It’s a typical Silicon Valley story: computer whiz in a garage comes up with a brilliant plan to revolutionize — that old cliché — an industry and takes the world by storm.
Except this isn’t Silicon Valley. It’s Thunder Bay, Ont. And the computer whiz in the garage? Substitute “aircraft hangar” and you’re closer to the truth.
Michael Kleywegt and Doug Carlson were both helicopter pilots at Wisk Air in Thunder Bay who understood firsthand how time-consuming it was to do all their flight management tasks by hand on paper.
“I started building a (software) solution independently and brought it to the company,” Kleywegt said. “Doug provided ideas for options and modules that would add value. These auditors came in and said, ‘Hey, everyone needs this. You should commercialize it.’”
So, they did. The Cirro Flight Management software launched in November 2015 under the company name AirSuite Inc. while still based within the Wisk Air hangar. Kleywegt stepped in as CEO of the company and Carlson as COO. Today, the subscription-based enterprise software is used around the world for small and medium-sized aviation companies as well as manufacturers, flight schools, and others in the aviation industry.
It can be difficult for those outside of the industry to understand just how revolutionary the Cirro software is, no matter how clichéd that word sounds.
“We handle the duty time for pilots, but we go well beyond that,” Kleywegt said.
Cirro can track up and down time for the aircraft, passenger manifests, fuel loads, cargo loads and balance, and all the other little details that go into the safe operation of aircraft. The data can be used for compliance reports during Transport Canada audits, client billing, flight hour calculations for maintenance, tracking both pilot and aircraft readiness for particular flights, and for many other tasks.
Previously, data recording and tracking would be done by hand on paper. Cirro makes data management exponentially easier and accessible.
“With paper-based systems, if someone asked you how many hours did you fly last month on this aircraft on this particular job, you’ll have to go through all these paper records and pull your hair out,” Carlson said. “But with Cirro, it’s probably a 20-second query.”
And you don’t have to be in the same office to do it, either. All flight management data is stored in a secure cloud account, not a file cabinet. Information can be updated and accessed by authorized personnel through the Cirro app from anywhere in the world. If pilots are flying to remote areas outside of cell service, the data is stored on their device until they connect to a network again.
Recently, AirSuite partnered with Verity DG Consulting to create a module to meet new national Transporting Dangerous Goods Regulations (TDGR). That module launched in November 2023.
“I’m willing to say that more than 50 per cent of the Canadian market is currently not (TDGR) compliant and 80 per cent-plus of the market does not have manuals and training... so that’s going to turn into a very large market for us as well,” Kleywegt said.
Training is also integrated into the software to ensure pilots and companies are up to date with regulations.
This is a glimpse into data management needed for the highly complex aviation industry. If you’re getting the idea that this can be an administrative — and compliance — nightmare, you’d be right.
That’s what makes the Cirro software so special: it makes flight management data tracking and reporting so much easier.
“What really sets us apart is that we’ve been there,” Carlson said. “We’re not just software guys who saw a potential business. We’re pilots who had a need and knew how to solve it.”
It’s a big part of the reason why the company has grown tremendously in such a short time. The team now consists of five programmers, with two more on the way, along with support staff. They moved to dedicated office space in Thunder Bay and are currently expanding that footprint for new hires.
Clients and sales have skyrocketed, too, Carlson said.
“It’s a snowball,” Carlson said. “We find our most productive marketing is word of mouth based on our positive reviews and our awesome support.”
“We’re looking to get that same snowball rolling internationally as well — especially in the U.S.,” Kleygwegt said.
The U.S. market represents the largest segment of the world’s aviation industry by far. However, fragmentation means it’s a hard market to enter. On the flip side, it is still predominantly a paper-based industry there, which makes Cirro an attractive solution for companies who want to streamline operations.
Targeting industry-specific markets is also part of the expansion plan for AirSuite in 2024. Possible industries include crop dusting, oil and gas, fire fighting, and power line construction, Carlson said.
Despite huge growth, both Carlson and Kleywegt said that they are committed to keeping their headquarters in Thunder Bay. They hire locally when they can, including graduates of Lakehead University and Confederation College, but they also attract new talent to Thunder Bay. Kleywegt said the community, including Indigenous organizations, have all helped get the software company off the ground.
“We’ve received excellent support from the community at large,” Kleywegt said.
Soon, they’ll be returning the favour in an unusual way. Thunder Bay lost its fingerprinting service for background screening, which means residents have to fly to Winnipeg or Toronto to get it done. Since it’s a service AirSuite needs as well, they are bringing in the technology and opening it up to the public.
“There will be a fee to recoup costs, but just feeds back to the community as well,” Carlson said.