Wayne Coulson, left, and his son Britt of Coulson Aviation will soon begin the converting process to make their recently purchased 737 jets into air tankers. KARLY BLATS PHOTO

PROGRESS 2017: Expanded airport means economic growth in Port Alberni

City hopes Coulson Aviation’s 737 conversion program is just the first step

Runway expansions at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport (AVRA) have not only benefited the local economy but have made it possible for Coulson Aviation to bring in six Boeing 737 jets to Port Alberni.

Plans for the expansion go back a couple years ago to a meeting between Wayne Coulson and Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan.

“I sat with him and said we’re working with Southwest Airlines, we’re looking at building new air tankers, but we can’t get them into Alberni, so that’s where the mayor really dug in,” Coulson said.

After several meetings with local government, expansion plans became a reality.

“This is a good example of us being proactive in the marketplace, saying to local government, the mayor and the regional district that we want to expand and we have this opportunity, but if we don’t do something here the work will go to the U.S.,” Coulson said.

Work on expanding the runway to 5,000 by 100 feet from 3,952 by 75 feet began in May 2016. The $4.2 million airport expansion contract was awarded to Bowerman Excavating, an Alberni Valley-based company. Construction was supposed to be complete last fall, but due to heavy rain and snow the expansion was about six months behind schedule.

“We needed 10 good days out of the last eight months and we couldn’t find 10 dry days, so [construction] took us to June,” Coulson said.

On May 21 the runway opened to limited air traffic and the first aircraft to land on the newly expanded runway was a Cessna 172 piloted by Pat Floyd and owned by the Alberni Flying Club.

On May 25 and 26 the first two of Coulson’s six 737 jets, that will be converted into air tankers, landed on the newly expanded runway.

Coulson purchased all six jets from Southwest Airlines and they will be used around the world to fight wildfires.

The conversion process will begin near the end of June and takes approximately 20,000 man hours per airplane to convert from an airliner to a firefighting aircraft.

“It’s a very complex conversion, that’s why no one’s ever done it. We’ll be the first 737 in the world to do a conversion like this,” Coulson said.

Finding top-quality people in Port Alberni, Vancouver Island and even around B.C. to actually do the conversions, Coulson said, has been challenging.

“Britt (Coulson) has to hire like 20 people to run this program and they’re not in Canada for the type of quality of skills that we need,” Couslon said. “We may bring in some Americans. And then if we can get them, where do we put them? Housing is pretty tight right now.”

Once conversion is done, the 737s, equipped with 63 passenger seats for firefighting crews, will be flown to Southern California to start trials with the US Forest Service.

When not in Australia or the US fighting fires, the 737s will be stored in Nevada, where Coulson says he can find a lot of hangars and infrastructure for a cheaper cost than in Canada.

The Bowerman group continue to work on the landscaping, seeding, final grading and road work at the airport but Mark Fortune, AVRA superintendent, said it should all be done shortly.

Fortune said another local contracting company is putting in the runway lighting system.

“Most of the underground work has been completed now they’re working on fixtures and light bases,” Fortune said.

Since the expansion, there has been some interest from aviation groups looking at the Alberni Valley as a destination to do business.

“I had a long conversation with a CEO of a company that is doing their due diligence on an opportunity to do something at the airport,” said City of Port Alberni economic development manager, Pat Deakin.

Deakin also mentioned that a flight school has been showing interest at the AVRA, but as discussions are still in early stages he couldn’t reveal any more.

In addition, Deakin said plans are in the works to attract other companies that would complement the Coulson Group.

Although now progressing quickly in the aviation world, the Coulsons began their entrepreneurship in the logging industry.

“[Logging] was my father’s passion back in 1960,” Coulson said. “I grew up in that business and took over the business and ran those businesses but certainly we can see the land base shifting, we can see the end of the era of old growth timber so for us it wasn’t a growing market.”

Thinking about the future of his kids and grandkids, Coulson switched his focus to more niche markets.

“There’s only five of us in the world that fly big, big airplanes,” he said. “We’re the largest operator in Australia with big airplanes.”

The company also operates out of the US and possibly South America in the near future, whose fire season is opposite of North America.

In addition to fire, the Coulsons are focused on ice. The group has a new ice blasting technology used for industrial cleaning. Their new unit, the IceStorm90, uses crushed ice for cleaning instead of water.

Coulson said they are aiming to construct seven machines every eight weeks and have gained interest for the product worldwide.

“We have a group that are actually looking at doing mega yachts out of Florida so buying machines for those types of boats… it cleans as well under water as it does on land,” Coulson said. “So it’s one of the only cleaning technologies in the world that can clean under water.”

The former Zellers Building on Third Avenue, purchased by Coulson, is being used as the headquarters for the ice blasting production and research.

karly.blats@albernivalleynews.com

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