Winds of Change

Chinook Helicopters Looks to Grow the Family Business
Paul Dixon
January 12, 2015
By Paul Dixon
Cathy Press certainly remembers her first inclination that a career in aviation just might be in her future.

Happy fellas  
Happy fellas! Chinook students (left to right) Mike Veruzza, Nick Herbert and George Camarmile with the Bell 47.
(Photo by Paul Dixon) 


 
The CEO and owner of Abbotsford, B.C.-based Chinook Helicopters was three years old, sitting on her father’s knee. Today, more than 13,000 flying hours later, she heads the largest helicopter flight training school in Canada. In August, Press stood centre stage at the 2014 Aerospace, Defence and Security EXPO in Abbotsford before a full house of industry insiders and a straight flush of federal and provincial cabinet ministers to announce that Chinook had signed a MOU with Chinese Aviation Industrial Base (CAIB), located in Xian China to provide training and further support. It was a bold move and looks to add to the company’s growing footprint in the helicopter training business.

Press will tell you that she indeed grew up in the aviation business, as Chinook was founded by her parents. “I went solo on my 16th birthday,” she notes proudly. “And on my 17th birthday, I had the helicopter and aircraft license issued to me. On my 18th birthday, I got my commercial airplane and helicopter licenses.” By the age of 21, Press had her airline transport license and the hours for an airline job, but she decided to stay put.

Today, she is a FAA CFI, a Class 1 helicopter instructor, and holds Transport Canada Pilot Examiner status for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. At the same time, the business has grown from the original two Bell 47s in 1988 to today’s fleet of five Bell 47s, three R44s and three Jet Rangers. Not content to coast, Press is looking ahead to new markets.

“I’ve been driving to the Abbotsford airport every day for almost 30 years,” she says proudly. “I’ve faced tremendous challenges and still face challenges because there have been so many changes in this industry over that time, but I feel younger for it and I enjoy that. In the past couple of years, I have found myself saying, “what’s next?”

The what’s next for Chinook is in motion – an expansion of its existing programs and a move towards foreign markets, including its foray into China. “It’s enjoyable to see where this business can go,” Press notes. “We’re looking at where we can go forward. I’m enjoying having a path that is not so clearly defined and I’m really enjoying the business right now.”

It’s not just the choice of aircraft that give Chinook an advantage, it’s also the wide range of training options and the depth of experience in their instructors. “I’ve been in countries around the world and I’ve seen brochures and marketing materials from people saying what they have in terms of training and then you realize they only have one helicopter,” Press says. “We really are able to do what we say.”

Chinook offers basic flight training and a broad spectrum of advanced training – mountain course, instrument rating, foreign license conversion, helicopter conversion, FAA conversion, night rating as well as a pilot proficiency check and ATPL exam preparation. The company’s 22,000 square foot facility houses the corporate offices, classrooms, simulator rooms as well as providing hangar and maintenance space for its fleet. Located in the shadow of the tower at YXX, the diversity of the regional geography provides challenges for every level of student, from the table-top flat of the Sumas Prairie to the rugged mountains of the Coast Range. 

This diversity of training options and the quality of the instruction attracts students from across Canada and around the world. About one-third of Chinook’s students are from outside Canada, attracted by training opportunities that aren’t available in other regions. As one of the instructors at Chinook, Press’s husband, Clayton Reid, talks about the degree of care that goes into selecting the instructors.

“We are very particular, this is a busy place with lots of diversity, and the instructors need to be able to deliver safe, efficient training,” he says. “We’re very finicky on who we hire. Every one of our instructors is an operational pilot. When you look at our pool of pilots on paper it looks quite impressive, but it has to be this way. Helicopters are a very unforgiving business. It’s really easy to have an accident or incident during training.”

Chinook_jet ranger  
A Chinook Jet Ranger in the big timber. (Photo courtesy of Chinook Helicopters)

 
The MOU with CAIB has great potential, but it’s far from Chinook’s first exposure to working with foreign students. Thai Air Services (TAS) has been sending students to Chinook for several years, 35 at last count. Reid explains, “we take them to a commercial licence, then do a night rating with them and an instrument rating. That takes about six to eight months and they leave with a full commercial licence, night and instrument rating. They can go straight to a company simulator such as an S-76 and then they do their company training and they are on the flight line. We have a model and it’s worked well for the past 12 years.”

A conversation with two current students and a recent grad underscored the attraction Chinook has for budding pilots. Michael Veruzza, 23, graduated last year, while George Camarmile, 25, and Nick Herbert, 30, are just finishing their program.  Camarmile, left Manchester, England to follow a girl and ended up in Whistler, while Herbert claims Vancouver as home, but isn’t that long removed from the U.K., either. The three may have taken very different paths to find their way to Chinook, but once they arrived, they knew it was the place for them. After seeing the variety of equipment, the simulators and meeting the staff, they knew they had made the right decision.

They also understand the biggest challenge just might be getting their foot in the door when the training is over. Veruzza chuckles now when he recalls being warned that getting a job would be the hardest part, but it’s true.

“I drove around for two months solid, all over B.C. and Alberta, knocking on doors and talking to people,” he says. Nothing. Everybody he talked to knew about Chinook and had nice things to say, but no one had room for a low-hour pilot. Veruzza called Reid from a stop in northern Alberta just to say “hi” and learned another important lesson about Chinook – everybody in the business knows about Chinook and Chinook knows just about everybody in the business. An operator in northern B.C. had called Reid to ask if he had anyone he could recommend the same day Veruzza called.

“If you are a decent student, you do good work and you’re serious about it, they can see that and they can give you a good reference,” Veruzza says. “That’s what happened, it was by knowing somebody.” After his first year on the job, he’s asked how much flying time he’s had and with a 100-watt smile answers, “zero point seven hours and it’s all in my log book!!!” It’s not lost on Camarmile and Herbert, who both have firm notions of where they hope to be in 10 years. They understand, however, that there are a lot of helicopters to be washed before they get there.

SIMs On the Horizon
Simulator training is a growth area for Chinook. Reid discusses the evolution of the company’s simulators. “We started working with flight simulators about six or seven years ago,” he says. “Not so much for the Canadian market, but for the off-shore and international market where instrument ratings are mandatory. A lot of the training can be done on simulators, but the problem for helicopter pilots was that much of the training available was being done on airplane simulators which don’t offer the best experience.

Cathy Press  
Cathy Press is the passionate leader of Chinook Helicopters. (Photo by Paul Dixon)

 
“We have a fellow who trained with us as a helicopter pilot, but he’s really a computer techie. We came up with a simulator based on an existing flight simulator program, with three big-screen monitors. It worked pretty darned good and I did my own instrument rating on it. People get better training on it because it’s specifically helicopter related, with helicopter controls and then we have the IFR Jet Ranger and 2 IFR R44s [for the required air time].”

The next step in the SIM design was to add an instructor console to the simulator, which allows for two crew. The design is based on a Jet Ranger panel, so it’s not a twin-engine aircraft, but at this level of training you don’t need a twin-engine, you just need the procedures, Reid notes. Two people can be trained in the SIM and it works as a two crew environment, even though it’s only single engine model. Everything is dual control and you get excellent IFR training in-house, where it can be controlled.

“Then when they go the actual helicopter, where most of the cost is, the simulator has them prepped for the helicopter,” Reid says. “We have one instructor who does just the IFR training now. We’ve had very positive feedback from the industry on our simulator, from chief pilots and experienced off-shore people. The next step is the development of a twin-engine simulator, based on a Bell 412 with a glass cockpit. The oil industry off-shore is glass cockpit and as everybody goes glass cockpit, we need to keep up in the training environment. As more of the off-shore and oil companies want more training, it’s not economically feasible to do it in the aircraft. Certain things need to be done, but a lot of it can be simulator. That’s where we’re trying to be proactive.”

Reid and several other instructors are approved check pilots (ACP) on a wide range of helicopters, giving Chinook another competitive advantage. “It’s part of the diversity of this school, the operational backgrounds of our instructors, they’ve worked in the industry and people want to come to deal with us for that reason,” Reid adds.

approach in a Bell 47  
Easy does it! A student gingerly makes her approach in a Bell 47. (Photo courtesy of Chinook Helicopters)

 
It’s an old cliché that nothing breed success like success, but it’s true for Chinook. The August announcement of the MOU with CAIB brought interest from another Chinese organization that will likely lead to another MOU and Press was in China in November with a Canadian trade delegation to participate in a large aviation trade show.

The MOU that Chinook signed with CAIB provides a framework for helicopter pilot training in Canada and then helicopter-related support and assistance to the emerging helicopter market in China. Press is quick to credit the support Chinook has received from the international trade sections of both the federal and British Columbia governments, at home and abroad and points out that what Chinook offers is a perfect fit with what the federal government has identified as two key areas where Canada can be a leader in the Asia-Pacific region – training and aviation.

China is a massive market, with little if any existing infrastructure. Chinook would train Chinese pilots in Canada, following the program they have established with Thai Air Services, for reasons that Reid explains. “We’ve put 35 people through the program (for TAS), they are all working as pilots and half of them are now captains, which speaks to the success of the program,” he says.

As Chinook maintains its domestic student base, expands the SIM programs and looks to attract clients from overseas, they have also taken another big step by becoming a Robinson dealer for the R44. It’s a natural fit as they already operate three R44s and service the R22, R44 and R66 models. As the company grows and operations expand, Press and Reid will tell you they are helicopter pilots through and through and will never get away from their roots. “We’re helicopter pilots. It’s what we do, we enjoy it and it shows. It may the largest helicopter school in Canada, but there’s still a family feel.”

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