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Cathy Press sees a natural progression in the grand opening of the new $3.4 million facility for her fixed-wing flight instruction school in Abbotsford, B.C.
The chief executive officer and the sole owner of Chinook Helicopters started flying an airplane at age 11, embarked on her first solo flight at 16, and obtained her plane and helicopter licences after she turned 17. She has been hooked on aviation ever since.
In an interview following a ceremony to open the hangar for Chinook’s fixed-wing airplanes at Abbotsford International Airport, Press spoke about how her company went from training helicopter pilots to diversifying into fixed-wing flight instruction.
“August 2017 is when we seriously started the fixed-wing business,” said Press in her office, taking a breather after greeting guests who attended the grand opening. “We had a company that we worked with in Thailand that wanted us to take on the fixed-wing side, and we said we would.”
Her father launched Chinook in 1983, when she was 13. By 1997, she started taking over the operations of the privately-owned business.
Today, Chinook boasts a dozen helicopters and eight planes, with about 40 employees in total. Press also serves as the chief flight instructor.
She estimates half of the 60 people who recently enrolled on the fixed-wing side are from Canada while the other half are international students. In recent years on the helicopter side, the class composition of students has averaged roughly 70 per cent domestic and 30 per cent foreign.
“There’s a real need for pilots, both fixed-wing and helicopter,” said 71-year-old Dale Nielsen, who joined Chinook last fall as a fixed-wing instructor for a new generation of students. He also helps train new instructors.
“Pilots are retiring and many airlines are growing,” he said, as he looked out a window at a four-seater aircraft just outside the new hangar. Chinook has five Cessna 172S planes and three Diamond Twinstar DA42s.
Wayne Cave is Chinook’s assistant chief flight instructor on the fixed-wing side. The 70-year-old Cave remembers the humble roots for fixed-wing training starting with one plane in 2015, when he joined Chinook.
“Cathy had been doing helicopter pilot training for Thailand for something like 17 years. She got an e-mail one day that asked if she could do fixed-wing training, and she said sure to Thailand,” said Cave.
Jacob Winterburn, an 18-year-old student from Mission, B.C., said he has been impressed with Chinook’s groundschool courses and hands-on training. “You start right away in the Cessna 172S with your instructor by your side,” he said. “You’re looking at charter companies for your first job and working your way up for maybe four or five years to an airline.”
Parm Sidhu, general manager at the Abbotsford airport, said he’s pleased to be witnessing Chinook’s growth with its fixed-wing training centre. “This is a brand-new facility,” he said, standing in the middle of the hangar.
The new 18,000-square-foot building includes 8,000 square feet with space designated for classrooms, briefing rooms, flight simulators, office space and other uses. The hangar itself is 10,000 square feet.
The new facility and the 22,000-square-foot helicopter training centre are located on land leased through the Abbotsford airport.
“On the rotary side, Chinook is the premier helicopter school in Canada, and both rotary and fixed-wing are getting people from all over the world to train,” said Sidhu.
For one guest in particular, the grand opening brought back aviation memories. Jim Scott, president of Flair Airlines Ltd., said he was a 19-year-old flight instructor in Abbotsford when he met the then-14-year-old Press for the first time in 1984.
“I used to see her all the time at the airport,” said Scott. “Over the years, I’ve followed her from afar as she built up her flight training business.”
Press estimates that Chinook holds 25 per cent of the market in Canada for training helicopter pilots, and she has high hopes for the fixed-wing business.
“We’re excited to be one of the top aviation training companies in Canada,” she said. “The need for pilots is stronger right now than at any time that I’ve seen in my life.”
Once the required paperwork is done, the new combined facility will be christened Chinook Aviation.
Press said she has been fortunate to attract experienced pilots such as Nielsen and Cave, who are two of the nine fixed-wing instructors. “We have a number of retirement-age instructors, and we feel that gives very good mentorship for the young people,” she said. “Some spectacular staff members were available to be here. Wayne Cave helped me decide that this would be a good time to do fixed-wing.”
International trainees for the helicopter and fixed-wing businesses have arrived from a wide range of countries, including Thailand, Switzerland, China, Australia, Egypt, Russia, Britain, France and Denmark.
“We’re having high-level, professional and well-respected training,” said Press.