Commercial, Products

Operator Profile: Bigger, Better, Farther 

By By Douglas Nelms | February 1, 2014
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MD902 Explorer in operation with Doha-based LifeFlight.

In November 2013, Doha-based Gulf Helicopters Company (GHC) used the biennial Dubai Airshow to announce an order for 15 new AgustaWestland AW189 helicopters, increasing its rotary wing fleet from 45 to 60 aircraft, a serious indicator that helicopter operations around the Middle East continue to be a growth industry.

The first two of the $18-million-per-copy helicopters are scheduled for delivery this year, with all 15 delivered by 2017. A preliminary contract had been signed for the aircraft in 2012. The signing in November converted that to firm orders.


AgustaWestland CEO Daniele Romiti noted that Gulf Helicopters is “already a prime operator to the AW139 in the region, [and] will also become the first customer introducing the family concept into operational service in the whole area.” GHC’s AW139s have now exceeded the 45,000-flight-hour mark.

The new AW189s are primarily targeted at the offshore and SAR markets because of their ability to operate at longer ranges, according to CEO Mohamed Al Mohannadi. Speaking at the signing ceremony at the Dubai Airshow, he said: “The AW189 can add an advantage to the company’s operations where long-range capabilities are required. We believe that the AW189 is the perfect size to fit into a very niche market that is not really being serviced by other types of helicopters.”

Layton added that while the AW189s will initially be operated out of Doha to build experience in the type, the company’s business plan is to target international work where the size and range of the model will offer a significant safety and cost advantage to its client base. He also noted that GHC has already received numerous enquiries from Far East, Mediterranean and African-based operators.

AgustaWestland AW139 simulator
operated by Gulf Helicopters.

Current fleet mix consists of six types spread between AgustaWestland, Bell, MD Helicopters and Sikorsky.

The most popular of the fleet is the Bell 412 SP/EP, with 17 in operation serving the oil and gas industry, EMS and general utility role; and the AW139, with 13 used for offshore operations, executive and VVIP, EMS and SAR. Others include Bell 212s used for offshore, utility, external load and aerial photo work; Sikorsky S-92s used for offshore, VVIP, SAR and passenger transport; MD902 Explorers for EMS; and a single Agusta/Bell AB206B for aerial photo and training. The new AW189s will be the seventh helicopter type.

Gulf Helicopters was the first of the “Big Four” helicopter operators in the Gulf region to take advantage of the discovery of vast lakes of oil and natural gas reserves under the Middle Eastern deserts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is now the second largest, with Abu Dhabi Aviation being just barely the largest with a fleet of 61 helicopters. Abu Dhabi Aviation was formed in 1976 along with AeroGulf, now the third largest. The fourth, Falcon Aviation Services, was formed in 2006. Those three are all based in the UAE.

Gulf Helicopters was initially incorporated in the UK on July 6, 1970 as a subsidiary of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC – later British Airways), formed, according to the company, to “realize the potential opportunities of helicopter services in the Gulf States.” It became operational in February 1973.

AW139 used in offshore operations.

The company noted that while it operates under an Air Operators Certificate issued by the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA), the legal requirements and standards “are modeled on those laid out in the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority publications and ICAO recommendations.”

In 1998, Gulf Helicopters was taken over as a fully owned subsidiary of Qatar General Petroleum Corp., a company owned by the Government of Qatar. Then, in May 2008, Gulf Helicopters, along with Gulf Drilling International and Al-Koot Insurance Company, was consolidated to form Gulf International Services (GIS), a public shareholding company listed on the Doha Securities Market.

However, Qatar Petroleum retained 30 percent of the shares, essentially allowing the government to maintain control of the company.

The company also reported that it has a 92 percent stake in Al Maha Aviation company, a 36 percent investment in United Helicharters Private Ltd. incorporated in India, and a branch office located in West Sussex, UK which operates primarily as a procurement and supply service for the military and the oil and gas industry. GHC also has new joint ventures in the pipeline that will be announced this year.

LifeFlight MD902.

The company began operations flying strictly offshore for the growing oil and gas industry with fewer than five helicopters. Today its mixed fleet operates under contracts with a variety of customers in a wide range of markets. The areas of operation include Qatar for both onshore and offshore petroleum exploitation, Republic of Yemen, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, India, Libya, Thailand and Malaysia, according to Capt. Fred Layton, director of operations. GHC also has AW139s operating in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Denmark on various wet and dry lease arrangements.

It has also greatly expanded its market to include EMS, search and rescue, aerial photography, VVIP for Heads of State (primarily the royal family in Qatar), and is currently in the process of developing tourism operations, he said.

Since 2007, Gulf Helicopters has operated two MD902 Explorers for Doha-based LifeFlight EMS services under the sponsorship of Qatar’s National Health Authority and in partnership with Hamad Medical Corporation. In 2011 this program was expanded to cover all offshore locations with the addition of two dedicated medically equipped Bell 412EP aircraft.

Gulf Helicopters is an approved repair station and a maintenance organization certified under both EASA and FAA Part 145, as well the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority.

It offers in-house as well as third party maintenance, and is a Factory Authorized Service Center for AgustaWestland and MD helicopters, as well as an authorized repair center for various Sikorsky S-92 and Bell components, Layton explained.

The majority of the maintenance for AgustaWestland is for the AW139, while the company is certified for the full Bell line. GHC recently added repair/overhaul capability on several AW139 airframe (IGB/TGB/MGB, etc.) and safety shop components that are among the OEM’s system.

GHC also has a joint venture arrangement under its engineering capabilities list with Boise, Idaho-based Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU) and L-3 Systems for the provision and maintenance of night vision goggles and NVG cockpit modifications.

Its maintenance, or engineering department, is broken into two sections—Technical Services and Planning, and Aircraft Maintenance Engineering.

Technical Services and Planning is responsible for airworthiness directives and service bulletins, as well as ensuring that all QCAA requirements are met.

Aircraft Maintenance Engineering performs the actual maintenance, both line and hangar maintenance, as well as outstation maintenance at its operational bases. All major maintenance inspections are conducted at the company’s maintenance facility at Doha International Airport (DOH).

The company also provides its own training for both pilots and maintenance personnel through its training arm, Gulf Helicopters Training Academy, Layton noted. “We have about 140 pilots, with historically most being expatriates from Asia to Europe to North America.”

However, an ab initio training program, which was initially introduced in 1995, has taken on a renewed focus within the last four years to select and train Qatari nationals to international captaincy standards to meet expanding demand.

“We’re just now starting to get a steady supply through to captaincy, and the quality and high standards of our training program speaks for itself,” he said. In the past the ab initio pilots are sent to Bristow Academy in Florida for a year and a half, then returned to Doha with their commercial instrument rating for additional training at Gulf Helicopters training academy.

He noted that in an area where rotational pilots tend to move from company to company, Gulf Helicopters is able to keep a core establishment of its pilots by offering married positions.

“Pilots can bring their families to Doha, where GHC provides housing, education and an all-around excellent environment to raise a family,” he said. “Most companies (in the region) use six-weeks-on and six-weeks-off rotations, and while we do rotation in our international out-stations, those based in Doha are predominately married postings.”

Gulf Helicopters is also an AgustaWestland authorized training center for the AW139, to include an AW139 Level B full flight simulator. The company’s training academy operates as an EASA Part 147 Training Organization, and currently uses the simulator for its own pilots as well as “for numerous other clients internationally from Canada to Africa to the Far East,” Layton said.



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