Toronto’s Four Seasons

The Return of Helicopter Operations to Downsview
 Kenneth Swartz
May 03, 2010
By Kenneth Swartz
Coming in to land at Rotor-City, everything feels right about this two-year-old heliport and helicopter FBO in central Toronto. The renovated aircraft factory building can accommodate half a dozen helicopters, ranging from a Robinson R-22 to a corporate AgustaWestland AW-119 Koala. And the easily accessible heliport location at Downsview Airport, just north of Highway 401, has given home-based Four Seasons Aviation an ideal base for its diversified charter, aircraft management and helicopter maintenance activities.

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Rotor-City heliport and hangar is home to Four Seasons Aviation at Toronto’s Downsview Airport. The airport is also home to Bombardier Aerospace. (Photo by Kenneth Swartz)

In a region that has closed more airports and heliports in the past 50 years than it has opened, the return of helicopter operations to Downsview is the latest chapter in the history of the 80-year-old airport and new mixed-use urban park.

The Four Seasons Experience
In the 25 years Four Seasons Aviation owner-pilot Dave Tommasini has crisscrossed the skies over Toronto, he has had a bird’s eye view of the expanding city and its developing helicopter market. Whether it’s motion picture and television work, executive charter, aircraft management or third-party maintenance, Tommasini has excelled in each of the niche markets he’s pursued.

In 1980, Tommasini took his flight training at Toronto Helicopters and “sort of dove into the helicopter business” with a job flying a JetRanger in Yellowknife. The vast expanse of the Canadian north was an eye opener for the young pilot from Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood who had never travelled north of Highway 7.

In 1987, Tommasini returned to Toronto to “fire up a JetRanger” and start his own charter business. “A lot of the local companies in Toronto were chasing forest fires up north in the summer, which meant there were charter customers in the local area who were not well served,” recalls Tommasini.

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First helicopter at Downsview - Bell 47 NR2H visits Downsview in June 1946 for evaluation by Lunberg-Ryan Geophysical Surveys. (CASM Photo-DHC)
Put it down to good timing, but the launch of Four Seasons Aviation also coincided with a significant expansion of the Toronto-based motion picture industry. “There had always been some kind of aerial film activity in Toronto, but the business really took off in the late 1980s and 1990s and we decided to dedicate our aircraft to servicing those guys,” Tommasini recalls.

Favourable exchange rates, local tax incentives, and the high quality of Canadian production crews brought many new film productions to Toronto. Tommasini received mentoring in movie work from the late Ron Boyd, who had done a lot of early flying for the first IMAX films.

As business developed, Four Seasons traded its original JetRanger for a Bell 206L LongRanger (C-FHKJ), and then upgraded to an AS-355F TwinStar (C-FHNB) in 1990. The twin-engine helicopter was essential to meet Transport Canada regulations and client requirements for motion picture work in and over Toronto’s downtown core.

“The TwinStar also appealed to customers who wanted a high level of aircraft or a better appointed machine for their business trips,” adds Tommasini. He gradually expanded from specialized aerial camera work to fly “picture ships” in films and work as an aerial stunt pilot on action sequences in the expanding industry.

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Four Seasons owner/pilot Dave Tommasini has more than 120 motion pictures and TV programs to his credit. (Photo by Kenneth Swartz)
As a motion picture pilot, Tommasini has now more than 120 motion pictures and TV programs to his credit, all documented on his Internet Movie Database (IMDb) listing. In addition to home-based work, he has travelled to the United States and Istanbul, Turkey, on filming assignments. Tommasini is particularly proud of the film work on Fly Away Home, the 1996 story of a father and daughter who decide to attempt to lead a flock of orphaned Canada Geese south by air. One of the challenges of the film was flying a camera helicopter in formation with an ultra light aircraft and a flock of geese.

More recently, Tommasini did aerial camera work for the 2009 aviator flick Amelia, and for five new motion pictures scheduled for release in 2010. Film work is very much a team effort that also requires the skills of an experienced aerial camera operator and a nearby source for specialized camera systems, ranging from unstabilized Tyler mounts, to gyro stabilized L-3 Wescam and Spacecam Cineflex mounts, the latter for high-definition cameras.

The Lure of Television
A natural outgrowth of Four Season’s extensive movie work was a push to introduce Electronic News Gathering (ENG) helicopters to the Toronto television market. Tommasini pounded the pavement for years, knocking on the doors of CITY TV, CTV, Global and even the CBC, but all he could muster were sporadic camera charters to cover a breaking news story. Then, in 1999, Global TV made the bold step of contracting Four Seasons to provide a dedicated TV news helicopter, the first such contract anywhere in Canada.

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Four Seasons’ fleet includes the Eurocopter AS-350B2.
Operations began with a LongRanger II and then a purchased Eurocopter 350D AStar (C-GHAQ), which was outfitted with a gyro stabilized nose-mounted camera, integrated microwave system enabling live transmission and relay, and two point-of-view cameras providing a view of the on-air talent and the exterior of the helicopter.

When a massive and widespread power outage occurred at 4:14 p.m. on Aug. 13, 2003, Tommasini flew one of the few TV helicopters to cover the international story. “We got the call to go up and see how dark it was. It was like Gotham City downtown, with only a few lights here and there and it was pretty eerie. The news report was picked up all over North America.”

Four Seasons flew the AStar twice a day for Global TV for almost a decade, but the contract was cancelled in March 2009 following budget cuts at the struggling TV network.

A Dynamic Market
“Compared to fixed-wing aviation, running a helicopter business requires a lot of creativity because of the tremendous versatility in what a helicopter can do,” says Tommasini. “Our business has been a very dynamic experience which varies on almost a year-to-year basis, We are constantly looking for different angles to expand our business or diversify, sometimes out of necessity.

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Four Seasons upgraded to a Eurocopter TwinStar in 1990, essential for motion picture work over Toronto’s downtown core.
We do high-end transportation, which is expensive, and for which there is always an alternative. This means we have to be more creative about how we present ourselves and price ourselves when the economy changes. And it means constantly being on the lookout for new aviation markets that we haven’t traditionally served.”

In 2008-2009, Four Seasons diversified its business with the addition of a helicopter flight training school with an R-22 and a fixed-wing operating certificate that includes a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver amphibian available for charter.

Corporate Elements
The corporate market is a segment of Four Seasons business devoted to serving Toronto-area businesses and business owners. Company helicopters make regular flights to Muskoka properties, airport transfers, real estate tours, and flights to upscale restaurants and wineries in the Niagara region for companies entertaining important clients.

Aside from Downsview, Four Seasons uses the downtown Polson Pier Helipad in the east harbour as an alternative to Toronto City Centre Airport, the AFI Security Helipad west of the city in Milton, and a new heliport located to the north at the Eagles Nest Golf Club off Dufferin Street in the Town of Vaughan.

Aircraft Management
Twenty-five years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a private or corporate owned helicopter based in an eastern Canadian city. A big change occurred in the 1990s when a lot of wealth was created, leading to rapid growth in helicopter ownership, particularly in the greater Toronto and Montreal area.

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R-22 used for flight training.
“We have met a lot of accomplished businessmen who see aviation as their next challenge, after they have built a successful business, built a large house and acquired a nice car,” observes Tommasini. “Flying a helicopter has become a new life goal for them to achieve and master.

“Once they have got their licence, they usually need someone to assist them with their helicopter acquisition, operations, maintenance and aircraft management.”

Four Seasons has participated in a variety of acquisitions, becoming in recent years the leading Canadian importer of new AgustaWestland corporate helicopters, including an AW-109 Power, an AW-109 Grand and two AW-119 Koalas. The powerful AgustaWestland family has become an excellent alternative to Eurocopter and Bell helicopter models, observes Tommasini. “They are strong performers and very fast. The Koala is an excellent executive and utility machine, with lower operating costs than the twin-engine AW-109, and it is less complex to fly because it features a basic skid gear.” In December 2009, Rotor-City’s became the first licensed AgustaWestland in eastern Canada, and the second in Canada.

Move to Downsview
Four Seasons Aviation launched operations from a corporate hangar at the north end of Lester B. Pearson International Airport, but doing business out of Canada’s busiest airport was becoming increasingly challenging. For Tommasini, the obvious place to move was the middle of the urban Toronto market, which happened to be the location of one of Canada’s oldest airports and a thriving aviation community, where Bombardier Aerospace directly employs 5,000 people to assemble $3.5 billion worth of airliners and business jets a year.

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119Ki Koala and AgustaWestland 109E 
“I first tried to get into Downsview Airport in the mid-1990s when CFB Toronto was closing and the helicopter squadron was moving away to CFB Borden,” Tommasini recalls. “I wanted a base more conducive to helicopter operations where I could better service my customers. We tried to get a hangar when new management started to rent space, but we didn’t fit into to their immediate development plans.

“In 2007, we received some assistance, opening a door to pick up and drop off passengers at Downsview, and this gradually expanded into the renovation of a building and becoming a tenant at Downsview Park. Bombardier Aerospace has been very accommodating, given us great support, and really welcomed us here. We co-ordinate all our arrivals, departures and clearances over the runway with their air traffic control staff.”

Rotor-City has a 7,781 square-foot private hangar and office complex with a 20,100 square-foot landing pad and vehicle parking. The two-storey office has many amenities, including a lounge, boardroom and a 52-inch flat screen TV, useful for viewing the latest aerial camera work.

“Everything has worked out very well,” he says. “There are always compromises, but it is a big improvement over what we had before and we’ve received a great response from our customers.”

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 imported by Four Seasons for Canadian clients (A109E since exported and Koala since re-registered in Canada).
Across the street from the heliport is the Canadian Air & Space Museum, located in a National Historic Site of Canada building where the prototype de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver aircraft was built in 1947 and where the forerunner of SPAR Aerospace launched the Canadian space technology industry in the early 1960s. The museum provides a hangar for Four Seasons’ DHC-2 Beaver, which is parked next to another great Canadian icon of flight, a full-scale replica of the Avro Arrow.

Tommasini believes Downsview Airport is a very important asset for the City of Toronto, and that Rotor-City is doing its part to “help keep Downsview an aviation environment. “There is room for all kinds of activities at Downsview, but it’s very important to maintain the aviation heritage of this site,” says Tommasini. “We should learn from the Avro Arrow experience that trying to wipe aviation off the map in Toronto is not the best way to go.”

Downsview Airport – Helicopter Milestones
1929 – The de Havilland Aircraft of Canada establishes an office, hangar and airport on the west side of Dufferin Street, Toronto as its Canadian base of operations. DHC becomes leading supplier of military and civilian aircraft in Canada in the 1930s.

1946 – June – Larry Bell, President of Bell Aircraft, loans Dr. Hans Lundberg of Toronto a prototype Bell 47, NC1R, for experimental flight-testing of a new airborne magnetometer designed to locate ore bodies from the air. The de Havilland Airport at Downsview is used to install the exploration equipment in the Model 47 and for instrument calibration and flight-testing. The Model 47 departs to Sudbury and Amos to survey known ore bodies in June-July 1946. It’s the first helicopter ever used on a forest fire while in Sudbury. Dr. Lundberg is widely recognized as the founder of the Canadian airborne geophysics industry.

1947 – Photographic Survey Corporation, based at Downsview, imports Canada’s first civil helicopter, Bell 47B-3, CF-FJA. Soon after, the company moves operations to RCAF Oshawa, east of Toronto. Aviation unit is renamed Kenting Aviation.

1947 – Aug. 16  – Prototype de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver flies for first time at Downsview.

1948 – Royal Canadian Air Force Sikorsky S-51 search-and-rescue helicopter based at RCAF Trenton becomes regular visitor to Downsview. De Havilland commences assembly and test flying more than 80 de Havilland Vampire jet fighters ordered by the RCAF.

1948 – de Havilland Canada acquires Canadian sales agency for the Bell Aircraft Model 47 helicopter. Three aircraft imported from Niagara Falls, New York and based at Downsview. De Havilland sells two sold to the Canadian Army, which conducts initial pilot flight training at airport. These are the first military Bell helicopters in Canada. Third aircraft sold to Spartan Air Services of Ottawa. Model 47 sales agency reverts to Bell
by 1950.

1948 – Kaman Helicopters demonstrates prototype Kaman K-225 helicopter at Downsview to de Havilland executives.

1955 – RCAF Piasecki H-21 “Flying Banana” search-and-rescue helicopter becomes regular visitor to RCAF Downsview.

1958 – Dominion Helicopters Ltd. moves its operations from Barker Field, one mile south of Downsview Airport, to the new King City Airport.

1981 – No. 400 and 411 (Reserve) Squadrons re-equip at CFB Toronto with the Bell CH-146 Kiowa tactical helicopter, following retirement of DHC-3 Otter.

1995 – Canadian Forces Base Downsview closes and No. 411 Squadron disbands with the retirement of the Bell CH-136 Kiowa from military service. No. 400 Squadron relocates to CFB Borden and re-equips with new Bell CH-146 Griffon helicopters.

2008 – Rotor-City is established at Downsview.

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