It's hard to imagine any connection between BC's miniscule aerospace and mammoth forestry industries.There was a time, however, when Sitka spruce were used to build the world's aircraft and loggers were literally flying high during boom times.
“There were hundreds of little logging families up and down the coast which was incredibly good for the economy. It really diversified capital and spread it around. And everyone of these families owned an airplane,” remembers David Nilson, whose father was chief engineer for Island Airlines in Campbell River. “When I was 16 years old in 1976, I was driving rivets into float planes for cash in summers and after school.”
But the boom ended when the government consolidated tree farms licences and sold them off to big companies. That, says Nilson, “eradicated the coastal economy in one fell swoop.” The traditional logging family was no longer and with it went hundreds of privately own floatplanes in coastal communities.
Now Nilson thinks the aerospace industry can help to diversify Vancouver Island's resource-dependent economy. The plethora of private planes may be gone, but BC is still home to one of the world's largest fleets of commercial seaplanes.
An aircraft maintenance engineer by training, Nilson is the founding president of International Aeroproducts Ltd. based in Courtenay. The company is helping to improve the economic viability of coastal aviation with a new and improved float for seaplanes.
The product has been designed for the Cessna Caravan, a new 12-passenger aircraft, and the Beech 18 and DHC-3 Otter, which are both out of production, but still actively in use in BC and Alaska.
The company's product can improve aircraft performance and keep old planes in service. “In a sense, we are helping to recycle aircraft that were outdated,” adds Nilson.
Nilson started the company in 1997. A small group of investors seeded the research and development needed to design a better float. After five years of design and testing, its 8100 series float was certified by Transport Canada in the spring of 2002.
The floats accommodate an increase of a plane's gross weight by 1,000 pounds. More weight means more cargo and passengers—and thus more profits for small airlines. “All our design ideas are based on lowering the cost per seat for aircraft operators,” says Nilson.
International Aeroproducts has two aircraft maintenance engineers, three structural technicians, one CAD (computer-assisted drafting) specialist and an aerospace engineer on staff. “Good designers are extremely rare, especially in the aerospace industry,” says Nilson. “It's really, really difficult to be simple, good and light in aerospace design. We spend a lot of money on simplification.”
And now it's starting to pay off.
In partnership with the local Community Futures, Ecotrust Capital provided financing to International Aeroproducts to help it shift from its R&D stage to manufacturing.
“We are now making the next logical leap by building aerospace manufacturing based on our knowledge of our initial product and then expand from there,” says Nilson.
So, will the Comox Valley become Canada's new aerospace cluster of innovation? Nilson says that with modern high-speed telecommunications he easily works with engineers and taps expertise as far away as Albany in the United States or Nanchang in China. “You can cluster anywhere nowadays,” he says.
For the moment International Aeroproducts is “a cluster of one,” Nilson quips, but it is also evidence of the new, knowledge-based economy taking off on Vancouver Island.