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Twin Otter: The Death and Rebirth of a Great Canadian Plane

How the Twin Otter came roaring back from the dead, and how Alberta’s been a key part of that

Sep 1, 2014

by Anthony A. Davis

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Photograph Bryce Meyer

Stephen Stasiak can’t keep up with the flags. He’s short three right now, he says, as he walks through Viking Air’s 5,388-square-metre assembly plant near Calgary International Airport. Thirteen metres above Stasiak hang 20 other flags – one for Switzerland, Malaysia, Venezuela, Thailand, the U.S. and 15 other nations. Each flag represents a country where Viking has sold its 19-seat Twin Otter Series 400 airplanes since it began producing them in 2010.

Viking employs 600 people in all – 120 in Calgary and 480 at its headquarters and plant in Victoria, B.C. But it’s here in Calgary, where Stasiak is general manager, that Viking has most visibly resurrected the Twin Otter, a legendary plane that nearly got relegated to history a decade ago.

To those companies and pilots flying the toughest routes to the edges of the earth – its ice-encrusted poles, its sand-blown deserts and its gnawing mountain ranges – the Twin Otter is one of the most venerated aircraft ever built.

Viking manufactures the Twin Otter’s wings and other components in Victoria and finishes the interiors there. Other parts, meanwhile, are sourced from a bewildering array of places: the avionics system from Honeywell in Arizona; the tail fins from Fleet Canada in Fort Erie, Ontario; the fuselages trucked to Alberta from Lee Aerospace in Wichita, Kansas. At least the Otter’s 650 hp PT6A-34 engines come from close by, given that they’re built at Pratt & Whitney Canada’s Lethbridge plant.

But Calgary is where final assembly of each plane takes place. It’s where they roll out ready to fly. And that sets it apart from the rest, given that the Twin Otter is the only airplane flying in Canada built west of Ontario. When it’s running at full capacity, the Calgary plant churns out 24 planes a year. And Viking currently has nearly 100 planes – worth more than $400 million – on back order, enough to keep it going at full tilt for at least three years.

Last March, amid a cheering crowd, Viking’s 50th Twin Otter rolled out of the Calgary factory before taking wing to Victoria for an even bigger celebration. That 50th plane underscored the remarkable renaissance of a Canadian aviation prodigy. The Twin Otter had gone out of production in 1988. But, 22 years later, Viking would come along and unexpectedly pump new life into the legend.

WestJet aside, Alberta is hardly known for its aviation industry. A terminally turbulent sector, companies in the province primarily produce communications and navigation equipment for military and commercial aircraft manufacturers elsewhere and generate about $1.3 billion in annual revenue. That’s dwarfed by the $68 billion in exports generated by the province’s energy sector in 2012.

  • The Twin Otter was first built in 1965, in Toronto, as a regional commuter and utility airplane by the now-defunct de Havilland Aircraft of Canada The Twin Otter was first built in 1965, in Toronto, as a regional commuter and utility airplane by the now-defunct de Havilland Aircraft of Canada
  • Former forester David Curtis, now the CEO of Viking Air, has been key to the unexpected revival of the Twin Otter Former forester David Curtis, now the CEO of Viking Air, has been key to the unexpected revival of the Twin Otter
  • Borek’s Twin Otter was the first plane in history to make an Antarctic landing in the total darkness of winter Borek’s Twin Otter was the first plane in history to make an Antarctic landing in the total darkness of winter
     

The Twin Otter was first built in 1965 in Toronto as a regional commuter and utility airplane by the now-defunct de Havilland Aircraft of Canada. De Havilland was famous for building sturdy bush planes such as the Beaver, Chipmunk and Buffalo. By the time de Havilland built its last Twin Otter, No. 844, in 1988, the plane had become the bestselling aircraft of its class in the world. But two years earlier, Boeing acquired the company, and that company sold the dormant division to Bombardier Aerospace in 1992.

And while Bombardier, the third largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, could have revived it, the company preferred to concentrate on its larger commercial jets business. It didn’t help that Boeing had destroyed the tools and jigs vital for producing Twin Otters, given that gearing up production without those assets would require a considerable investment of time and money. Bombardier wasn’t prepared to do either. With its DNA effectively eliminated, it seemed that, despite its popularity worldwide, the “Twotter,” as some call it, had reached the end of its line.

“The RCMP just sold an old Twin Otter for $2.7 million. That was about three times what the 30-year-old plane cost when bought new.” – David Curtis, president and CEO, Viking Air

As it turned out, though, it’s hard to keep a great plane down. And David Curtis, a former forester who frequently flew in de Havilland aircraft looking for suitable stands to harvest, was key to its unexpected revival. He eventually got his commercial pilot’s licence and joined Viking, then the major supplier and servicing operation for de Havilland heritage parts, in 1983. In 1992 he became CEO.

While working with aviation operators, Curtis, now 52, often heard pilots and operators decry the Twin Otter’s extinction. “People were often saying to Bombardier, ‘Why did you put the Twin Otter out of service?’ ”

In 2004 a private equity fund, Westerkirk Capital, became another part of the Twin Otter’s future. That year the fund, which invests solely on behalf of heiress Sherry Brydson, bought Viking. Brydson, the granddaughter of departed Canadian newspaper mogul Roy Thomson and a Victoria native, is worth an estimated $6.5 billion.

“After Westerkirk got involved, they asked us what else they could do besides parts manufacturing and supply services,” Curtis says. That end of the aviation business – pretty much like all parts of the sector – got slammed during the 2008 global financial crisis. Curtis had previously pondered the idea of reviving the Twin Otter, reasoning that if Viking built its own aircraft it would give the company a more stable customer base for its other services.

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That wasn’t the only reason, though. As old as some of them are, the majority of Twin Otters – more than 600 of the 844 built – still fly. And even as they accumulate thousands of hours on their engines and airframes, they’ve only gone up in value. “The RCMP just sold an old Twin Otter for $2.7 million,” says Curtis. “That was about three times what the 30-year-old plane cost when bought new.” If there was that kind of demand for older Otters, Curtis thought, then there must be a market for new ones as well.

It’s no wonder the plane remains so popular. To those companies and their pilots flying the toughest routes to the edges of the earth – its ice-encrusted poles, its sand-blown deserts, and its gnawing mountain ranges – the hardy Twin Otter is one of the most venerated aircraft ever built in Canada. In 2001, a three-man crew with Calgary’s Kenn Borek Air made international headlines when they bravely flew a Twin Otter through the -60 C blackness of an Antarctic winter to rescue a doctor needing emergency surgery at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station. Borek’s Twin Otter was the first plane in history to make an Antarctic landing in the total darkness of winter.

Kingston artist and aircraft aficionado Neil Aird knows a thing or two about the Twin Otter’s curious beauty. He was commissioned by the Canadian Mint to produce the artwork for a 1999 $20 Sterling silver collector coin featuring a DHC-6 Twin Otter on floats, and also helps run a website called twinotterarchive.com, where the plane’s devotees can peruse nearly 4,000 pages of documents and photos about the plane, and, thanks to spotters around the world, track the daily global movement of Twin Otters. He thinks of the Twin Otter, with its cruising speed of 264 kilometres an hour and payload of up to 1,941 kilograms, as the aviation world’s version of a mountain goat. It lands, he says, in seemingly impossible short stretches where “you would say, ‘Holy Moses, that thing is going to fall off the mountain side.’ ” But that’s the kicker: it won’t. “It’s a remarkably safe airplane,” Aird says. “Usually you only have accidents because of the weather or pilots, not because of a problem with the plane.” The Twin Otter is one of the few planes of its size that you can throw skis on, floats or even big bouncy “tundra tires” that allow it land on mushy terrain few other short takeoff and landing (STOL) airplanes would dare touch down on.

It was appropriately daring, then, that Viking thought it could somehow revive the Twin Otter in 2008. It purchased the type certificates required by Transport Canada for it to reproduce the Twin Otter and, if it wished, other de Havilland models, from Bombardier. But with the manufacturing equipment destroyed, Curtis says, Viking resorted to what he calls aviation archeology. For nearly two years the company tracked down de Havilland retirees and peppered them with questions about how the planes were built and what kind of tools were used, and it scrounged up photos and plans of the old de Havilland manufacturing plant looking for more clues. It digitally scanned existing plane parts so they could be exactingly reproduced. It built a $15-million, 7,800-square-meter plant at Victoria International Airport where it could manufacture some parts, including the wings, from scratch. Its first Series 400, serial number 845, took flight on October 1, 2010. By then, Viking already had 41 confirmed orders.

Back in Calgary last May, Viking’s 54th through 58th planes were coursing through the plant, just a few days from a critical process that Stasiak calls “the pulse.” The pulse plays out every 10 days at the factory. Four Twin Otters at a time can be built in the factory, and on pulse day each of those four planes, in various stages of assembly, is rotated to one of four stations where new components are added. Platforms, jigs and tool boards surround the craft while workers assemble many of the 20,000 components that go into an Otter. Then the planes are carefully jacked up and wheeled around to their next station.

At the first stage sits a noseless aluminum fuselage – aircraft no. 902. A hunched worker strings a long wire harness through its internal ribbing. There’s a Peruvian flag Scotch-taped to its rear, a nod to the Peruvian Air Force, which has purchased 12 planes. Stasiak, 47 and a former U.S. military helicopter pilot, came to Viking two years ago from Tennessee, where he worked as operations manager at plants building U.S. military aircraft including the F-2 and F-18.

Before he came north, the pulse at Viking took more than four hours. Under Stasiak, it’s been cut down to 45 minutes. It had to, though, to keep up with the demand for new Twin Otters. Lean techniques are helping Viking eliminate waste, cut costs and improve quality, which is something it must excel at to stay ahead of a growing number of competitors in lower-cost regions that are building rival aircraft in the Twin Otter’s class. Those include China’s Harbin Y12, which is virtually a ripoff of the Twin Otter, and Poland’s more authentic Skytruck.

That competition may eventually change Alberta’s role in the production of Twin Otters. Already some work that was once done here has been farmed out to other places. At one point the fuselages were manufactured – not just assembled – in Calgary. Now they’re trucked from Lee Aerospace in Wichita, which also builds Cessna fuselages and can make the Twin Otter skins at a lower cost than Viking. Even so, the Twin Otter’s purchase price has been climbing skyward. Four years ago, a base Viking Twin Otter sold for about $4.5 million. Now it’s closer to $7 million. Ironically, Viking has yet to sell a single Series 400 to a Canadian company. The de Havilland-built Otters have proven so reliable that operators such as Kenn Borek Air, which boasts the largest fleet of Twin Otters in the world, has stuck with the older versions.

Much of Viking’s business, then, has come from developing nations. To increase production and keep up with demand while holding the purchase price steady for new customers, Viking has said it’s looked at cloning the Calgary operation in India. At Aviation Alberta, Ken Beleshko hopes that won’t erode Viking’s presence in the province, where aviation manufacturing and maintenance and repair operations have been dwindling since the 1990s. Back then, he says, the Alberta government offered Pratt & Whitney incentives to build its Lethbridge engine assembly plant. Today that plant employs 88 people and has assembled more than 12,000 turbine engines.

But since then, Beleshko says, the Alberta government “hasn’t spent a nickel” on the aviation industry. Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1990s, other provinces, especially Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario, have aggressively courted aviation companies with tax breaks and other incentives. Indeed, this past April, the B.C. government, in an attempt to attract more high-value jobs, announced it would spend $5 million over five years to attract more global aerospace companies to its growing aviation sector, which generates about $1.2 billion in revenue annually.

Curtis, who hasn’t yet confirmed any concrete plans for the offshore manufacturing or assembly of Twin Otters, acknowledges the growing pressure from competitors, especially the Chinese. But he says one of the Twin Otter’s advantages over foreign competitors is the plane’s almost mythic reputation for quality and ruggedness, which makes it especially suited for military or commuter operations in the harsh environments often encountered in developing regions.

Still, considering its brush with oblivion, each new Twin Otter coming out of the Calgary factory seems like a small miracle. It’s one that Curtis believes will continue for many years, too. Sales are chugging along, the company hired a former Bombardier executive with a reputation for snagging foreign customers, and more orders are coming in all the time. “You need patience,” says Curtis. “But we are on track. And we have a very patient investor.”

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