While the global pandemic has caused a surge in private aviation as high-net-worth individuals gravitate away from crowded commercial airlines and their currently diminished schedules, the large-yacht industry is also booming. As people look to find socially distanced leisure activities for themselves and their families, some boatyards are reporting backlogs of more than two years. At the high end of the scale are the mega-yachts and super-yachts that are equipped with helipads.
“That ease of not necessarily being tied to an airport makes it very appealing," said Emma Watson, director of St. Maarten-based HeliRiviera Caraïbes. “Especially if you put the world of yachting into it, where your airport is wherever you park your boat and your airport follows you around wherever you might want to go.”
Speaking at the recent Caribavia conference, Watson described the company, an offshoot of France-based HeliRiviera, as vessel and air support specialists that handle all their clients' helicopter operations and logistics. The companies operate a global fleet of private twin-engine Airbus helicopters under Part NCC, as well as Yellow Helicopters in the UK.
“The appeal of helicopters, in general, is that they provide you with point-to-point travel,” said Watson. “So long as the infrastructure is there, the helicopter is the quickest, easiest way to get from one place to another.” She added that for passengers on large oceangoing yachts, they offer a level of privacy on par with private jets.
The location of the company’s bases at Cannes Mandelieu Airport on the French Riviera and at St. Maarten’s Grand Case L’Espérance Airport reflects the yachting set’s migratory habits. “We follow the high season, so a typical circuit that you have is the summer will be in the Mediterranean, and the winter will be in the Caribbean,” said Watson, adding that there are exceptions to that cycle, with some owners diverting to Asia, South America, or even the Arctic. During the peak season, the waters off tony St. Barthélemy may be packed with dozens of large yachts.
That means that twice a year, the vessels will undertake a transatlantic crossing. Some of the yachts are large enough to include a hangar for the helicopter, which will protect it and provide a secure area for a technician to conduct daily maintenance and observation, while others may choose to ship the helicopter as ocean freight. HeliRiviera will handle all the entry and landing permits at both ends of the trip. In fact, Watson said, dealing with all the airport and civil aviation authorities and ensuring compliance with all their regulations is one of the most demanding roles that the company fills.
Watson noted that maintaining a good relationship with the yacht's captain and crew is vital “because we are a nuisance to them...Each time we land on deck, there has to be a trained yacht crew ready in firefighting gear, with all of the emergency equipment ready for the worst-case scenario. That means taking half the crew away from their daily duties and making them ready for our landing.” The equipment also takes up space aboard the yacht, and it must be stowed after each operation.
While HeliRiviera provides operational and emergency situational training for the yacht crew, it also ensures that its pilot crews, which it swaps out every two to three weeks, remain sharp. “If we’re not in high season, maybe we won’t land on the boat for a few weeks, and we need to make sure that our pilot keeps current on that,” Watson said. Given the noise and disruption to the yacht’s operational schedule, any landing practice sessions must be carefully planned to not disturb the owner. These days, while rotating crews, the company must also keep abreast of all Covid testing timeline regulations, which differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Some of the larger vessels can conduct on-deck helicopter fueling from their own storage tanks, which are replenished when the yacht docks. Otherwise, refueling takes place when the aircraft lands at an FBO. This is simple when the yacht remains relatively stationary, for example, moored off St. Barth’s, within easy range of St. Maarten’s airports. But if the owner enjoys making last-minute detours while roaming the seas, that complicates things, according to Watson, who must plan for any eventuality and know which FBOs have the correct fueling capabilities.
Suitable infrastructure is also important, whether it's HeliRiviera, which provides FBO services at Grand Case and Cannes Mandelieu Airports, or onboard. “With heli-yachting in general, you fly over the sea all the time, so it’s what is considered for maintenance purposes a very harsh environment, a very saline environment,” said Watson. “Aircraft do not like salt, especially in a helicopter. One of our jobs is to find the appropriate FBO with hangar facilities and good cleaning supplies and access to water so they can do the engine rinsing to avoid corrosion.”
For larger maintenance jobs, Watson noted, there are many qualified rotorcraft repair centers in Europe, and the company tries to timeline scheduled maintenance for the summer season for that reason. Repairs in the Caribbean present more of a challenge. “If we need any serious maintenance assistance, we have to go up to Miami,” she said. “There are facilities for EASA-compliant maintenance organizations in French Guiana as well. However, there are none in the Caribbean.”
While the company stocks a minimum supply of spares at its bases and onboard the vessels, getting some parts from overseas in a timely manner can be difficult. Watson recalled one occasion when a company technician was sent to pick up a part at an airframer’s assembly facility and flew with it on a direct commercial flight from Europe to St. Maarten.
Watson compared the sphere of operations between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, stating that in the former, landing sites are strictly limited to airports. While the Mediterranean has more options and better infrastructure, it has its own concerns. “It’s a very oversaturated market,” said Watson. “If you simply consider the sheer number of charter helicopter companies that are based out of Cannes and do the circuit between San Tropez and San Remo, it’s an incredible amount of machines flying as it is.” At many landing sites, local authorities, attempting to clamp down on noise pollution, have instituted movement limits with priority for them going first to the commercial operators, she explained.
The helicopters are used primarily for ship-to-shore transport, with one owner who frequents the Caribbean mandating that his helicopter must always be waiting rampside when his private jet lands at St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport, to whisk him directly to his vessel. While that is the typical role for the rotorcraft, Watson noted that another potential use has emerged in the age of Covid. “One of the great things that you have in the copter is you basically have your own medical evacuation system.” She explained that there is currently much investment being made in the sickbays of these yachts, essentially equipping them as floating hospitals in case their owners ever find themselves stranded at sea again due to travel restrictions. During the early surge of the pandemic last year, Watson found herself scrambling to move helicopters as the patchwork of sky literally closed up around her. “All these places have different civil aviation authorities and all of them are reacting to a pandemic at different times and in different ways,” she said. One of the company's helicopters was stranded at Grand Case for nearly four months before it was allowed to leave.