In the aerospace world, industry juggernaut companies often start with humble beginnings; DART and Simplex Aerospace are two of those companies. With parallel origins, DART Aerospace began operations in Canada in 1975 as a design certification house. Portland-based Simplex was founded in 1946 to address the need for a specific pump that did not exist in the industry. The companies were able to fill a need that became a game-changer in the aviation world—beginning the story of what is now one of the largest manufacturers of add-on equipment for the rotorcraft world.
Simplex’s original pump, initially designed as a lightweight pump for the shipping industry, now is a testament to the DART company mission and sits in their boardroom. Serving as a reminder of the company’s humble beginnings and their mantra of using invention to fuel innovation that pushes the envelope in aviation to address needs in the aviation industry.
The 1960s saw the founder of Simplex asked by a friend to retrofit the initial pump design into something that would work for the agricultural aviation market, fitting it to a helicopter. This system became the first viable helicopter spray system for the agricultural industry used for chemical spray application. This move would propel what would become DART Aerospace into the rotary market as they continued to innovate and improve on the initial design of their helicopter spray system, setting the bar from which all others would be benchmarked.
The company’s initial development of an agricultural spray system was quickly noticed, soon providing a dual purpose in the aerial firefighting market as a drop system. The team soon realized that by removing the booms off an agricultural spray system and adding two doors that would allow for rapid dropping of water, the company then created one of the first helicopter aerial fire attack tanks.
Over the next several years, the company then moved on to producing equipment for the utility market, where the company now holds a significant foothold as a key player. The company initially focused on design approval work, later moving into the manufacturing world in the early 1990s. Gaining STC’s for high skid landing gear, the company moved into the manufacture of specialty equipment and began providing aircraft servicing in the late 1990s.
The following 20 years would see the company continue to expand operations through multiple business acquisitions and continued growth in Canada, the United States and worldwide. These efforts culminated in a rebranding effort in 2013 that would see the company acquire its key suppliers and move away from a distribution model to being more vertically integrated. The changes signaled the beginning of an all-encompassing brand known today throughout the world as a powerhouse designer and equipment manufacturer of over 5,000 different products and STC’s numbering 1,100 and growing.
In addition to creating a firefighting bucket system, the company’s aerial firefighting equipment catalog has continued to expand over the years. The first tank systems were fitted to smaller aircraft such as the Bell 47 and Hiller models. However, development, design and the industry’s appetite for firefighting products from DART never dissipated, so the company continued to develop tank systems for dozens of other helicopter models that included Bell 206’s and the Airbus AS350 line, moving later to Bell mediums with tanks for the 212 and 412, UH-1/Bell 205 among many others. The company now provides tanks for all models from all major western OEMs in addition to Russian, Chinese, and Korean airframes.
The need for constant development in the industry continues to fuel new and innovative requirements and products. DART Aerospace is one of few in the world that now offer a firefighting system explicitly designed for helicopters to use in fighting highrise fires. The new SkyCannon system was designed for high-density housing and business complexes as standard in many Asian cities limited by geographic landmass. Cites like Hong Kong, Singapore, and many others now build upwards, creating firefighting challenges for many other cities mimicking Singapore and Hong Kong, where millions live in apartment buildings that sometimes rise to over one hundred stories, making traditional firefighting problematic.
DART’s Sky Cannon, unlike traditional gravity-fed drop systems, utilizes an onboard pump to deliver a high volume, low-pressure flow to the cannon that allows for water to penetrate structures like traditional firefighting equipment can, but delivered by helicopter. The system is also capable of being filled from any water source using a traditional snorkel system. The sky cannon system is already certified on the Chinese AC313 and Airbus EC225 helicopter. The Sky Cannon system is now in final testing and certification for an STC that will see it used on the Sikorsky Blackhawk or Firehawk helicopter.
As DART Aerospace continued to grow in the 2000s, acquisitions, product support and development in aerial firefighting for helicopter operations became vital for the company’s continued growth.
“At a certain point, we started being a little bit more deliberate about the stuff we designed. Our shop in Hawkesbury, Ontario, was designing and manufacturing landing gear cargo baskets and field maintenance aids. Our high skid landing gear we created had some added toughness, gaining popularity as it was a bit more suited to the rough and tumble utility life of not always landing on a prepared surface. Hence, a lot of our customers ended up trending towards that for the utility market. The utility market always has a strong influence on the firefighting side of the house, so we always had these products that were kind of tangentially firefighting products like a basket that you would use to put your firefighting tools or your bucket in, along with our bearpaws that you would use so you could land in the field when you’re fighting fires,” said Wesley Reid, Lead Product Manager.
In the mid 2010s, the move to vertically integrate led to the pursuit of product leadership. The integrating of the products and practices of successful helicopter flotation, cargo hook and tooling manufacturers gave a more complete picture of the industry’s expectations.
DART Aerospace continued to refine and streamline its manufacturing centers, acquiring one of the key players in the aerial firefighting and spraying equipment ™ market in 2019, purchasing Simplex Aerospace and buying their most significant competitor in helicopter cargo baskets in Western Canada.
The Simplex brand and catalog have now become part of the DART family and will continue to manufacture tanks, now under the DART name. With this acquisition, in addition to their already robust product catalog, DART is becoming one of the largest equipment suppliers in the helicopter market in aerial firefighting.
DART has undergone a handful of ownership changes in its decades of operation, including being owned by Calgary-based Eagle Copters, makers of the well-known Bell 407HP and 212 Eagle Single, both used extensively in aerial firefighting. The company is now held by a private equity firm well-geared in aerospace, one that is focused on seeing DART grow into the industry powerhouse it is today.
Looking to the Future
As with any large aviation company, DART is never content to stay with the status quo. “We’re developing new products, and we continue to push to gain more market share of the products we have, but there’s also growth by acquisition side of that strategy. So, we had been in talks before DART changed ownership with Simplex. We’ve always had a friendly relationship with Simplex, so once there was that change in our ownership, the climate was right for us to bring it to the next level and make the acquisition and start integrating our operations and taking advantage of the synergies of our products,” said Reid.
“Our firefighting tank on the Bell medium line is a very, very popular product. Roughly 50% of the time, when Simplex would sell their Bell medium tank, DART would sell the customer an extended high landing gear for the same aircraft. So when we compare our Rolodexes, there was a lot of overlap, a lot of the same names, so the relationship made perfect sense,” he added.
Combining two companies with similar products means a lot of duplicities; however, as with many of the company’s other acquisitions, DART has needed to combine certain business units to achieve the best product approach. Certain acquisitions like Simplex will maintain its business premises in Portland, Oregon, simply changing to the DART name going forward.
The main thing customers will notice is the website is now sending them to the DART site where they can place their orders online for spares. As the Simplex brand transitions, customers can still expect the same level of service and great products in the aerial firefighting world as the two companies combine to provide new product lines and the next generation of aerial firefighting equipment.
As more and more companies look for the next thing in aerial firefighting technology, DART is already at the forefront of technology for the industry with products like the SkyCannon and several other products that are still in the design phase that the company is not yet ready to talk about. With a long list of achievements that continues to grow seemingly monthly, the future looks bright for DART and the industry that will benefit from the company’s goals and commitment to expansion and ongoing development.