Canada-based MRO and completions specialist Flying Colours is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and to celebrate, the company is giving itself a present in the form of a major enhancement to its flagship Peterborough, Ontario facility. The first phase of the nearly $19 million ($25 million CDN) expansion, a 50,000-sq-ft paint facility large enough to accommodate Airbus A220s, will become operational this month, while a 50,000-sq-ft completions hangar will follow in the first quarter of 2020.
The company just completed its latest project, a Honeywell Primus Elite cockpit retrofit on a Bombardier Global Express along with the installation of the Honeywell JetWave Ka-band connectivity system in a unique two-phase job. Due to customer flight schedules, the work was broken down into two separate events, according to Kevin Kliethermes, the company’s director of sales. As part of the cockpit upgrade, all six obsolete CRT displays were removed and replaced with new lighter, cooler-running DU-875 units for clearer, high-resolution images such as those found in the Primus Elite Advanced Features software suite with its synthetic vision system.
In addition, the Flying Colours avionics team mounted a new radome, tail antenna, and the JetWave hardware that connects with Inmarsat’s Jet ConneX Ka-band network for high-speed broadband connectivity.
The family-owned business began in the late 1970s as a seller of off-lease aircraft, and founder John Gillespie, wanting to do exterior painting in-house, bought a small local aircraft paint shop named Flying Colours. Frustrated at the time it took for cabin refurbishments to be completed at other shops, he soon added those capabilities to further refresh the aircraft passing through. When his customers' aircraft needed repairs, he saw the opportunity to diversify into maintenance and avionics installation and repair. The separate businesses were all incorporated in 1989 under the Flying Colours brand. The company completed its first large-cabin jet refurbishment on a Bombardier Challenger 601 in 1992, and now it also does special-mission conversions, green aircraft completions, and a full slate of Part 145 maintenance.
It was one of the first to take former commercial CRJs and totally refurbish them inside and out, turning them into VIP transports. It has performed its magic on more than 30 such airframes thus far. At Peterborough, it has a full OEM-level completion showroom, where customers can select everything from carpeting and sidewall coverings to galley surfaces and upholstery.
Today, in addition to its Canadian headquarters at sleepy Peterborough Airport (which will list 200,000 sq ft of hangar space once its new expansion is complete), approximately an hour from Toronto, it has the former Jet Corp Technical Services facility in St. Louis, Missouri, which it acquired in 2009; and in 2015 it opened its first international interior refurbishment shop in Singapore, co-located with the Bombardier Service Center at Seletar, for a total of 500 employees worldwide.
Flying Colours expects that number to increase. “We’re expanding, so we’re spending money, we’re investing in more people and more facilities. We wouldn’t be doing that if business wasn’t good,” said executive vice president Eric Gillespie, who has grown up with the company and currently describes its hangars as overflowing. “Right now we’ve got the throttle down in terms of space to accommodate more work.”
At Peterborough, the new completions hangar will be large enough to handle four Global-size aircraft simultaneously, freeing up space in the location’s other hangars for more maintenance and upgrade work. It will also have storage space for the cabin interiors removed for such projects, as well as offices.
Along with this facility upgrade, the company expects to add another 50 staffers at its flagship location over the next year, according to human resources director Ian Ross. Speaking at a media tour of the MRO last month, he said that in the current workforce environment, “every hire is challenging.” As it faces competition in procuring skilled workers from other aviation sectors including the commercial carriers, the company attends career fairs and aviation trade shows, and this year held its first open house in Peterborough for prospective job seekers. It has also developed a robust network among local colleges and technical schools for its successful apprentice program, which pairs students who are working toward their licenses with certified technicians who examine and sign off on any work done. Since the company is not a union shop, apprentices can find themselves exposed to a wider range of tasks during their training. Once they pass their exams, they become very marketable in terms of skillset.
While the company works hard to retain those workers, “when you talk to some of the larger carriers at various conventions, they are quite happy to tell us they like to see Flying Colours on the resume because it means that person has been well trained and exposed to top-notch aircraft platforms and systems,” Ross told the group. “It’s a great reputation to have, and we’re very proud of that, but it’s a double-edged sword.”
Likewise, with the recently announced planned expansion of Bombardier’s service facility in Singapore, the Flying Colours shop there, which has completed six full aircraft refurbishments and many smaller projects since it opened, will also be growing, with an eye toward doubling its staff from the present 20-plus, many of them locals who have undergone training on a par with their Peterborough and St. Louis counterparts. “Our footprint is clearly going to increase,” said Paul Dunford, the company’s managing director for international operations, who stood up the Singapore facility and directly managed it through this year. “We’re going to be installing additional machinery, spray booths, upholstery shop capability; [it] is all going to increase.”
The location at Spirit of St Louis Airport, like Peterborough, is a Bombardier Authorized Service Facility capable of performing warranty work. It, too, has expanded over the past few years, with a 40,000-sq-ft cabinet shop opening in 2017 and a new, 40,000-sq-ft hangar added less than a year ago, along with a corresponding staff increase. Eric Gillespie noted half of the company’s cabinet revenues now come from forward-fit structures destined for factory-built Bombardier business aircraft, in addition to its normal refurbishment projects.
“We’re growing, but we still want to maintain that small-company feel,” explained Gillespie. “That’s the biggest challenge right now, to accommodate that with keeping customers happy and keeping the quality at the level we expect it to be.” As it has grown, the company has developed an international reputation, moving from primarily North American customers in the early 2000s to a mix of half international clients today.
The ADS-B Deadline Looms
Like many avionics maintenance providers in North America, Flying Colours has been busy with ADS-B upgrades ahead of the U.S. equipage mandate that takes effect at the end of this year. The company (Booth C7215) has performed nearly 50 ADS-B Out installations over the past year, with another 10 currently undergoing the modifications, double the rate of the previous 12 months, as aircraft operators begin to feel the clock ticking.
“Pretty much anything that comes in we’re talking ADS-B Out,” said Gillespie. While the company specializes in Bombardier products, with STCs for the Challenger 300, 604, and 605, it has also upgraded Dassault Falcons, Embraers, and Cessna Citations.
“The industry seems to be doing a good job of meeting demand for compliance with a good majority of aircraft now equipped, but we still think there will be a rush to the finish line,” said Kliethermes, adding the company still has a few slots available before the January 1 deadline. “We’ve noticed an increased demand from owners and operators who regularly use their aircraft, and recognize they need to make sure they’re ready. We can accommodate a few more aircraft this year, but owners need to call quickly so that we can develop a compliance solution for their aircraft in time.”