SKYTRAC

SKYTRAC

SKYTRAC’s Autonomous Distress Tracking (ADT) was the first GADSS-compliant product to go to market. From there, the Kelowna-based company signed a partnership with Embraer, the third-largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, to add GADSS technology to all new E1 and E2 jets.

This ADT system is just one example of SKYTRAC rising to the challenge for its customers and the industry.

“The reason Embraer selected us was for our superior technical expertise and commitment to quality. We stood out as the only company working with previous years of flight data and aircraft tracking. We were the only company agile enough to meet the rapid timelines required for such a project.

The company was founded in Penticton by a group of experienced aviators who wanted to explore the possibilities of GPS technology being used for non-military purposes. Since its humble beginnings, SKYTRAC has brought to market products in tracking, flight data monitoring, and satellite communications. Their work touches law enforcement, aerial firefighting, emergency medical services, the oil and gas industry, and government sectors.

In addition to its work on GADSS, SKYTRAC partnered with Iridium to offer some of the fastest Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity to manned and unmanned aviation through the Iridium Certus service.

As one can imagine, these game-changing technologies have led to exponential growth for the company. SKYTRAC now has more than 120 employees in its Kelowna, Ottawa, and Victoria offices.

“It has really been a success story going from a startup in a basement to a globally-renowned aviation data company,” Manson says.

Even as they have gotten bigger, SKYTRAC keeps the same level of expertise, says Head of Marketing, Reuben Mann. “We’re a true all-in-one provider. We don’t just give you the box, we give you the connectivity, all the different capabilities. If someone wants a new capability, we’re literally creating it for them and going to market with it,” he says.

But what makes SKYTRAC unique amongst other large avionic companies is its commitment to the Central Okanagan. Manson himself is a product of Okanagan College. “We’re not shipping people in from other markets. We’re hiring locally and training people up,” he says. 

The future of aerospace is fast paced, and the real-world implications are truly lifesaving.

“It is definitely an interesting ride. Buckle up. Every day is exciting and there’s always something different,” Mann says. “I can’t imagine working somewhere else, it’s fun and challenging and I feel like we’re making a difference.”

“I’ve travelled with this company and been to a lot of places. In the Okanagan Valley, there’s a culture with the talent we hire that is different from other locales. It’s a hidden gem.”

Alpine Aerotech

Starting with just four employees in 1990, Alpine Aerotech is a perfect example of the success that can be achieved in the Okanagan.

Today, the company is one of the largest helicopter customer support centres in the world, employing 150 people between their two BC facilities, including their main headquarters in West Kelowna.

“We chose the Central Okanagan because of the many established helicopter operators in the region; the Okanagan is also home to some of the longest-standing operators in Canada,” says President, Jeff Denomme. “The region has a variety of companies that work internationally but still call the Okanagan home, providing a significant contribution to our local economy.”

It was these established helicopter operators that contributed, in part, to the company’s success, adds Denomme.

“There was a need to provide heavy maintenance and overhaul services to help support the local industry, providing innovative solutions through our manufacturing capabilities and fostering relationships with our customers has made [Alpine] Aerotech what it is today.”

Thanks to its best-in-class reputation, Alpine Aerotech now provides services to some of the most successful companies in the world from its almost 100,000 square feet of combined manufacturing and office space. The company has been a recognized service centre for Italy’s Leonardo Helicopters since 2017 and is one of the largest and most reputable support facilities for Texas-based Bell Helicopters.

“The Okanagan is full of opportunity and continues to grow,” adds Denomme. “All you have to do is take a drive through the Valley to see the diverse industries and companies that have succeeded here.” 

Of course, you can always see it by helicopter, too.

“The Okanagan offers a great work/life balance. You don’t have to travel far to take in all the amenities the region has to offer. The local community is also very personable and very willing to work together.”

Jupiter Avionics

Renowned worldwide for the aircraft audio communications equipment they design and manufacture, Jupiter Avionics has been recognized as one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies for each of the last three years.

Jupiter was founded in 2011 after Northern Airborne Technology (NAT) closed due to restructuring. Several senior executives from NAT saw a new door ready to be opened as one was closing and assembled the Jupiter team with well-respected avionics professionals who had previously contributed to NAT’s success.

The products Jupiter designs and manufactures, which are produced mainly for mission-oriented helicopters (think medical transport, firefighting, law enforcement, and emergency search and rescue), include audio controllers, wireless intercoms, and a multitude of accessories and interfaces.

“Virtually all our products are exported, and our customers hail from every corner of the globe,” says President, Mitch Stinson. “Although we do not have a high local profile, we are well-known worldwide
in our market.”

Stinson adds that the company’s strategy is to provide highly customizable products while maintaining short lead times. They have developed a “nimble and adaptive approach to meeting market needs,” he says, which combined with the longstanding expertise of its founders, is surely a contributor to the company’s reputation and success.

As Jupiter Avionics carries on its growth trajectory, there is no doubt that the impact of the company’s work will continue to be felt throughout the world.

“The core of our team has lived in the Kelowna area for more than 30 years. When we decided to form our own company, it was a no-brainer to base ourselves in Kelowna… we knew we’d be able to attract new employees to the area given its wide range of year-round activities.”

KF Aerospace

As the largest commercial Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operation in Canada, KF Aerospace has built an enviable reputation since 1970, servicing major airlines, corporate fleets and military aircraft from around the world. That is until they all stopped flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 crisis really decimated the airlines,” says Grant Stevens, Vice President of Corporate Services. “Air Canada, WestJet and other customers were flying at 5% of their previous level. It was very, very difficult for them. I tell you, I’m really proud of the fact that four months into the pandemic, we still had all 1,100 employees working and getting paid full time.”

KF Aerospace employs about 800 people in BC, 200 in their newly expanded Hamilton, ON facility and about 100 at their flight training centre in Portage la Prairie, MB. In addition to aircraft engineering, maintenance and modifications, KF Aerospace also operates regular cargo charter services, leases aircrafts and operates a 22-year pilot training contract for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“The government certainly helped us to financially weather the storm,” Stevens reports. “But we were able to maintain our staff by working with our customers to come up with some pretty innovative solutions to keep the work coming into the hangars, keep flying and to do the things needed to survive.”

“For example, we ended up with three passenger plane lease returns, so we are converting them over to cargo aircrafts. That’s where you take out the whole inside, put in a roller floor so you can move pallets of cargo around and install a big 10’ by 12’ cargo door. That’s one of the things we’ve been able to do.”

“We also talked to each airline and asked them, ‘Okay, what are your issues and what can we do to help you?’ We worked to give them more favourable rates and terms to incentivize them to bring their work in during the pandemic, rather than waiting until they got the green light to start flying again. That’s worked very well.”

“We believe it’s very important to have a strong feeder system into the aviation sector to make everybody that much better off in the long term. We do quite a bit of work with the colleges. We have strong partnerships with Okanagan College, Mohawk College in Hamilton and with Stephenson Aviation College, part of the Red River College group in Manitoba.”

“Okanagan College offers two different programs here in the Okanagan and one of their facilities is actually in one of our hangars. Students get an opportunity to work alongside us and see the work that happens right before their eyes. We have a real belief that home grown talent will stay home and I would guess that around 95% of students who graduate from these programs stay in the Okanagan Valley, which is a great thing.”

“I think there’s a strong future for aviation in the Okanagan, the Central Okanagan is home to about 18% of the province’s $1.8 billion aerospace sector.”

“We’ve also been working with UBCO. They have good engineering programs in a number of disciplines, and we’d like to see aerospace added. So, we’re working through the powers to try and bring that to fruition. And that helps develop intellectual property and makes all the aerospace companies much more valuable when you can develop and keep the brain trust in BC.”

Looking ahead, Stevens sees new possibilities for the industry. “I think one of the untapped opportunities is probably to be a parts manufacturer, parts supplier or repair depot, as around 50% of the aerospace business is in manufacturing aircrafts and our proximity to Seattle and Boeing is huge. The airport is also planning to open additional lands, creating more access to its runways, and I think that will spur new businesses to come to the Okanagan. I think the future is really quite bright.”

After overcoming the hardships of the pandemic, Stevens says the company isn’t taking its success for granted and is thankful for its ability to improvise, strategize and pivot.

“We might be doing better than some of the other aviation companies at the moment, but it’s because we survived better, not because we thrived better.”

AEM

They say when one hangar door closes, another one opens. The AEM story began in 2009 when respected avionics company, Northern Airborne Technology, ceased business after thirty years. Employees saw an opportunity to purchase it and have since grown the new company AEM into a vertically integrated provider of specialty aviation solutions, and they’ve never looked back.

Today, AEM is an approved OEM supplier to aircraft manufacturers such as Bell, Boeing Rotorcraft, Leonardo, Airbus Helicopters, Sikorsky and Embraer. In their 32,000 square foot Kelowna facility, over 100 highly specialized people design, develop and manufacture avionics components such as loudspeaker systems, caution/warning panels, illuminated panels and keyboards, and specialty audio products. Having experienced substantial growth in recent years, AEM will soon begin construction on a new 40,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility in Kelowna’s north end.

“In our industry, AEM is considered a small to medium sized business,” explains CEO Brian Wall. “We operate in a niche market, so the majority of our products compete with only two or three key competitors. Our employees’ commitment to high standards and continuous improvement are instrumental in achieving a high level of customer satisfaction.”

“The aerospace industry has become a key economic driver in the region and Kelowna is an attractive place for emerging talent looking to develop their careers. We find that many non-local applicants want to move here because of the relaxed, vacation-style setting in a growing city full of opportunity.”

Attracting qualified talent in such a specialized area can be challenging for AEM, but professional networking and community outreach help them find the people they need. “We’re fortunate to work through the COEDC “Connector” program,”explains Wall. “I help mentor young professionals looking to practice their craft here in the Okanagan. The goal is to retain the talent that comes through our local educational institutions.”

“The aerospace industry has become a key economic driver in the region and Kelowna is an attractive place for emerging talent looking to develop their careers. We find that many non-local applicants want to move here because of the relaxed, vacation-style setting; they can enjoy the lakes, trails and other amenities at their doorstep, in a growing city full of opportunity.”