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What You Need to Know About Chartering a Helicopter Overseas
Unless you work for an oil and gas company, your flight department probably doesn’t get requests for a helicopter on international trips very often. However, if your passengers need to navigate cities with heavy ground traffic like São Paulo or Mexico City, or visit a remote factory, a helicopter may be the best – or the only – form of local transportation.
When chartering an aircraft, whether fixed wing or a helicopter, the NBAA Aircraft Charter Consumer Guide advises, “Do not choose a charter operator based on price, and price alone. The safety and security of the passengers must be the primary consideration.”
In the U.S. it’s a common best practice recommended by the guide to check each charter operator’s safety and accident records with the local Federal Aviation Administration Flight Standards District Office. Because that’s not possible for foreign operators, it’s necessary to do thorough research and see the operation up close.
In some regions of the world – such as those with offshore oil and gas production – global helicopter operators like CHC, Bristow or PHI will likely already have a presence. Because of the oil and gas industry’s unique mission profile and high demand, it very high standards are required of charter operators everywhere in the world.
“Our company policy is to only put passengers on twin-engine turbine helicopters with two pilots,” said John O’Neill, aviation authority for refining and marketing at BP.
The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) publishes suggested standards recommending that on large twin-engine helicopters, the pilot in command have an airline transport pilot (helicopter) license, 3,000 total flight hours and 100 hours in command of the aircraft type flown. OGP also suggests that the copilot should have a commercial pilot license and 500 total hours.
The OGP guide is the closest there is to a global helicopter safety and operations standard. However, for different types of missions, such as carrying sales teams, executives or business development personnel, those standards might not be appropriate – prohibitive in some areas, insufficient in others. When vetting local helicopter operators, how do you choose one that meets the necessary safety standards for your passengers and gets them where they need to go?
Look for a Safety Audit, Use Your Network
“The first level of screening is to look for operators that have passed an aviation safety audit,” said Mike Nichols, NBAA vice president for operational excellence & professional development. For example, helicopter operators that are both ARGUS Platinum and Wyvern Wingman rated likely follow basic best practices for aviation safety.
However, looking for a safety rating is just a first step, cautioned Nichols and several operators experienced with overseas helicopter charters. “Use your network,” said the aviation director of an NBAA Member Company based in New York. “Ask a peer in the industry who’s been there for a recommendation.”
In addition to using your own network, former NBAA Chairman Jeff Lee, vice president of flight operations for American Express, recommended using NBAA Air Mail to ask for referrals. “Once you have the name of an operator that you’re vetting, find out who else uses them. Get references,” said Lee. “Also, if your company has local employees where you intend to charter, they may be able to help with the initial screening.”
If there are no helicopter operators with current safety ratings at your destination, you can ask a safety auditor to review an operator’s information online and over the phone. At Wyvern, this option is called a “desk review”; at ARGUS it’s called a “desktop audit.”
“In a desk review, we’re still gathering all the information we can, but we gather it via computer,” said Kathleen Quinn, sales director at Wyvern. “It’s only a snapshot, so it’s only good for one mission.” The same is true for ARGUS desktop audits.
Go See for Yourself
Once you’ve narrowed the options down, the next step, whenever possible, should be sending someone to visit the overseas operator. “It’s challenging to get a sense of these operations without going to look for yourself,” said Lee. “In some cases, the only way I’d feel comfortable putting my passengers on board the helicopter is sending someone [knowledgeable] to go take a look.”
Lee, who has chartered helicopters for overseas missions many times, said the OGP guide is a good starting point for vetting helicopter operations, even if you’re in an entirely different industry. “We look for twin-engine helicopters with two pilots,” said Lee. “If they fly over water, we look for floats and pilots with underwater egress training.”
Other things to look for when visiting a helicopter operator include the equipment they fly, the maintenance operation, minimum pilot qualifications and pilot training programs, and aircraft insurance. It’s also critical to look at the operator’s safety program and get a sense of the company’s safety culture.
“Take your flight operations manual and your safety management system with you,” said Nichols. “Use the standards for your own operation to vet the charter operator and see where the gaps are.” For example, what is the operator’s policy for flight time, duty and rest limits? Have they implemented the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations? Do they have specific standard operating procedures for nighttime operations or high-altitude operations? Do they have a flight risk analysis tool?
If you can’t send someone on staff, you can hire a safety auditor to visit the country and perform a full audit on a local operator. This typically involves at least two auditors on site for several days, and usually produces a final report within one week. It can, however, take a long time to schedule the audit with a foreign operator.
“Sometimes the best thing to do is get boots on the ground and see what goes on behind the hangar door,” said Mark Wulber, director of audit programs for business aviation at ARGUS PROS.
Making the Call on the Spot
“Normally, we try go visit an operation several months ahead of an anticipated demand for a helicopter overseas,” said Lee. But what if your people are already abroad and the need for a helicopter arises suddenly?
As the New York-based aviation director puts it, “When it comes to my passengers’ safety, I have to be right 100 percent of the time. I hold foreign charter operators to the same safety standards I apply to those in the U.S. It’s easier to decide if you get recommendations and the operator is ARGUS- and Wyvern-rated, or, on the other hand, if you hear from your network, ‘Don’t go near them.’ The tough calls are the operators that fall in between.”
“If you have 48 hours to decide, that might be too much risk,” said Lee. Because there is no universal helicopter safety standard, auditors recommend judging against the demands of the mission: Who is traveling? Where are they going? Is there no safer alternative to get there?
For example, the New York aviation director says, “If it’s the chairman, you don’t have to actually endanger him to make the wrong call, you just have to scare him. It’s always better to be told you’re being too discerning than having your passengers concerned for their safety.”