Based in Kelowna, B.C., Wildcat Helicopters is one of the largest private helicopter companies in Canada and the world. Over the past two decades the forward-thinking management had created a dynamic company and culture that is able to address even the most complex rescue challenges. The company’s professional rescue crews bring an open mind, unique problem-solving abilities to field operations, and always focus on working safely, effectively, and getting the job done right and on time.
With state-of-the-art equipment, highly experienced crews, and immaculate professionalism, long-term, exclusive-use agreements with government agencies for firefighting throughout Canada and internationally represent the core company business. In total, the company has agreements with two government agencies in Canada, one in Australia, and serves one private client in the firefighting off-season.
The company operates out of its air base in West Kelowna, from a 12,000 square foot hangar and maintenance facility. The company operates 11 medium lift aircraft (possibly the newest helicopter fleet in Canada) and staff of 50. It has the largest fleet (five) of Bell 412 helicopters in the country, and the company also has six Bell 212s. Four aircraft are equipped with rescue hoist-and-winch systems, which makes Wildcat also the largest provider of winch-equipped aircraft in Canada, and it is the largest fleet of belly tank helicopters in the world as a private operator, and Wildcat was the first in Canada to equip helicopter with the Goodrich rescue hoist. As a professional rescue operation, Wildcat staff is able to provide high-quality emergency and paramedical care in emergency situations, it is certified by Transport Canada for night operation under instrument flight rules (IFR), air firefighting operations, and is also certified by United Nations.
The Canadian Business Journal spoke with Ian Wilson, Vice President, about what Wildcat Helicopters does differently, and what makes it the go-to emergency aircraft service internationally. “We are in the business of helping in the time of disaster, stress, and misadventure. The core value is that we are here to help and provide assistance,” says Wilson, to introduce Wildcat.
In 2016, Wildcat rescued injured hikers and snowmobilers, provided firefighting support across Canada, including being some of the first aircrafts in action at Fort McMurray. The company also has an ongoing firefighting contract in Australia. At the time of the interview, eight of the company helicopters had been out flying, five providing heli-skiing service (flying skiers to the top of a mountain) to its private client, and three in Australia.
In emergency, the company is ready-to-ship (helicopter and equipment loaded on an aircraft and ready to fly anywhere in the world) its helicopters to any theatre of operations within 72 hours, and within 36 hours after shipment arrival, aircraft and full crew are operational. The crews rotate on regular basis. “For example, one of our firefighting contracts is in Eastern Ontario, the aircraft will leave in late April / early March, and returns in late August / early September, and we rotate the crews regularly. The crews run the remote operations themselves, and we are able to monitor their operation in real time and provide them support they need remotely. The crews maintain the aircraft in the field. It’s known aircraft had been maintained remotely for as long as nine months,” says Wilson.
Locally, the company has an ongoing partnership with Vernon, B.C., Search and Rescue, operating a rescue helicopter based in Kelowna. “For this service, we use Bell 412EP—there is only about four of these helicopters in Canada, and we operate two of them. The helicopter is equipped, of course, with rescue hoist-and-winch system and emergency medical equipment. The helicopter has four crew members on board—the pilot, rescue winch operator, and two rescue professionals trained in avalanche rescue as well as paramedic care,” says Wilson.
Wildcat makes it the point building strong employee culture by hiring the best talent possible. The company does this by focusing on pilots and crew who are experienced but still at the upswing in their career, people who can think outside the box and focus on putting the customer’s needs first, and doing the work safely and efficiently. “This is what makes us successful,” says Wilson. “We employ guys in their mid 30s to late 40s. These professionals bring a level of maturity and experience, they still want to do the job, and they are passionate about the work they do.”
By choosing the right candidates, Wildcat ensures very low turnover, and the core group of pilots and technicians hold the thumb on the pulse of the company culture; however, the company also makes sure that new team members bring new ideas and help the company culture to evolve and change with the changing industry.
With the low turnover and small size, the company’s core values are focused on home and family. “We are a small company with a large company structure, but with a core values being home and family. Our pilots work around 180 days per year, engineers few more, but it’s not uncommon for us to extend their holidays, support employee families, provide RRSP as well as financial planning, and create opportunities for employees to come together as a family. Home and family remain our core values.”
The company is focused on providing exceptional service to its existing clients and plans to continue doing so in the years to come. “Our clients are our focus. We don’t plan to build a 40-helicopter behemoth. It’s important to us to support our clients the best way possible, easily maintain our existing operation, and maintain our company culture,” concluded Wilson.