Helicopter firms eye offshore expansion

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Media captionPilots from Bond Off Shore Helicopters practice on the simulator

A queue of helicopters coming in to land is forming above an airfield on the outskirts of Aberdeen.

On the ground, in an enormous red hangar clad with large sheets of corrugated iron, helicopter pilot Capt Phil Binfield is preparing to take over, as one of his colleagues steps down to rest.

For Bond Offshore Helicopters, it is crucial to keep their aircraft flying - every airborne hour helps the choppers earn their keep - though to do so requires a great deal of skill.

"Out on the deck, with the turbulence from the rig, it can be quite bouncy, with 50-knots [57.6mph; 92kph] winds," says Capt Binfield as he casually moves around the control room, checking performance charts for the latest weather conditions, temperatures and air pressure.

"We have weather limits," Capt Binfield says.

"If the wind's too strong, we won't go... or in winter, if it's too cold and there's icing present, we won't go."

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Media captionGraham Wildgoose from Bond Off Shore on the increasing need for helicopters

Steady demand

Aberdeen is at the heart of UK oil and gas exploration, and for companies operating in this sector - such as ConocoPhillips, BP or Maersk Oil North Sea - helicopters are essential tools.

Bond and its rivals Bristow and CHC have their hands full ferrying crew members to and from the North Sea rigs, two to three hours' flight from here.

Search-and-rescue preparedness adds another vital source of income for the helicopter operators.

And with the emergence of offshore wind farms around the UK coast, there will soon be plenty of new business to fish for.

"As that market develops, both in the eastern Irish Sea and in the northern North Sea, Bond Offshore is looking to play a major part," says Bond Offshore's ground manager, Graham Wildgoose.

Buying a package

With such a hive of activity, it is not surprising to hear that Aberdeen is Europe's busiest heliport.

Image caption Bond Offshore is working its helicopters hard

It is so busy that Eurocopter, the world's leading manufacturer with about 50% of the non-military helicopter market, has invested some £10m ($16m) in a new service centre here to supply spare parts to the operators and to help train the pilots.

Some 100 helicopters operate in the North Sea, about half of them out of Aberdeen. They fly on average more than 1,000 hours each per year, many of them much more, so demand for Eurocopter's services is great.

"When a customer buys a helicopter, he is buying more than just an aircraft. He is also buying a package of services," says Ken Carter, who looks after Eurocopter's oil and gas customers.

"Their problems are my problems, from the supply of spare parts to technical questions."

Support and servicing

In the world of aviation, they say fixed-wing aircraft have only 10% moving parts, whereas helicopters have 90% moving parts.

Servicing and replacing components is therefore crucial to ensure the helicopters are safe and operational.

"An operator doesn't want an aircraft standing on the ground," says Mr Carter, pointing out that helicopters in the oil and gas industry tend to be available for operations 93% of the time, compared with 70% operational ability for military helicopters in the UK.

And as the operators are on "a parts by the hour contract", neither does Eurocopter.

The more an aircraft flies, the more money the manufacturer makes, both from new sales, as helicopters that have been used a lot will need replacing earlier, and from support and servicing earnings.

"Support and servicing make up 42% of Eurocopter Group turnover, and the ambition is that this should grow," says Mr Carter.

Near the customers

The way Eurocopter's service centre is tucked away on an industrial site near the airport gives no indication of its importance to the company's bottom line.

Image caption Dozens of crew members are ferried to and from the rigs every day

Like Bond Offshore's hangar and offices, it too is clad with sheets of corrugated iron. Inside, the plain offices and conference rooms, even the parts store, look modest.

What is crucial about the centre, which was opened in February this year, is its proximity to the helicopter operating companies, according to Eurocopter training manager Jean-Claude Barbier.

Small components are delivered by bicycle and face-to-face meetings are held almost daily, he says.

Customers tempted to switch to rival helicopter makers are constantly reminded they would be giving up more than just the hardware.

The full-size flight simulator Eurocopter has installed here is a hi-tech wonder that physically moves thanks to hydraulic mechanisms.

Inside, pilots and crews are given training and refresher sessions they could previously only receive at Eurocopter's headquarters in Marignane in the south of France.

Image caption The modest service centre in Aberdeen belies its importance to Eurocopter's bottom line

Pilots such as Jon Hopkinson, who also works for Bond Offshore, are eager to stress how simulating emergencies helps them.

"You can sit and talk about it in a classroom, but it just won't sink in," he says. "In terms of drill, it's identical to the real world. It's not that you suspend belief, but you do the drill as if it was real."

Keep on flying

Though not a profit centre in its own right, the simulator builds loyalty with the end users and it saves their employers money, thus keeping them happy as well, Mr Barbier says.

The operating cost of the simulator is half that of a real helicopter, and using this rather than an aircraft for training means the helicopters can still be out there earning a crust, he says.

Having the simulator here in Aberdeen also cuts down on the time wasted and the travel costs previously incurred when pilots had to go to France for their training or refreshers.

While for Eurocopter, the aim is to create a perpetual flow of income, as the company's products keep on flying - hour after hour, day after day.

This year's Paris Air Show will take place at Le Bourget exhibition centre on the outskirts of Paris from 20 to 26 June 2011.

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