Viking Air Breathes New Life Into Old Plane

The Twin Otter, Last Built in 1988, Rises Phoenix-Like From Memories, Old Engineering Drawings

[OTTER_3] A favorite of bush pilots and companies flying in remote locales, the Twin Otter, shown lifting off from the British Antarctic Survey base at Rothera, Antarctica, is being revived by a small Calgary, Alberta, company.

CALGARY, Alberta—The Twin Otter turboprop plane, a symbol of Canada’s aerospace prowess, seemed destined to fly into history when production ceased in 1988.

But the utilitarian Twin Otter is back thanks to an investment by a wealthy Canadian heiress and the ambitions of an aviation-parts supplier in British Columbia.

The first of a new batch of the boxy planes made its test flight earlier this year. A production facility has sprouted in Calgary where a dozen planes are being assembled. The new owner, Viking Air Ltd., has garnered orders for 50 aircraft, mostly from diehard operators of the nearly 600 Twin Otters still flying.

The revived Twin Otter—with its tricycle landing gear and stubby wing atop the fuselage—will appear alongside futuristic, technology-laden planes this month at the Farnborough International Air Show in England.

David Curtis, Viking’s chief executive officer, said designing a plane from scratch would cost his company up to $200 million in start-up expenses, creating pressure to sell many planes. Instead, “we’re probably into this thing for a third” of that cost, he said. Viking’s planned production of just 24 planes a year by 2012 will be better suited to its “niche market” demand.

“We dreamed of this day,” said Brian Mandrusiak, head mechanic at Viking’s Calgary plant. “When they stopped building them, we thought it was a big mistake. I’ve been working on Twin Otters for 22 years. You can do things with this airplane that people can only imagine.”

For starters, the 19-passenger plane needs only 1,200 feet of runway to lift off, making it useful at rudimentary airfields worldwide. It can take off and land on water, snow, grass or gravel, depending on whether it’s outfitted with amphibious floats, skis or special tires. It can operate in frigid climes and searing heat.

[OTTER_2] Susan Carey/The Wall Street JournalViking Air CEO Curtis says using an existing design saved millions.

Old Twin Otters are favored by bush pilots, militaries, humanitarian organizations, commercial sky-diving teams and mining and oil exploration companies flying in remote locations.

The durable planes—844 were built starting in 1965—still ferry scientific researchers to Antarctica, tourists sightseeing at the Grand Canyon, and passengers and freight in the Virgin Islands and Seychelles.

The new version, which retails for $4.5 million, is almost identical to the original in its structure, with the exception of the use of lighter-weight composite material replacing aluminum in the doors and part of the nose. Improvements include more-powerful Pratt & Whitney propeller engines and modern cockpit avionics, electronics for controlling flight, by Honeywell International Inc.

Zimex Aviation Ltd., a Swiss charter operator that manages a fleet of 24 vintage Twin Otters serving oil and gas company clients in North Africa and the Middle East, was the new version’s first customer.

“It is the workhorse of the sky,” said Hugo Kopp, Zimex’s managing director. But he ordered only one, wanting to see how it performs and whether the new version will diminish the value of his legacy aircraft.

Kenn Borek Air Ltd., a Calgary charter company that also owns two dozen old Twin Otters, is waiting for Viking to “get everything proved up” before it places orders, said Sean Loutitt, vice president of operations. “I can’t wait for us to get one, but we can’t be the test bed,” he said.

The company operates flights in the Canadian Arctic and flies in Antarctica for the National Science Foundation. Once Viking demonstrates that the new avionics, composite doors and wiring work well in extreme cold, he said he’ll consider buying.

Several other operators of old Twin Otters have ordered new ones, including rival airlines in the Maldives that use them as seaplanes for tourists.

The U.S. Army placed an order for its Golden Knights sky-diving team. New customers include an Australian charter operator and Vietnam’s navy.

Susan Carey/The Wall Street JournalViking is assembling a dozen Twin Otters in a Calgary, Alberta, facility.

Viking, a closely-held company based near Victoria, B.C., was happy making replacement parts for propeller planes such as the Otter under contract with de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd., an Ontario builder that owned the Otter rights. De Havilland now is part of Bombardier Inc., the Montreal plane maker.

In 2003, Westerkirk Capital Inc., a private equity firm that manages money for the family of Sherry Brydson, acquired a majority of Viking. Ms. Brydson is the eldest granddaughter of the late Canadian press baron Roy Thomson; the Thomson heirs own a majority of media giant Thomson Reuters.

Westerkirk CEO James Lawson, said the firm invests in various Canadian family businesses, with aviation an area of interest. In 2005, Viking purchased the production rights to the old de Havilland models and Bombardier’s parts business for those planes, giving Viking a direct relationship with the aircraft operators.

Mr. Curtis, Viking’s CEO and a minority investor, said Twin Otter operators kept urging him to put the airplane back into production. He approached Westerkirk. After an independent study found there could be demand for 440 new Twin Otters worldwide over a decade, the program launched in 2007.

Mr. Lawson said Westerkirk sees the new planes as an “annuity” for his clients because Viking will be able to sell replacement parts for the new planes for decades.

While reprising an old design is cheaper, it’s not without challenges. The polyester films on which 30,000 engineering drawings had been plotted were cracked and hard to read, and their contents needed to be digitized.

Assembly jigs, the scaffolding that holds aircraft parts during construction, had been cut up for scrap. Viking consulted de Havilland archives and used vintage factory video and retirees’ recollections to rebuild jigs. “We virtually reverse-engineered the plane,” Mr. Curtis said.

Certification approvals from Canadian and European safety agencies have been slower to arrive than expected, although Transport Canada last month issued a “type certificate” validating the new plane. Once the agency approves an airworthiness certificate, Viking will be able to deliver planes to customers. Mr. Curtis is optimistic that the first new Twin Otters will be delivered this summer. Since the company began taking orders, he said, “I haven’t lost a single customer.”

by WSJ

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