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This Squamish man's company jazzes up private and corporate jets

Tom Chatfield of Camber Aviation Management creates luxury cabins in airplanes, helping clients pick out colours, fabrics, seating and everything in between.
If you met Squamish's Tom Chatfield at a dinner party, or on the ski lift, it is likely he has the coolest job you’ve never heard of. 

His company Camber Aviation Management, helps deliver clients custom-designed corporate and private aircraft. 

In other words, they provide their well-heeled clients with luxury decked-out cabins on private and corporate jets.

Recently, Chatfield and his team won a very prestigious award, so we caught up with the local to learn more about his job, the recognition, and what he does for fun outside of work.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation. 

Q: How long have you been in Squamish and what brought you here? 

A: I have been here eight years.  I grew up in Ottawa but had been living abroad for 24 years. 

I am married to a German woman and we have a son. We were living in Qatar when, on Christmas Eve in 2012, my son said, "Dad, you work too much. You spend too many hours doing work." I was working at Qatar Airways at the time and so we said, "You know what, this little guy is pretty smart. So my wife and had a glass of wine together and we decided we have good friends in Squamish and we have travelled enough and so we moved to Squamish — we decided basically over two glasses of wine. 

Q: Did you set up your business here right away or later? 

A: Basically, I have six people on my team and each person lives in a different country because the work that we do is never in your backyard. We each live where we want to and come together for each of the projects.  I have been working in private aviation or private jets since 2000. I have been in aviation since 1984.

Q: How did you ever end up with this as your career path? This is not something they teach you about during career day at school. 

A: No, well it should be because it is pretty cool. The neat thing is you can go to any cocktail party and you will almost never find someone who does what you do. 

I went to college in Ontario and became an avionics technician, which is specializing in autopilots and navigation. I started working for De Havilland Aircraft, they gave me an apprenticeship there in Toronto and pretty soon I was travelling for them. I basically got headhunted by one company to the next. In 2000, I got headhunted by DaimlerChrysler — which was the former Mercedes Benz company. Their CEO had decided he wanted to start a corporate jet division. I was one of the senior managers that got hired. In that path, you start working on private jets and customizing them and making them exactly what the client wants to have. 

Q: Who are your clients, I know you can't say names but generally speaking? 

A: Heads of state are a big one, folks with high net worth — basically people who have a net worth of at least $50 million, and some interesting niche travel organizations, which may include sports teams, for example, or around-the-world travellers. 

Q: Can you walk me through the process you go through with a client? 

A: One day, you say you think you want a private jet. We have a coffee and decide if that is really the best option. About one-third of the time, we say, "We really don't think you need one." 

But if there is a good requirement, we sit down and find out how many people you travel with and how far you go; how often you travel; if you travel overnight? Do you want fresh meals or to just heat up food? If you are a businesswoman, you likely want satellite communications and you may want entertainment for your kids.

It is like if you hire an architect and build a house on your plot of land. 

Then we take a look at your budget and your timeline. We do new airplanes or used ones — we go out into the marketplace and we find the best aircraft for you. 

We guide you through that process — we aren't brokers. 

Then, once we know which airplane it is going to be, we start laying out the cabin for you. We bring in a designer and then we work with the client to pick and choose what you like — functionality, seating, equipment. Then we look at colours and fabrics. Then we write up a detailed specification and we take it to a completion centre — there are a few of them around the world. They bid on the project. We see the client through the whole process even through building the furniture and the seats that go into that airplane. At the end, we have to get it certified to ensure it is airworthy and safe and then we help you either get a management company to run it or we hire a pilot for you and get everything set up. 

Q: What are all the components? There's the seating, the galley and the bathroom? 

A: And beds, a shower; if we are doing a large aircraft there could be a media centre; we can put in a fantastic audio system onboard.

Q: What are some of the constraints? 

A: A number of things. One is flammability. We have to do extensive testing on whatever fabrics and coverings we put in the aircraft — including carpets. We send the fabrics to a flammability lab to make sure it meets the regulations. The other thing is, we can't just put any seat inside the airplane. It has to be engineered to withstand impact forces if you were ever to have an accident — it has to withstand a 16g dynamic force. 

There's quite a bit of work done to ensure that when you are sitting in your seat and you are strapped in, that you are safe. 

Q: What is the plane you most enjoy working with? 

A: Oh, that is hard. I really enjoy working with people on larger aircraft — Boeing and Airbus — because, much like an architect, the more space you have, the more you can do. Even though we aren't the actual designer, we work closely with the designer to make everything happen, and space means you have more latitude in design. 

Q: How much money are we talking — generally — high-end to low-end?

A: If you were to buy a Dreamliner, for example, we have done two of those, you would buy that airplane “green.” The airplane is literally green, with just primer on the outside, and the inside is completely empty. Then, we design and engineer and arrange to have all our parts built and certified for the inside. It is very expensive because we are building a one-off. It is a prototype. There is a huge amount of cost for engineering. A plane like that has a list price of about $230-million, and the interior is going to cost you $80 to $100-million. 

If you were to take a Bombardier Global, which is a nice 14-seat, long-range airplane, and you got it pre-owned and we get it for say $15 million. Then, putting in your own unique interior and a fresh paint job, that is about $5 million. So about $20-million for the whole thing.

Q: How long from meeting with you to flying in it does the process take? 

A: The Bombardier Global would take about 10 months total. 

If we are talking about a 787, then that would be a 12-month lead time and 15 to 20 months working on the airplane. 

Q: With COVID impacting travel globally, did it impact your business

A: It did impact us at the beginning. Everybody put the brakes on all decisions and all processes. Then, at the end of last year, people started realizing the value of a private jet: "If I have the money, do I ever want to fly on an airline again?" We had a number of people contact us. Normally, when people start in aviation, they start with a smaller aircraft, but people were coming to us and saying, "We would like a Boeing business jet, which is a 737. Instead of putting in 160 seats, we are building it for 16 seats. "And I want it soon." The business actually picked up very nicely. We have one of those planes that we are working on right now, and we have another one is a wide-body airplane for another high net-worth client, in that case, a 777. Business is going very well now. 

Q: This summer, your company, in partnership with Pierrejean Vision and Kestrel Aviation Management, F/List and Flying Colours Corporation won the best Private Jet Design Concept award at the prestigious International Yacht and Aviation Awards in Venice, Italy, for your Airbus A220 Cabin Concept. Tell me about that. 

A: We put in 18 months of detailed design work on this project. We thought because it is a brand new Canadian airplane, that we wanted to do something cool with it. 

We designed a very cool interior. 

The awards are for yachts, super-yachts and private jet design. 

We were the only Canadians in it, which was cool. 

We won against nine other contenders. We were totally thrilled to win.

Q: Can you walk us through what you came up with that won? 

A: Usually, the Airbus A220 has 140 seats; we designed it for 18 passengers. There's good leg-room. It is like a lounge when you come in the front; it doesn't look like anything you have ever seen in an airplane. It is like a cool apartment. 

It has a cool buffet and a walk-up bar and some really neat lighting systems in it. From there, you walk to the dining and conference area with seating for seven, with a beautiful table that can be lowered to be a coffee table. From there, you can move to the media lounge that has a 74-inch screen, theatre-style seating for four. It has a kick-ass stereo system, and we even set it up so that kids can game in that room too. 

From there, you go to the private office with seating for four. Moving from there, you go aft into the private suite, which has a large bed — two beds that can be separated or brought together. There's a make-up table in one corner, a master bath with a vanity, a separate room for the toilet and a two-person shower with a steam function.

[Take a video tour of the winning entry.]

Q: So is this just a concept, or could it be built for someone? 

A: It is a concept today, but we have done all the major engineering on it. We have done the production work on it, so we can build it if someone comes up and slides the money over the table. In fact, we would be building it in Peterborough at a place called Flying Colours

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: That is a silly question, we live in Squamish! I like paddleboarding, mountain biking and skiing — those three things.

Q: Anything else I didn’t ask that you want to say? 

A: We have a strong relationship with Coast Mountain Academy. In fact, we run a program on aviation with them every year. We did it this year again. We teach how airplanes are built and how they fly. The kids get to play in a wind tunnel and learn about wing design and see how that works. We have a huge paper airplane contest where they have to create for distance and for the coolness effect. What is always funny is when Grade 7s and 8s ask me what is cool. I always say, “I don’t know. You guys tell me what is cool!” The top one-third of the kids we put into the left seat of an airplane for a flying lesson. The other two-thirds we put in the back and we do flights with one pilot and three kids. The kids in the back do geocaching. So, all the kids went for 45-minute flights around Squamish. 

The first year we did this, one young man decided he wanted to become a pilot; this time, two young women said they want to become aeronautical engineers, so I think that is great.