It’s in the countries where growth is soaring that Viking Air sees wide-open skies. The Sidney, B.C., plane maker just signed a deal to sell five Twin Otter turboprop planes to a Chinese airline, and its plan to crack the BRIC market seems well on track. It’s the latest success in an improbable resurrection of the fabled plane—and of the quiet rise of B.C.’s aerospace sector.
Viking Air has already proven the Twin Otter has a future as more than a grounded relic of Canadiana. The firm was convinced there was still demand for the sturdy utility planes—even 22 years after production ceased at its original designer, de Havilland Canada. Of the 844 Otters de Havilland produced, more than 600 remain in use. (That resilience enabled Viking to establish a business servicing them.) Their ability to land on wheels, skis or floats made the plane perfect for navigating some of the world’s most remote corners. It’s simple, tough and versatile—the Jeep of the skies.
Still, the aging fleet was ever more costly to keep airborne, and there was no successor in development. “The costs to develop a new airplane in this category are so huge, but it’s still a niche market,” says Viking CEO David Curtis. The limited sales potential didn’t justify the expense. The only viable option was to reintroduce an existing design.
“There were lots and lots of doubters,” Curtis says. Progress in aerospace requires new technology, according to conventional wisdom. Viking bought the rights to the 19-passenger plane from Bombardier in 2005, modernized the cockpit, improved some of the materials and began selling the planes in 2010. Viking has since tripled its manufacturing capacity at its facilities in Sidney and Calgary, and increased its workforce from 180 to almost 600. The company is on track to sell 200 units over a 10-year period, not including potential sales to BRIC countries. The $30-million order from China’s Meiya Air gives Viking a toehold in a crucial region. Curtis dismisses concerns that the Chinese will take the opportunity to copy the Twin Otter’s technology. “It’s not as simple as copying somebody else’s design and certifying it. It’s not like building a lawn tractor.”
Having brought aircraft manufacturing to the province for the first time, Viking is at the leading edge of B.C.’s ascent in aerospace. Among the key players are Cascade Aerospace, which is licensed to maintain C-130 Hercules transport aircraft (including the Canadian Forces’ fleet), CHC Helicopter, contract carrier Kelowna Flightcraft, and MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates, which recently acquired a California satellite maker. “This kind of happened organically. We didn’t have a provincial strategy set out to create a cluster,” says David Schellenberg, Cascade’s CEO and chair of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada. He sees the sector as having the potential to double by 2020. As Canada seeks to retain its global strength in aerospace, B.C.’s bootstrapping could provide a much-needed boost.