Thunder Bay’s Kelner sets sights on new aviation venture
By Ian Ross Northern Ontario Business
Nov. 27, 2012, Thunder Bay, Ont. - Sitting in the modern glass-framed boardroom of the new 19,000-square-foot Pilatus Centre Canada headquarters, it would be easy for an entrepreneur like 56-year-old Frank Kelner, to rest on his laurels and start thinking about retirement.
By Ian Ross Northern Ontario Business
But with his cell phone vibrating with
a constant stream of messages, the flying legend can only think about
his next big project, Cargo North, a new freight operation service
that he plans to kick off this winter.
“What I like about Canadians is
they're so lazy. If you want someone to get up in the morning and get
the job done it's almost impossible for the average Canadian.”
That reasoning spurred Kelner to launch
Cargo North last summer, an investment group he's leading through an
alliance with Nakina Air Services and North Star Air in his old
stomping grounds of Pickle Lake.
Seeing an opening to provide First
Nation communities, mining companies and the exploration camps of the
Ring of Fire with a first-class air freight service and modern
aircraft, Kelner and his partners have purchased a Basler Turbo 67
(BT-67) in Wisconsin.
For Kelner, delivering sterling service
to customers means more than any signed contracts.
“If you produce, you get the work,
it's that simple. If you're known to give good service, treat your
customers well, the prices are fair, you automatically get the
Well-known in aviation circles over a
40-year career, the companies he founded in the Kelner Group include
the Pilatus Centre (the Canadian distributor of Pilatus PC-12
aircraft), V. Kelner Helicopters, and Private Air, an aircraft
management and charter subsidiary.
Reality TV shows can make legends like
Kelner something of a celebrity. But watching episodes of Ice Pilots
NWT only makes him cringe.
“It’s exciting for somebody that
may not have a great knowledge of aviation to look at Ice Pilots, but
I find it so unprofessional,” said Kelner, rhyming off a litany of
televised transgressions and misconduct.
“If I were Transport Canada, I’d
have a violation for every show I see.”
If one of Kelner’s pilots were caught
doing a low-level “buzz job,” he wouldn’t be employed for long.
“There’s no room to breathe. We’re
really strict and vocal about it. We’re 100 per cent professional,
we’re hard workers and we spend a lot of money on high-end
equipment, but everything gets done by the rule book.”
While some Northern passenger and
freight carriers are wedded to Second World War-era piston-driven
aircraft over modern turbo props, Kelner can’t crunch the numbers
to make flying vintage aircraft economical. And he won’t run with
That means providing shoddy customer
service and plenty of scrambling to source parts for expensive engine
overhauls in the $1 million range that get downloaded onto the
“Customers up north don’t like
things confusing. They just like to know the cost per mile. We do
still have the old way of doing things. Once we give that dollar
figure, it doesn’t change.
“Other airlines, when they give a
dollar figure, they work like Toronto boys, it gets very complicated.
Up north here, they don’t understand and they don’t want to
understand. You have to understand the culture.”
Kelner has spent most of his life
working in the Far North alongside Aboriginal people since the age of
16 when he was working as a helper on a de Havilland Otter for
Fecteau Transport in his hometown of Chibougamau, Que.
“I was never good at school, so I had
to go to work.”
He caught the aviation bug from his
father, Victor, a recreational flyer, and soloed in a floatplane at
12. By age 20, he was a DC-3 captain in northern Quebec and was
checked out to fly Beavers, Otters and DC-4s.
Kelner became a fixture in northwestern
Ontario when he bought a small Pickle Lake float plane service and
renamed it V. Kelner Air Services, after his dad. His operation was
the first to introduce Cessna Caravans for commercial passenger
operations in Canada.
By the time he sold the company in 1996
to the eventual First Nation owners of Wasaya Airways, the carrier
had grown to more than 150 employees.
He headed out to Labrador to start
another airline where he first saw the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12, a
single-engine turbo prop. The unfinished aircraft would make
refuelling stops there on the way to a Denver plant.
Though reluctant to show Kelner the
aircraft, the European aircraft manufacturer needed his expertise to
obtain the Canadian certification to operate in IRF (instrument
flight rules) conditions for commercial passenger flights. He swung a
deal to become the exclusive Canadian distributor of Pilatus
He took the plane back to Thunder Bay
where he set up the V. Kelner Pilatus Centre. That first year in
1996, he sold 25 aircraft out of the gate then suffered through three
Running hard in extreme northern
climates caused a myriad of problems with the hydraulics, seals and
flaps. It was a big learning curve for the Swiss manufacturer.
“Pilatus had to go back to the
drawing board to get things right,” said Kelner. “They started to
see things that they never saw before.
“I lost a lot of money for a period
of time to keep my customers happy. But what I like about Pilatus is
that they want to get things done right and after 2001-02 it was an
His two partners: president-CEO Robert
Arnone and Steve Davey, vice-president and maintenance director, run
the operation now, but Kelner remains active in sales. Though he’s
loathe to divulge Canadian aircraft sales, in Thunder Bay alone,
Kelner estimates there are about 30 machines flying.
With his latest venture, Cargo North,
stands to be an aviation game changer for the region and positions
the company to service the exploration camps of the Ring of Fire.
The BT-67 is an updated version of the
DC-3, considered one of the most rugged and reliable aircraft ever
made. The $7-million aircraft comes installed with leading edge
navigation and electronic gear, a beefed-up airframe, a lengthened
fuselage and a cargo capacity of 11,000 pounds. Made in Oshkosh,
Wisc., the former piston-driven aircraft has been updated with twin
Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines.
“We didn't get the aircraft because
of the Ring of Fire. We got the aircraft because we knew we would be
very busy with the North as it is. If we get the Ring of Fire,
that'll be a bonus,” said Kelner.
In October, two of his pilots were in
Wisconsin test flying the first aircraft in preparation to officially
take possession of the first of three aircraft in early December.
Kelner promises it will be a non-stop
service with six crews available to rotate on a 24/7 basis.
The aircraft will come with its own
support team and equipment to brush out an ice runway, fly supplies
into a drill camp and even long-line a drill rig into position by
helicopter if called upon.
“This is what we're known for,”
said Kelner. “It's a real art to understand what it takes to serve
the territory. If you've got it right, you don't have to worry about
And Kelner plans to be a hands-on boss.
“I’ll be flying all winter with the
Basler,” said Kelner, in waving away any notion of retiring. “Four
of us will do all the ice flying and I’ll be one of the main guys.
I’m going to be a pretty busy captain.”