Global water bomber manufacturing program could be headed for Calgary; company president says could bring 900 new jobs

Global water bomber manufacturing program could be headed for Calgary; company president says could bring 900 new jobs

31 May 2017

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Canada – The company that purchased the manufacturing rights for Canada’s iconic water bomber aircraft last year says it is considering a massive Calgary expansion that could bring up to 900 new jobs to the city.

Viking Air Ltd. — which is headquartered in Victoria, B.C., but employs about 100 people in Calgary at its aircraft assembly and product support facilities — is the manufacturer of the well-known Twin Otter utility aircraft. Last June, Viking announced it had struck a deal with Bombardier to buy its water bomber program, acquiring the manufacturing rights as well as responsibility for support, parts and service of the planes.

At the time of the purchase, Viking indicated its first priority would be the parts and service side of the business — providing maintenance and product support for the fleet of approximately 170 Bombardier water bombers in service in 11 countries. The Bombardier CL-415 water bomber is the only aircraft in the western world purpose-built for firefighting (it was used to fight the Fort McMurray wildfires last year), and is considered the aviation industry’s benchmark amphibious aircraft.

Over the past year, Viking has added about 40 people to its workforce in Victoria and Calgary to support the water bomber program. But in an interview Wednesday, Viking president David Curtis said the company is considering moving beyond parts and maintenance into a full-fledged restart of the water bomber manufacturing program (Bombardier stopped building new water bomber planes in December 2015). He said that if it does pull the trigger on its plans, Viking will locate the manufacturing activities in Calgary.

“We have some interesting opportunities to make aerospace a pretty big deal in the Calgary region,” Curtis said. “The water bomber is about the size of a 737, it’s a big airplane. If we put the 415 back into production, it has the potential for 900 new jobs. And depending on how you multiply that, about 2,000 indirect jobs.”

Viking is no stranger to reviving aircraft types that are no longer in production by the original manufacturer. Twin Otters were originally built by de Havilland Aircraft, which turned them out from the mid-1960s until 1988. Viking revived the aircraft, putting an updated version on the market and delivering its first in 2010. To date, over 125 new aircraft have been sold to 29 countries worldwide.

“What we’re looking to do is something very similar to what we did with the Twin Otter,” Curtis said. “As you can imagine, it’s a pretty complex financing program to ramp it all up. You need customers on board, you need financing behind it. But we’ve already invested a significant amount.”

In preparation for a potential Calgary expansion, the company has been acquiring production and office space in the city within the last year, including a 71,000-square-foot manufacturing facility at McKnight Blvd NE and 36th Street NE and a 48,000-square-foot parts and support facility off of Deerfoot Trail on 8th Street NE. In addition, Viking has recently signed a lease for the former Field Aviation Hangars —about 140,000 square feet — on Calgary International Airport property.

Robert Palmer, vice-president of finance for the Calgary Airport Authority, said the expansion, if it comes to fruition, will be great news for the local economy.

“I knew they had plans. We at the airport have chatted with them a few times and we worked with them to both renew their existing lease and acquire new space on airport land,” Palmer said. “This kind of stuff is actually part of our mandate to grow the economy, so anything we can do to facilitate that we’re happy to do.”

“We knew Viking was looking at opportunities to grow in Calgary,” said Mary Moran, president and CEO of Calgary Economic Development, in an email. “It’s encouraging for us that more and more companies are seeing that there are cost-competitiveness advantages of doing business here.”

Curtis said Viking will likely make its decision on whether to restart the water bomber program within the next six months. He said part of the reason the company is excited about the prospect is because it diversifies its business beyond the Twin Otter, which has seen a decline in sales as a result of the downturn in the mining and energy sectors, as well as a slowdown in growth in the Chinese economy and difficulties selling into the Russian market.

Viking announced earlier this week that because of the challenging Twin Otter market, it will temporarily halt production of that plane, resulting in a three-month layoff for 212 employees — including approximately 50 in Calgary.

Curtis said while he is optimistic the company will still sell another 200 Twin Otters, it is looking to the water bomber program to provide it with another equally important line of business and shelter it from temporary dips in the market.

“That is going to help stabilize our workforce and diversify the production side of things,” Curtis said.

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