New Zealand fields strong helo market

 - September 22, 2006, 5:36 AM

Although corporate aviation in the nation is limited, New Zealand boasts one of the highest per capita ratios of aircraft operation, with 9,040 pilots in a population of 4 million flying 3,830 aircraft on the CAA registry. Most of those are general aviation piston airplanes, while Eurocopters dominate the more than 500 turbine-powered aircraft.

“There are too many helicopters in New Zealand, and we’re only cutting each other off at the knees,” said Dennis Laird, general manager of Helicopters New Zealand, the nation’s largest operator, referring to the turbine operators devoted to flight-seeing, oil, mining and film work.

Heavy-lift Helicopter Ops
Qwilton Biel, chairman of the helicopter division of the New Zealand Aviation Industry Association, runs Heli Harvest, the nation’s largest heavy-lift service, operating three Russian Mil Mi-8MTV-1s throughout the South Pacific.

Given the pedigree of the Mi-8, two of New Zealand Aviation’s pilots and three engineers are ex-Eastern bloc. The two-pilot lifter has an external sling capacity of just over 11,000 pounds. After the tsunami in December 2004, one of the helicopters served Oxfam’s call to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, reaching station in a 5,602-nm flight divided into 15 sectors over 4.5 days.

Heli Harvest originally collected logs for the state-owned enterprise Timberlands West Coast. In 1999 the new Clark Labour Government delivered on a campaign promise to ban “sustainable selective logging” and felled 80 percent of Biel’s business. Biel found a niche in private blocks of forestry, but lumber work is now a fraction of the previous level.

“Normally we’ll do 300 to 400 hours per helicopter per year, 800 to 1,200 hours across the fleet,” said Biel, who now concentrates on oil and exploration. “In the heavy-lift business it’s feast or famine.”

Biel has tiedowns for both fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft because he also flies a Learjet 35A in support of Heli Harvest.

According to Biel, the Royal New Zealand Navy has first call on the Learjet, which the company uses to tow targets for the Navy. He said, “They shoot at us with
a 50-caliber machine gun and five-inch shells. It’s worth the difference it makes in our operating costs.” The rest of the time the airplane is Part 91 to support any time-critical work for the helicopters, to get parts or a new pilot to the job urgently.
Biel has a sense of humor about the Navy role. On the Learjet’s nose he slapped stickers to simulate bullet holes. They looked real enough to prompt a concerned report and a visit from the inspector.

Biel has also turned his attention to training for his Learjet 35A crew. A LifePort EMS interior came with the jet and a Part 135 certificate is in the works, to target donor organ recovery on the 1,200-nm link between New Zealand and Australia.

“The crew will get to Tucson, Ariz., every 12 months for recurrent sim training, but the CAA is saying that without the New Zealand certificate that’s not good enough. We’ll continue to go to FlightSafety because that’s what makes our crew safe. So we’ll have to reach an understanding with the regulators, which isn’t impossible; it’s one benefit of being a small country. Most things you can work through.”

According to Helicopters NZ’s Laird, “Pilot hiring is not a problem, but maintenance technicians are in demand. There’s a shortage of craftsmen. New Zealand industry was hurt by the run-down of the Air Force, which had supplied trades training. There’s Nelson-Marlborough University, which runs a trade training course, and we’ve taken on one or two mechanics from there. We also have apprentices, because of the depth of our technical needs.”

Maintenance Training
The government recently overhauled helicopter industry apprenticeships and other vocational programs.

“The requirements for civil aviation are five years of trade training, but it was unstructured. Industry is now working with a training board, and there’s a [specific] track rather than the assumption that the apprenticeship has covered all of the essential areas,” Laird explained.

He added that there is low turnover among mechanics at his company because “we do our own engineering so we train our people to support operations in the field. We could outsource this work, or buy new aircraft to reduce maintenance needs, but instead we rotate our people through all areas. We expect rotation, particularly to Antarctica.”

Laird requires at least 1,000 flight hours then routes new pilot hires into the affiliate company for glacier flying, to build hours flying tourists.

“For the offshore operations, we have to recruit more out of the military because there’s the instrument experience. Oil-field operations are more structured and military pilots are better suited.

“I came in (as chair of the AIA helicopter division) when the CAA broke out of the Ministry of Transport to become just a safety regulator. All it did to synchronize the U.S. FARs and the New Zealand code was adopt the [U.S.] numbering system; they still do whatever they bloody well like. The content might seem the same, but the rules vary considerably, often for the worse as far as operators are concerned,” said Biel.

“One glaring difference between FAR Part 91 and the New Zealand CAA code is the minimum operating height. Under Part 91 helicopters have a blanket prohibition on flights below 500 feet agl without a ‘bona fide’ purpose. Whether you’re ‘bona fide’ depends on the regulator you speak to, and it’s an issue when weather starts closing in and you can complete the flight at 300 feet. Weather is not a ‘bona fide purpose.’”

Helicopters New Zealand’s Laird cites  not regulatory issues but the damage a clumsy crane operator can cause as one
of his major concerns.

“We move a lot of Eurocopter Squirrels by sea in a 40-foot container. We lift the rotorhead and pull the transmission out and remove the vertical fin. It takes only a day or so to put them back together unless there’s damage en route.” Twice in the last few months an anonymous crane operator has dropped a container with a B3 model, causing “enormous capital cost.”

Laird’s crew has just completed an executive refurbishment of a Squirrel for Prince Norodom Ranariddh of Cambodia, with enhancements to the air conditioning system and the installation of leather seats and upgraded avionics.

Special Helicopter Missions
Helicopters NZ’s current contracts include seismic survey in Myanmar and
3-D laser mapping for New Zealand power company Transpower, as well as gas and mining, filmmaking, firefighting, agriculture and construction. Its fleet of 49 aircraft includes the Bell 212, 412SP/EP and 206B JetRanger; Eurocopter AS 350 Squirrel; and Robinson R44.

Laird’s pilots fly film crews and tourists for New Zealand affiliate Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters on the South Island’s glacier fields, such as the Franz Josef glacier, before floating staff out for regular operations support in Antarctica.

During AIN’s visit, a Bell 412 was in pieces after the installation of a HUMS (health and usage monitoring system) with sensors throughout to track the efficiency and maintenance status of the helicopter.

“There is no unusual maintenance from our glacier operations,” said Laird. “We operate in Antarctica, and the unusual thing about that is the preparation. Because it’s remote, the preparation needs to be exemplary. You can’t get it wrong. The difference in terms of maintenance is the type of oil selected for the cold. You can blow the seal around the filter if the oil is too thick. We get around the oil problem by using a cold-weather start procedure.”

Personnel number about 110 in the peak season of summer, and 70 percent of them are full time, consisting largely of New Zealanders and a few Australians.