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The tenacity of a Viking

For more than 42 years, Viking Air has been one of the great success stories in Canadian aviation – and the company is poised to build on its current triumphs.


July 10, 2012
By Paul Dixon

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For more than 42 years, Viking Air has been one of the great success stories in Canadian aviation – and the company is poised to build on its current triumphs.

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Viking Air has grown to become one of the country’s most iconic aviation companies, producing the iconic Twin Otter series 400 aircraft. Photo: Viking Air


 

Located at Victoria International Airport (YYJ), Viking Air was born in 1970 as an aircraft repair facility. By the early 1980s Viking was manufacturing replacement parts for de Havilland Canada aircraft. DHC was born in the 1920s as a subsidiary of its British parent to build training aircraft for the fledging Canadian air force. The Tiger Moth became the basic trainer of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War with DHC producing more than 1,100 Mosquito for the war effort.

After the war, DHC turned its production efforts to creating an aircraft designed specifically for the harsh environment of the Canadian north. Asking pilots what they wanted in an aircraft, DHC produced the DHC-2 Beaver, affectionately described as a flying pickup truck. On wheels, floats or skis the Beaver got the job done.

By the early 1980s, Viking was manufacturing replacement parts for DHC aircraft. De Havilland fell on hard times in the 1980s, becoming a Crown Corporation, briefly acquired by Boeing (which stopped production of the Series 300 Twin Otter), and was finally absorbed into Bombardier. Viking expanded its customer base soon after its foray into the market to include Bell Helicopter Textron and others, but the key to its growth potential was the acquisition of the company by Westerkirk Capital in 2003, which gave Viking the financial resources and the long-term stability to embark on the long path to becoming an aircraft manufacturer. 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 Bufflao; DHC-6 Twin Otter and DHC-7 Dash 7.

This was the game changer. As a parts manufacturer supplying Bombardier, Viking only had one customer to please, but as the holder of the type certificates, it found itself answering to more than 500 operators worldwide, as all seven types of aircraft, numbering more than 1,300 in total, were in operation around the world.

At this year’s de Havilland Operators Forum in Sydney, B.C. April 17-19, Viking CEO Dave Curtis spoke of the process in arriving at a decision to manufacture the Series 400 Twin Otter. Viking used a consulting firm to conduct research in established and emerging markets around the world and it was determined that there was a potential for more than 400 new aircraft. With the research in hand, Curtis went to marketplace and asked the question, “If we build it, will you buy it? The answer was a resounding “yes.” By 2006, Viking had received 18 firm orders and the real work began: building the Series 400 Twin Otter.

Rob Mauracher, Viking’s VP of business development, takes great pride in talking about what the company has achieved over the past six years. “Look at aviation history over the past 10 to 15 years,” says Mauracher. “For us to get through this, to get through the entire certification process and not go into bankruptcy; to start delivering product and now accelerating production has been a huge coup for us; it has built credibility. It’s very easy to build one aircraft, but extremely difficult to build a company that builds aircraft.”

What set Viking apart from other companies that have tried and failed was that it was not a start-up company, but a mature parts manufacturer that already had a strong relationship with operators and suppliers around the world. Adds Mauracher: “We were building and delivering parts around the world for more than 1,300 aircraft before we ever delivered our first Series 400. We had a customer support network in place before we built our first aircraft. That’s very uncommon for an aircraft builder, especially a new one.”

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Having a mature parts manufacturer business already in place was a great help when Viking branched out into aircraft manufacturing. Photo: Viking Air


 

Viking has grown to more than 600 employees between the two facilities in Victoria and Calgary. Attracting the right people to key positions has been crucial as production ramps up. Dave Curtis recognized this and has made recruiting for key positions an absolute priority.

Recruiting the right people and implementing stringent quality control practices have enabled Viking to streamline processes, shorten production times and raise output. Eight new Twin Otters are in the various stages of construction at any one time, with a goal of one new aircraft coming off the line every 11 days by the end of this year.

Utilizing the two plants in Victoria and Calgary was a deliberate decision. The Calgary facility was already part of the corporate family, saving on construction costs. As the company grew from 150 personnel to more than 600 today, operating in two centres meant two labour pools to draw from.  There are acknowledged inefficiencies that come with trucking parts from Victoria to Calgary for final assembly, but that is outweighed by the positives.

The Series 400 Twin Otter is definitely a Canadian product through and through. Assembly starts in Victoria with the major components being trucked to Calgary for final assembly. The engines come from Pratt & Whitney Canada in Lethbridge, Alta., with other major parts from Quebec and Alberta. The tail feathers are from Prince George, B.C. The aircraft is assembled and flown for the first time in Calgary, to Spokane, Wash., for painting, and then back to Victoria for final fitting out.

Mauracher notes that there are almost 800 changes between the [old] Series 300 Twin Otter and [new] Series 400. “Many of them are unnoticeable, structural changes, a change in the aircraft build spec, while some of them are very noticeable – the avionics suite and its impact on systems. One of the reasons for change on the aircraft was [the concept] of value-added. Is it going to make the aircraft more reliable, safer, lighter so it can carry greater payload, easier to maintain? These are the factors we use to make a decision on the aircraft itself.

“There’s been no change for change’s sake: we’ve always done it for a reason, such as introducing composites. It’s lighter and it’s easier to maintain – no corrosion and there are less parts. The door on the Series 300 had 21 parts, while the Series 400 door has seven. The new flight deck is the most significant improvement as it affects everything to do with the aircraft. It was a deliberate decision to go with a proven product, the Apex system from Epic – the same system that has been used in the Gulfstream business jet for years. The aircraft can be linked to a laptop computer and interrogated by maintenance personnel to determine exceedences or troubleshoot the aircraft. Automated monitoring will capture any sort of exceedence value. The aircraft can tell you exactly what happened on the aircraft as well as what maintenance is required on the aircraft.”

For all the improvements in the Series 400, Mauracher is very blunt in making it clear that Viking has not lost sight of what made all DHC aircraft unique. “We are a short takeoff and landing company – that’s all that we build. If you want to go from 6,000-foot paved strips and go 500 nautical miles to another 6,000 paved strip, the Twin Otter is not the aircraft for you. It’s not designed to work off 5,000 strips; it’s designed to work like a truck.

“A 19-seat aircraft won’t work in many North American environments anymore because of cost and overhead,” says Mauracher. “Our biggest segment in the market growing today is Southeast Asia and South America. We’ve done a lot of information work with the BRIC group – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and we see a lot of opportunities within that group because we look at 3,000-foot runways and less: gravel strips.

“The Twin Otter really grew the first time on route development in the U.S., so the regional airline business you see in the U.S. today grew on the back of the Twin Otter and then it grew up from 19 seats and grew outwards. Now, you look through the emerging markets. Look at India, Southeast Asia, those second-tier and third-tier airports and we can start feeding into them. It’s their turn.”

In 2010, Viking did a tour through Southeast Asia to demonstrate the aircraft to potential buyers. Mauracher says the group flew into canyons, dirt strips and gravel strips. They also landed at a remote military base in Malaysia that was just a helicopter strip so one of the passengers could visit his home village. “The military helicopter pilots ran out because they thought we must have crash landed,” he says. “Our guest visited his village and then we took off again.”

A quarter of the new Twin Otters on the order book are Guardian 400s, developed for special mission and government operations in medium-range maritime patrol and critical infrastructure support. The reason? Mauracher maintains governments now realize they don’t need a large aircraft such as a P-3 or P-8, with the equally large price tag, to fulfil their needs. Operators can choose customized sensors and interior layouts to meet their specific mission profiles, such as electro-optical and infrared imaging turret, 360-degree digital colour radar system, extended range internal fuel tank, crew observation stations, and air operable cargo door.

The government of Vietnam has purchased six Guardian 400s, with the first delivery slated for November 2012. “We’re very proud of this deal, as the first western manufacturer to get in there,” Mauracher says. “We have their pilot trainees here for 14 to 18 months. They come here with some English, we put them through English language training, they get their private pilot’s licence, followed by a commercial licence, multi-engine, then we put them on floats, first in a Beaver and finally get them into a Twin Otter for 60 hours on floats. When they leave here, they will have all their ratings and they’ll go right into service.”

Peru, which purchased 16 Series 300 Twin Otters in 1976, has signed up for 12 Series 400 aircraft with delivery slated to run through 2014. The Peruvian government uses the aircraft for a wide range of purposes, from the remote jungles of the Amazon headwaters to the high mountains of the Andes.

With four years’ worth of Series 400 Twin Otters on the order books and the potential to sell hundreds more, Viking has established itself as a serious player in the world of aircraft manufacturing. So, what’s on the horizon for the company? Of primary concern is relaunching the iconic DHC-5 Buffalo.

“There is a fallacy out there that the Buffalo costs a horrendous amount for direct operating costs to keep it in support from DND. That’s total rubbish,” says Mauracher. “What’s happened is that DND has been looking at retiring the aircraft about six times. Every time they’ve considered it, they’ve made changes to the maintenance program. The aircraft are over-maintained, beyond the level of any other operator in the world. That’s why there is so much cost in maintaining the fleet.”

If you look at an equivalent operator such as Arctic Sun West, they’re probably operating at 30 per cent with their maintenance program, but no one wants to hear anything different because they think it’s an old platform, Mauracher maintains. “The [Alenia C-27J] Spartan can only get into two per cent more airports than a Hercules does, while a Buffalo gets into every baseball diamond and football field in the country. It’s a vastly different platform, but if you look at the size of the fuselage and its ability to carry cargo, the size of the payload, the aircraft wing span, it’s very similar to a Spartan. The Spartan costs $45 million versus maybe $16 to 20 million for the Buffalo if we build a new one. Now, on the Buffalo going forward, I’m looking at the market throughout the world and discussing it with several different countries.”

The biggest problem for Viking with regards to the Buffalo, Mauracher notes, is “identifying an engine in the sweet spot the Buffalo needs. That’s the only other thing that we would do with the Buffalo, as well as the avionics, wiring, etc., like we did with the Twin Otter. We want to make sure it matches the performance of the previous “D” model [Buffalo] or the “E” civilian model. It doesn’t have to be any better, but it has to be at least equivalent. Interoperability is important.

“Canada has the C-17, an excellent aircraft, and we’ve now got the C-130J, another excellent platform. If you look at the tactical side of this, you’ve got to have interoperability, so the 108 NATO pallet goes in sideways on both those aircraft and it can go in lengthwise to the Buffalo. So, we would need to widen the floor by approximately half an inch on each side to make sure that worked. With that upgrade, new avionics, the engines, the wiring – that would be the only real change to the aircraft. It would allow a pallet to be loaded on this aircraft and use the Buffalo for not only SAR, which it is good at, but also in-theatre, to get in and out of tight spots quickly.

“If you look at helicopters, the Chinook and the Buffalo are very compatible platforms (in terms of payload),” says Mauracher. “But if you look at the cost of acquisition and the cost of maintenance, there’s no comparison. Plus, the additional range makes the Buffalo a very good in-theatre tactical airlifter. Working together, you have the C-17 that does intercontinental, a continental C-130 airlifter and then we have an in-theatre airlifter with the Buffalos and they can all work together. Now, we come back to all those secondary and third-tier airports being developed in South America and Southeast Asia and the Buffalo fits nicely into that regime. The aircraft is very attractive.”

With the Canadian government having put the decision on fixed-wing SAR aircraft replacement off until 2013, Mauracher says
Viking is indeed ready with a worthwhile proposal. “We submitted a proposal where we had Twin Otters across the north, operated by the private sector and we had partners like Arctic Sunwest, Air North and First Air,” Mauracher says. “The aircraft would be operated and maintained by private operators. We would use the [existing] C-130Hs on the east coast and the Buffalo on the west coast. Our board is prepared to buy the whole package and lease it to the government and operate those aircraft; all we’d have left for DND is managing the coordination centre, dispatching the aircraft and SAR techs and the rest would be managed by the public sector.

So, the Buffalo definitely has an opportunity to be part of the mix, notes Mauracher, and Viking is definitely pursuing the contract. “We just have to make the right selection for the next-level Buffalo versus the investment into the engine.  That’s our key right now, we’re almost there.”


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