Varcoe: 'Big year' for De Havilland as it adds staff, expects to break ground on massive facility in Alberta

The new year is shaping up to be a pivotal time for De Havilland Aircraft of Canada and its ambitious plans in Alberta

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Less than six weeks into the new year, 2024 is already shaping up to be a pivotal time for De Havilland Aircraft of Canada and its ambitious plans in Alberta.

On Thursday, the Calgary-based firm announced the acquisition of the aircraft parts manufacturing operations of Field Aviation in the city. The deal will add about 100 people to its local workforce and marks De Havilland’s second major purchase since October.

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But that’s just the starting course.

The company is putting the final touches on agreements to manufacture a new amphibious aircraft, the DHC-515 Firefighter, in Canada for international customers.

Work is expected to begin on it this year. Final plane assembly will be completed locally, where De Havilland currently has seven facilities.

It’s also busy advancing the DHC-6 Twin Otter Classic 300-G plane, which it first launched at the Paris Air Show last summer — the fifth generation of the iconic utility aircraft.

Finally, it’s expected to break ground on De Havilland Field, its ambitious new aircraft manufacturing centre and aerodrome that will be developed west of Strathmore.

“This is a big year for us,” company spokesman Neil Sweeney said Friday from Rome, where De Havilland is finalizing contracts with European customers to manufacture 24 of the new upgraded amphibious water bombers.

“Having two programs ramping up at the same time is a significant challenge. And having the right people in place is key for us. But 2024 . . . is absolutely going to be a critical year for us.”

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De Havilland Canada, a private firm owned by Westerkirk Capital — which is owned by billionaire Sherry Brydson — announced blockbuster plans in September 2022 to expand its operations in southern Alberta, having officially moved its corporate headquarters to Calgary earlier in the year.

The company previously operated in the city as Viking Air, refurbishing and upgrading older models of the “Super Scooper” firefighting aircraft, the Canadair CL-215 and CL-415.

That summer, it unveiled plans to move forward with a program for the new DHC-515 Firefighter, with customers in the European Union.

It now has orders from six countries. The contracts will create new work in the company’s facilities in Calgary and Victoria. It’s anticipated the first water bomber could be delivered sometime in 2027.

“We are finalizing the contracts with the European customers. We anticipate them to be wrapped up by the second quarter of this year, and at that point we’ll be manufacturing 24 new waterbombers,” Sweeney said in an interview.

“We are starting to hire people now and train people now for the program.”

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The company will need to ramp up significantly in both cities and hire “several hundred people,” he added. It currently has 750 people working in Calgary.

De Havilland’s plans are a key part of a major expansion of the aviation industry in Alberta.

Calgary is home to one of the country’s largest airports and Canada’s second-largest airline, WestJet. It’s also a growing base for post-secondary training programs for the industry.

Across Alberta, more than 500 companies operate in the aerospace and defence sector, contributing $3.3 billion to provincial GDP, according to data from Calgary Economic Development (CED).

CED chief executive Brad Parry said Friday that De Havilland’s efforts are “another proof-point that diversification is happening” within the city.

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“The moves with WestJet and some of the other aviation companies coming in — and De Havilland cementing that — showcases this is a place where people are seeing the opportunity,” Parry said.

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“We see that sector as having a huge amount of potential still.”

Last June, De Havilland announced it was launching its new Twin Otter version, with combined purchase agreements and letters of intent for 45 planes.

The aircraft will be assembled in Calgary, with parts and manufacturing primarily done between the city and Victoria.

In October, De Havilland purchased Mid-Canada Mod Center and Avionics Design Services in Ontario, which works on avionics installations, repairs and modifications.

The purchase this week of Field Aviation’s operations in Calgary will bring its own expertise in-house to De Havilland as it looks to expand.

De Havilland officials are also moving forward with massive plans for a new complex in Wheatland County, which will include a new runway, aircraft assembly facility, parts manufacturing and distribution centres, maintenance repair and offices.

DHL complex east of Calgary

The complex, with 12 to 15 different facilities envisioned, is ultimately expected to be home to 1,500 workers, company officials announced in 2022.

An amendment to Wheatland County’s area structure plan took place last year.

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“Now it’s really (about) sitting down with our industrial engineers and trying to figure out what buildings need to be built first . . . given that we are ramping up production of both the water bomber and the Twin Otter Classic,” he said.

“I anticipate that sometime in the middle of 2024, we will be breaking ground.”

Calgary-based industry analyst Rick Erickson said the company’s development in Wheatland County — to be built on 1,500 acres of land — are significant and will help create high-paying aviation jobs throughout the region.

It will also increase exports coming out of Alberta.

“It’s huge,” Erickson said.

“You’ve got a brand new greenfield airport that is going to be built to manufacture airplanes. If you look around the world, you’re talking dozens — at the most — of airplane manufacturing facilities that have a huge economic impact on the communities where they are located.”

Full construction of De Havilland Field is expected to take at least 10 years to complete.

Meanwhile, the company is looking to add staff as it expands in 2024.

“We are in an active growth mode,” Sweeney said.

“And we’re looking to hire as many people as we possibly can in Calgary.”

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