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A Bounty of Riches

After witnessing the activity at Cascade Aerospace’s immaculate 230,000-square-foot facility at the Abbotsford International Airport in Abbotsford, B.C., during a recent visit in June, it was hard not to get excited about the scope of the work at hand – and ponder the future potential of B.C.’s aerospace sector.


After witnessing the activity at Cascade Aerospace’s immaculate 230,000-square-foot facility at the Abbotsford International Airport in Abbotsford, B.C., during a recent visit in June, it was hard not to get excited about the scope of the work at hand – and ponder the future potential of B.C.’s aerospace sector.

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One of B.C.’s leading MRO companies, Vector Aerospace continues to extend its footprint in both North America and abroad.
(Photos courtesy of Vector Aerospace)


 

Dozens of engineering professionals buzzed around a handful of Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules aircraft, providing maintenance and product upgrades. The C-130 program is one of the cornerstones of Cascades’ product offerings and has enabled the company to position itself as a world leader in modifications, maintenance and support on C-130 civilian and military aircraft.

Engineering crews were also diligently providing maintenance and upgrades to two other iconic aircraft – a pair of CL-215 Ps. The immense amphibious firefighting flying boats used by the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments in aerial firefighting capacities represent a small sampling of the service capabilities a company such as Cascade can provide. Modification and airworthiness certification of Bombardier CRJ100/200 aircraft, Q400 modification and product maintenance, as well as other MRO services, are just some of the ways Cascade is expanding its footprint in both the Canadian and the international marketplace.

“We’re building a complete portfolio that’s the next big step in the business for us,” says Dwayne Lucas, Cascade’s vice-president and general manager of the products and engineering group. Cascade is a subsidiary of the Conair Group, which is also based in Abbotsford. “We’re going to leverage the Canadian experience and move into the international marketplace, so a number of these bids we’re dealing with are with international customers – Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico, Peru. If you hit 10 countries, we’re hoping to get two out of it; it’s what you can handle and manage. That’s the number 1 cornerstone.

“The second piece is working on multi-mission aircraft. We can’t do it publicly yet, because we’re restricted by the agreement we have with one of the OEMs, but we’re taking an airplane and we’re going to build some capability on to it – I can tell you it’s a Q400. We’ve got experience with Bombardier products, principally the Q400, the CRJ and the 215. Those are the three Bombardier products that we work with. The 215, we’re doing the re-engine piece which you saw.”

With its diversified business model and myriad product offerings, Cascade sees market potential in Asia, Russia and the former Eastern bloc countries. “With the variability in the marketplace, you definitely have to have range when it comes to product diversification,” says Lucas. It’s a business model not lost on other B.C. aerospace firms that are actively tapping domestic and international markets to broaden corporate horizons. And given its geographical location and future market potential, B.C.’s leading aerospace firms could see a significant growth spurt in years to come.

Prospect watch
B.C.’s aerospace market is in many ways is a “hidden” gem when compared to the more visible Montreal cluster and developing clusters in Ontario and the GTA. Employing more than 10,000 people, B.C. aerospace generates an estimated $2 billion in annual revenues, but these numbers pale in comparison with what could be generated in the not-too-distant future.

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Over the next 20 years, approximately half of the world’s air-traffic growth will be connected to, or within, the Asia-Pacific region, and B.C. is perfectly positioned
geographically to tap this market. Total air traffic for the region is estimated to grow 6.7 per cent per year over that time span and air cargo will grow 6.3 per cent per year.

To modernize fleets and meet the growing demand for air transport, airlines in the Asia-Pacific region will need 11,450 new airplanes valued at $1.5 trillion over the next 20 years. Global airplane sales, for both fleet growth and replacement of aging aircraft, will total 30,900 units over that period with a value of more than $3.6 trillion. It means significant opportunity for B.C.’s aerospace sector, which has some of the strongest maintenance, repair and overhaul operations in the country, if not the world. Cascade, Vector Aerospace, Heli-One, Kelowna Flightcraft and MTU Maintenance Canada Ltd., for example, are well positioned to take advantage of increased MRO demand. The same holds true for many of the province’s other leading aerospace firms such Victoria, B.C.-based OEM Viking Air, Abbotsford, B.C.-based aerial firefighting firm Conair, and software, avionics and space industry leaders.

Gabe Batstone, CEO of Vancouver-based software firm NGRAIN, is optimistic about the future prospects of B.C.’s aerospace footprint but irons home the point that increased industry cohesion is necessary to maximize growth. Working to develop a B.C. aerospace “cluster” for example – or at the very least a much stronger industry voice – will go a long way to maximizing growth potential, says Batstone. The cluster philosophy not only helps branding and marketing on the world stage, but it mobilizes industry players around common goals such as supply chain development, research and development opportunities and ways to spark innovation.

“B.C. is a great place to live. We’ve got a skilled workforce because we’ve got educational institutes, between the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, University of Fraser Valley and the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT),” notes Batstone, whose firm provides 3D software development kits, packaged software and engineering services to commercial and military aerospace clients, including Lockheed Martin on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and C-130J programs. “It’s a very interesting area to be in because you have some real aerospace leaders here – MDA, Cascade, Avcorp, Vector, ourselves… that’s the good news. The bad news is, we all have become successful in isolation. If you look at where commercial aviation is going, Asia is the spot. And what’s the closest Canadian location to Asia? Vancouver and Victoria – we are the gateway. Location matters, and I believe clusters drive activity.”

Doug Rae, vice-president of business development at MDA in Vancouver, concurs, adding the clusters break down internal barriers; stimulate research and development; and marry academia, government and industry objectives, something that can be argued is lacking in B.C.

With more than 4,800 employees worldwide and additional Canadian locations in Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal and Brampton, Ont., MDA has established a significant footprint in Canadian aerospace in both the aviation and space realms of satellite development, robotics, aviation, geospatial intelligence work, communication payloads and more. The company’s primary aviation work involves the development of terminal procedural design software, flight briefing systems and aeronautical navigating systems, as well as running Heron unmanned aviation vehicles for the Canadian government in Afghanistan.

“I think the establishment of a cluster would be very beneficial here,” Rae says. “It puts the aerospace industry on the map and I also think it’s good because it increases the visibility to both the provincial government and other agencies. It’s strong from that perspective . . . it also serves as a strong marketing tool, in a sense, for the industry. But you need to have everyone in the industry working towards that. You need industry buy-in.”

Establishing stronger industry ties will also help B.C. capitalize on the future market influx brought on by demand in Asia, Rae notes. “We can become a hub to help produce capability that can move into that Asian market space,” he says. “I see aerospace as a real nugget. We have enough of a core between Viking, Avcorp, Asco, MDA and more, and we can wrap that around an aeronautical context.”

Down in the valley
While a significant portion of B.C.’s aerospace footprint lies in the Vancouver area, there is a strong push to establish an aerospace cluster in the nearby city of Abbotsford. Located some 65 kilometres to the east of Vancouver, major aerospace leaders such as Cascade and its parent company Conair are located at the Abbotsford International Airport and some 100 hectares of adjacent land is serviced and ready for development.

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B.C.'s MDA is a world leader in the development of satellite technology and aerospace initiatives.
(Photo courtesy of MDA)
 

New aerospace tenants at the airport will be granted property tax exemptions by the city of Abbotsford under a program covering the first 10 years of tenancy. There also has been significant government buy-in for the project. The federal and B.C. governments, as well as Abbotsford International Airport, have contributed some $30 million ($10 million each) to create a new 9,600-foot taxi-runway to parallel the primary runway, major terminal improvement and other upgrades. So, government commitment, a key element in any aerospace endeavour, is high.

“I think the cluster mentality exists quite strongly here’ it’s something that is being worked on, it’s being led by the Abbotsford side of things,” says Rick Pedersen, senior vice-president of the Conair Group. Conair is an international leader in aerial firefighting aircraft, predominately operating in Alberta, B.C., the Yukon and Alaska, and in Europe through its operation in France. It also had two 802s in Australia when Wings visited in June. “There are opportunities for synergies between these businesses and that is driven on the MRO side of the operating scale,” says Pedersen.

The Fraser Valley would be ideal for an aerospace hub for a variety of reasons, Batstone adds, because it would enable aerospace employees to have a great lifestyle, more affordable living costs while not detracting from the existing aerospace opportunities in Vancouver. And as the old adage from the movie Field of Dreams aptly suggests, if you build it, they will come.

“People are going to fly primarily into Vancouver anyway, so if you are going to visit Abbotsford to see someone, you’re also going to come back and see someone there,” Batstone notes. “But the opposite isn’t necessarily true. If someone is coming to go to Abbotsford, they will most certainly make certain to stop in Vancouver. But if they’re just going to Vancouver, they may or may not choose to go to the Fraser Valley. From a regional perspective, I think it makes more sense to be out there.”

Cascade’s Lucas, who has done yeoman’s work organizing the annual Abbotsford Air Show, which showcases the area’s aerospace footprint to government and industry alike, is a strong proponent of a cluster development in the valley. It just makes sense, given the proximity, the established aerospace leaders already at the airport, and more importantly, future opportunities. “I’m quite bullish on it, to be honest,” he says. “I know they haven’t moved as fast on it as the folks at the airport would have liked, but it is definitely something that could have a big impact in the province.”

Reaching the promised land
While greater cohesion within the aerospace ranks is needed to enhance R&D and future business opportunities within industry partners, there are other challenges ahead for B.C. aerospace companies. Finding just the right talent to fuel the aerospace engine is a very real issue.

Vanessa Griffiths, executive director of the British Columbia Aerospace Council (BCAC), notes that raising the awareness of industry and developing and/or solidifying a talent pipeline is critical to maximizing the province’s aerospace potential.

“We need to working to raise the awareness of B.C. aerospace at all levels and make sure individual companies set up solid standards of retaining employees and doing what needs to be done to keep their talent pools,” Griffiths says. “The Bombardiers, the Pratt & Whitneys . . . they do that. We need to follow the same leadership principle here. We also have to ensure that the pipeline from our excellent institutions remains developed and strong.”

Batstone agrees and commends institutions such as BCIT for setting academic standards that mirror the needs of industry. “I give credit to BCIT as a leader in developing talent,” he says. “We are also close to Seattle which of course has Microsoft, so we are able to get talent in Vancouver from south of the border. But for the aerospace industry as a whole, it’s a real problem. The one challenge, and there are a few challenges, is the cost of living in B.C. Importing people is not usually the best option, so the more people you develop from B.C., the better . . . it’s just easier.”

Lucas suggests that a broader understanding of what aerospace does for the province – and the value it brings to the national economy – would go a long way in getting government support, and ultimately enhancing the talent pool. It’s a role the BCAC and other aerospace associations can drive home to all levels of government. “We have to get in at the jobs and training level . . . and do a much better job,” Lucas says. “The challenge is, the province is very focused on resources: that’s where they see the billions for the future. But if you want to see something that is going to attract young people, that will move you into the Asia-Pacific realm, you’re going to have to leverage your skills and knowledge on programs. You will have put some money into aerospace.”

Asco Aerospace’s vice-president, Kevin Russell, contends that while close proximity to Boeing in Seattle, Wash., and access to a large Asian market present plenty of opportunity to expand, industry must develop technology and automation to ensure it remains competitive. “I think it is important to develop a manufacturing research centre in B.C. which supports B.C. companies to become world-class technology leaders,” he says. “The B.C. government needs to develop a sector strategy, which needs to include R&D support, as B.C. companies will not compete on cost unless they are at the leading edge of technology. We are not a lower-cost region of the world so we have to compensate with innovation and automation, etc.”

Marketing the strength – and value – of the industry and identifying just how powerful it’s become is front and centre as well and it’s something Griffiths intends to work on. The BCAC is seeking to quantify the aerospace industry and develop more statistics to properly illustrate the value of this hidden gem.

“We have Canadian numbers and we have the slice – 13 per cent of the aerospace revenues in Canada are generated in B.C.,” she says. “But we don’t have concrete numbers. I have seen estimates thrown around, but then I see the incomes of some B.C.-based firms and it means we are bringing in way more money to the sector than we even begin to realize.”

Fortunately, there is plenty of government buy-in when it comes to aerospace, notes Batstone. Now, it’s up to industry leaders to help the sector reach its potential. “From the government perspective, I think we are well positioned here,” he says. “It’s about making sure the leaders of the companies stay involved, including myself. At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own company and sometimes these more holistic and industry-wide issues don’t make your topic of the day list. That may make sense in the short term, but in the long term, it will hurt us. Now is the time we need to pop our heads up to ensure we make the commitment to a cluster. You just have to make the time for it.”

Bordering on greatness
British Columbia boasts myriad aerospace leaders touching on a  variety of key fields. Here are some firms that stand out:

Anodyne Electronics Manufacturing: Kelowna, B.C.-based Anodyne Electronics Manufacturing Corp (AEM) is a leading designer and manufacturer of avionics, aircraft audio systems, intercoms and more. The company was founded in 2009 when Northern Airborne Technology (NAT) shut down its manufacturing operations in Canada, creating an opportunity for a 100 per cent employee-owned, vertically integrated company built around skill, experience and capability.

Avcorp: With more than 50 years in the aerospace industry, Avcorp specializes in the design and manufacture of tail, wing and other airframe structures. Located near major aerospace markets in Burlington, Ont., and Vancouver, Avcorp works with major aircraft OEMs including Bombardier Aerospace, Boeing and BAE Systems on the outboard wing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

AVM Solutions (Kelowna) Inc.: Formerly known as Kelowna Flightcraft Modifications Ltd., the company brings more than 40 years’ experience to the table. The firm specializes in avionics modifications to both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft in corporate, civil and military markets. AVM Solutions (Kelowna) Inc. also offers on-site consultancy services, maintenance programs and technical assistance.

Kelowna Flightcraft: Since 1970, Kelowna Flightcraft, powered by 1,000 employees, has delivered maintenance, training and flight operations services. The company's 20 daily service aircraft (including the DC10-30F) supply dedicated overnight cargo services. And the maintenance team services 100s of aircraft from across North America for commercial, VIP and military customers.Maxcraft Avionics: As the largest avionics repair shop in Canada, Maxcraft Avionics focuses on avionics support for a variety of rotary- and fixed-wing clients in the commercial, corporate, military, HEMS and other realms. Based at Pitt Meadows Regional Airport, the firm is an authorized representative of more than 30 leading avionics brands.

Pelesys Learning Systems: Based in Richmond, B.C., Pelesys Learning Systems has spent 12 years developing a variety of detailed training systems for airlines and airline training organizations. With a customer base that includes major airlines, regional airlines, cargo airlines, helicopter operations and more, Pelesys offers clients custom courseware development, online learning management systems and flight training software.

Quaternion Aerospace: Since 2006, this Victoria, B.C.-based R&D firm has been on the cutting edge of design, modelling and optimization needs in aircraft design and the design of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Quaternion has provided design and consulting services to clients such as Viking Air, Vancouver Island Helicopters, INCO, National Research Council – Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and to Aeronnova S.A. (Spain) and OGMA (Portugal).

Veraform Canada Corp.: Veraform Canada is the only stand-alone, aerospace-approved stretch-forming facility in Canada. Veraform supports a variety of fixed-wing programs, including Boeing 737, 747-8F, 767, 787 and Airbus, Twin Otter, and Bombardier Global Express jets. The company manufactures aircraft extrusions, skins, leading edges, roll-formed seal retainers, brake-formed shapes and other profiles.

Viking Air: For more than 42 years, Viking Air has been one of B.C.’s aerospace leaders. Located at Victoria International Airport, Viking Air was born in 1970 as an aircraft repair facility, but by the 1980s, the company was manufacturing replacement parts for DeHavilland Canada aircraft. In 2005, Viking purchased the type certificates from Bombardier of all the DHC aircraft no longer in production: DHC-1 Chipmunk, DHC-2 Beaver, DHC-3 Otter, DHC-4 Caribou, DHC-5 Buffalo, DHC-6 Twin Otter and DHC-7 Dash 7. They now service more than 500 operators worldwide with some 1,300 aircraft in service. Viking has grown into one of the most influential aircraft manufacturers in the world.


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