As the only company in the Middle East to offer the full gamut of helicopter training options, Horizon International Flight Academy in Al Ain, in the UAE emirate of Abu Dhabi, has become a critical link in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) parapublic infrastructure. Formerly owned by Emirates Defense Industries Company (EDIC), it is now part of the UAE’s 25-company-strong defense conglomerate, Edge.
“Horizon was established at the end of 2002 and started training operations for helicopter pilots from the UAE and the region in 2003,” CEO Hareb Al Dhaheri told AIN in December. “Horizon [operates] the Bell 206 and the Bell 407. We have graduated more than 1,500 pilots. We have a platform of 27 helicopters—13 Bell 407s, 12 Bell 206s, and two Bell 429s—as well as four simulators.”
At the Dubai Airshow in November, the Bell-only customer announced its latest deal. “The order for 12 Bell 505s will bring fleet size to 39, and then we will start retiring the old Bell 206s, which will be phased out when the last student completes the current course in 2020,” he said. “We will make a smooth transition from the 206 to the 505. Fleet size will continue to be based on market requirements.”
Horizon trainees can be civilian, but the majority go to the military. “[Most] of our trainees come from the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], but we do have graduates from all over the world,” he said. “That also includes male and female. So far, we have graduated around 10 to 12 female helicopter pilots.”
After pilots graduate, if they're from the military, they return to their units; most come back for advanced training. “We have added two twin-engine aircraft to improve advanced learning, such as search and rescue, over-mountain flying, NVG [night -vision goggles] flying, and over-water flying. At Horizon, we can do the whole package. When a pilot goes back to his unit, he just needs to be type-rated on a certain aircraft, as he knows all about the mission.”
Horizon also offers a course for the private pilot license.
“Pilot training demand varies,” Al Dhaheri said. “One year it could be 80 pilots, another 100, 110, or 120. These numbers vary based on customer demand. We do have a limited number of people who pay their own way for their license, but that is very unusual.”
He said Al Ain is an ideal city for flying. “Out of 365 days, it normally has 360 sunny days. Perhaps we'll have a week of fog, but most of the time, it's clear. We have around 40 to 45 instructors coming from the U.S., the UK, Greece, France, Jordan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Theory involves 14 subjects before a trainee moves to the flight line when he is introduced to the aircraft.”
Al Dhaheri, who became Horizon’s CEO in 2011, joined the UAE Air Force in 1980, becoming a helicopter and instructor pilot. During his career, he has held several commands, and he also flew the Super Puma multi-mission aircraft, gaining more than 4,000 hours of flying experience.
Horizon employs the Bell 429 for advanced, twin-engine training, search and rescue, hoist operations, over-water flying, and VIP transport. “The Bell 505 is similar to the 206 but has a complete glass-cockpit system,” Dhaheri said. “Everything is combined in one visual display—a screen with all the required flight information that reduces the workload on the pilot, unlike conventional aircraft, where he has to look at every gauge and corner of the instrument panel. The integration is higher on new-generation aircraft, which makes the pilot's job much easier.
“The Bell 525 is currently not supported. With regard to training, we have an excellent relationship with Bell. This will continue and may [come to] include the Bell 525.”
In addition to the military, in the UAE, helicopter operations are conducted by Abu Dhabi Police, Dubai Police, and private-sector players like Falcon Aviation and Abu Dhabi Aviation. Helicopter activity also takes place in Ras Al Khaimah, where the police are understood to employ two helicopters.
Saudi Arabia is expanding its aviation sector, Al Dhaheri said. “Saudi Aramco is similar in composition to Abu Dhabi Aviation. In addition to the military, including the air force, navy and ground forces, Saudi Aramco, and civil departments, they do have a lot of activity.”
Offshore oil and gas flying involves special procedures and techniques. "Flotation gear is used in case of emergency landing, so you can land on water until you are safe," noted Dhaheri. "The helicopter also has to have a life raft to fly over water."
Horizon is a key constituent of Al Ain’s Nibras Aerospace Park. “It is a division of the government,” Dhaheri said. “Everything is under one umbrella: flight training, engineering, and aircraft manufacturing and parts. There are a lot of companies coming up on this site, like AMMROC [Advanced Military Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Center], the maintenance provider. You don't have to go anywhere; everything is available under one roof.”
Dhaheri did not rule out the possibility of employing rotorcraft sourced from other OEMs in the future. “Everything is possible, but we are happy with the fleet. Bell aircraft make the transition to bigger types easy. We [have] continued with Bell because relations are excellent and they always listen to their customers.”
He thinks helicopters of the future could see substantial change. “If you look at helicopters back in the 1980s, and compare them with today's generation, the difference is remarkable,” Dhaheri said. “Helicopter use will be steady in the next 10 years, but then there might be something replacing them, such as the air taxi on the civil side. The military would be another question.
“We are growing. It is a unique business within the private sector, it is stable, and that is why we are continuing our operations.”