A Boeing 737 jet landed at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport on Friday afternoon, heralding the beginning of Coulson Aviation’s new air tanker conversion business.
The 737, painted in the Coulson “Fireliner” red and white scheme and piloted by Jim Young of Seattle, conducted a few low passes for the crowd gathered at the airport before landing and taxiing to Coulson Aviation’s hangar at the west end of the airport.
The 737 is one of six Coulson Aviation purchased from Southwest Airlines and will spend the next seven months converting them with new 4,000-gallon capacity tanks at their Port Alberni facility.
“They’re upgrading their fleet,” owner Wayne Coulson said of the American airline. “They’re going to be retiring 53 airplanes this year, so we got our hands on a few of them.”
Coulson said they will be biding on multiple contracts in 2018 in the United States, Europe, South American and Canada if opportunities arise.
“This plane operates from air tanker bases and there’s 62 bases in the US that we work from,” Coulson said. “We have a tanker base we go and plug into and they fill us full of retardant and off we go.”
In the world market, Coulson said there’s only about five businesses that operate large air tankers.
“We’re the largest operator in Australia of large air tankers and one of the bigger ones in the US market as well, but it’s a growing market, that’s why we’re so keyed on South America,” he said.
Britt Coulson, vice president of Coulson Aircrane, said all six Boeing 737’s will have the capacity to move 63 passengers.
“We would be able to load up 63 firefighters, fly [to a fire], off load them while we’re filling our tanks and go work together and move around strike teams like that,” he said. “We’ll be the only air tanker in the world that can do that.”
Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan, Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns and Mid-Island-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser were part of the crowd gathered at the airport to greet the 737.
“This is the reality we were hoping for with our airport when we chose to expand,” Ruttan said. The expansion—which should be complete by mid-July, when installation of new runway and taxiway lights is finished—will cost $8 million when complete.
“It’s a great project for us and it’s something the citizens of the [Alberni] Valley will be paying for over a number of years, but that we’ll get back over many times in just the economic activity,” Ruttan said.
Ruttan hopes the activity at Coulson Aviation will draw other business to the airport.
“There’s a number of support services that are interested in coming in here, including helicopter companies, parts companies, companies that would be based at the airport and needing this facility to get their product out of the Valley. So yes, there’s interest,” he said.
There is not enough room to store all the jets at once at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport, so they will likely store some at an American airport, Coulson said. Once all the conversions are done, the planes will be flown to southern California “where we will be verifying, drop-testing and all the processes we have to go through with the U.S. Forest Service. It’s a world standard for the airplanes.”
Meantime, Coulson will bid on “multiple” firefighting contracts in 2018 with the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe, he said.
There are two 737s and a 727 on the apron at Coulson Aviation in Port Alberni right now. The 727 landed on Sunday, and the first 737, adorned with Southwest Airlines’ signature blue and red paint job, arrived Thursday afternoon.
The 727 was previously owned by a Saudi Arabian prince, then ex-National Basketball Association superstar Michael Jordan. The Coulsons bought the plane from a private citizen in the Victoria area, and will use it for spare parts for the 737 conversion project, Coulson said.
Britt Coulson said the Martin Mars Water Bomber is expected to be back flying again by mid August. The plane was damaged last year at the Oshkosh Air Show.
– With files from Karly Blats