features KF Aerospace: Anything but a One-Trick Pony

As KF Aerospace celebrates 50 years in business, the company finds strength in its diversity of operations and a collective spirit of innovation.
Avatar for Lisa Gordon By Lisa Gordon | August 6, 2020

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 4 seconds.

The best leaders are visionaries who can recognize opportunity yet know how to roll up their sleeves and make it happen.

The KF Aerospace facility in Hamilton, Ont., has recently undergone rapid expansion. A new 75,000-square-foot hangar can accommodate widebody aircraft. KF Aerospace Photo

In the world of Canadian aviation, Barry Lapointe, 75, is one of those leaders. Driven by his great passion for the industry, he’s a hard worker who looks in every crevice and turns over every rock to find intriguing business prospects. In fact, you could say he is one of the original “out of the box” thinkers.

Lapointe is fond of saying KF Aerospace – the company he founded as Kelowna Flightcraft in 1970 – is anything but a one-trick pony. The proof of that statement is in the company’s 50-year track record. From humble roots as a small mobile aircraft repair service in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, KF Aerospace has grown steadily, making a name for itself in not just maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services, but also air cargo, aircraft engineering and modifications, leasing, charters and military pilot training. Over the years, the company has operated passenger airlines, a fixed-base operation, breathed new life into older aircraft and engineered useful modifications for hundreds more.

From that day in 1970 when Lapointe first put up the handmade Kelowna Flightcraft sign on Hangar #3 at Kelowna Airport (YLW), the company’s story has been one of determination and diversity. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed KF’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2020, it can never dampen the pride its employees feel in working for an owner who is so passionate about aviation.

KF has invested $40 million to expand its Hamilton base, including new shops and a state-of-the-art aviation campus for Mohawk College. KF Aerospace Photo

“It was just myself and my dog,” said Lapointe during a recent video address to KF Aerospace staff. “Look at us now. I take great pride in what we do. Of course, we had planned a big celebration. Fifty years is a good time to do this. But it will be delayed for a while until it’s safe.”

The early days

In 1970 Kelowna Flightcraft was on the move … literally. Based out of his pickup truck, Lapointe – then aged 25 and already an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME) and a commercial pilot – drove up and down the Okanagan Valley fixing small airplanes. He moved into aircraft sales and teamed up
with his old boss from Harrison Airways, Jim Rogers, to expand the maintenance department.

Although he had applied for an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) many times, he was always denied. So, rather than giving up, Lapointe decided to buy an airline called West Coast Air Services in Nelson, B.C., renaming it Kelowna Flightcraft Air Charter in 1974. Initially, the charter division kept busy doing aerial forest fire patrols. Slowly, the number of aircraft and staff members began to grow.

In 1976, 16-year-old Mike Coulthard took a part-time job washing and refuelling aircraft and sweeping the hangar floor. At the time, a flight school was leasing space from Lapointe, who also operated the airport Shell dealership.

KF Aerospace founder and CEO Barry Lapointe, far right, was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in May 2019. CAHF Photo

“I’d known for a long time what my career passion would be. I knew aviation was in my blood,” said Coulthard, who is now KF Aerospace’s director of Flight Operations and a 40-year full-time employee. Following high school, he stopped working at Kelowna Flightcraft long enough to attend the aviation program at Selkirk College in Castlegar, B.C. One Christmas, he flew home in a college aircraft, parking it on the Kelowna Flightcraft ramp.

“I passed Barry’s office and he called me in,” recalled Coulthard. “Barry told the ops director at the time that I would be flying for the company that summer. It was news to me! But in 1980, airlines were entering a downturn. It wasn’t a good job market, so to have a job offer upon graduation was a special thing. I did my IFR (instrument) ride and then my first flight as a full-time employee for Flightcraft was two days later.”

Coulthard initially flew single-engine forestry patrols, photo flights and small charters, working his way into the light twin-engine aircraft. Within two years, he was first officer on the Jet Commander and quickly progressed to the right seat of the Convair 580, before becoming captain a year later.

“It was those opportunities that put their hooks into me,” reflected Coulthard. “I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made. KF has been a fabulous place to work.”

When KF Aerospace lost the Purolator contract, it was operating 14 727s (shown here), two DC-10s and four Convair 580s. Michael Durning Photo

Despite having a guaranteed interview with Air Canada through Selkirk College, he elected not to take it. “Things here were rolling along, cargo was strong and KF was growing, and it’s in my hometown. All my family was here.”

By 1987, he was flying the Boeing 727 for Purolator. Ten years earlier, the courier company had called Lapointe asking if he could fly a thousand pounds of freight overnight from Vancouver to Toronto. That call sparked the company’s longest-running business relationship.

Coulthard went on to become chief pilot of Kelowna Flightcraft from 1988 to 2015 before moving into his current role as director of Flight Operations. He said the Purolator work has always been very important.

“One of the things I’ve been most proud of is that we were working with Purolator for more than 40 years,” he told Skies. “A large part of my commercial flying hours have been flying Purolator freight. We were operating Jet Commanders, then Convairs, and then 727s became our East-West cargo aircraft. We operated between Victoria, B.C., and St. John’s, N.L., and points in between.”

Mike Coulthard, left, and Gregg Evjen are 40- and 31-year KF Aerospace employees, respectively. Of the company’s 1,100 staff members, 350 have served for more than 10 years. KF Aerospace Photo

Over the years, many key milestones and achievements stand out in Coulthard’s memory. The opening of the Hamilton, Ont., base in 1995, where most of the Purolator maintenance was done. The purchase of the Convair type certificate in 2001. The successful bid in 2005 for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Contracted Flying Training and Support (CFTS) contract in Southport, Man. The coming of the widebody Douglas DC-10s in 2008.

But no company sees its 50th birthday without encountering adversity along the way. Luckily, when it did hit turbulence, the company was guided by Lapointe’s steady hand and his unique talent to recognize new opportunities, just as old doors were closing.

Retrenching for success

In 1996, Kelowna Flightcraft launched Greyhound Air, with six aircraft providing passenger service as far east as Toronto. Plans were announced in December 1995 and the new airline took flight on July 15, 1996.

“That was quite an amazing operation,” reflected Coulthard. “People loved us and it was meant to be a fun way to fly – no frills, but fun and engaging, connecting East and West.”

In the short time it existed, Greyhound Air went from 60 pilots to 200 pilots and more than 200 flight attendants.

Then came the shocking news that it all had to be shut down in three weeks. Service was suspended on Sept. 20, 1997.

“We got called into a meeting in early September and learned that Laidlaw had bought out Greyhound Lines of Canada. Part of that deal was the airline would be shut down. It was frankly heartbreaking; we had poured our heart and soul into this thing. The next day, we were sitting around a big table making phone calls to break the bad news.”

In 1996, Kelowna Flightcraft launched Greyhound Air, with six aircraft providing passenger service as far east as Toronto. Although short-lived, it was considered successful. KF Aerospace Photo

But resiliency is baked into the fibre of the company known today as KF Aerospace. In fact, that name change in itself was prompted by another big bump in the road – the loss of the Purolator contract in March 2015.

“When we lost Purolator, we were operating 14 727s, two DC-10s and four Convair 580s,” said Coulthard.

In 2014, the fleet flew almost 17,000 hours; but by 2019, it had shrunk in both size and scope to just under 1,700 hours.

With Purolator gone, it was time for the company to pull back, retrench and increase the focus on something it already did very well: MRO.

“We had been doing some work for WestJet heavy maintenance,” explained Coulthard. “The company reset and went aggressively after third-party maintenance. It was quite a remarkable transformation. Flight ops went to being the little brother virtually overnight. The hard crunch change happened within 12 months.”

At the same time, the company changed its name from Kelowna Flightcraft to KF Aerospace, de-localizing its branding for more global appeal. Today, the MRO has grown by over 50 per cent since 2015 and now accounts for close to 60 per cent of company revenues.

Today, KF employs more than 700 aerospace engineers, aircraft maintenance engineers and technicians across its locations in Kelowna, Vancouver, Hamilton and Southport, Man. KF Aerospace Photo

A maintenance empire

Gregg Evjen is vice-president of Maintenance and Engineering at KF Aerospace. He’s another long-time employee who is coming up on his 31st anniversary. Similar to Coulthard, he worked his way up over the years after starting in the engineering department.

Today, Evjen is responsible for all engineering, maintenance and modification activities, and manufacturing. He oversees 700 aerospace engineers, AMEs and technicians across KF Aerospace’s locations in Kelowna, Vancouver, Hamilton and Southport, where the CFTS program is based.

He remembers when the focus shifted from cargo operations to maintenance.

“In order to support Purolator, which was the company focus pre-2015, we were still doing maintenance activities behind the scenes,” recalled Evjen. “Because of the diversity accumulated over decades of fleet support, we ended up building a very skilled workforce in engineering and maintenance. So when the flying side of our business shrank, we quickly turned to our other strengths and quite remarkably built them up in a very short period of time.”

Air Transat, foreground, was the first customer in the new Hamilton hangar in November 2019. KF Aerospace Photo

Today, KF Aerospace is the largest independent, privately owned commercial MRO facility in Canada. Kelowna is the main hub, with five hangars handling 12 lines of heavy maintenance, modifications, engineering and manufacturing. A smaller Vancouver operation handles third-party line maintenance and supports KF’s flight operations. Hamilton is home to two large hangars, one brand new, which can simultaneously accommodate a widebody and two narrowbody aircraft for maintenance or modifications. In Southport, the maintenance operation supports the military pilot training program.

While WestJet is KF’s largest customer, the company also provides maintenance services to other operators such as Sunwing, Air Transat, Air North and Air Canada. Internationally, it has long-term contracts with Icelandair, Lynden Air Cargo, ConocoPhillips, Northern Air Cargo, and Aloha Air Cargo. KF supports over 20 aircraft types.

Although the global pandemic has curtailed airline flying and reduced maintenance services to a trickle, Evjen said KF Aerospace has so far managed to avoid layoffs with the help of modification programs and government relief programs. The company’s goal is to remain ready to support the airlines as flying resumes. And as the demand for air cargo continues to increase, the company is keeping busy with passenger-to-freighter conversions.

The non-profit KF Aerospace Centre for Excellence is due to open on March 25, 2022. The all-wood building will be shaped like an aircraft. KF Aerospace Image

“We are currently running three lines of freighter conversions nose to tail (in Kelowna), and plan to bring a similar program to Hamilton,” said Evjen. “Complex modification programs have always been a part of our DNA at KF and will be key to our continued success.”

While KF will expand to fill any service voids left by COVID-19, its engineers are also examining opportunities to shore up passenger confidence in the safety of air travel.

Remembering the legacy

As someone who is frequently heard proclaiming, “God, I love aviation,” it’s no surprise that Barry Lapointe is spearheading a project designed to honour the industry’s contribution to the Okanagan Valley.

The non-profit KF Aerospace Centre for Excellence is due to open on March 25, 2022 – the company’s 52nd anniversary. Shaped like an aircraft, the 39,000-square-foot building will be constructed entirely of wood and other materials native to B.C.

According to the centre’s director, Paula Quinn, the facility will be built on the west side of the airport at 5800 Lapointe Way (the street address is a reference to the Convair CV-5800, a stretch version of the CV-580 turboprop that was designed and produced by KF Aerospace).

Longtime staff members at KF Aerospace say the organization holds true to the values of its founder, Barry Lapointe. Today, the company employs 1,100 people. KF Aerospace Photo

The two-storey KF Aerospace Centre for Excellence will feature a hands-on display, including four aircraft. Quinn said schools will be welcome to tour the facility. The second floor will feature an exhibition hall with removable walls. It has already been booked to host the 2023 induction gala for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame (into which Lapointe was inducted in 2019).

Lapointe himself has made an indelible mark on aviation not just in B.C., but around the world. In that recent anniversary message to employees, he promised to continue to carve out new paths.

“We will continue to look under every rock in aviation for something interesting,” he said. “Our future is very strong: engineering, manufacturing of parts, cargo door conversions, ATRs, Boeing 737-800 cargo doors coming shortly, a new super hangar in Hamilton for larger airplanes and heavier maintenance for Boeing and Airbus. It’s up, up and away with us.”

As for employees like Mike Coulthard, who literally swept the hangar floor, it’s been a fulfilling 40 years.

“Barry always strives for quality work, honesty and integrity,” he said. “His core values are work hard, be industrious, be honest and dedicated, and you will do well. I learned those values from him in the early days.

“I’ve been honoured and so fortunate to be attached to Barry’s star over the last four decades.”

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