Visitors to Thunder Bay will get a distinctly new vantage point of the city’s spectacular waterfront this summer.
Thunder Bay entrepreneur and pilot Liam Dowds is set to offer helicopter tours of the many sights along the northwestern shore of Lake Superior.
In mid-July, the owner of NorthWest Helicopters was still negotiating with the City of Thunder Bay to hammer out a land-use agreement to access the Pool 6 site, a municipality-owned brownfield that figures prominently in the next phase of waterfront redevelopment.
“We’re ready to go now. We’re open for business,” said Dowds, who took possession of a four-seat R-44 aircraft on June 21 at Skyline Helicopters in Sudbury.
Dowds said it’s an ideal helicopter to run excursions at a rate people can accept.
With a two-person minimum on all flights, his plans are to run 10-minute ($90 per person, plus tax), 15-minute ($120) and 30-minute ($240) excursions out to places like the Terry Fox Monument, Kakabeka Falls, and into the harbor for aerial views of the port, the Welcome Islands, the Sleeping Giant Peninsula and a number of other natural attractions.
Together with his wife Chrissie, Dowds thinks he can turn this into a year-round business by offering rides during winter carnivals, delivering ice climbers and outdoor enthusiasts into remote spots, or tapping into the city’s robust meetings and conventions crowd.
Though the aircraft will be based at the airport, the rides will be offered from the waterfront.
Dowds wants to be part of the city’s development plans to turn the Pool 6 property into a Great Lakes cruise ship terminal. A local volunteer group intends to establish a marine history-themed attraction on the property. A decommissioned Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker is already moored there and is open for tours.
“That audience would great for us to target.”
Dowds is back in the right seat after a long hiatus from flying.
He worked as a commercial helicopter pilot on a contract basis in the mid-1990s before embarking on a 19-year career with IBM in Markham.
But his passion for flying got the best of him, and he went out to Western Canada to retrain on helicopters. There he became acquainted with the R-44.
“That kind of hatched the idea,” said Dowds. “When I came back I thought, I’ll try to make this work.”
While he missed out on the Canada Day celebrations and popular waterfront Blues Fest in July, he hopes to make up for lost time with a strong showing in August.
The Thunder Bay area offers postcard views of many windswept and secluded spots along the north shore of Superior.
For longer excursions, Dowds said the Point Porphyry and Trowbridge lighthouses on the big lake provide exciting possibilities to work with local caterers on shore lunches.
And there are a multitude of other attractions, including an abandoned commercial fishing outpost in Sawyer Bay and the Sea Lion diabase dyke in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.
At the same time, Dowds wants to be respectful of not disturbing people, wildlife or do damage to the ecology.
He is permitted by Transport Canada to fly over the city at a safe altitude of 2,000 feet but will try to deviate to the outskirts to minimize noise.
“We’re not church mice, but it is a (noise) level that’s acceptable and certainly not as worse than what you might get with a busy traffic road in terms of impact in sound levels.”
In working with Ontario Parks officials, Dowds said he’ll fly well clear of the south end of the Sleeping Giant peninsula where peregrine falcons are nestled in the cliffs.
“What I constantly push is if I destroy the environment or ecology or wildlife, my business case is dead.
“My business is predicated on showing off the geography of northwestern Ontario. If I destroy it, I got nothing.”