All photos © Pacific Coastal Airlines
OCEAN CHRONICLES Threading Mountains: Pacific Coastal Airlines Ascends to Become BC’s Small-town Connector
WHEN QUENTIN SMITH pointed the nose of a Cessna 172 towards the notorious Savary Island airstrip, he barely had 20 hours of flying time recorded in his training log. At only 700 meters long, the Savary airstrip would have made any pilot’s palms sweaty, not to mention the other challenges the sandy runway supplied. The dry sand could nosewheel an aircraft; dense salal grew right up to the edge, concealing skittish deer; and maintenance was almost unheard of. From the passenger seat, his father, Daryl Smith, guided him through the necessary maneuvers for a smooth landing. The plane bumped and jerked down the yellow strip, and the wheels came to a rest before the brushy terminus. A few years later, news came that surprised no one—the airstrip would be shuttered for safety reasons. This particular memory sticks out for Quentin Smith because his father “didn’t have a lot of time for personal flying,” he says in a phone conversation. “He was working hard, and we didn’t see him that often.” Before jumping into a pilot’s seat, a young Daryl Smith jammed gears into cranky truck transmissions. He hauled brimming loads of old-growth Doug fir down muddy, vertigo-inducing plunges that could hardly be deemed roads. Perhaps that thrill failed to sustain his lust for adventure because he left old-growth logging on BC’s mountains for a career threading a plane between them. In 1964, after two months of training, Tyee Air hired him to fly freight and his former co-workers in and out of logging camps.
Ever restless, the new pilot struck out on his own five months later. Him and a pilot friend bought Wilderness Airlines, a one floatplane airline out of Bella Coola. By 1967, the pair added four more planes to their fleet. With that success, Daryl Smith moved on to start another bush piloting company. Shortly thereafter he sold that one, worked as an employed pilot for a time, and finally in 1975 started yet another company in partnership with a different friend. Powell Air employed seven pilots and had six planes in the hanger. Change came yet again in 1984 when Powell Air merged with Air BC to become Pacific Coastal Airlines. Eventually, that bush plane company grew to be BC’s smalltown connector. Before Pacific Coastal operated dozens of planes and flew out of 17 airports, a young Quentin Smith got more involved in a business that was just starting to provide wheel plane service with one aircraft from Port Hardy and Bella Bella to Vancouver. Quentin Smith joined in 1988, a year after his brother, Sheldon Smith. The brothers did whatever jobs needed to be done, he says. “We took reservations. We did the check in. We did the bag loading.” One day, after over a decade helping to build the family business, Quentin Smith received a call from his father who told him, “I’m going to make an announcement that I want to read to you.” He learned that with a new millennium, change would come to the helm of Pacific Coastal. Daryl Smith stepped into the semi-retirement CEO role, appointing Quentin Smith as the company’s new president and operator of the day to day. Twenty years later Quentin says he’s not driven by titles and takes the example from his father: “it’s more about everyone just doing what has to be done.” Covid provided exceptional challenges for airlines around the world, Pacific Coastal included, and, in their 35th year of operation, Quentin Smith is focused on bringing their traffic back to pre-pandemic levels. In the longer term he sees himself stepping back as president and into a semi-retired CEO role like his father did, joking, “I want to work 24/7: 24 hours a week, seven months a year.” Decades later perhaps he still remembers his father’s guidance for a smooth landing.