PropWorks: Sustained growth over 2 decades

Ever since French engineer Henri Giffard flew a hydrogen-filled dirigible 27 kilometres from Paris to Elancourt in September 1852, the propeller was for nearly a century the only way to sustain powered flight.

The Winnipeg management team consists of PropWorks’ director of maintenance Mike Hudec, left, quality assurance manager Russell Bichon, middle, and president Jim Ross, right. PropWorks Photo
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It would be another 51 years before Orville and Wilbur Wright used this “airscrew” technology in the first flight of a powered fixed-wing aircraft at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The Wright brothers also came up with the idea of adding a twist to each blade, giving a more consistent angle of attack.

Despite the advent and evolution of jets since the early 1940s, propellers have remained the preferred option for smaller aircraft. But, as with all things mechanical, they require maintenance and repair. That has enabled Winnipeg-based PropWorks Propeller Systems Inc. to become the largest company of its kind in Western Canada.

“Winnipeg is where we started, on the fringe of James Richardson International Airport,” company president Jim Ross, one of the founding investors, told Skies. “The company was incorporated in October 1999 and we moved into our building in December 1999.” Winnipeg is home to about two-thirds of the total staff of 30 with the rest at its shop in Edmonton.

PropWorks is now privately held by Ross along with a pair of Calgary-based investors, Lorne Gray, who owns the Aircraft Canada sales and appraisal firm, and AvMax Group Inc. “I’m the only constant,” he laughed, quickly adding that some of his employees also are long-term. Before the company was founded, Ross spent 15 years with Cessna Aircraft Co., doing finance and some marketing until it shut down its Winnipeg facility in 1992. So he began marketing for several aviation-related companies, one of which was Western Propeller.

According to PropWorks, one of the most complex propellers to service are the Hamilton Sundstrand propellers on the Dash 8 twin turboprop. Eric Dumigan Photo
According to PropWorks, one of the most complex propellers to service are the Hamilton Sundstrand propellers on the Dash 8 twin turboprop. Eric Dumigan Photo

When Western decided to close the Winnipeg facility seven years later, to focus on their Edmonton and Vancouver centres, Ross and an original group of investors bought the equipment, moved it into a leased 6,500-square-foot building and began operations with just five employees. It relocated to a new 12,000-square-foot building in April 2015.

The Edmonton shop, which opened in December 2006, was moved in December 2017 to a 14,000-square-foot building at Villeneuve Airport, the area’s main general aviation and flight training hub.

PropWorks’ employees, whose experience tallies up to more than 150 years, provide services which “meet or exceed” original equipment manufacturers’ specifications.

“Sometimes we’ll go an extra step with such things with non-destructive testing that we feel gives our customers a bit of added comfort,” Ross explained. “We have a dedicated non-destructive testing room” where blades, hubs and related components are tested before propellers are reassembled and balanced. NDT procedures include magnetic particle inspection, liquid penetrants, eddy current and ultrasonic inspection.

In addition to being an Avia Propeller Service Centre, PropWorks overhauls and repairs most models of Hamilton Standard, Hamilton Sundstrand, McCauley, Dowty, MT, Sensenich and Hartzell propellers.

(On a historical note, Ohio-based Hartzell dates to 1917 when Robert Hartzell, a pilot whose family owned a hardwood lumber factory and who had noticed a high failure rate in wood propellers, began producing hand-carved walnut units at the suggestion of longtime friend Orville Wright.)

The PropWorks' management team in Edmonton include manager Cliff Arntson, left, assistant manager Mike Wagner, middle, and QA manager Bob Tegart, right. PropWorks Photo
The PropWorks management team in Edmonton includes manager Cliff Arntson, left, assistant manager Mike Wagner, middle, and QA manager Bob Tegart, right. PropWorks Photo

To this day, Hartzell prizes and cultivates customer loyalty in having built its global reputation, and so does PropWorks, which has customers in Canada, the U.S. and around the world. Ross said that as with most businesses, “it’s about the people as much as the product.” One of his people is director of maintenance Mike Hudec, who had been with Western Propeller and now is his longest-term employee. Cliff Arntson, manager in Edmonton and Mike Wagner, assistant manager in Edmonton have a combined 84 years experience with propellers.

Much of the U.S. business is with customers in the border markets of Minnesota and the Dakotas. PropWorks has three trucks which pick up the propellers for work in Winnipeg and Edmonton. “Our customers like that service,” said Ross. His most distant customer is AvMax, which has a base in Nairobi, Kenya, and he has other large customers primarily Canada and U.S. based.

PropWorks draws on a variety of sources for its employees, including the Stevenson Campus of Red River College in Winnipeg. They come out of the aviation maintenance engineer (AME) stream but are not certified AMEs because they haven’t gone through the requisite apprentice program when they join PropWorks. “They can’t do that in a propeller shop because that wouldn’t give them a broad enough base to qualify as AMEs,” said Ross. “There’s no AME licence for propellers; there was at one time but not for many years now.” The general preference is “somebody with a good mechanical aptitude who we can put in our own training program,” he added. “It takes one to two years for them to become proficient.”

Asked to explain the difference between overhaul and repair, Ross said the former involves disassembly, discarding parts mandated for replacement, installing new ones and then putting the entire assembly through NDT before it’s painted, reassembled and balanced. That means it’s a “zero time” propeller when it leaves the shop. Repairs, on the other hand, can involve a range of things such as dealing with blade nicks or leaking hub seals. If that’s all that is done, the propeller leaves the shop as “time continued.”

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Like everything in aviation, propellers have long since evolved since those early fixed wood two-bladed configurations. “The simple ones nowadays are the fixed-pitch propellers that you’d see on your most basic flight training airplane,” said Ross, who is part-owner of a Cessna 172 and has about 1,000 hours logged. “Then it goes all the way up, through two-bladed constant-speed propellers to three-, four- and even five-bladed propellers.”

The most complex ones are Hamilton Sundstrand propellers on the Dash 8 twin turboprop introduced by de Havilland Canada in 1984 and last built by Bombardier Aerospace in 2005. “They simply take more time,” said Ross.

Then there are some which can justifiably called vintage, such as the Hamilton Standard three-bladed propellers on Second World War-era Douglas DC-3s but these are “fairly standard.” Ross noted that PropWorks donated one for the equally old North American Harvard Mark II in the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon, Man.

Many of PropWorks' employees come out of the AME stream at school but aren't immediately ready for the job as they generally need one or two years of experience to become proficient with propeller work. PropWorks Photo
Many of PropWorks’ employees come out of the AME stream at school but aren’t immediately ready for the job as they generally need one or two years of experience to become proficient with propeller work. PropWorks Photo

The company is doing more composites, a capacity which required “a substantial investment” in equipment, including an autoclave to heat the laminates.

Asked what the future might hold, Ross replied that while “we’ve just had our best year ever,” he hesitated to predict the “hectic” growth of the past 10 years would continue. “The key to growth is not necessarily going out to find new customers. It’s adding to our capabilities – that way more customers are likely to send their work to us.”

While he could only guess at the number of corporate or private propeller-driven aircraft in Canada, he did venture that “it’s not a dying market” which bodes well for the future.

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