The runway at the Alberni Valley Airport hasn’t been expanded yet but new investments are already coming.
“We’re announcing today that we’ve been the chosen installer and manufacturer of the new C295 tanking system,” said Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson at a Tuesday morning press conference at the AVRA. The announcement has been a year and a half in the making.
According to Airbus Defence and Space, they and the Coulson Group “have signed a memorandum of understanding covering the industrialization, supply and support of the new water bomber version of the Airbus C295W transport aircraft.”
The tanker system was designed in the Alberni Valley, said Coulson.
“This tank design was designed locally here by [Coulson Aircranes manager Britton Coulson] and his team working with the Airbus team out of Spain,” Coulson said.
“The C295 is an exciting aircraft—it’s a twin engine machine that we will be bringing a prototype of to Port Alberni late next year for the tank installation.”
The installation of the tanking system will involve “two internal tanks of 3,500 litres each, able to transport water or retardant and able to be refilled in under seven minutes,” according to Airbus.
Where subsequent planes will be retrofitted is yet to be decided.
“They may feel more comfortable to install it in Spain, however my expectation is that they’ll bring them here because the cost structure is much less than some of the mega-factories.”
Coulson has big plans for the refitted jets.
“The 295 will be one of the competitors going into the search and rescue contract which is bid in mid-January…the C295 is one of the leading aircraft and the contract will be a multi-million-dollar contract with the Canadian government for the replacement of the Buffaloes.”
The distinctive yellow C-115 Buffalo transport and rescue planes fly out of 19 Wing Comox.
If the C295 is chosen as the winning bid, Coulson will reap the benefits.
“This positions our company to be a significant supplier to that contract in the way of support that they’re going to need to put those airplanes together.”
While he couldn’t comment on the number of airplanes the Coulson Group would be retrofitting, Coulson did say that with 150 C295s out there already the number would be significant.
The airport expansion was instrumental in getting Coulson the C295 retrofitting contract, he said.
“The new airport expansion is a key critical factor in us being awarded such a large contract as this,” he said.
The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District is currently waiting on the results of grant funding applications; however, the ACRD secured permission to borrow up to $6 million to cover the full cost of the runway extension if the funding isn’t awarded. The federal Strategic Priorities funding could pay for the entire $7.5 million airport expansion, including both the runway and the medium-intensity lighting.
City of Port Alberni economic development manager Pat Deakin pointed out that the C295 contract was not part of the business case for the airport expansion.
“The Airbus deal wasn’t part of the business case that has gone to government and the voters in the community with respect to the airport expansion,” Deakin said.
“So this is above and beyond what was anticipated.”
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns said the Coulsons’ entrepreneurial spirit is what the Alberni Valley needs.
“They’re innovators, they’re entrepreneurs and they really deserve this contract,” Johns said.
“I’m excited for not only the Coulson Group but everybody in our region. We should be proud to have an aviation leader right here in the Alberni Valley.”
According to Mayor Mike Ruttan, deals like the C295 memorandum of understanding emphasize the importance of the airport expansion.
“This underscores the importance of the airport expansion… as Wayne [Coulson] says, this is one of a series of events that will happen because of the community’s belief that building this infrastructure is a really important decision. It reinforces that this is the right thing to do and will bring many other opportunities.”
Coulson added that with a longer and wider runway, customers’ safety concerns will be allayed.
“The customers are really uncomfortable with bringing their C130s into 4,000 feet (runway)…It’s one thing to bring ours in because it’s our pilots and our airplanes.”
While the Coulson Group is a large player at the AVRA, Coulson said that the airport would benefit the whole Valley.
“This airport is for everybody in the community and for other companies in aerospace.”
The C-130s that Coulson is currently retrofitting are at the Edmonton airport for now.
“We’ve had to move the fleet into Edmonton, where it’s being prepared for its Australian contract Dec. 2, but hopefully next year we have a facility here that those airplanes get to come home to, we get to do the work here and send them off around the world to their various missions,” said Coulson. One of the C-130s contracted out to the Australian government was recently sent to help with wildfires in Indonesia, Coulson added.
The C295 contract has already yielded benefits for the Alberni Valley in terms of local jobs.
“We’ve been adding several people to accommodate this contract,” Coulson said.
“We started this particular division in 2012 and we were maybe 30 people. We’re probably double that now and certainly if we do the installation here we’ll continue to build the business.”
The Coulson Group’s success means that airplanes won’t be the only thing they’re building.
“We’ll be looking to put in a 60,000-square-foot building for the C130 program that we have as well as the C295 program now,” said Coulson.
The building will be located at the AVRA and house up to two C130s, keeping the planes secure.
“We had to move to Edmonton because there’s nothing that big on Vancouver Island.”
It’s also not the only deal that the Coulson Group is hoping to secure.
“We’re working with the U.S. Air Force, with the Columbian Air Force, we’re working in Spain with some other contracts…so we expect many more in the very near future.”
As far as provincial firefighting contracts go, Coulson said that he has a meeting scheduled with the government next month and will wait and see whether or not Coulson planes will fight fires in B.C. next summer.