Owning a helicopter company was a long-held dream for Matt Wallace. However, when he envisioned it, he also saw the necessity to move from his native Cape Breton Island to another part of Canada. But thanks to a lot of hard work, great support, and a little good fortune, his company — Breton Air — has quickly established itself as a leading operator in Atlantic Canada. It has also allowed him to achieve his dream in his hometown.
“I always wanted to create my own helicopter company, but I didn’t think I’d be this young doing it, and I didn’t think I’d be doing it at home,” Wallace told Vertical. “But when I look back at it, I don’t think it could have worked any other way.”
Wallace’s career in aviation began with the Air Cadets while he was still in school. He then joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), where he spent the majority of his 14 years of service flying the Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King.
“I was heading to Haiti [on a deployment with the RCAF] when I was called by the CEO of Destination Cape Breton, which is a government-funded tourism agency,” he said. “She said I should move home and start a helicopter company. I said, ‘No!’”
Despite his initial scepticism, Wallace left the RCAF three years later — in June 2019 — to do just that.
The company was established in partnership with a fellow former RCAF servicemember, with one aircraft — a Bell 206L LongRanger — and Wallace as its sole pilot. They chose to base the new operation at the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Airport in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The settlement is the largest in Cape Breton Island, which is a rugged land of glacial valleys, highlands, forests and coastal cliffs that represents about 20 percent of Nova Scotia’s total area.
It’s not surprising that this spectacular landscape has lent itself to creating some top-class leisure facilities — particularly golf. The island is home to three of Canada’s top public courses, attracting golfers from around the world.
“Clients were coming into Cape Breton in droves for the golf,” said Wallace. “There was a huge volume of high-net-worth clientele, and the lure of flying into Sydney and then taking a helicopter for 20 minutes over to the golf course was attractive to them.”
Breton Air got off to a great start, and was successful enough to quickly add two more aircraft to its fleet: a Bell 206L-4 LongRanger and a Bell 412. Then Covid hit. The border was closed, and Breton Air lost 95 percent of its clients. It was an unprecedented challenge for every business around the globe, let alone one that was just finding its feet in its first year of operation.
“We thought that Covid was going to go away, but of course it just persisted,” said Wallace.
“By July 2020, we had to ground the 412 and persist with doing whatever we could — whatever charter, government, or utility work that we could find. We had the ‘Atlantic bubble’ [allowing travel between Canada’s Atlantic provinces] and I just sat on the side of the road with the helicopter offering tours seven days a week, doing what I could to pay the bills and keep the show on the road.”
During the long slog through Covid, Wallace became sole owner of Breton Air.
While times were undoubtedly tough, they also opened new doors for the young company. It expanded its horizons to the utility sector, taking on whatever longline work it could find. The unfortunate demise of the iconic Newfoundland-based operator Universal Helicopters created a hole in the market in the nearby province.
“We shifted and started sending machines to western Newfoundland, for gold exploration, towing birds and geophysical survey equipment,” said Wallace. Word quickly spread, and Breton Air was soon supporting the moose hunting outfitters in the area, which has provided “flat-out nonstop work” from September to November.
“That just proved to be enough to get us through those couple of years, and now we have a foothold in western Newfoundland and are a competitive operator there,” said Wallace.
Across Atlantic Canada
Today, Breton Air’s operations span from the southernwestern tip of Nova Scotia, through the province, across the island of Newfoundland and up to Labrador.
Its workload is split between VIP/charter work and utility operations.
“We’ve made excellent inroads with the resort communities, bespoke adventures, and adventure providers here on Cape Breton Island . . . that allow their clientele to have a unique experience here,” said Wallace. “The geography here is so vast and different, we’re able to accomplish quite a few really unique and special opportunities that people really do enjoy when they get the chance to take advantage of them.”
As its operations have grown, so has its fleet, which is now up to four aircraft. The latest aircraft is another Bell — a 407. A further addition is likely needed to help the company serve the growing demand for drill movements in western Newfoundland, with Wallace looking at another 407 or an Airbus H125 AStar for this work.
All the aircraft are equipped with a VIP completion in the cabin — and a cargo hook underneath the airframe. “We use them as Swiss Army Knives for whatever job comes up,” said Wallace. “Each [type] has its own perks and capabilities. It’s easy to decide what needs to go where depending on the scope of the work.”
He said the 407 and LongRangers were “wonderful, efficient and versatile machines” that allow Breton Air to perform a wide range of operations.
“For us, we don’t have to do high, hot and heavy,” said Wallace. “We can just scoot around at sea level most days. We’re typically under the range of 2,600 feet [800 meters], even in the western mountains of Newfoundland, for our operations. So, we’re trading off that higher lift capacity for speed and comfort for our clients.”
Breton Air now has a full-time workforce of three maintenance engineers, two administration and management staff, and three pilots. It also has two part-time pilots.
The pilots are local to the areas in which they work. “We have ex-military guys, but with the amount of utility work that we’re doing, we’re really sourcing good western Newfoundland-based pilots that know the area, that know the geography in Labrador, in western Newfoundland, to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk with the clients,” said Wallace.
From a pilot’s perspective, the region’s weather presents the biggest challenge, he said. Drastic changes in conditions, the prevalence of fog, and the seasonal threat of hurricanes all add to a pilot’s considerations.
“As long as it’s not foggy, it’s beautiful, but it is challenging with the mountains and the wind off the ocean,” said Wallace. “But we’ve grown accustomed to the patterns of the weather here on the island.”
In terms of running a company, Wallace said the short window of peak operations — roughly six months from May to November — means they have to pack as much into that time as possible. The overheads needed to meet the summer’s busy operational tempo are sustained over the slower winter months.
The winter brings more of a focus on utility work, and the odd charter job as it becomes available. Annual maintenance is also scheduled for this time.
“There’s always something that pops up and keeps the company busy,” said Wallace. “It goes more to Monday-to-Friday business hours rather than the seven-days-a-week, 24/7 operation that runs through the summer months.”
Many parts of the world have seen an extreme fire season this year, and Nova Scotia was no exception. The southwest part of the province saw the biggest fire in Nova Scotia’s history this year, while a separate blaze destroyed hundreds of homes near Halifax, the provincial capital.
“It’s been a growing issue the last three years, and because of Hurricane Fiona last year, there’s so much deadfall throughout the province that forestry engineers have told us time and time again that the next decade is going to be a tinderbox,” said Wallace.
Breton Air was involved in the firefighting efforts this year, using its 206L-4 and 407.
“For our pilots and ground staff at Breton Air, we’re all from Nova Scotia originally, so the wildfires and the call to action that we had during that time was an amazing opportunity for us to help out those in need in the province,” said Wallace.
In the future, the company aims to equip the 412 with a belly tank and offer it as a medium-lift fire suppression aircraft for Atlantic Canada.
Other opportunities lie in building up the company’s single-engine fleet to tackle utility services throughout western Newfoundland.
In making Breton Air the success it has been, Wallace emphasized the importance
of the support he’s had from various levels of government in making his dream a reality.
“There was a need for this, a hole in the market, where no one was operating in eastern Nova Scotia,” he said. “I had a lot of people telling me that if I can’t do it, no one can — so there was always that push to be able to make this work, no matter what.”