Thanks to a strategy of organic growth and acquisitions over the last decade, the Bristow Group’s Bristow Academy has grown into the world’s largest commercial helicopter training organization. While the vast majority of the Bristow Group’s revenues continue to come from its oil and gas production (OGP) helicopter service activities worldwide, Bristow finds its training business expanding, even as other OGP companies are increasingly outsourcing this activity.
Bristow currently operates a mixed fleet of 75 training helicopters, from Robinson R22s to Eurocopter AS355s, across four campuses–three in the U.S. and one in Gloucester, UK. The backbone of the training fleet is 55 Schweizer 300 series. It also operates a pair of heavy-helicopter full-motion simulators, for an S-92A and an EC225, at its Aberdeen, Scotland helicopter base. The Academy’s main base of operations is in Titusville, Fla., home to 55 of its helicopters. System wide the academy employs 160 people, including 60 flight instructors and 10 ground instructors. It flies approximately 4,000 training hours per month and has a typical enrollment of 200 students; it graduated 370 last year. The academy’s operating margin increased from 3.1 percent in 2009 to 8.1 percent in 2010 thanks mainly to Bristow’s aggressive pursuit of higher-priced military and parapublic training contracts, primarily in Colombia and Mexico.
“We try and provide a complete solution for the customer,” said academy director Samantha Willenbacher, noting that several of the foreign police training customers initially thought “they just needed pilot training, but we ended up doing rear crew and hoist training as well” and that the customers “appreciated the added value.” Bristow training includes use of night-vision goggles (NVGs) as well as transition training on the Sikorsky Black Hawk and Bell JetRanger. To date, Bristow has trained 30 Mexican pilots flying for police forces there. Bristow also recently won a contract to train Australian military pilots and is investigating the possibility of setting up a training operation in Brazil to provide a steady supply of OGP pilots there. Brazilian law requires all helicopter pilots, excluding instructors, to be country nationals.
Bristow’s military training program is based on the same one used by the U.S. Army at Fort Rucker, Ala., and includes 435 hours of academics and 165 hours of flight time and has a 2:1 student to instructor ratio.
“It is a rigidly structured program and very disciplined,” said Nick Mayhew, general manager of the Titusville campus and an ex-Royal Navy Sikorsky Sea King commander. “Many of our instructors are ex-military, and when you have so many ex-military instructors who are stuck in their ways and polish their boots, it [the program] actually works.”
Students at the Titusville campus come from all over the globe to take advantage of the lower cost structure of U.S.-based training. The visa process can begin up to two years before a student arrives, and students are subject to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) clearances. Two clearances are required: one for a private pilot certificate and another for an instrument rating. The TSA is a frequent visitor on campus. Once new international students arrive, “We get them a cellphone, a car, take them to the bank and settle them in the best we can,” said Mayhew.
At Titusville, Bristow also draws students enrolled at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) in Melbourne. Bristow flight training is integrated into four FIT aviation-related programs and Willenbacher is currently working on developing a similar program with Louisiana Technology University for the academy’s New Iberia, La. campus.
Company Builds Largest Civil Helicopter School
Bristow began its training operations in 1961 in Redhill, near Gatwick Airport in the UK. In April 2007 it acquired Helicopter Adventures (HAI), a 20-year-old helicopter training and contract service provider with bases in Concord, Calif., and Titusville. HAI was the first U.S.-based helicopter school to receive European JAA certification. The JAA course lasts 48 weeks and includes 836 hours of ground school and a day-on/day-off flight schedule.
A little less than one-third of Bristow’s students are enrolled in the JAA program. While the program costs more than FAA Part 141 training, it costs less than JAA training in Europe, mainly due to the lower cost of flight hours and the absence of the 20-percent European value-added tax. Bristow programs have also been approved by civil aviation authorities in China, Vietnam and Angola, and the company is currently seeking approval in Nigeria.
In November 2007, Bristow purchased Vortex Helicopters in New Iberia, La., giving Bristow a training location closer to its Gulf of Mexico OGP operations. Finally, in December 2008, Bristow purchased Severn Aviation in Gloucester, UK, and made it its JAA IR and EU Training Center, primarily for single-pilot IFR multi-engine training in Eurocopter EC355 Twin Squirrels.
Bristow Titusville, where the company has the main academy campus and operates the FBO, is undergoing a major expansion, funded in part with $2 million in economic development grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The expansion includes a new nine-acre concrete ramp and a 40,000-sq-ft maintenance hangar. Bristow currently runs two maintenance shifts daily, between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., and is an FAA Part 145 repair station.
Bristow Academy operations are managed by a custom software program that can be quickly interpolated thanks to color-coding. The program clearly displays time to maintenance events, Hobbs time, where the aircraft are parked, when they are scheduled, to whom, for what purpose and where. When an aircraft is in maintenance, its data block is gray. When an aircraft is airborne its data block turns blue. The block includes the names of the crew, where they are and what they are doing. If an aircraft is 15 minutes late returning, the block turns orange. After 20 minutes overdue, it turns red. Students can access the program to see which aircraft and instructor they have, what time they are flying, get temporary flight restriction (TFR) data and access their customer accounts. Instructors can get student data, including face photos, a summary of experience, date of medical expiration, hours flown and with whom, exam grades, ratings and contact information, including cellphone numbers.
“It’s a powerful system. It’s ours and no one else has it,” said Mayhew.
Many of the academy’s graduates land jobs with Bristow OGP operations, said Willenbacher. Of the 100 pilots flying for Bristow Norway, 46 are Academy graduates. In Australia, Bristow has placed 99 graduates. “Not one of those graduates has been involved in a serious accident in a Bristow commercial operation,” said Willenbacher. “We’re proud of our operations.”