Eurocopter boosts support for growing North Sea operations

 - February 23, 2011, 4:45 AM

Overblown oil prices are far from good news for most of the aviation industry, but the world’s insatiable thirst for fuel is spurring fresh demand for helicopters to serve offshore exploration and production activity. So it was a logical choice for Eurocopter to select Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland as its first major initiative to bring rotorcraft product support and training infrastructure closer to its operators.

On February 1, the European manufacturer officially opened its new North Sea Service Centre in Aberdeen. The facility provides maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) support for Eurocopter aircraft operating in the oil and gas fields of the North Sea.

The center also includes a pilot training center, which features a full-flight simulator for the EC225. On the day of the inauguration leading offshore operator CHC Helicopter signed a contract that calls for at least 800 training hours in the new Level B simulator each year (see box). This follows another deal signed late last year by Bond Helicopters for at least 200 hours, with both operators already indicating that they may well need as much as 50 percent more simulator time than this. CHC has the option of bringing EC225 flight crew from any of its operations around the world to train in Scotland.

Eurocopter also expects the smaller, new EC175 to sell well in the burgeoning offshore market. With this in mind, space available next to Aberdeenπs new EC225 simulator has been provisionally earmarked to house an EC175 unit.

Bristow Helicopters already has its own in-house simulator for training. The company’s worldwide headquarters is located in Aberdeen and it may opt to take some time in the Eurocopter simulator too.

Aberdeen is Europeπs busiest heliport and is a hub for some 100 Eurocopter rotorcraft operating in the North Sea and for several hundred pilots who fly them. North Sea helicopter operations account for approximately 100,000 flight hours annually, and exploration and production activity is due to increase this year and into next.

“We are proud to be the leading supplier of helicopters for the North Sea,” said Eurocopter UK managing director Markus Steinke. Of the 100 Eurocopter aircraft active in that sector, 56 are based in the UK, 31 in Norway, eight in the Netherlands and five in Denmark.

Eurocopter has invested almost $16 million in the new facility, which is run by its Eurocopter UK subsidiary with some 20 staff. The manufacturer expects to expand the 20,000-sq-ft center to respond to the needs of growing numbers of aircraft that it anticipates being used to support fast-expanding wind farm operations in the North Sea (see box).

The aircraft engineering capability in Aberdeen is intended to further reduce downtimes for helicopters operating in the high-demand North Sea sector. Operators there conduct frequent scheduled services, almost like regional airlines ferrying workers to and from the rigs and platforms–often in harsh conditions.

The new facility gives operators a more direct alternative to Eurocopterπs existing MRO facilities in Oxford, UK, and at its corporate headquarters in Marignane in the south of France. The new facility includes a dynamic component workshop.

The North Sea Support Centre provides a logistics hub that already has almost $24 million worth of spare parts, and this inventory is set to double in value over the next year. The company has set a goal of getting spares to locally based operators within three hours, and because of their close proximity it is often managing this in as little as 45 minutes.

According to Derek Sharples, Eurocopter executive vice president for support and services, the investment in Scotland is part of a much wider expansion of customer support infrastructure. Last year, the airframer opened a new MRO subsidiary in India as well as expanding its operation in Singapore by 50 percent. The company has invested approximately $68 million in a new logistics center in France and it also has a new training and logistics partner in China.

The next step is to bring training provision closer to customers in key developing markets. This will see simulators added in Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore and China this year.

According to Sharples, support and service activities grew by about 10 percent last year, accounting for about 36 percent of Eurocopter’s revenues.

“Flying for the oil and gas industry in the North Sea is still growing,” he said. “Operators are still buying new aircraft to expand their capacity there.”