Anyone who flies in private planes knows what a normal airport looks like: it has one or two runways, an FBO, and maybe a restaurant and a little terminal building used by a commuter airline a couple of times a day. The airport was originally built 5-10 kilometers outside of town, but it is now surrounded by bland new subdivisions. If you want to get anywhere interesting beyond the airport restaurant, you have to take a taxi, borrow a crew car, or bring a fold-up bicycle in the back of the plane. One of the real joys of private aviation, though, is finding the abnormal airports, the ones that are unusual, interesting, worthy destinations in their own right, or that allow you to walk straight out of your plane to places you want to go.
My personal favourite abnormal airport is Toronto City Centre (CYTZ, also known as Toronto Island). The airport is located on an island in Lake Ontario, separated from downtown Toronto only by a channel crossed by the world’s shortest ferry ride (about 400 feet). You can tie down your plane at the Esso FBO (for my Warrior, it’s CAD 20/night, first night free — that’s cheaper than parking a car in downtown Toronto), hop on the ferry, then walk 20 minutes to Union Station and get on the Subway to go anywhere in the city. Paul Tomblin has a lot of great pictures here. Fewer and fewer cities have downtown airports now, and Mayor Daly’s secret destruction of Chicago’s Meigs Field, at night, was a warning to all of us to fight to save these gems.
Tim Bray recently wrote about a different kind of abnormal aerodrome, the seaplane base in Vancouver’s inner harbour. Like Toronto/City Centre, this base is downtown, but it’s actually out on the water, so a rogue mayor cannot simply bring in bulldozers in the middle of the night and tear it up. Floatplanes are a central part of the Canadian myth, and the bush pilot in the float plane is probably the closest Canadian equivalent to the American cowboy on the horse — a medium or large inland lake full of cottages will often have at least one floatplane tied up to a dock, and many northern communities rely on planes for everything, from food and medicine to CDs and school textbooks.
Floats are more dangerous than wheels (ask the insurance companies), just like a horse is much more dangerous than a minivan, but that’s a risk many people are willing to take for the convenience of being able to land so many places. Flying across the strait to Victoria sounds like a whole lot more fun than taking the ferry, and I could probably spend a happy afternoon at the seaplane base just listening to the radial engines on the Beavers — I am Canadian, after all. I’ll have to make a proper visit to Vancouver some day.