Viking awaits approval for its Twin Otter 400

 - March 31, 2010, 6:11 AM

For the first time since 1988, a new-manufacture production Twin Otter took to the Canadian skies as Viking Air flight tested the first conforming series-400 aircraft at its final assembly facility in Calgary in February. The Victoria, B.C.-based manufacturer acquired the type certificates for the former de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk through DHC-7 Dash 7 from Bombardier in 2006.

While Viking has been in operation for 40 years, producing parts and providing support for the approximately 1,300 former de Havilland Canada aircraft still flying, returning the versatile turboprop twin to production was never part of the company’s original business plan, said Robert Mauracher, Viking’s vice president of business development. “When we did acquire all the type certificates, we sat down about a year afterward and said, ‘There looks like an opportunity here,’” he told AIN. The company then commissioned an industry study that found a global market for up to 480 new Twin Otters over the next decade. According to Mauracher, even after conservatively slicing that estimate nearly in half–to 250 aircraft over the next 10 years–the company’s board gave the green light to restart production.

Since then, Viking has assembled an order book worth approximately $200 million. The company currently has orders for more than 50 Twin Otters and is working on deals with nearly 40 more potential customers. “We’ve been lucky and have not been hit by any cancellations or delays,” said Mauracher, who noted that the values of existing Twin Otters have held strong even during the recent downturn. “Our biggest problem right now is that people don’t want to wait until 2013 to get a new airplane.”

Back to the Future

Once Viking decided to become an airframer, it had to begin the process of
re-creating the long-silent production line. “It was difficult, contrary to what people think,” said Mauracher, with a chuckle. “It wasn’t buying a bunch of tools and parts and just putting them back together again. A lot of archaeology went into determining what was left over.” Recreating missing or destroyed tooling demanded careful study of old photographs and parts. The engineers took advantage of new technology when the opportunity arose, such as using laser sighting to align jigs. In some cases, Viking even learned from “voices from the past,” notes scrawled on jigs by past workers who found solutions to original production questions through trial and error. As difficult as it was to assemble the production tools and create an inventory, that wasn’t the biggest challenge, according to Mauracher. “Any MRO facility in the world can build an airplane, but it’s difficult to build a company that builds aircraft,” he said. “If you look around us today in aviation, a lot of the companies that try to go back into production or start production of a new product have failed, and in those cases there had been a lot of uncertainty about doing it because the process is expensive. You have to [establish there’s a] market and get the funding in place, so I would say building the company that builds aircraft was the most difficult thing we’ve done.”

Of the original 844 Twin Otters built, nearly 600 are still flying today. While Viking has preserved many features of the original DHC-6’s famously rugged airframe, the new aircraft’s engineers have made more than 400 changes from the legacy Twin Otters. “We’ve added things only where either obsolescence was an issue or we could add value through technology,” said Mauracher. Among the changes were the substitution of composite doors and nose to reduce weight and increase payload, the installation of LED lighting, improved airflow in the cabin and cockpit, and the creation of a new modern glass cockpit designed around Honeywell’s Primus Apex avionics suite. Viking initially considered Garmin’s G1000, but the system’s primary flight displays did not meet the level A software requirements needed for a transport-category aircraft with more than nine seats, such as the Twin Otter. Instead, according to Mauracher, the choice boiled down to Rockwell Collins or Honeywell and was decided by the financial angle “and what Honeywell was offering within the scope of that avionics package and how it fit the future air navigation changes coming down the pipe,” he said.

Viking’s first production conforming Twin Otter 400 is designated S/N 845, continuing the series that began in 1965. The aircraft is registered as C-FMJO in memory of late Viking board member Michael Orr, a proponent of restarting the Twin Otter line. Currently that aircraft is undergoing post-production installation of options such as air conditioning and a radio package requested by launch customer Zimex Aviation of Switzerland, which plans to put it to work in North Africa serving the oil and gas industry.

Viking plans to hand over the aircraft as soon as it receives Transport Canada and EASA certification, expected by the middle of the month, followed by FAA approval by year-end. According to Mauracher, North American sales account so far for only eight of the aircraft in the order book, including three to the U.S. Army. “Our market is the rest of the world,” he said. Based on its current sales, the company is also pursuing certification in Australia and Russia.

This year the company plans to deliver the 10 Twin Otters currently under construction in Calgary, and next year it wants to build 16 to 18 aircraft before deciding whether to ramp up to peak production of 24 in 2012. Mauracher noted that the newly opened manufacturing facility at the company’s Victoria headquarters could eventually produce enough part sets for nearly 50 aircraft a year, but the actual assembly of that many would require more investment in infrastructure.

While many of the aircraft components are fabricated in Victoria, the company has subcontracted others. Fleet Canada in Ontario makes the empennage, while Grand-Mère, Quebec-based Delastek Aéronautique makes the composite parts. Under current plans, Viking will build all aircraft to a standard specification and install customer-selected options once the aircraft is finished. Currently on the options list are a de-icing package that includes Goodrich boots on the wings and tail, prop de-icing and heated windshield; air conditioning; private and commercial IFR packages; long-range wingtip fuel tanks; and any landing gear the customer wants as long as it’s wheels, straight floats, amphibious floats, skis or wheeled skis.
The company expects to offer a Honeywell autopilot option by the end of the year.

Powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-34s or optional PT6A-35s driving three-blade Hartzell propellers, the Series 400 has a top speed of 182 knots at 10,000 feet and a range of nearly 800 miles with standard fuel tanks. The unpressurized twin has a service ceiling of 26,700 feet (with crew/passenger oxygen), and STOL performance that allows the aircraft to clear a 50-foot obstacle in 1,200 feet. While Viking is still evaluating the final performance figures, the 400 series is lighter and faster than the legacy Twin Otter and has a “better than hoped-for fuel burn.”

Each aircraft comes equipped as standard with a 54-inch-wide cargo door, and in-flight-operable fold-up and roll-up doors for aerial cargo drops and parachuting are optional. The basic seating configuration provides a 19-seat commuter cabin. Another option provides folding seats for quick conversion for cargo hauling. The cabin also provides locations for a lavatory at either the front or rear. Viking has received orders for four aircraft with an executive club interior, which will be completed either by Wipaire in Minnesota or by California-based Ikhana Group subsidiary RW Martin.