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Vancouver Island’s Coulson Aviation technician academy a first in Canada

Port Alberni firm graduates first class of aircraft structure technicians certified outside a school

Coulson Aviation has achieved a first for the Canadian aviation field. The Port Alberni-based company has been certified as an approved training organization (ATO) with Transport Canada, and recently graduated its first class of aircraft structures technicians.

Coulson is the only ATO that is not a school. There are only 20 other ATO-certified facilities across Canada, and only one other in B.C., in Abbotsford.

Pursuing Transport Canada certification was a natural progression for Coulson Group, said president and chief operating officer Britt Coulson. “We continue to expand around the world. We’re the largest North American partner in Australia, we’re the largest North American partner in South America” as far as aerial firefighting.

Coulson Aviation is a family-run business with headquarters in Port Alberni and operations at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport. The company converts former military or commercial aircraft into “Fireliners,” or aerial tankers used to fight wildfires. Over the last decade more of their operations have moved to the United States, Australia and South America, but the family wants to keep its roots in the Alberni Valley.

“We’ve stayed true to the community here where all our heavy modification and aircraft conversion work happens at our facilities in Port Alberni,” Coulson said.

“We want to stay in the community. How do we make it sustainable and create good paying jobs, provide post-secondary education…that will allow us to continue to not only do the conversions that we are doing now, but increase throughput?

“The firefighting industry is short on assets. The more aircraft we can build, the more we can put to work.”

The solution was to create an aircraft structures course where they could train technicians, provide them with on-the-job training and then hire them in the end.

“Our vision is we would pay students to attend school,” Coulson explained.

This differs from traditional aviation maintenance or structure technicians programs, where students pay to go to class and are then released to find entry-level jobs that sometimes aren’t even related to the field for which they studied.

Students enrolled in Coulson’s program are paid to attend class, then they work for the company outside of school hours. Coulson guarantees graduates a full-time position once schooling is complete, with a path through apprenticeship to a full licence.

Coulson started developing a certification program with Transport Canada and created a 10-month program that follows a federal curriculum. The first class graduated in January 2024, and shortly after an audit Coulson received its certification. Eight students started the program and six finished; all of the graduates are working with Coulson, training manager David Nilson said.

The unique part of the Coulson Aviation Academy program is the hands-on experience, said Nilson, who taught for five years in a college environment.

He said Coulson differs in that they introduce students to the culture of aviation right away: students are exposed to high-tech equipment and experienced mentors.

When the inaugural class started the company had a Boeing 737 in its hangar at the Alberni Valley airport, and students could see first hand the work they would be doing upon graduating.

“This company has a culture of getting things done and doing it at a high efficiency rate,” Nilson said.

“By the end of the course some of them are doing some really complex work on the floor.”

“These students are much more advanced because of their experience here,” Coulson added. While there will be travel opportunities for graduates, for now they will be working in Port Alberni.

Another class is already in the works and Coulson has plans to build two new facilities at the airport: a hangar and a manufacturing facility. There will likely be more classroom space included for the future, he said.

READ ALSO: Vancouver Island’s Coulson Aviation keeps growing

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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