Ten years after buying the rights to the DHC-6 Twin Otter, Viking Air has acquired another venerable aircraft programme from Bombardier – the CL-415 water bomber. The Vancouver Island-based company’s relaunch of the long out of production Twin Otter as the Series 400 has been one of the big general aviation start-up success stories of recent years, with 100 examples of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-powered turboprop built since 2007. And while Viking has few prospects of selling CL-415s in the volumes it has the Series 400, it does not rule out restarting production.
Bombardier last shipped a CL-415 from its factory in Montreal in December 2015. Despite being the only Western aircraft purpose-built for tackling forest fires and the market leader, the CL-415 has always been a niche product, with about 170 examples in service after more than 45 years of production of the current type and its CL-215 predecessor. As Bombardier has grappled with two late-running but crucial new programmes – the CSeries and the Global 7000/8000 business jets – the veteran amphibian’s future within the Canadian airframer’s portfolio had long looked fragile.
For Viking – which will base the CL-415 programme at a newly built addition to its facility at Calgary airport– the business case is mainly based on product support of a global fleet. The amphibian is in service with 21 operators in 11 countries and, although most CL-415s have low utilisation, the nature of their day job requires very specialist maintenance support. Viking chief executive David Curtis, however, says the new facility is equipped for assembly, and that the company will be looking for sales opportunities. “Absolutely we are capable of building a new aircraft,” he asserts.
While Curtis admits the “market for new is uncertain” and “we are going into this with our product support hat on, and will see what happens”, he insists that demand for waterbombers is far from saturated. “Bombardier struggled with the programme latterly,” he says. “But you don’t have to be a scientist to know that fire seasons are starting sooner and lasting longer. You can see that in the hours and trends. Italy’s aircraft are already flying a lot of hours. As part of our due diligence [preceding the acquisition] we looked at this.”
Although the CL-415 faces competition – mainly from conversions of platforms from Cessnas to Boeing widebodies – Curtis says the former Bombardier aircraft is unique in that it is the only Western aircraft designed for this purpose. The original Canadair version – the CL-215 – had its origins in flying boats from the Second World War, first flew in 1967 and went into production in 1969. The CL-415 – also known as the SuperScooper for its ability to scoop its 6,140 litre load in 12sec while skimming at speed over water – was introduced in 1994.
The acquisition of the programme – for an undisclosed fee – “fits like a glove” with Viking’s Twin Otter line, says Curtis. Although the aircraft are very different in size and shape, they are both powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada engines (in the CL-415’s case, the PW123AF) and the CL-415 has a “pretty simple construction” that Viking says it will be able to provide product support for through its Twin Otter maintenance, repair and overhaul network. “When this opportunity came in, it ticked a lot of boxes for us,” he says.
Another driver for Curtis and his colleagues was the worry that Viking was too dependent on the Twin Otter. “That’s a very successful programme, with orders for 160 aircraft including options,” says Curtis. “Our hundredthone is about to fly off the production line and we have a backlog stretching beyond 2017. This is certainly the backbone of Viking’s operation. But, ultimately, when we looked at our strengths and the things we do well, it was clear that we were a single product company. So we began thinking about what other programmes we could look at.”
For a small company such as Viking, investing in a clean-sheet design was out of the question, says Curtis. The business, launched in 1970, already had strong ties with Bombardier and its predecessor companies, firstly as a supplier of spare parts for the de Havilland Beaver and Otter, and then a fully-fledged provider of assemblies and structures for the Twin Otter. In 2005, Viking took over responsibility for all out-of-production de Havilland aircraft, before acquiring the type certificate – and manufacturing rights – for the Twin Otter.
Viking expects the acquisition, which still has to be formally signed off by Canada’s regulatory authorities and does not come with any whitetail aircraft, to add 40 jobs to the 330 it employs in Victoria, British Columbia and the 88 in Alberta. The 4,600m2 (49,500ft2) extension adds to the existing 6,500m2 Calgary facility. Curtis says the programme “expands on the existing strengths of the western Canadian aerospace industry”. At the same time, he says, Viking will “continue to rely on an extensive supply chain in Quebec and Ontario” to support both programmes.
The launch of the Series 400 turned a lowly supplier and maintenance provider on the opposite edge of the country to its aerospace heartland in Quebec and Ontario into Canada’s other OEM. Curtis maintains that the acquisition “ensures that a unique and important Canadian innovation stays in Canada” and that Viking will “take the 415 to its highest potential”. In its two main versions, the amphibian may be nearing its second half-century, but Curtis insists that “with proper maintenance and support” the aircraft has the potential to remain in service for many more decades.