praising Penticton-based HNZ Topflight and ensuring the helicopter training school has continued access.
While Dave Schwartzenberger, general manager, was pleased to hear this, it will take much more to reassure him that a national park reserve won’t interfere with his operation.
“We’re looking for unrestricted continuation of our training,” he said, noting that the federal government, among many other government agencies and organizations, are also important clients.
His company has been providing training based from Penticton for 67 years to the Royal Canadian Air Force, he said.
So far, Schwartzenberger says the company has only ever received vague statements, mostly verbal, that it would be allowed to continue to operate.
Even if HNZ Topflight gets discretionary permits to operate in the park – as it has now for provincial parks such as Cathedral – there is always the concern that these can be cancelled or that additional restrictions can be added, Schwartzenberger said.
He says he wants a contract with the government that will provide long-term certainty.
Clients, which also include foreign governments, police and military, require long-term contracts with HNZ Topflight.
If the government restricts or shuts down HNZ’s operations in the future, this could result in the company paying steep penalties to its clients, he said.
“I can’t move ahead with my business providing this training and promising that we’re going to do this for five- or 10-year contracts, knowing that the provincial or the federal government has a permit where everything is in their favour and they can call me in and shut down operations at any given time,” he said.
Schwartzenberger said his company uses many areas southwest of Penticton, including Mount Kobau and down to the US border.
They also use some areas that are beyond the proposed park, including into the Snowy Mountain area and Cathedral Provincial Park.
“These traditional training areas of ours are crucial to our business,” said Schwartzenberger. “Basically, 80 per cent of our business relies on these training areas, we feel our business is in jeopardy without very clear commitments.”
The area offers features that Schwartzenberger says make it ideally suited for this type of training.
“There’s lots of different variety of terrain features in that area,” he said. “The nice part about this area is we offer this course year-round to these customers. It’s the only place I think in the country where we would be able to do it on a year-round basis due to the weather.”
Local weather varies so that when weather makes it difficult to use one particular area, it’s possible to move into another valley, he said.
While the training involves some brief periods on the ground, most of it is in the air as students learn how to assess landing sites, he said.
Students are taught to identify terrain airflow.
“That’s what keeps these guys safe when they are doing search and rescue missions and working in the mountain environment,” he said.
Schwartzenberger said he bases his fears about growing restrictions on past experience. Between 1951 and 2000, the company was able to operate virtually unrestricted, but since then the number of restrictions and permits required has grown.
“That’s the problem and history has already shown this,” he said. “What happens over time is the restrictions grow. We’ve already seen that in our BC permitting process. So I’m very concerned. We’re always very co-operative, but it’s always us giving up more. We’re always losing more terrain or a timeframe in that terrain due to a new issue.”
Schwartzenberger said HNZ Topflight was contacted by federal and provincial officials before the Oct. 27 announcement that the governments planned to move forward with the national park reserve.
“It was an advance notice, but they were very open to hearing our issues, our concerns,” he said. “We’re very appreciative of that.”
Still, he says it would be overstating it to suggest, as one media outlet did, that he is cautiously optimistic.
“Those words never came out of my mouth,” he said. “We’re glad the federal and provincial governments have decided to include us in talks and I’m glad that Minister McKenna said during the announcement that flight training would be able to continue. We just need to see that commitment in writing and in some sort of unrestricted contract form. That’s what we’re looking for.”