Part of our Things That Work series from December 2014.
David Curtis likes to say that aircraft manufacturing is not for the faint of heart.
But in a Viking Air hangar near Victoria where four Twin Otters are in the final stages of assembly, his company's big gamble on an old workhorse is paying off. The employee parking lots are full – 450 workers in B.C. alone – and the plant is running staggered shifts 21 hours a day.
In 1988, Boeing wrote off the Twin Otter and shut down production of the storied turboprop favoured by bush pilots worldwide.
Almost 20 years later, Mr. Curtis, president and CEO of Viking Air, secured the rights to build the plane. It was a leap for a little company to go from making airplane parts to becoming a full-scale manufacturer of aircraft.
For investors, it is a long-term play. Mr. Curtis was bearing good tidings at his recent year-end board meeting, where he reported company growth of "about 700 per cent" over the past five years. "This year was our highest sales in our 44-year history. … I would say we are pretty happy with where we are."
Viking Air's sales this year are projected at $215-million, up from $25-million in 2009, and the order book is full right into 2016.
In the hangar on a recent day in December, a Peruvian Air Force crew was inspecting one of the planes, which they are bringing home this month. The rugged and versatile aircraft are popular in Peru, and the air force ordered 12 of Viking's Series 400 Twin Otters, making it one of the company's biggest customers.
Manuel Lindo, a major in the air force, has landed Twin Otters on rivers in the Amazon rainforest and on dirt runways high in the Andes. Most of his work in the air force is humanitarian – reaching remote communities for medical emergencies and expectant mothers. Babies have been born in the passenger section of Twin Otters flown by five of his fellow pilots.
Major Lindo is fond of the legacy Twin Otters – those built in 1988 or earlier – because they are simple, reliable and versatile. But he prefers the Viking version, with more powerful engines and a superior avionics system. Still, landings can be scary in some of the remote communities, mostly because he fears an unattended child is going to spring out onto the runway.
"People listen for the sound of the plane, the whole town likes to come out and watch your plane land. You have kids running out to touch the wheels."
His most challenging assignment was testing a runway in the Andes that had not been used for 50 years. The runway was short and rough, but it was the elevation of more than 3,800 metres that put a strain the craft's engines.
Landing was one thing, taking off quite another. His empty Twin Otter lifted off with just 50 metres to spare in the mountainous region near Machu Picchu.
"I told my commander, we need a longer runway."
It was the loyalty of the Peruvian Air Force that help lift Viking's fortunes. Mr. Curtis said this contract was key, a sign of confidence in a small Canadian company that had never, at that point, built a complete airplane.
"When you look back at the 50 years of the airplane, Peru has been a customer for every variant of the Twin Otter that has been introduced," Mr. Curtis noted.
Although Canada is fifth in the world in the aerospace industry, Viking is the only aircraft manufacturer west of Ontario. "I'm trying to pull the centre of gravity in the industry west," Mr. Curtis said.
Earlier this year, the B.C. government recognized the growing sector, announcing a $5-million contribution to the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada's Pacific Division to help develop the industry.
That money would not buy a Twin Otter, but it is a sign that the B.C. government has woken up to the potential for growth. Mr. Curtis says there is more to be done.
His next target is China, which he believes is a market for 400 of his aircraft. (Viking has finished only 67 Twin Otters to date.) He would like to see Canada and B.C. do more to promote the company internationally.
"Our competitors are doing it. You can bet President [Barack] Obama is talking about Boeing when he is travelling to China. … You need that level of economic diplomacy."