Ultra-deepwater ops draw Era to the Gulf

 - January 21, 2008, 12:08 PM

“It’s a far different business today from what it was when I moved to Alaska 26 years ago,” Richard “Lash” Larew, executive v-p of Era Aviation, told AIN. “Today, flightseeing accounts for the majority of our business in Alaska and it has since the late 1990s.

“The preponderance of the oil exploration business has been forced out of Alaska and moved to the more oil-friendly Gulf Coast,” Larew explained. “The Gulf of Mexico now accounts for more than 50 percent of Era’s total gross revenue, but it certainly didn’t start out that way.”

Era’s past president and founder, Carl Brady, formed his first helicopter company in Washington in 1947. In June the following year, Brady brought the first commercial helicopter to Alaska and changed the company’s name to Economy Helicopters. By 1958 the Alaskan oil industry was in growth mode, creating a demand for more service, and Economy Helicopters merged with Rotor Aids. The first letters of Economy and Rotor Aids were combined and the company became ERA Helicopters.

In 1967, with the oil industry still growing, ERA became a part of Rowan Drilling to infuse more capital so it could expand its fleet. Subsequent mergers with Merric (1975), Jet Alaska (1977) and Livingston Copters (1980) added to the company’s bases, equipment and management depth.

In 1988 ERA Helicopters changed its name to Era Aviation to better reflect its diversified nature. By then the company had several operating divisions, including Era Helicopters, regional airline Era Aviation and an FBO in Anchorage, Alaska, Era Aviation Center.

Today, Era has three major operating bases in the U.S.–the Alaska division, with the company’s corporate headquarters and regional airline located in Anchorage; the Lake Charles, La. division, supporting Gulf Coast operations; and Reno, Nev., home of Era’s West Coast operation. The company has also provided support to oil companies
in China; off Sakhalin Island, Russia; Thailand; Greece; the Balkans; Italy; and Argentina.

Worldwide, Era employs more than 900 people and has flown more than 2.5 million hours since 1948. The company has logged in excess of 150,000 hours of IFR operations and more than 38,000 instrument approaches, with 8,600 hours flown in IFR sling operations.

“To increase mission capability, we developed techniques for carrying external loads in instrument conditions,” Larew explained. “FAA approval was received in 1981.” The company is authorized to conduct IFR sling-load approaches down to minimums of 250 feet and half a mile. Era has logged 8,600 accident- and incident-free hours since it began IFR sling operations, including some 5,000 approaches, 3,000 of which had minimums of less than 300 feet and three-quarters of a mile.

Rowan Companies, Era’s parent company, is one of Era’s customers in the Gulf of Mexico. Rowan does both offshore and land-based drilling and has manufactured nearly half of the jackup drilling rigs commonly used in offshore drilling.

“The real story of the offshore part of the business started in Alaska in the early 1970s,” Larew said. “The company had been here long before then, but the offshore work began when the oil companies came to Alaska. In 1977 offshore drilling began in Yakutat, Alaska. We serviced them with Bell 212s and a brand-new Sikorsky S-61. Once that was established, the oil companies slowly worked their way down the coast to the Aleutian chain, then on to western Alaska, St. Paul Island and the Chukchi Sea.”

Larew said the pinnacle of activity in Alaska was in 1985 and 1986. “That was when big-budget exploration projects in Alaska started to die off because the price of oil went down. It became cheaper to get oil on the international market,” he said. “But by then we had cut our teeth on IFR offshore operations, and the experience has served us well ever since.” As it happened, Era had been developing a Gulf Coast operation since 1972 and it would prove to be fortuitous for the company.

The rise in the price of oil and gas in 1992 because of the Gulf War the preceding year coincided with the development of deepwater technology. The result was that oil companies began to invest in the long-term development of deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Era thus began shifting resources from Alaska to the Gulf. According to Al Meyer, senior v-p/manager of the Gulf Coast division, “We focus on the deepwater market with a fleet of twin-engine helicopters.”

Deep water is defined as anything more than 700 feet below the surface. While it can be found as close to shore as 75 miles, where the Mississippi enters the Gulf, the further west you go, the further offshore you have to travel to find deep water. “We’re currently traveling as far as 200 miles in support of the deepwater rigs and as far as 250 miles in support of the offshore seismic boats. At this time we have about 50 percent of the deepwater market,” Meyer said.

Currently oil companies are drilling in as much as 10,000 feet of water, a staggering depth that only gets you to the seabed. Once they hit the bottom, the crews are drilling as much as another 24,000 feet to get at oil. “There are major oil and gas finds in the deep water and they have created a need for larger, longer-range IFR helicopters,” Meyer explained. “We are currently serving the market with four S-61Ns and two AS 332L Super Pumas, and we have three Sikorsky S-92s on order. If all goes well we are anticipating the first S-92 delivery to be in the fourth quarter of next year.”

Era’s Gulf operation has 300 employees, including 91 pilots and 122 A&P mechanics. It provides service throughout the Gulf of Mexico with 50 twin-engine helicopters, 10 shore bases and a 53,000-sq-ft office and hangar complex at Lake Charles Municipal Airport (LCH). The fleet includes BO 105s flown single pilot, and two-pilot Super Pumas, S-61Ns, Bell 412s and S-76A++s.

“We were the first company to receive approval for airborne radar approaches,” Meyer said. “We established supplementary aviation weather reporting stations and we were instrumental in introducing to the Gulf region Loran navigation equipment, centralized air-to-ground communications and even air conditioning for passenger comfort and safety.”

“One of the reasons oil companies have shifted their assets to the Gulf and elsewhere is simply because Alaska is too much of a hassle,” Larew said. “The Gulf Coast states have been very pro-oil development; the same cannot be said for Alaska any longer. While there are differences of opinion on the subject among Alaskans, most state residents are highly in favor of the oil industry. The problem is not with the residents of Alaska, but instead it is with the outside environmental groups.”

“There are only 600,000 people in Alaska, but the state has 68 percent of the total wilderness area of the United States,” Larew explained. “Alaska alone constitutes about 65-percent of our national park land. The problem we have is that elitists from outside the state are telling us what we can do within our state. The state of Alaska is continually manipulated by outside sources, and the government has essentially federalized most of the state. Unfortunately, with such a small population, with one congressional district and two senators, we don’t have enough clout to run our own state. Adding insult to injury, we are in the 9th Circuit Court District based in San Francisco; you don’t get more anti-oil, anti-growth or anti-business than that,” he said.

He added, “To seriously reduce our dependence on foreign oil, this country needs a solid energy policy that combines resource development with energy conservation and development of new energy technologies. We need to get out of this horrible demand for foreign oil. Currently, more than half of our oil comes from overseas, and while we may not have sufficient resources to meet all our country’s demand, we can certainly dramatically reduce our dependence if we develop what we have.”