Coulson Aviation rolls out the Coulson-Unical CU-47, an aerial firefighting conversion similar to Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook, in early March at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport. (PHOTO COURTESY COULSON AVIATION)

Vancouver Island’s Coulson Aviation keeps growing

Port Alberni is the hub of administration for a global aviation company

Browse any of Coulson Aviation’s web pages or social media sites lately and you’ll see a number of jobs available, from Port Alberni right to Australia.

“In the last year we’ve been growing very rapidly,” said Britt Coulson, president and COO of Coulson Aviation. “We’ve been hiring a significant number of people.”

The Port Alberni-based company has been hiring and training locally as much as possible, and Coulson points out there are still a number of job listings for Port Alberni that have yet to be filled. They look for people with specific skill sets and teach the aviation side of the job as they go, he explained.

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The company continues to operate on multiple levels, despite the coronavirus affecting the global economy.

Dealing with COVID-19 measures has been tough, said Coulson. “Firefighting is classified as an essential service so we have been able to continue operations. There’s no chance there isn’t going to be a fire season. Everyone who could come to work has come to work.”

Those employees who weren’t able to work in any of the company’s three main bases were supported at home, he added. Coulson operates from Port Alberni, in Australia and in the United States.

“It was a very scary time,” he said. “We put every precaution in place that we could.” That meant increased cleaning staff, split shifts to lessen the number of people in at any one time, and even physically moving desks around. “Now our biggest challenge is moving people around. Travel is still down 90 percent so there are a lot fewer flights…we have to crew change people every two weeks.”

Different countries have different COVID-19 protocols in place too, Coulson Aviation general manager Matt Ralph said. Australia, for example, has a mandatory 14-day quarantine, paperwork varies from country to country and so do cleaning protocols.

Moving commercial freight has been challenging as well, since cargo flights have also been cut in half. Meantime, prices are going up.

“It all adds time and cost,” Coulson said.

Port Alberni is the hub for Coulson Aviation, with the conversion programs taking place at the hangar at Alberni Valley Regional Airport and administration at the Coulson headquarters in the Chances RimRock building.

Expansion in Port Alberni

Coulson cleared land a year and a half ago near their hangar and are hoping to expand. “We’re looking at putting up a large manufacturing facility to support our USAF contract. We’re looking at putting that up in the next few months.”

The Coulsons purchased five C-130 from Norway that are due for expansion. One has been sent to a facility in Florida to start because the Port Alberni facility is too busy, Coulson said.

If all goes well, Coulson estimates they will grow 30 to 40 percent over the next couple of years. That would translate into more jobs for Port Alberni.

Coulson heads to Indonesia

In early May, Coulson Aviation was awarded a 150-day contract with the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB) for the 2020 fire season. This is Coulson’s first aerial firefighting contract in Asia Pacific.

One of Coulson’s S-61 helicopters departed from their hangar in Bankstown, New South Wales, Australia, to support Indonesia.

“We are really excited to be expanding into the Asia Pacific markets with our fleet,” said Foster Coulson, co-president of Coulson Group. “This market has been a longtime focus for our company and we are committed to growing our presence in Indonesia and the surrounding countries in the years to come.”

Coulson Aviation was first introduced to the BNPB in 2015, when one of its next-generation large airtankers (Tanker 132) was used for firefighting. “Having one of our C-130s fight fire in Borneo and Sumatra afforded us a great opportunity to get to meet BNPB,” Britt Coulson said.

Chinooks earn first contract

The Coulson-Unical CU-47 Chinook next-generation heli-tanker that was converted at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport in early March will start work on its first contract on June 15. One of them will be based in Laramie, Wyoming and another south of Lake Tahoe on the California side. A third is operating in San Bernardino, Calif.

The twin-rotor helicopter is a preferred aerial firefighting rotary machine because of its speed, size and payload.

Martin Mars waterbombers update

While Coulson Aviation concentrates on its land-based rotary and fixed wing air force, the Martin Mars waterbombers remain landlocked at Coulson’s tanker base at Sproat Lake west of Port Alberni. Coulson said interest in the waterbombers remains high, even though they have not been in the water for almost four years.

“We’re being very selective where the Philippine Mars is going to go,” he said. “We want to ensure the history is preserved.”

The Philippine Mars has been repainted in its original US Navy colours; a deal had been tentatively struck in 2016 to send the aircraft to a Florida naval museum, but it fell through.

Wayne Coulson still has plans to bring the Hawaii Mars back to flying condition and offer flight tours, Britt Coulson said. The company wants to redesign the interior so it will include some seating, and has a crew of 14 working on conversion plans.

“They’re likely never going to continue as an air tanker again, but there is another life for them.”

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susie.quinn@albernivalleynews.com

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AirportAlberni-Clayoquot Regional DistrictCoulson Aviation

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