YVR’s towering figure looks back fondly on 30-plus years directing air traffic

News provided by Vancouver Sun

After 35 years in the tower, storied air traffic controller’s most memorable day was pushing the crash alarm to assist a DC-10 that announced it was rejecting takeoff. His most emotional day? 9/11.

GORDON MCINTYRE Updated: January 20, 2019

Brent Bell recently retired after a 35 year career in air traffic control, including as the longest-serving manager of the Nav Canada tower at Vancouver International Airport. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG

Not many offices afford the view Brent Bell’s former workplace does.

Sure, lots of people can see ski runs on Grouse and Cypress mountains from out their back window or see Mt. Baker from their balcony. Or maybe they can see the Vancouver Island Ranges if there’s no fog over the Strait of Georgia.

But Bell’s former professional haunt, where he managed the air traffic control tower at the Vancouver International Airport for 11 years, looks out at them all, with the bonus of being able to watch jumbo jets take off and land while float planes do the same on the Fraser River next door.

“Watching the sun come up over Mt. Baker is spectacular every time,” the 58-year-old said, sitting in his old office, from which he retired on Sept. 19. “And on a beautiful, sunny, summer day watching the sun set over Vancouver Island, it just never gets old, it’s beautiful every time.

“The only better view in Canada from an air traffic control tower perspective is Vancouver Harbour on the top of that office building at 200 Granville St. It happens to hold the world record for height for an air traffic control tower.”

Bell began his 35-year career in Kamloops. When he arrived at Vancouver in 1985, he thinks there were about 255,000 total “runway movements” a year.

Today there are about 335,000 movements on the runway, roughly 40,000 float-plane movements on the river and helicopters using the infield, and another 100,000 aircraft are in transit through the YVR control zone over the water.

That’s getting close to a half-million aircraft moving through the control zone in a year.

“After 35 years of being in the tower, you still stop to watch a 747 take off,” Bell said. “There’s something magical about it. It’s hard to describe, you kind of have to be here because my sense is everybody (in the tower) feels the same way.”

Bell was born in Winnipeg, but his family moved to the West Coast when he was five. During his four years pursuing a chemistry degree at UBC he was a refueller at the south apron and learned to fly, leading to a summer job ferrying guests and supplies to remote fishing camps in northern Manitoba and Ontario.

‘After 35 years of being in the tower, you still stop to watch a 747 take off,’ says Brent Bell, who recently retired. ‘There’s something magical about it. It’s hard to describe, you kind of have to be here because my sense is everybody (in the tower) feels the same way.’ (Photo: Nick Procaylo, PNG)
After 35 years of being in the tower, you still stop to watch a 747 take off, says Brent Bell, who recently retired. There is something magical about it. It’s hard to describe, you kind of have to be here because my sense is everybody (in the tower) feels the same way.  NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

He would have loved to fly for a living, but there were few pilots’ jobs in the recessionary early 1980s.

Then a neighbour brought him an application form to be an air traffic controller, and he never looked back after getting licensed in 1984.

“I miss (flying on) the sunny days, I miss the days when the lakes are glassy calm,” the 58-year-old said. “I don’t miss the bad weather, I don’t miss the times you’re flying just above the tree tops hoping the cartographer has the next lake right so you can meander your way back (to base).”

On Sept. 11, 2001, Bell’s shift began at 2 p.m. There was dead silence, as all air space in North America was closed to all but military traffic and remained closed for three days.

Consider that on an average day at YVR today, 740 aircraft use the runways, plus another 80 float planes or helicopters fly past.

“It was eerily quiet,” Bell said. “Sombre, a really sad day and nothing here was moving. We were all just sitting around in the control room waiting to see if we were going to do anything.

“And, as you know, nothing really moved. We were just ready, and doing nothing but watching the news.”

With a mountain range to the north and an international border to the south, with a pontooned fleet in downtown Vancouver servicing Victoria, Nanaimo and the Sunshine Coast, with another commercial float-plane operation on the Fraser River right next to a YVR runway, more harbours up and down the coast, with all those flights squeezed into a narrow corridor, there aren’t many dull days.

“Vancouver is a really exciting air traffic control job because the geography of this airport is unique. YVR is the best air traffic control job I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, I can’t imagine one better.”

He’s known as a legend around YVR and when he retired on Sept. 19 the airport organized a rare thank you, honouring Bell with a water-arch from an airport firetruck.

“We drove through it in a vehicle, then I had the opportunity to have a picture taken underneath the arch. We got some great photos, it was such an honour because they just don’t do that very often.

“It couldn’t have been a better way to retire, I’ve got to say, and it warms my heart even now talking about it.”

Retirement will mean more rounds at Quilchena in Richmond and sharing travels, hobbies and interests with his wife.

“I’m going to golf more and I’m going to spend more time with my best friend, the love of my life Heather,” Bell said. “It was a wonderful career and I look back at it with all smiles.”