Varcoe: 150 aviation jobs coming to Calgary, but bigger prize awaits Viking Air

Varcoe: 150 aviation jobs coming to Calgary, but bigger prize awaits Viking Air

08 May 2018

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CANADA – David Curtis strolled through an empty hangar near Calgary International Airport on Monday, looking out at the vast space and the promise ahead for his company.

“In another three months, this place will be full of planes and people. It will be pretty cool,” he said.

Outside the hangar in northeast Calgary, a series of hulking yellow and red water bombers are docked on the ground, awaiting a pending retrofit.

The chief executive of Viking Air Ltd. is making plans for a major lift-off in the coming weeks.

The Victoria-based firm, along with its sister firm Longview Aviation Asset Management, announced Monday the first phase of plans to turn Calgary into a centre for expanding its amphibious firefighting aircraft.

The companies are looking to hire 150 people in Calgary this spring and summer for a program to upgrade a series of older Canadair CL-215 firefighting planes that it’s acquired.

Known as “Super Scoopers,” these unique Canadian water bomber aircraft were manufactured in the 1980s. They have the ability to swoop down to lakes or oceans and scoop up 5,455 litres of water in a dozen seconds that can then be dumped on a fire.

Viking, a private company managed by Longview Aviation Capital, intends to modernize these planes — including replacing the engines, avionics and other integral systems — at its hangar in Calgary, starting this fall.

It has already hired 50 staff in Victoria to work on the plane conversion kits. Now, it’s actively recruiting staff to retrofit the aircraft in this city.

“This is great. A lot of folks don’t understand the power of the aerospace industry in Calgary and this really shines a light on that,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Curtis is searching for an array of personnel, from human relations staff to aircraft maintenance engineers. He’s also working with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to help train new employees.

Lynda Holden, academic chair of SAIT’s aviation program, said the school is developing a custom training program that would touch on areas such as engine theory, sheet metal skills, avionics and aircraft systems training.

On the business front, Curtis said the company has firm contracts to sell five of the upgraded planes for about $30 million.

By the time local operations are fully staffed, the group will have more than doubled its existing Calgary workforce. (Viking manufactures the iconic Twin Otter in the city, with the sub-assembly done in Victoria.)

But that’s only the first step in a larger, more ambitious plan.

Viking ultimately wants to manufacture a new version of the water bomber at its Victoria and Calgary operations.

In 1994, Bombardier began making a more modern version of the original aircraft — called the CL-415 — but stopped manufacturing them three years ago.

Viking later acquired the design and manufacturing rights to Bombardier’s amphibious aircraft program and is now talking to potential customers who might want to buy a new version of the Super Scooper.

Curtis believes the demand is there, particularly with massive forest fires that have been sparked around the world in recent years. It’s hoping to presell about 25 aircraft before starting production.

If approved, the larger $400-million program could create up to 900 direct jobs in Calgary.

The CEO has met with Nenshi and Calgary Economic Development officials about the concept. It is also seeking money from senior levels of government to get the proposed manufacturing plan airborne.

Viking and its partner have applied for $100 million in federal funding from the $1.26-billion, five-year Strategic Innovation Fund.

It has notionally made separate $40-million requests to the Alberta and B.C. governments, but that would likely be contingent on federal involvement.

Federal authorities wouldn’t comment on the application Monday. Officials in Alberta’s Economic Development office said the province is considering Viking’s request and working with the company.

Curtis said any government money would likely come in the form of repayable loans, and it’s essential because Viking’s business plan would see it manufacture a small number of aircraft — potentially four to five planes a year.

“The ask to government is pretty aggressive … and that will be critical for us to be successful because of the nature of the learning curve on this,” he added. “We’ve got low production rates, high labour costs and it’s just complicated to get it started.

“Once they’re running, it’s valid to go. These are long-term investments.”

CED head Mary Moran said the group has been talking with Viking for more than a year and the company’s plans fit into Calgary’s broader strategy to grow the local transportation and logistics sector.

The program would increase the country’s exports, as many of the planes would be sold abroad, and would also help the city develop a cluster of aviation-related businesses.

“We are definitely going to continue to push it. It’s one of our key diversification opportunities,” Moran said.

Given the amount of money Ottawa has poured into Bombardier and other economic diversification efforts around the country, it needs to look seriously at Viking’s plans, say local officials.

“Certainly, the federal government hasn’t been shy in supporting the Canadian companies in the aerospace sector and if we are able to do that here in Western Canada – in Alberta — I think that would be a very nice win,” Nenshi said.

One of the biggest selling blocks is the plane itself, which Holden called a “one-of-a-kind workhorse” in the area of battling forest fires, able to load up water quickly without having to land.

“To have that Canadian stamp on an aircraft that is used worldwide really puts us into a global marketplace,” she said.

For the time being, the company is focused on its first staged step, upgrading the older planes. Curtis is optimistic it will lead to the bigger approach.

“I’m confident,” he said, walking across the hangar. “It’s a huge opportunity.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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