Skip to content

Aviation legend charts a new course

Sitting in the modern glass-framed boardroom of the new 19,000-square-foot Pilatus Centre Canada headquarters, it would be easy for an entrepreneur like 56-year-old Frank Kelner, to rest on his laurels and start thinking about retirement.
Standing in front of the new Pilatus Centre Canada headquarters at Thunder Bay International Airport, aviation pioneer and entrepreneur Frank Kelner has bold plans to capitalize on coming development in the Far North.

Sitting in the modern glass-framed boardroom of the new 19,000-square-foot Pilatus Centre Canada headquarters, it would be easy for an entrepreneur like 56-year-old Frank Kelner, to rest on his laurels and start thinking about retirement.

But with his cell phone vibrating with a constant stream of messages, the flying legend can only think about his next big project, Cargo North, a new freight operation service that he plans to kick off this winter.

“What I like about Canadians is they're so lazy. If you want someone to get up in the morning and get the job done it's almost impossible for the average Canadian.”

That reasoning spurred Kelner to launch Cargo North last summer, an investment group he's leading through an alliance with Nakina Air Services and North Star Air in his old stomping grounds of Pickle Lake.

Seeing an opening to provide First Nation communities, mining companies and the exploration camps of the Ring of Fire with a first-class air freight service and modern aircraft, Kelner and his partners have purchased a Basler Turbo 67 (BT-67) in Wisconsin.

For Kelner, delivering sterling service to customers means more than any signed contracts.

“If you produce, you get the work, it's that simple. If you're known to give good service, treat your customers well, the prices are fair, you automatically get the business.”

Well-known in aviation circles over a 40-year career, the companies he founded in the Kelner Group include the Pilatus Centre (the Canadian distributor of Pilatus PC-12 aircraft), V. Kelner Helicopters, and Private Air, an aircraft management and charter subsidiary.

Reality TV shows can make legends like Kelner something of a celebrity. But watching episodes of Ice Pilots NWT only makes him cringe.

“It’s exciting for somebody that may not have a great knowledge of aviation to look at Ice Pilots, but I find it so unprofessional,” said Kelner, rhyming off a litany of televised transgressions and misconduct.

“If I were Transport Canada, I’d have a violation for every show I see.”

If one of Kelner’s pilots were caught doing a low-level “buzz job,” he wouldn’t be employed for long.

“There’s no room to breathe. We’re really strict and vocal about it. We’re 100 per cent professional, we’re hard workers and we spend a lot of money on high-end equipment, but everything gets done by the rule book.”

While some Northern passenger and freight carriers are wedded to Second World War-era piston-driven aircraft over modern turbo props, Kelner can’t crunch the numbers to make flying vintage aircraft economical. And he won’t run with old equipment.

Pilatus Centre

Thunder Bay's new Pilatus Centre includes a repair and refurbishment shop.

That means providing shoddy customer service and plenty of scrambling to source parts for expensive engine overhauls in the $1 million range that get downloaded onto the customers.

“Customers up north don’t like things confusing. They just like to know the cost per mile. We do still have the old way of doing things. Once we give that dollar figure, it doesn’t change.

“Other airlines, when they give a dollar figure, they work like Toronto boys, it gets very complicated. Up north here, they don’t understand and they don’t want to understand. You have to understand the culture.”

Kelner has spent most of his life working in the Far North alongside Aboriginal people since the age of 16 when he was working as a helper on a de Havilland Otter for Fecteau Transport in his hometown of Chibougamau, Que.

“I was never good at school, so I had to go to work.”

He caught the aviation bug from his father, Victor, a recreational flyer, and soloed in a floatplane at 12. By age 20, he was a DC-3 captain in northern Quebec and was checked out to fly Beavers, Otters and DC-4s.

Kelner became a fixture in northwestern Ontario when he bought a small Pickle Lake float plane service and renamed it V. Kelner Air Services, after his dad. His operation was the first to introduce Cessna Caravans for commercial passenger operations in Canada.

By the time he sold the company in 1996 to the eventual First Nation owners of Wasaya Airways, the carrier had grown to more than 150 employees.

He headed out to Labrador to start another airline where he first saw the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turbo prop. The unfinished aircraft would make refuelling stops there on the way to a Denver plant.

Though reluctant to show Kelner the aircraft, the European aircraft manufacturer needed his expertise to obtain the Canadian certification to operate in IRF (instrument flight rules) conditions for commercial passenger flights. He swung a deal to become the exclusive Canadian distributor of Pilatus aircraft.

He took the plane back to Thunder Bay where he set up the V. Kelner Pilatus Centre. That first year in 1996, he sold 25 aircraft out of the gate then suffered through three tough years.

Running hard in extreme northern climates caused a myriad of problems with the hydraulics, seals and flaps. It was a big learning curve for the Swiss manufacturer.

“Pilatus had to go back to the drawing board to get things right,” said Kelner. “They started to see things that they never saw before.

“I lost a lot of money for a period of time to keep my customers happy. But what I like about Pilatus is that they want to get things done right and after 2001-02 it was an unbelievable aircraft.”

His two partners: president-CEO Robert Arnone and Steve Davey, vice-president and maintenance director, run the operation now, but Kelner remains active in sales. Though he’s loathe to divulge Canadian aircraft sales, in Thunder Bay alone, Kelner estimates there are about 30 machines flying.

With his latest venture, Cargo North, stands to be an aviation game changer for the region and positions the company to service the exploration camps of the Ring of Fire.

The BT-67 is an updated version of the DC-3, considered one of the most rugged and reliable aircraft ever made. The $7-million aircraft comes installed with leading edge navigation and electronic gear, a beefed-up airframe, a lengthened fuselage and a cargo capacity of 11,000 pounds. Made in Oshkosh, Wisc., the former piston-driven aircraft has been updated with twin Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines.

“We didn't get the aircraft because of the Ring of Fire. We got the aircraft because we knew we would be very busy with the North as it is. If we get the Ring of Fire, that'll be a bonus,” said Kelner.

In October, two of his pilots were in Wisconsin test flying the first aircraft in preparation to officially take possession of the first of three aircraft in early December.

Kelner promises it will be a non-stop service with six crews available to rotate on a 24/7 basis.

The aircraft will come with its own support team and equipment to brush out an ice runway, fly supplies into a drill camp and even long-line a drill rig into position by helicopter if called upon.

“This is what we're known for,” said Kelner. “It's a real art to understand what it takes to serve the territory. If you've got it right, you don't have to worry about the competition.”

And Kelner plans to be a hands-on boss.

“I’ll be flying all winter with the Basler,” said Kelner, in waving away any notion of retiring. “Four of us will do all the ice flying and I’ll be one of the main guys. I’m going to be a pretty busy captain.” 

More Thunder Bay