This past weekend, Alison and I flew to Cortes Island in a Cessna 152 to visit some friends. We departed Boundary Bay at about 9:45 a.m. and landed at Cortes Island at 11:05. Much quicker than the normal three-ferry trip.
Because the airfield is not frequently used, there weren’t many people that could potentially give me a runway condition report. But when I phoned the operator earlier in the week to get permission to land, she told me that another pilot had just used the field that day.1 I was able to get in touch with him and get some information about the runway. He told me that it was firm and dry, that the grass was short with some gravel mixed in, and that the runway slopes slightly uphill from south to north.2
As we approached Cortes, the wind at Campbell River was out of the northwest at about 5 knots, so my initial plan was to use runway 34. I descended to circuit altitude, crossed over midfield east-to-west to join the circuit and did one low approach over the runway before my final approach to land. During this low approach, I planned how I would fly my actual final approach and confirmed that the wind direction felt correct. While there are two windsocks in the Canadian Flight Supplement diagram, neither is reliable. I couldn’t see either from the air. They are overgrown by the surrounding brush and trees, and both have fallen off the circular frames that are meant to keep them open to catch the wind. Without windsocks, you have to rely on the latest Campbell River weather, the movement of the water, the Canada flag on the house at the south end of the runway, and the feel of the wind during your precautionary approach.
Based on the landing distance chart in the operating handbook, I had estimated the landing distance over a 50-foot obstacle to be 1465 feet. The trees on the approach were 50–60 feet tall. The CFS notes a 35-foot powerline southeast of the threshold of runway 34. The trees were taller than it, but not twice as high. In the calm wind, I used a short-field approach technique, combined with a soft-field touchdown technique once it was apparent we had lots of runway available after the roundout.
The runway was indeed firm and dry. There was quite a bit of gravel in the grass. Without having to brake aggressively, I was able to slow down to taxiing speed before getting 2000 feet down the runway.
The tie-down area is west of the south threshold. There is one dedicated tie-down spot, with a cement block to catch oil drips, and two tie-down ropes staked into the ground. There is room for at least four other small aircraft alongside, but you’d need to bring your tie-down equipment.
Cellular reception is spotty on Cortes. I had good enough reception to be able to close my flight plan, but you might also be able to call Pacific Radio via the Campbell River remote communications outlet (RCO) on 123.55 MHz.
There is a landing fee by donation. I have never actually landed at an aerodrome with landing fees, so I didn’t know what was expected. The COPA Guide to Public Airports advocates for a maximum landing fee of $10. While this might make sense for an aerodrome with more than a modicum of traffic, I didn’t think $10 from me and the few other flights that landed this year would help them even buy a new windsock. I donated $30.
We had a great time visiting our friends on the island. We spent a lot of time at beaches (Hague Lake and Hank’s Beach) trying to stay cool in the heat.
Return to Vancouver
With light and variable wind, in 32 degrees, on a dry grass runway, I estimated that we would need 1616 feet to takeoff and clear a 50-foot obstacle. If I somehow picked up a 2-knot tailwind, that increases to 1777 feet. That’s almost 2/3 of the runway (although, only on the ground for about 1/3 of the runway), and we ended up using roughly that much distance for our takeoff.
I opened my flight plan with Pacific Radio via the Campbell River RCO and received a transponder code in anticipation of entry into Vancouver’s Class C airspace.
Unfortunately, Vancouver Terminal was not able to accommodate us in their airspace. It’s quite a circuitous route back to Boundary Bay if you have to avoid Vancouver’s airspace. I descended beneath Vancouver Terminal’s airspace, contacted Vancouver Harbour tower, flew east along Burrard Inlet at 2500 feet to Port Moody, south over the Port Mann bridge to White Rock, and finally into Boundary Bay. This added 25 minutes to our flight, but the alternative would have been to fly low over the water or far from land west of Vancouver International.
In 1989, the property that the airfield is on was acquired by Jim and Dianne Hansen. Shortly thereafter, the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona amended its zoning bylaw to remove “airports” from the list of permitted uses. 1999, the Hansens established their airfield. In 2002, the district changed the bylaw again, this time to specifically prohibit “private airports”. The Canadian Owners and Pilot’s Association helped the Hansens advocate their case and in 2005, the B.C. Supreme Court held that the zoning restriction went beyond what a local government has the power to do. (Regional District of Comox-Strathcona v. Hansen et al, 2005 BCSC 220) The judge, following precedent from the Supreme Court of Canada, recognized that “aerodromes and airports [are] vital and essential parts of aeronautics, and thus subject to interjurisdictional immunity.” This means that aerodromes and airports are of federal jurisdiction and that provinces and localities can’t make law that affects these things.
Here’s a story from Cortes Island’s online builtin, the Tideline, that describes the Hansens’ win.
From the photo in that story, and from a 2008 airport diagram, you can see that the runway used to be about 500 feet shorter than it is today.
Here are some quotes from another aviation forum written by people who visited the airfield when it was still operated by the Hansens.
A group of us from King George Airpark in Surrey flew into Cortes with almost no notice and arrived to find lunch ready for pilots and passengers from eight airplanes. Jim and Diane are a real asset to the flying community. We will be back.
super cool folks. I recently completed a water improvement contract for BC Parks at Smelt Bay adjacent to Hansen airfield, Bought gravel from Jim and Diane, got to know them a bit, very nice folks, real salt-of-the-earth people. Watch out, 4 hours will pass and you’ll still be drinking coffee, hearing great stories from Jim and Diane. The guy has a nice new little Hitachi excavator and an old Cat dozer, that airstrip is getting better and better.
It’s 2600 feet long and Jim continues to lengthen and widen it.
Jim and Dianne hosted a small fly-in on July 7, 2013, around the time of their retirement and sale of the airport to its current owners. One of the pilots wondered if it would be their “final trip to Cortes as we know it.”
While that may be the case, it is still a very nice airfield and destination. The current operator said they intend to continue to give permission to land on a limited basis (no flight training or commercial flights) and they will be introducing a more formal landing landing request and liability waiver soon.
1. The contact info for the operator in the CFS is not the best number to call. They said that it will be updated soon to: Judy, 1-250-203-1494, email@example.com ↑
2. The Canadian Flight Supplement doesn’t report that this runway is sloped, and even after landing there, I can’t confirm whether there is a slope. ↑