The high price of oil means busy times for helicopter operators in northern Alberta, Canada, as the major oil companies such as Imperial Oil (ExxonMobil), Shell, Petro-Canada and Total remove it from the ground as fast as they can. Rotorcraft are particularly in demand in the Peace River area–one of four regions of Alberta given over to the extraction of “oil sands,” shallow deposits of viscous tar that can be refined into usable oil–because of the region’s challenging terrain.
Phoenix Heli-Flight, based at Fort McMurray, Alberta, has positioned itself to take advantage of this boom. It has taken delivery of its first twin, a new AS 355N1 TwinStar (the first of its type to be registered in Canada).
Phoenix plans to use the TwinStar for three particular companies–Shell, Total and Imperial–that have policies favoring the use of twins. “We are seeing a definite shift,” company president Paul Spring said, “and a growing perception that twins are safer.” The company’s insurance requirements have also changed. “The standard $10 million of liability insurance doesn’t cut it any more: this year we went to the London market and bought $100 million worth. Some of the bigger operators might be used to that level of coverage, but it was a big step for us.”
The number of hours the crews fly any given day is unpredictable. “We might be out working for a customer for eight or nine hours one day but sitting on the ground for eight and flying for one. In the winter we hardly fly at all. Then, there are only about eight hours for day VFR and, because the ground is frozen, the trucks can be used more effectively. Most of our work takes place between March and October; as soon as it gets mushy, we get going.”
Since he established Phoenix in 1991, Spring has experienced both boom and bust conditions. “During the mid-90s, oil prices were really low and it was costing the companies more to recover it than they could get for it in the market. We all know how volatile it is: business might be booming now, but I run my company on the basis that it won’t last.”
Phoenix also flies a B model AStar, a B2 AStar, two EC 120s and an EC 130. The company was the first Canadian operator to put the last two types into commercial service.
The Jack of All Trades
In addition to supporting the oil producers, the company flies an all-Eurocopter fleet on medevac, wildfire suppression, survey and exploration, passenger and freight charters from a base north of provincial capital Edmonton. Spring likes the capacity of the EC 130, which the company often sends out on medevac duties for the Fort McMurray fire department.
He added, “We also service Highway 63, between here and Edmonton. There’s an EMS operator working out of Edmonton that uses BK 117s but they have no range at all–good for only 120 kilometers from base. We can depart here in the EC 130 and fly 200 kilometers south to attend to a traffic accident anywhere along the highway.”
“The 130 is a jack of all trades. If you just loadlift you want a B3 or a Lama; for tours you would use a B2 with the extra seat, but if you do all sorts of work, the 130 is a pretty good compromise, which is how it was designed, of course. You have to watch your weight and balance, but we use it for tours and firefighting as well as medevac. And if we have only two or three passengers, we use the 120,” said Spring.
“We replaced the EC 130 seats with folding ones, to give us more internal space. We were supporting a tree-planting team, which stays in the bush for six or seven weeks to plant seedlings to replace the trees that are cut down in the winter. They needed a fresh supply of food and water and mentioned that their six-foot refrigerator had broken and asked us to take them another. I showed up in camp with a long-line and a net full of 1,900 pounds of supplies, landed alongside and the camp manager marched up to me, really annoyed that I hadn’t brought the fridge. So I slid the door open and there it was.”
Phoenix also uses the EC 130 for firefighting. “We had a mild, dry winter here and the temperatures are now [early July] in the mid-thirties C (around 100 degrees F). We’ve had to turn down requests from the province for firefighting assets because we’ve been so busy, but they have been starting every day recently. We put a 200-gallon bucket under the EC 130 and they love that.”
Are there more new purchases ahead for Phoenix? “I think we’re at about the right size now but we might replace one of the EC 120s with an EC 135,” Spring said.