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Seizing Opportunities

While many companies are still licking their wounds from the recession, Capitale Hélicoptère of Quebec City is expanding its horizons.


October 14, 2011
By Brian Dunn

While many companies are still licking their wounds from the recession, Capitale Hélicoptère of Quebec City is expanding its horizons.

B2andB4  
A Eurocopter AS-350B2 and EC-130B4 fly in tandem above Quebec City.
(Photo courtesy of Capitale Hélicoptère)


 

This new kid on the block ordered three AS-350B2s, two EC-130B4s and one AS-350B3 aircraft from Eurocopter Canada in Fort Erie, Ont., during Heli Expo in Orlando this past March. The company followed that up by signing a contract with AgustaWestland in July for three AW-169 helicopters. The agreement marked the first Canadian order for the AW-169, which Capitale plans to use for charter, VIP transport, utility and medevac operations.

Capitale Hélicoptère now boasts a total fleet of three AW-169s and 11 Eurocopter aircraft: five B2s, three B3s and three B4s, in addition to three Robinson R-44 Ravens.

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It will also make the company the largest fleet owner in Quebec City, according to CEO Danny Ricard, who formed the company in October 2009 with partner Stéphane Huot, a local real estate magnate with several start-up successes under his belt and a passionate chopper pilot who initially owned an R-44 and now flies a B4.

In addition to its rapid fleet buildup, Capitale is constructing a new 58,000-square-foot facility at the Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport. This impressive expansion is attracting new private helicopter owners and will help in the development of its pilot training school, as it has recently received a large influx of students.

DSC_6053  
 Fire fighting remains a key component of Capitale Hélicoptère’s operations. The firm has key contracts with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and SOPFEU. (Photo courtesy of Capitale Hélicoptère)


 

The project is long overdue, as after only 18 months, Capitale has already outgrown its current rented office and hangar space next to the airport’s main runway. That’s a quick turnaround period that Ricard attributes to his partner’s experience in the construction business. The new facility will house administrative offices and a flight school on the second floor of the mostly glass-enclosed front of the structure that will include a 12,000-square-foot showroom for Capitale’s helicopter sales side of the business. The remainder of the building will be divided into two sections; one side will house the helicopters of its VIP clients and the other will house its own fleet and maintenance area.

Although similar in size, the VIP side will be able to accommodate about 30 helicopters, while Capitale’s side will be able to handle about 40 helicopters. That’s because the VIP clients want more space between their machines, explains Ricard. Capitale is also a certified service centre for R-44 and R-66 helicopters and offers support for Eurocopter products.

Ricard, 55, got into the aviation business in 1975 when he acquired his private pilot’s licence from Quebec Aviation. But he became intrigued with helicopters at Trans Quebec Helicopters, which was leasing space next door. He soon switched vocations and became a helicopter pilot in 1980 at Fredericton Helicopters. He landed his first job at Trans Quebec.

“I got my training at Fredericton Helicopters, an affiliate of Trans Quebec, because there was no helicopter pilot training here in Quebec at the time,” says Ricard.

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One of Capitale’s B2s is under contract with Air Médic air ambulance service in St. Honoré near Chicoutimi in the Saguenay. (Photo courtesy of Capitale Hélicoptère)


 

In the spring of 1981, Trans Quebec was bought by Viking Helicopters, which in turn was bought by Canadian Helicopters. In 1998, Ricard was asked by Canadian Helicopters to open its Quebec City office. And from 1998 until 2009, he helped build up the regional business.

Ricard met Huot at Canadian Helicopters, where Huot was a client, before the two decided to strike out on their own by opening Capitale Hélicoptère with two R-44s and one B2. Today, there are 15 employees consisting of nine pilots, four mechanics, a secretary and a marketing specialist.

While short on history, Capitale is long on experience. Ricard has been a pilot for more than 30 years, and his head mechanic, Christopher Stapor, has 20 years under his belt.

The R-44s in the fleet are sometimes used for leasing, but are used primarily for Capitale’s pilot training school. Ideally, Ricard would like to see between 10 and 15 students enrol in his school every year: currently there are eight ab initio students and the school is providing recurrent training for Mexican professional pilots.

Ricard ordered the Eurocopters while attending Heli-Expo, even though Bell Helicopter Textron is only a three-hour drive away in Mirabel north of Montreal. He says the Eurocopter models are better configured for his needs, can carry more cargo and have a more attractive price.

One of Capitale’s B2s is under contract with Air Médic air ambulance service in St. Honoré near Chicoutimi in the Saguenay. The other B2s and B3s have been busy this summer working in the mining sector in Northern Ontario as well as doing line maintenance for Hydro-Quebec. The company has also been certified by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Quebec’s Socété de protection des forêts contre le feu for forest fire fighting.

“This summer, we have been really busy fighting forest fires, but the biggest market is the charter business,” says Ricard. “The pilot training is a small source of revenue, but it gives us more pilots if we need them. And the sales side of the business should pick up once we have our new showroom.”

His VIP and maintenance businesses are very strong. “There are a lot of wealthy people in the region,” Ricard says. “We have six private B4s in the Quebec-Montreal area.”

DSC_6090  
A diverse client base has helped Capitale Hélicoptère rapidly expand in the Quebec market. (Photo courtesy of Capitale Hélicoptère)


 

With its new fleet, Ricard figures he has a leg up on the competition, particularly in the leasing business.  “The VIP market is not well served here,” he says. “If we look at the competition, some of their helicopters are 30 years old. Clients want new technology and new engines. A 1980 reconditioned aircraft is not what they want.

“We have the most modern fleet around, with clean interiors and air conditioning. And very few of our competitors have B3s or B4s. As well, with our competitors’ helicopters tied up all summer, we can fill in the gaps for last-minute projects because we have a larger fleet to choose from.”

As for the aircraft sales sector, the main reason for the dearth of B3s and B4s is their price, according to Ricard. For example, at $500,000, the R-44 is considered an entry-level machine. The tendency is to upgrade from there, says Ricard, to a turbine such as a Jet Ranger or the EC-120, which costs between $1 million and $1.8 million. The B2 costs about $2.2 million and the B4 close to $2.8 million.

With such a large fleet, Ricard has a solid plan to support his company’s growth – the challenge now is finding new clients and raising the profile of the company worldwide in both operations and training.

Tourism is another area in which there is a growing demand. Other popular destinations include tours of downtown Quebec City with its majestic view of the St. Lawrence River and the nearby Jacques-Cartier River that flows into the St. Lawrence.

For Danny Ricard, seizing opportunities to grow his business isn’t a pipe dream. If he sees a potential market, he’ll make it happen.

Expanding the Fleet
At Heli-Expo in March, Ricard ordered three AS-350B2s, two EC-130B4s and one AS-350B3 from Eurocopter Canada. He followed that up by signing a contract for three AW-169s from AgustaWestland. Here is a quick rundown of the new fleet:

  • The single-engine AS-350B2 is powered by a Turbomeca Arriel 1D1 engine. Its flexibility makes it ideal to perform a wide range of missions, including passenger transport, aerial work and fire fighting.
  • The AS-350B3 is a high-performance, light, single-engine Ecureuil helicopter powered by a Turbomeca Arriel 2B turbine engine and equipped with the FADEC system (Full Authority Digital Engine Control). It is ideally suited for operations in mountainous areas or extreme heat, and for missions that are otherwise very demanding.
  • The EC-130B4 is a light seven- to eight-seat single-engine helicopter renowned for it qualities of silence, comfort and space. It features low external noise emission due to the low-noise “Fenestron” and the FADEC system, which optimizes noise signature in overflight without operational limitations.
  • The AW-169 is a 5-ton twin-engine light intermediate helicopter equipped with advanced rotor systems, engines, avionics transmission and electric power generation and distribution systems. It is most commonly used for EMS/SAR, law enforcement, passenger, and offshore transport and utility missions.


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