Innovation on display at an emerging airport

Maple Ridge’s innovation forum will feature an airport panel

(Contributed)                                Kate Klassen, director of operations for Coastal Drone.

(Contributed) Kate Klassen, director of operations for Coastal Drone.

A city’s airport is a little community in its own right – a microcosm of an emerging city, where innovation leads to business opportunities, employment and success, said Andrew Westlund.

Pitt Meadows Regional Airport is starting to show signs of reaching its potential as an economic engine for both Maple Ridge and its home community.

Westlund, of Sky Helicopters, is a business innovator. Airport manager Guy Miller said he has never met a more entrepreneurial person.

Westlund owns six helicopters and a hangar at the airport, and is in the midst of a major expansion with a new hangar coming.

He’s in the tourism business – selling natural beauty and “signature experiences,” as his aircraft fly visitors.

He built his hangar in Pitt Meadows in 2014 and was excited to be get two or three phone calls a day. Now his best month is 800 calls, and expects to beat that with every turn of the calendar.

“With tourism, when you really study it, we get to export a story and import cash,” he said.

“We’re trying to turn our image [Canada’s] from cold to cool. It’s a wonderful, wonderful challenge.”

Westlund will be one of the discussion panel members in the Innovation in Emerging Cities forum on April 2 at The ACT Arts Centre in Maple Ridge, on the topic of regional airports as catalysts for innovation.

Westlund is 55, but said he loves working with millennials – that generation born in the 1980s and 1990s who are markedly tech savvy.

“Millennials are eager to solve projects in a magical way. They love innovation.”

He started a drone company at the airport, and it, too, has taken off.

Kate Klassen’s title is director of operations for Coastal Drone, although Westlund calls her a rock star.

Klassen explained that, in January, Transport Canada put out much-anticipated drone regulations, and suddenly everyone who wanted to fly one weighing more than 250 grams needed to pass an exam. It includes questions about classes of air space and meteorology.

Coastal Drone is in the businesses of training people to become qualified to fly drones, from filmmakers and surveyors to hobbyists.

“It’s been non-stop,” she said of the business.

Reg Moen has been in a technology business at the airport since 1995 as the owner of Dyna Nav Systems. His systems are used in agriculture for spraying crops, and in water bombers fighting wildfires.

There is a hydraulic interface for a pilot, he explained, and could be used to precisely drop anything from chemicals to seeds.

He also has systems for aerial mapping used in oil and gas exploration.

There are about five companies in the world that do what Dyna Nav does, and its systems can be found on every continent, all shipped from a factory at Pitt Meadows airport.

While Moen works on the industrial side of aviation, he sees n opportunity for Pitt Meadows airport in general aviation – “boys and their toys,” as he calls it, serving pilots with their Cessnas

Commercial aviation is entrenched in Vancouver and Abbotsford airports, and other airports such as Langley serve general aviation, but are saturated.

“General aviation is a huge opportunity,” he said, saying that includes flights schools, aircraft maintenance, other support industries and spinoff businesses.

“It’s a golden opportunity.”

Moen has been on the Pitt Meadows airport advisory committee and sees an airport that is ready to take off.

“It’s time. There have been misguided attempts in the past, but there is a plan in place now.”

Miller, the airport manager, said it in a process of transformation, with numerous new projects, including a fly-in riverside restaurant and Harbour Air seaplane terminal, new terminal building, helicopter park, commercial buildings and hangars.

He said the airport is perfectly positioned close to Vancouver, near key transportation routes, and has a lot of relatively affordable land available.

At this point, he said the airport leadership must help to guide developers through the process, while upgrading and generally beautifying the airport.

The jobs it will attract are technical and high-paying.

And the companies are innovative.

He notes Harbour Air, North America’s largest seaplane airline, recently announced it will be transforming all of its aircraft for an ePlane feet, powered by 750 horsepower all-electric motors.

“It will be interesting to see where that goes,” said Miller, noting there will likely be spinoff opportunities.

“That’s very cutting edge.”

Westlund feels like he invested in the airport just before it took off, and believes the city will ultimately “max out” every bit of available space at YPK.

“I’m so happy I got in, in time. I feel lucky.”

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Innovation on display at an emerging airport