Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters
With a mixed fleet of more than 100 Airbus Helicopters and Bell rotorcraft, Canadian Helicopters went private in December at the end of its 70th year in operation. Its missions range from wildfire suppression in Alberta to aerial de-icing of wind turbines in New Brunswick, where ice accumulation can cease operations of wind farms for months at a time.
Between 2009 and 2014, under a U.S. Transportation Command contract, the company flew more than 60,000 hours while transporting 800,000 passengers in support of U.S. Defense Department military operations in Afghanistan — one of the first civilian operators to do so.
In recent years, the Canadian operator has had to become increasingly diverse, like much of the rest of the industry.
“We’ve been going through a recession,” said Canadian Helicopters VP and COO Sylvan Seguin. He described the past two to three years as a “perfect storm” with the combination of the oil-price drop and less frequent opportunities for government contracts.
“When mining is good, oil and gas is not as good, then vice versa,” he said. “We’ve seen everything go down at once.”
Canadian Helicopters is also now directly in competition with companies that operate commercially piloted unmanned aircraft systems to provide pipeline surveillance. But one area for which drones are not yet ready is maintenance of the North Warning System, a collection of 47 radar sites spanning the Arctic region from Labrador to Alaska.
Historically known as the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, the system of radar stations was first constructed in the 1950s as a joint effort with the U.S. and Canada to provide surveillance over Russian bomber aircraft during the Cold War. Today, maintenance of those radar sites remains one of the world’s most challenging helicopter tasks. Temperatures there reach as low as negative 40 deg C, and pilots transporting maintenance technicians to the radar sites from hangars stationed throughout the Arctic region could be forced to stay at radar site emergency shelters for at least a week when weather prevents them from flying out. Canadian Helicopters performs this mission as part of a five-year ongoing contract supporting the U.S. Air Force.
“The issue [with] having all these radar sites in the high Arctic is they have to work off of generators,” said Seguin. “You leave a warm hangar and go to a radar site for up to a week if the weather turns down, and have to be flying an aircraft capable of staying outside in those temperatures for that period of time.”
Seguin is also seeing an increase in demand for Canadian Helicopters to support mining exploration in the Arctic region, which is not only cold, but also expensive due to the need at times to transfer fuel to the exploration sites.
“By the time you get a drum of fuel to the exploration site, the price is no longer a couple dollars per gallon — it’s triple,” said Seguin, noting that the fuel has to be first transported by ground before a helicopter finally air lifts it to the exploration site.
The variety in missions has allowed Canadian Helicopters to remain profitable, pulling in $200 million a year in revenue. However, that variety impacts the operator’s ability to purchase new aircraft. Every customer that contracts it for support has mission-specific requirements, which at most leads to minor airframe modifications, such as the installation of new heating systems in a fleet of Bell 212s to operate in the Arctic region. Those heaters were removed and ballistic flooring was added to those same aircraft that were disassembled and transported via an Antonov to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
“We respond to demand and contracts,” said Seguin. “For us to buy an aircraft and say to a customer, ‘This is what you need,’ is very hard.”
Considering the variety of operations in commercial and military that Canadian Helicopters supports, Seguin suggests launching an air taxi operation might be effective.
“Definitely, we’d be all over that,” said Seguin. However, there is a limiting factor in Canada for a consistent urban air mobility operation, whether supported by an electric hybrid propulsion-powered vehicle or by a helicopter:
“It’s a de-icing issue. You have to look at the climate. The issue here is we can fly down to the lowest minimums IFR, but we can’t take on icing very long,” he said. “For that type of operation, you have to be at lower altitudes; there is still icing. The biggest overall challenge is the climate.”
In the next several years, Seguin sees both opportunity and challenges ahead.
“A lot of pilots, engineers and maintenance techs have moved out of the industry,” he said.
Consequently, the company competes with Bell’s Mirabel-based facility for maintenance technicians because there are only so many available who are trained and experienced.
“We weren’t bringing in new blood,” Sequin continued, “and that’s going to be a problem in the next few years.”