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One afternoon about five years ago, Vincent Gagnon was heading west to Saskatchewan to buy a Cessna 185. Passing through Thunder Bay, Ont., he thought he’d stop and visit long-time friend Frank Kelner, founder of the Pilatus Centre Canada, then the Canadian distributor for Pilatus PC-12 aircraft.
Ever the entrepreneur, Kelner asked him, “Why don’t you start a charter airline?”
It wasn’t just a shot in the dark. Gagnon has been a businessman in aviation and other fields for decades, including a Quebec-based turbine conversion company doing business around the world, which has won awards in Oshkosh for high performance experimental aircraft like the Lancair.
“I’ve also been an airline pilot for 20 years on the Airbus and Boeing with major airlines,” said Gagnon. “I had never thought about starting a charter company.”
Kelner pressed the point. “You know all the connections with your business and I’m sure there are good spots for PC-12s in Quebec,” he said, pointing out that people were tired of flying in old twin-engine charter aircraft.
There was one PC-12 operator in northern Quebec at the time, but they focused on scheduled flying. “I said, I don’t really want a charter airline,” recalled Gagnon.
But upon further pondering, he thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’
“So when I came back home I called my buddy Dany [also with the surname Gagnon but not related] who is now my 50-50 partner and vice-president.”
Dany was a TV and radio host who started flying 20 years ago when the two first met. He had earned his commercial licence and ran a small floatplane company in Quebec, so had good familiarity and knowledge of running a small aviation operation.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we buy a PC-12 and do charters?’ ” recalled Gagnon. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll just sell it. We figured we would have three or four airplanes in about five years.”
They bought the PC-12 and launched Chrono Aviation in 2012. It grew faster than expected.
“In four years, we had six PC-12s, two Beechcraft 1900Ds, and this year we added a Dash 8-100 that will soon be flying,” said Gagnon.
He reckons it’s the nicest Dash 8 in the world: “We have just installed a $1.5-million cockpit upgrade with 3D vision terrain. And we refurbished the interior; it’s like brand new.”
Rounding out the Chrono fleet is a new Falcon F50 EX for transatlantic charters.
Now, just five years after opening, Chrono Aviation has 10 airplanes that are busy flying charters mostly in Quebec and the North. Its charter flight service is available for the entire province of Quebec, multiple northern and remote destinations all over Canada, and some parts of the United States.
Gagnon is president while Dany is vice-president. It’s a good match.
“Dany is good at marketing and I’ve been buying and selling airplanes and helicopters for 20 to 25 years,” said Gagnon. “We are doing all the public relations and I have my business community. We realized we were pretty well connected, at least in Quebec.”
So how did they arrive at the name ‘Chrono?’
“After hundreds of ideas between Dany and myself we wanted something military, something sharp and something that says ‘on time,’ ” explained Gagnon. “We want to show we have a reliability rate and on time rate of over 98 per cent.
“We’ve won a few business awards from the chamber of commerce where Pricewaterhouse[Coopers] were judges,” he continued. “Our financial health is extremely good. We were the biggest expansion business in Quebec. Nobody has seen such growth in such a short period of time. Especially considering that in 2012, you had to be crazy like us to start a new business.”
Chrono’s basic workhorse is the PC-12 and they were a good choice right from the start. The company uses them in four configurations, from six to nine passengers with 400 to 1,000 pounds of luggage or cargo, to a 2,400-pound all-cargo version utilizing a large freight door.
“The two Beechcraft 1900Ds are the step between the PC-12 and our 705 [licence] for charter because we can do gravel runways,” said Gagnon. “We fly a lot in the Arctic–some 3,000 hours a year in Nunavut on short gravel strips. The 1900D was the second step towards the bigger airplanes and we needed the capacity for many customers like Hydro-Quebec and mine contracts.”
Chrono offers the 1900D in four configurations: three 13 to 19 passenger commuter/cargo versions, and a full cargo of up to 4,100 pounds.
The Dash 8 was another step up; many mining clients had suggested it. It will be used mostly for crew rotations in the North, construction, and cargo. The Dash 8 will be offered in four configurations: three commuter/cargo of up to 37 passengers, and a full cargo version of up to 9,000 pounds.
The Falcon F50EX is prized by Chrono’s business clients travelling in North America and Europe. This high-performance, long-range business aircraft can cross the Atlantic non-stop at a maximum altitude of 49,000 feet and 890 kilometres per hour. Its spacious cabin accommodates nine passengers in luxurious comfort, with large captains’ seats, a banquette that converts into a bed, and a restroom.
Gagnon said Chrono maintains several partnerships with First Nations in Nunavut, Nunavik, and with the Mistissini and Wemindji Cree Nations of the James Bay region of Quebec. He reckons that provides some healthy competition in the region, especially with the addition of the company’s new Dash 8.
Chrono is also a new player in jet management, a convenience for many owners and operators. “You can buy an airplane but you don’t want to operate it because you don’t want to take care of hiring pilots, safety, training, maintenance,” said Gagnon. “So we can operate the airplane for the owner. We can also sell charter when they aren’t using it.”
Chrono’s facilities include a hangar in Quebec City and one in St. Hubert, Que.
“We are on the verge of building a gorgeous new hangar in St. Hubert in the next year: a bigger hangar for the Dash 8 and the Falcon,” said Gagnon. “Right now, we have to sub-lease space for those.”
With the new hangar, which will also be a fixed-base operator (FBO), Chrono will be the first to provide jet management in St. Hubert, which is on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.
“Everybody now goes to Dorval, but we are easier to access for a lot of people,” noted Gagnon.
Challenges and Opportunities of Chrono’s 72 employees, around 30 to 35 of them are pilots.
Gagnon said finding pilots is one of Chrono’s biggest challenges and explained the company’s hiring philosophy.
“Right now, we are using not-so-young pilots. We hire a lot of retired guys and that is on purpose because we don’t want to lose guys every day. Young guys have less experience and that’s not what we’re looking for.”
Lack of labour in the maintenance department is a challenge, too; it’s difficult to find employees. Chrono subcontracts much of the maintenance but has its own AMO and avionics shop called WAAS Avionics.
Gagnon is particularly proud of the latter. “In our first year with Garmin, we won third prize in the world,” he said. “We did our own conversion on the Dash 8–it took about 1,500 hours. We did one of our 1900Ds to the Garmin G950 avionics panel, and our second 1900 we will do this winter.”
Chrono enjoys public relations. “We transformed one of our Beech 1900Ds into Star Wars when that new movie came out,” said Gagnon.
The latest custom livery on a Chrono Beech 1900D celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday. The aircraft was displayed this summer at the Bagotville airshow in June.
The aircraft wrap features 20 emblematic maple leaves, in which are inscribed the names of 20 personalities who have marked the history of Canada. Among them are Romeo Dallaire, Tecumseh, Sir John A. Macdonald, the Unknown Soldier, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William (Billy) Bishop and Brian Mulroney.
“It is still wrapped like that for this year, and next year we will see what we do with that one,” said Gagnon.
Earlier this year, Chrono Aviation took part in a special mission to rescue a beluga whale in distress. The whale had wandered from the St. Lawrence River and become trapped for almost two weeks in the Népisiguit River near Bathurst, N.B. Chrono Aviation was called upon to transport the animal between Bathurst and Rivière-du-Loup, Que.
It was a tricky operation. Special precautions were needed, including pressurization of the aircraft and ensuring that no stray water could contact critical electronic components. The Chrono team actually built a miniature swimming pool and installed it on board a Pilatus PC-12 configured in cargo mode.
A team of experts then flew with the beluga, regularly watering it down to keep it well hydrated. After a 40-minute flight, the Pilatus landed at the Rivière-du-Loup airport. Here the whale was off-loaded onto a truck to the port of Cacouna, Que., where it was returned to the water.
Another community event saw Chrono Aviation participate in setting a new Canadian tattoo-in-the-air record. It was all part of the #all-in-2 campaign to educate the public about prejudices faced by struggling youth–often judged by their appearance or an unusual look–and to help the Quebec City and Dans la rue de Montréal organizations. Actor and host Mathieu Baron and tattoo artist Dave Z. James, owner of Sacred Ink Tattoo Klub, boarded a Chrono Pilatus PC-12 for a tattoo session at nearly 30,000 feet to set the record.
Customer testimonials arrive at Chrono regularly.
“Béton Provincial has been using Chrono Aviation’s aircraft for close to two years. This company provides an outstanding service that meets all our company’s needs,” stated André Bélanger, president of concrete products manufacturer Béton Provincial.
Rock Morel, president of SEMA, a construction service provider to the railway industry in Canada and the United States, added, “Chrono Aviation meets all our workforce transportation needs for our construction sites. We are pleased and even proud to recommend their services.”
So what’s on the horizon for this innovative operator?
“Well, we only have one Dash 8 and it is rare we stay with just one of a type,” said Gagnon. “There’s probably more coming.”
The growth should continue, as Chrono works to land some big contracts which could position it as a major player in Canada.