Like its plane, the Twin Otter, Viking Air’s manufacturing blends innovation with the tried and true.
Entering the shop floor of the Viking Air Ltd. parts factory, the first thing you notice is people, lots of them. The 350 employees in this hangar nestled in the Saanich Peninsula hills behind the Victoria airport are making brand new Twin Otters, a legendary de Havilland 19-seater that first flew in 1965. After spending its first 36 years refurbishing these beloved flying trucks and making parts, Viking bought the rights to build the Twin Otter in 2006. Next, all the company had to do was transform its modest shop into a modern airplane factory.
On a sunny day last July, representatives of the Peruvian government have just shown up to take delivery of one of the 12 new planes they had ordered. Having signed a US$65-million cheque for the Twin Otters, they are now meticulously inspecting every inch, from the Pratt & Whitney Canada turboprop engines to the spartan cabin.
Selling planes isn’t Viking's challenge; there’s more than enough demand. The Paris Air Show in June this year marked Viking’s official coming-out party. Having finally cleared all the regulatory hurdles and ironed out the kinks in its manufacturing processes, the company proudly displayed its wares and welcomed all comers. Orders following that show brought Viking’s total to 55; if you were to order the 56th, you could expect to take delivery in the fall of 2013.
Apart from being the biggest plane currently on the market that can operate on floats, the Twin Otter can land on a 366-metre runway (a nine seat Beechcraft King Air 350i, for example, needs more than 800 metres), it can operate in extreme conditions and it has a reputation for tank-like toughness. Customers continue to pay about as much for used Twin Otters as Viking charges for a new one.
The challenge, according to CEO David Curtis, was learning how to build it: “We’re a brand new aircraft manufacturing company; we needed to understand how this thing comes together.” And It's not easy figuring out how to build a modern plane using 50-year-old drawings. “When we started, we got 17 tractor-trailer loads of data,” Curtis explains. “The drawings theoretically represented the airplane, but if you followed them and tried to make one, you’d end up with something completely different.”
So why not just design a new plane? Viking already has a niche product in a market with huge barriers to entry. The regulatory and development costs of launching a brand-new plane would be between $125 million and $150 million, about twice what it cost to get the new Twin Otter Series 400 off the ground.
That’s the upside of resurrecting an old design, but Curtis notes some unique challenges, especially given the dearth of old-time craftsmanship in today’s workforce. “De Havilland had a lot of grey-haired craftsmen. Today you just don’t get that,” he says with admiration. Viking compensates by leveraging technology. “I’m not saying we don’t have highly skilled folks, but the level of skill isn’t as high because the parts are consistent . . . and you don’t need to kind of talk the part onto the airplane,” Curtis says. Once engineers figured out what each part should look like, they made a digital model of it. Now precision and repeatability mean less reliance on handiness with a hammer.
Which is not to say Viking employees don’t use hand tools. Back on the factory floor, one man seeming to be in his early thirties (the full-sleeve tattoos a sure sign of his generation) works a piece of aluminum the size of a magazine with what looks like a pair of vice grips. So in some respects, Viking still makes planes the old-school way – consider, for instance, its vertical integration. Curtis estimates that Viking might be able to save as much as 40 per cent on labour costs if it relied more on a supply chain, but it’s building the Twin Otter from scratch because they want to know their plane.
On some level, being on an island means learning to be self-sufficient. As it turns out, the Island also seems to be a good place to resurrect an iconic Canadian bird.