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KF Aerospace celebrates 50 years of innovative aircraft solutions for corporate, commercial and military customers—including major airlines in Canada (WestJet and Air Canada) and around the globe (Icelandair and Condor). From our humble roots in the Okanagan Valley, KF has grown to specialize in aircraft maintenance and modifications, military aircrew training, air cargo operations and leasing—with the same level of quality and craftsmanship established by our founder in 1970. With facilities across Canada, KF is home to nearly 1,100 highly skilled employees.
In the early days of the business, our founder and CEO Barry Lapointe would often accept cherry pies and sides of beef as payment from farmers who were cash strapped but needed their crop dusters repaired. Barry wanted to expand the business beyond fixing aircraft: he also wanted to run an airline. Applications for an Air Operators Certificate were rejected, so instead he bought an airline, West Coast Air Services, in 1974. He started a commercial airline flying people within the interior of BC, from Kelowna to Kamloops or Sicamous and surrounding area.
KF Aerospace traces its roots back to March 25, 1970. That’s when a young Barry Lapointe relocated to Kelowna, BC and registered his aircraft maintenance company as Kelowna Flightcraft Ltd. He was only 25 years old and already held his AME License and Commercial Pilot License. He started performing small aircraft maintenance out of the Capozzi brothers hangar at YLW and was soon buying and selling aircraft. A year later Barry invited his old boss, Jim Rogers to be a partner in his new venture, and a lifetime of friendship and flying was born.
Barry had a passion to fly and applied for an Airline Operating Certificate several times, never successfully. Undeterred and focused on his goal, he elected to buy a company with an AOC, and Kelowna Flightcraft Air Charter Ltd was born in 1974, starting with aerial forest fire patrols.
On September 8, 1976 Barry was flying the Vernon Tigers lacrosse team home from the National Championship in his DC3 when he forced to make an emergency landing, saving everyone on board.
KF’s first big business break came unexpectedly on October 1, 1977, when Barry received a call asking if he could fly 1000 pounds of freight overnight from Vancouver to Toronto. He said yes, and initiated KF’s longest running customer relationship, delivering overnight air cargo for Purolator Courier.
In 1979, only nine years after starting the company, Barry purchased ‘Thundering Annie’, a Convair 440 for passenger charters. That purchase was the start of a long term ‘love affair’ with the Convair aircraft that continues today. In fact, the Convair has become an endearing theme within KF, as we’ve operated them continuously for over 40 years – longer than any other aircraft in our fleet.
By 1980 KF had 6 aircraft operating for Purolator and built Hangar 4 specifically for the Convair fleet.
Tragedy struck KF in 1982 when a Howard cargo aircraft crashed after takeoff killing the three staff onboard.
KF jumped into the commercial passenger business in 1984, establishing Intercity Air. Destinations included Kelowna, Vancouver, Spokane, Penticton, and Kamloops. Like today, competition was fierce, prices were going down, and profit was hard to maintain, so Barry sold Intercity Air to his main competitor, Time Air in 1985 – including the aircraft and staff!
That allowed KF to invest in new equipment, bringing home two shiny (used) Boeing 727-100’s to enter jet service in 1987 and expand capabilities for Purolator. Kelowna’s Main Hangar was built in 1985.
The late 80’s saw KF leverage its maintenance experience to support the air cargo operations as we installed our first CV 580 cargo door (completing 12 over the next 20 years) and initiated the Convair 5800 (stretch) program. We are still installing cargo doors in aircraft today, more than 30 years later. It took 8 years to get the Stretch Convair from concept to certification (underscoring Barry’s perseverance), and KF produced 6 (all still operating) over the next 15 years.
Recognizing a need to develop additional avionics capabilities, KF purchased Flight Comm Avionics, another local company in 1989.
The start of the 90’s saw significant changes in the overnight courier business, resulting in KF contracting to Purolator through Air Canada. By 1994 KF was once again Purolator’s dedicated air cargo carrier, expanded our Purolator fleet from two B727s to seven within 3 months.
In 1995, KF (still Kelowna Flightcraft) was celebrating 25 years, and growing. Barry & Jim were investing heavily into the business. Our facility in Hamilton was purpose built to support Purolator, and in Kelowna the South Hangar was added to support the T-33 upgrade program for the Government of Canada, a B727 simulator was installed, and we achieved ISO certification for our maintenance operations.
Greyhound airlines was launched July 15, 1996 (after several false starts due to competitor complaints & regulator intervention) with six B727-200’s as a low-cost discount domestic airline flying coast to coast. Though an instant success, the service abruptly ended less than one year later when Greyhound Canada was purchased, and the new owner shut the airline portion down. Nearly 500 employees were directly affected in one of the biggest operational impacts in KF history.
Barry immediately recognized a new opportunity and began converting the B727’s to cargo aircraft to support our growing Purolator cargo business. KF eventually converted eight B727’s. At the same time KF began converting Convair aircraft to Aerial Fire Tankers, eventually producing over 20 fire tanker conversions (nearly all remain flying today).
Tragedy struck our KF family on January 13, 1999 when an aircraft flying from YVR to YYJ clipped a mountain top, resulting in a crash and the loss of life for our two pilots. It was a solemn reminder of the risks associated with aviation.
As KF entered the 2000’s, we kicked off several new programs, including a joint venture with Conair (Aerial Fire Fighting) in Abbotsford; aircraft leasing (CV580’s and B727’s); a helicopter modification program (Mi172); and Convair passenger charter service to remote fishing lodges in the Queen Charlotte’s and northern Saskatchewan.
By this time KF had 15 Convair aircraft operating in its fleet and purchased the Convair Type Certificate in 2001, allowing KF to provide engineering, technical support and parts support to the worldwide fleet. A huge Convair Operators symposium was held in Kelowna, with participants from across North America.
The devastating terrorist acts of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001) rocked the aviation industry, (including KF), resulting in many operational restrictions with long reaching industry effects.
Bouncing back, KF commenced flying to Florida and Caribbean destinations for a new travel company called Columbus in early 2002, then became the first Canadian Company to operate the B737-800 when we entered into a 3-year joint venture with Excel Airways (eventually became Sunwing) in 2003. The Sunwing operation provided vacation charters from Toronto to Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean. KF is now Sunwing’s primary maintenance provider at our Hamilton operation.
2005 marked the single largest contract award in KF’s history. In March 2005 KF was announced as the successful bidder for Canada’s Contracted Flying, Training & Support program. KF was selected to lead this $1.8 Billion dollar, 22 year pilot training program, thanks to lower bid costs and better aircraft. Operations commenced September that year, much earlier than anticipated to support the Canadian Air Forces training needs. Today, our facility in Southport, Manitoba is home to over 90 staff, 6 simulators, 43 aircraft, and several subcontractors. KF is responsible to train nearly 300 pilots a year, and provides flight training, maintenance, lodging, meals, and airfield operations. It is a world class flight training program.
Other important milestones that year include the construction of Hangar 8 in Kelowna, Transport Canada DAO designation for our Engineering group, and an introduction to B757 maintenance work.
Barry successfully acquired a contract with Canada Post, allowing KF the opportunity to jump into the widebody air cargo market. The challenge – we had four and a half months to acquire three DC10’s, certify them, hire and train staff, and spool up operations. In true KF fashion we did not let our customer down and began flying mail for Canada Post on schedule, September 15, 2008. That operation grew to five aircraft and lasted eight years before it was closed down when the work was awarded to a competitor in 2015. The DC10’s then spent the next three years flying all over the world carry cargo and providing emergency relief supplies before being retired in 2018.
We expanded our leasing division providing three B737-400 aircraft for Flair, which was followed a few years later with two aircraft including a customized combi B737-300 for Canadian North.
KF took over the RCAF Fixed Wing Search and Rescue maintenance contract in 2009, supporting DND’s 10 SAR aircraft based on the west coast. This contract included a glass cockpit design and installation in the Twin Otter aircraft, which are planned to fly until 2025. The Buffalo STOL aircraft is scheduled to retire in 2020, and is likely the oldest aircraft we have maintained, being constructed in the late 1950’s!
WestJet, once an airline competitor when launched in 1996 (competing with Greyhound) became KF’s single largest maintenance contract in May 2012, when we were awarded a five-year Structural Maintenance Visit (SMV) program for their B737NG’s. Today, KF supports the entire WestJet family of B737’ and B767’s, plus Encore Q-400’s and Swoop. Thanks to the hard work of everyone on the program, our WJ contract was renewed in 2018 for 13 years, out to 2030, making it our longest maintenance contract.
In 2014 KF welcomed several new maintenance customers, including Icelandair, Lynden, and Aloha.
2015 was one of the toughest years for staff, as our Purolator and Canada Post contacts wrapped up in March, resulting in the closure of eight satellite bases (line stations) and the layoff or redeployment of nearly one third of our 900 staff. At our peak, KF had over 20 aircraft operating this network servicing 12 destinations moving nearly 1 million pounds of freight overnight daily. It also marked the end of an era as our 14 B727’s were sold, donated or retired from service. This milestone marked significant departure for KF, as we transitioned from a ‘flying focused’ organization to a maintenance centric organization.
Starting in 2014, in anticipation of the need to focus on maintenance operations (due to the pending loss of the Purolator work), we began an extensive Continuous Improvement Program to deliver improved outcomes and profitability. Similar to the Greyhound events 20 years earlier, our organization quickly bounced back, expanding and improving maintenance operations in Kelowna & Hamilton. By the end of 2018, maintenance had grown nearly 50 per cent, staffing was close to 1000 people, and a new passenger to cargo door conversion program had kicked off.
KF has begun preparations for renewing the CFTS contract in Southport that runs until 2027. In 2018 we announced a partnership with CAE called SkyAlyne - with the focus on winning the Future Air Crew Training (FACT) procurement.
Barry’s investments continued in 2019, with further expansions in Kelowna and the construction of KF’s first Wide Body hangar in Hamilton, a massive 75,000 square foot hangar that can house most wide body aircraft or up to four narrow bodies simultaneously.
As we enter 2020, KF staffing has reached 1,100 employees, producing over 1 million hours of work on over 250 aircraft visits annually, training 300 air force pilots, and flying over 1000 cargo flights annually within BC.