It’s one of the world’s more exclusive clubs, made up of pilots whose job in the growing world of luxury superyachts is helicopter operations.
No one seems to know exactly how many pilots are actively engaged in this calling, but best estimates put the number at barely 50, based on the fact that no more than 50 superyachts worldwide can support helicopter operations.
Flying helicopters from superyachts has never been a particularly large club, but in recent years it has expanded, as demand by the super-wealthy for super-yachts has grown and yacht owners have come to see an onboard helicopter as a necessity rather than a convenience.
In years gone by, the truly large private yachts of a size capable of supporting a helicopter landing deck–roughly 150 feet minimum from stem to stern– were often converted from cargo or oceanographic survey vessels or, in a few cases, ocean-going tugs. A few had already been equipped for helicopter operations. Others had helicopter decks added as part of the shipyard conversion process.
Today, it is rare to see a superyacht launched that does not have a helicopter deck because more and more buyers are having a helicopter deck incorporated into the original design to enhance the yacht’s value in charter operations and resale.
Almost an Aircraft Carrier
When Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen took delivery of his new, 412-foot-long Octopus early last year, it came with a helicopter pad on the bow and a larger helideck aft. If there is any doubt as to the size of this vessel, and the importance its owner places on helicopter operations, consider that it also has a hangar capable of accommodating a Sikorsky S-76. The ship has often been observed with an S-76 on the aft deck and a smaller MD Explorer on the forward landing pad.
According to industry insiders, as many as 200 yachts worldwide are outfitted with helicopter decks. But they agree that despite having an “H” painted somewhere on the deck and claims of being helicopter-capable, only about 50 meet most civil aviation requirements and most of those are yachts not regularly engaged in helicopter operations.
A 200-foot-long yacht has a beam of about 36 feet, barely sufficient to support helicopter operations. “The smallest yacht I know of with a helicopter pad was about 110 feet long, and it was very tight,” said Mark Elliott of International Yacht Collection in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Owners of yachts that do not have a helideck cite a number of reasons for the absence. One is that they are unwilling to give up to helicopter operations a limited amount of sea-going real estate that might be devoted to an additional stateroom or two, or an outdoor bar and Jacuzzi. As for yachts already in service, an afterthought helicopter deck is, almost without exception, said one yacht designer, “an ugly appendage,” no matter how convenient.
Finally, a lot of smaller yachts with narrow beams are not suitable for helicopter operations. “The landing rejection environment usually does not meet the public transport requirements of the civil aviation authorities in most countries,” said Nigel Watson, founder and chairman of Heli Riviera in Cannes, France.
Only a handful of the latest superyachts have both a helicopter deck and built-in hangar. With this in mind, a number of designers are working on a portable hangar that can be easily and quickly erected, broken down and stowed. “Maybe some sort of pressurized dome that would be practical for long ocean passages, and that would look nice,” said Watson.
Protecting the helicopter from the elements–in particular the corrosive effects of salt spray during extended periods at sea–is a major consideration. Fresh-water washdowns and maintenance checks are more frequent for helicopters engaged in yacht operations than those that are primarily shore-based.
In ports where facilities do not permit larger yachts to dock, the vessel’s helicopter allows the user to avoid the time-consuming process of being ferried ashore and then driven to a destination. The helicopter also permits a higher degree of privacy and security, which many high-profile yacht passengers and guests consider critical.
As they do in a shore-based environment, yacht-based helicopters also transport equipment and supplies and provide aerial sightseeing and emergency medical evacuation.
By far most of the helicopters used in yacht operations are owned and operated by the vessel’s owner. But not always. Watson, an English expatriate with both home and business in Cannes, can provide helicopters and/or flight crews for yacht owners, but his service comes primarily in the form of operational support.
Watson, 47, is ideally suited to his calling. He served five years with the Royal Navy, three years with the navy of the Sultan of Oman and 11 years in the luxury yacht industry. He has been a yacht captain and holds commercial helicopter and fixed-wing ratings.
Among Heli Riviera’s current clients is a yacht owner whose assets include a “substantial flight department” that wanted nothing to do with flying a helicopter on and off the yacht and frequently subcontracts with Heli Riviera to provide pilots and training and manage the yacht helicopter operation.
Pilot Training Is On-the-Job
Pilot training for helicopter operations on a yacht is, for the most part, an on-the-job process, “unless you flew for the Navy or Coast Guard,” said Elliott.
Watson recommends at least five hours of training in helicopter operations from a shipboard deck, and his company provides a service that matches new and experienced pilots for this purpose. There are no civil aviation regulations regarding pilot training, but according to Watson, lately insurers have been taking a closer look at yacht operations, and expectations of training and experience are therefore likely to become more structured and more formal.
Contrary to the popular perception, said Elliott, it is actually easier to land on and take off from a yacht that is moving into the wind than one that is at anchor or tied to a pier. Elliott described the process of landing aboard a helideck on a vessel at rest as akin to balancing a spinning plate on the end of a long wooden dowel.
Elliott, 48, knows of what he speaks. He obtained his fixed-wing ticket at the tender age of 16, was a yacht captain by 19 and was flying helicopters by the time he was 21. Now he works for International Yacht and runs his own helicopter charter business with a JetRanger “in New England in the summer and the Caribbean every winter.”
Yacht flying, he said, is as much a lifestyle as a job. A pilot isn’t going to build a lot of hours. Most average less than 200 hours a year, some much less than that. “It’s not necessarily the job for a young guy who wants to build hours,” concluded Elliott.
Watson added that it’s more a bachelor pilot’s existence, “and not a bad one at that. You see the world at someone else’s expense and you get to play with some pretty nice toys. You just have to accept that you’re not going to be flying very much.”
As for older pilots with family responsibilities, “They’re probably going to find it difficult to handle the long separations,” he added.
The annual salary, said Watson, is “a little above that in the average marketplace,” which for a corporate helicopter captain in the U.S. is in the $55,000 to $60,000 range. Watson said for a pilot with an A&P license, salaries start as high as $7,500 a month. It is not unheard of for a pilot who has been with the same employer for some years to enjoy an annual salary in excess of $150,000. But it is rare.
The higher pay suggests that much more than flying may be expected of a pilot engaged in yacht operations. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. A small number of pilots are involved exclusively in flying. “The primo pilots on the big yachts do nothing but fly,” said Elliott. “They don’t even wash ’em.”
A much larger number of pilots have additional duties aboard the yacht, ranging from maintenance to onboard fuel system management. It is not unusual to find pilots assigned duty as officer-of-the-deck during periods that the yacht is moored offshore or tied up at pierside, or on the vessel’s bridge while under way.
The pilot may also be required to supervise training for deck personnel in landing, takeoff and refueling procedures. In cases where there is an onboard refueling system, the pilot’s duties may also include maintenance and training and supervision of the deck crew in fueling operations.
The yacht owner’s pilot is also required to possess certain personal characteristics, not the least of which is tact and charm. “A yacht pilot,” said Watson, “is expected to be a combination of Tom Cruise and Father Christmas–confident but deferential– and personable.”
Meeting International Regulations
According to Watson, designers and builders always make an effort to adopt commercial aviation standards as a basis for helicopter deck design and construction, but having a deck that meets commercial aviation standards is only the start of regulatory considerations.
The pilot of a helicopter engaged in yacht operations must become familiar with the regulations of the civil aviation authorities of dozens of countries. It becomes particularly demanding in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, where a yacht owner may require transport from an airport in one country to a private location in another, as well as to and from the yacht.
It isn’t always convenient for pilots to keep abreast of changing regulations in myriad countries, nor do they have the contacts in various government agencies to facilitate the timely issuance of permits.
In France, for example, permits are required from that country’s naval authorities for the operation of helicopters on and off yachts, whether at anchor or at sea, while within French territorial waters. Further, French authorities require that offshore helicopter landing surfaces meet specific standards. Watson explained that the standards are “specific to each vessel, helicopter type and aircrew, and if there are any changes to any of these, the operator must resubmit the permit application.”
Heli Riviera provides a service to help pilots and yacht owners meet regulations and operational standards worldwide, and as the number of superyachts carrying helicopters continues to grow, Watson expects demand for the service will also grow.
Neither Elliott nor Watson appears to have any regrets about his years as a helicopter pilot operating from moving targets. “I worked on Big Eagle (later Nadine) as both captain and pilot and had extreme freedom as both. The owner, said Elliott, would call and simply say, ‘Take us on an adventure.’” We would be anchored in Villefrance (on the French Riviera), waterskiing one moment flying to the Alps to snow ski the next.
“It is a glamour job, and when it’s right, it’s great!”