Bell Helicopter staff declared their experience in Yellowknife "outstanding" and "top notch" as the company wrapped up cold-weather testing of a new model.
The Bell 525 Relentless has been in testing in Yellowknife since late January as the company works to have the model certified by US, Canadian, and European authorities.
The company's apparent delight at its experience will be heartening for the city and the territorial government, both of which are trying to turn Yellowknife and the NWT into big-time cold-weather testing locations after past setbacks.
Last year, the manager of Yellowknife's airport told city councillors Yellowknife had lost “in the range of $2 million” when two major firms hoping to carry out cold-weather testing couldn’t find hotel rooms in the city, though some members of the local hospitality industry later disputed that account.
So pleased are territorial authorities with Bell's visit, they called a news conference on Thursday to introduce reporters to the Bell team.
Michael Conway, the Department of Infrastructure's regional superintendent for the North Slave, told Cabin Radio at that news conference: "Yellowknife is a very busy place in the wintertime and we've had certain circumstances where companies have been challenged with finding the facilities they need to come to the city."
Conway said that prompted the city, the territory, and NWT Tourism to create a partnership designed to attract more cold-weather testing and smooth the way for companies trying to come north.
"What we changed," he said, "is the ability to make sure it was one-stop shopping: a company from Asia or Europe or the United States, wherever, can phone, talk to one person and say, 'This is what we want to do.'
"That person can, in turn, contact all the ancillary support systems, make sure there are hotels, make sure there are hangars available, and make sure that all the things they require, like fuel, are available to them.
"If we're competing against another airport, that's very important. The easier you make it for someone to say yes, the easier it is to get people here and doing this type of work that we all want to see."
Fairbanks, Alaska, and Thompson, Manitoba, are examples of competitors also trying to lure companies to their cold climates.
To help combat rivals, a marketing plan for cold-weather testing in the NWT is due in place by this summer.
"We're going to be doing more international-style marketing and we anticipate this is going to pay off very well," said Conway.
Pat Lindauer, Bell's chief helicopter test pilot, arrived in Yellowknife on January 28 to spend a month and a half testing the 525 Relentless – a so-called "super-medium" model designed to support the likes of offshore oil and gas operations.
In all, Bell sent 44 members of staff to Yellowknife. NWT Tourism estimated the company's economic contribution to Yellowknife at $2.3 million for the duration of its visit.
"The support we got was top notch. There were no issues at all with the airport facility, the facilities here for the hangar space, and that sort of stuff. They definitely got that right," said Lindauer.
With temperatures dipping to -40C, Lindauer said conditions were ideal for the testing required. Ed Lambert, a technical lead on Bell's testing project. concurred.
"We got exactly the conditions that we needed," said Lambert. "And here in Yellowknife, in terms of the support from the community at large, I would have to say it's just been outstanding."
Testing takes the form you might expect. One such test is the cold-soak: the helicopter is left outside overnight in the deep winter cold, then you try to start it the next morning.
Asked lightheartedly if helicopters have remote start, Lambert replied: "We do. They're called mechanics."
He added: "No, it doesn't quite have your remote starter where you hit the button twice and the rotor blades start up. That probably wouldn't be a very good thing, to have those things spinning out there and nobody minding them."
"If the battery on the aircraft isn't warm enough, it won't get the airframe started," said test pilot Lindauer.
"So we need to worry about starting. We also worry about different components on aircraft reacting differently for hot temperatures versus cold temperatures versus normal temperature.
"We need to make sure that there aren't any adverse effects for cold temperature on the airframe as well."
'Guys went out of their way'
Lindauer is due to head back to Fort Worth, Texas, on March 28. Once Bell leaves town, Conway says the NWT has "a couple different organizations talking to us right now" about cold-weather test programs, "and we expect more."
Bell itself could return in future, too. The company tends to have new products requiring cold-weather testing every four to five years, and those products typically receive two back-to-back testing programs in consecutive years.
"The support that we've got from everybody has just been unbelievable," said Lambert. "And that comes down to no real schedule impacts because of conflicting traffic at the airport or anything else – when we wanted to go and get stuff done, we got stuff done. And again, guys went out of their way to help us out here. We really appreciate it.
"The biggest thing is the weather itself, because those are the conditions we need to go to, right? Number two is really the support that we're going to be able to get. When we're testing, sometimes there's maintenance issues with helicopters, so getting parts in and getting parts out, getting people in, getting people out.
"And then the logistical support of the centre itself, you know, the hotels, rental cars, that type of thing. And so all that factors in, but first and foremost is definitely, again, the right conditions for the testing that we need."