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Major Aircraft Plant Coming to Alberta


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Varcoe: ' Heartbeat is going to be here in Alberta ' — De Havilland to announce major aircraft manufacturing complex west of Calgary

Chris Varcoe, Calgary Herald - 14m ago
 
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Airplane manufacturer De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. will today unveil ambitious plans to build a major manufacturing complex and aerodrome east of Calgary, which is ultimately expected to become home to 1,500 workers.

De Havilland Aircraft of Canada of their Calgary plants. Courtesy De Havilland This aircraft is under conversion in Calgary as part of the CL-415EAF Enhanced Aerial Firefighter program at an existing De Havilland plant in Calgary
De Havilland Aircraft of Canada of their Calgary plants. Courtesy De Havilland This aircraft is under conversion in Calgary as part of the CL-415EAF Enhanced Aerial Firefighter program at an existing De Havilland plant in Calgary© Provided by Calgary Herald

The privately-owned company, which moved its corporate headquarters to Calgary earlier this year from Toronto,   will announce Wednesday it intends to build De Havailland Field in Wheatland County.

The sprawling complex will be constructed on 1,500 acres of land just south of the Trans-Canada Highway, about 15 kilometres east of Strathmore.

De Havilland Field, as the project is called, will include a runway, aircraft assembly facilities, parts manufacturing and distribution centres and maintenance repair operations.

It’s also planning a general office — its head office will be based there — an educational space for training staff and a De Havilland fleet museum, a nod to the company’s deep roots in Canada’s aviation sector.

“We will have anywhere from 12 to 15 different facilities, depending on what timing that it goes in (by) — but you’re talking production…distribution centres, engineering offices. It’s the whole cache that you will have for a manufacturing environment,” company CEO Brian Chafe said in an interview.

“I would say 1,500 jobs will be the beginning of what we’re talking about. Our growth in some ways is going to be based on how quickly we can get the resources.”

The company, which previously operated as Viking Air in the city, already   refurbishes and upgrades older models of the well-known “Super Scooper” firefighting aircraft (the Canadair CL-215 and CL-415) near the Calgary airport, employing about 1,000 people at its six buildings.

 
De Havilland Aircraft of Canada of their Calgary plants. Courtesy De Havilland
De Havilland Aircraft of Canada of their Calgary plants. Courtesy De Havilland

In April, it gave the green light to kickstart a new amphibious firefighting manufacturing program, building the   DHC-515 Firefighter, after European Union countries signed letters of intent to purchase 22 new aircraft.

Chafe said the De Havilland field investment and build-out will take place over the next 10 to 15 years as it grows its various manufacturing line. He didn’t disclose the expected capital costs, but said it would “easily” be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

De Havilland   expects to start construction after the site has been rezoned by the county, which could occur in late 2023. The company said the complex’s first buildings could be operating by 2025.

In an interview, Premier Jason Kenney said the announcement will provide a jumpstart to the growing aviation sector in the province.

 

“This is one of the most important announcements for Alberta’s economy in at least a decade,” Kenney said. “This announcement means that Alberta is going to become one of North America’s most important sites for aviation manufacturing.”

De Havilland   has expanded its presence in Calgary in recent years as it’s been looking for a base to amalgamate its various operations.

In February, the company announced the consolidation of Viking Air, Longview Aviation, Pacific Sky Training and  De Havilland Canada under the operating brand, De Havilland Aircraft of Canada. The company is owned by Westerkirk Capital, which is owned by billionaire Sherry Brydson.

About three years ago, Longview Aviation acquired the De Havilland Dash 8-400 manufacturing program from Bombardier, which   had already decided to sell its Downsview plant in Toronto.

The Calgary area had a number of factors in its favour to become home to a new aircraft manufacturing complex, such as a lower cost of living, a young workforce and affordable housing prices, Chafe said.

“We had to have a new home. What we’re looking to create here you can’t really create something like that in the GTA and be economical at this point in time,” he added, noting the company will retain its existing operations in Victoria and Toronto.

“We thought it was a great area for us to grow our existing footprint…the foundation and the heartbeat is going to be here in Alberta.”

The company has three aircraft lines that is it looking to build at De Havilland Field. The DHC-515 is already moving ahead and the company expects to begin cutting metal on the firefighting planes within the next six months at its existing Calgary operations.

De Havilland   also manufactures the DHC-6 Twin Otter plane and the Dash 8-400 passenger aircraft; production on both was paused at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Chafe said the company is working to bring the other two aircraft back into production. A review of the Twin Otter is underway and “a decision is imminent,” likely within three to six months on the iconic utility aircraft.

Once it’s complete, a review of the Dash 8 — a turboprop aircraft that can seat up to 90 passengers — will take about a year to complete.

“I can guarantee you that our goal and the mandate was given to me to get back into production for all three of those platforms and maybe some derivates of some other ones,” he added.

“All of them are driven by customers coming to us.”

The province said it is not providing any incentives to the company to build the new complex.

Wheatland County Reeve Amber Link said the site for the aviation centre is farmland, but the municipality had expected it would be needed for industrial or commercial purposes as part of its longer-term plans.

She said the company would be eligible for a local incentive program that’s already in place, which provides a 40 per cent exemption to municipal property taxes for up to three years on major capital investment.

“This is huge, not just for Wheatland county but definitely for the province of Alberta,” Link said of Wednesday’s announcement.

“I’m sitting here smiling ear to ear…it’s just so gratifying to see them choose our county.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

Cvarcoe@postmedia.com

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