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Canadian Helicopters: Operating, Training for Challenging Missions

Canada’s largest helicopter transportation services company is adjusting to new industry norms.

With a mixed fleet of more than 100 Airbus Helicopters and Bell rotorcraft, Canadian Helicopters went private in December at the end of its 70th year in operation. Its missions range from wildfire suppression in Alberta to aerial de-icing of wind turbines in New Brunswick, where ice accumulation can cease operations of wind farms for months at a time.

Between 2009 and 2014, under a U.S. Transportation Command contract, the company flew more than 60,000 hours while transporting 800,000 passengers in support of U.S. Defense Department military operations in Afghanistan — one of the first civilian operators to do so.

In recent years, the Canadian operator has had to become increasingly diverse, like much of the rest of the industry.

“We’ve been going through a recession,” said Canadian Helicopters VP and COO Sylvan Seguin. He described the past two to three years as a “perfect storm” with the combination of the oil-price drop and less frequent opportunities for government contracts.

“When mining is good, oil and gas is not as good, then vice versa,” he said. “We’ve seen everything go down at once.”

Canadian Helicopters is also now directly in competition with companies that operate commercially piloted unmanned aircraft systems to provide pipeline surveillance. But one area for which drones are not yet ready is maintenance of the North Warning System, a collection of 47 radar sites spanning the Arctic region from Labrador to Alaska.

Historically known as the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, the system of radar stations was first constructed in the 1950s as a joint effort with the U.S. and Canada to provide surveillance over Russian bomber aircraft during the Cold War. Today, maintenance of those radar sites remains one of the world’s most challenging helicopter tasks. Temperatures there reach as low as negative 40 deg C, and pilots transporting maintenance technicians to the radar sites from hangars stationed throughout the Arctic region could be forced to stay at radar site emergency shelters for at least a week when weather prevents them from flying out. Canadian Helicopters performs this mission as part of a five-year ongoing contract supporting the U.S. Air Force.

“The issue [with] having all these radar sites in the high Arctic is they have to work off of generators,” said Seguin. “You leave a warm hangar and go to a radar site for up to a week if the weather turns down, and have to be flying an aircraft capable of staying outside in those temperatures for that period of time.”

British Columbia’s HNZ Topflight is the advanced flight-training subsidiary of Canadian Helicopters. Photo courtesy of Mike Biden

Seguin is also seeing an increase in demand for Canadian Helicopters to support mining exploration in the Arctic region, which is not only cold, but also expensive due to the need at times to transfer fuel to the exploration sites.

“By the time you get a drum of fuel to the exploration site, the price is no longer a couple dollars per gallon — it’s triple,” said Seguin, noting that the fuel has to be first transported by ground before a helicopter finally air lifts it to the exploration site.

The variety in missions has allowed Canadian Helicopters to remain profitable, pulling in $200 million a year in revenue. However, that variety impacts the operator’s ability to purchase new aircraft. Every customer that contracts it for support has mission-specific requirements, which at most leads to minor airframe modifications, such as the installation of new heating systems in a fleet of Bell 212s to operate in the Arctic region. Those heaters were removed and ballistic flooring was added to those same aircraft that were disassembled and transported via an Antonov to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

“We respond to demand and contracts,” said Seguin. “For us to buy an aircraft and say to a customer, ‘This is what you need,’ is very hard.”

Considering the variety of operations in commercial and military that Canadian Helicopters supports, Seguin suggests launching an air taxi operation might be effective.

A variety of missions has allowed Canadian Helicopters to remain profitable, pulling in $200 million a year in revenue.Photo courtesy of Mike Biden

“Definitely, we’d be all over that,” said Seguin. However, there is a limiting factor in Canada for a consistent urban air mobility operation, whether supported by an electric hybrid propulsion-powered vehicle or by a helicopter:

“It’s a de-icing issue. You have to look at the climate. The issue here is we can fly down to the lowest minimums IFR, but we can’t take on icing very long,” he said. “For that type of operation, you have to be at lower altitudes; there is still icing. The biggest overall challenge is the climate.”

In the next several years, Seguin sees both opportunity and challenges ahead.

“A lot of pilots, engineers and maintenance techs have moved out of the industry,” he said.

Consequently, the company competes with Bell’s Mirabel-based facility for maintenance technicians because there are only so many available who are trained and experienced.

“We weren’t bringing in new blood,” Sequin continued, “and that’s going to be a problem in the next few years.”

World Leaders in Mountain-Flying Training

Looking at potential future growth opportunities, high-altitude training has provided solid operating income for Canadian Helicopters.

“It’s showing a lot of promise in the future,” said Seguin. “I think we’ll see some growth, we already are seeing some in markets like China.”

British Columbia’s HNZ Topflight is the advanced flight-training subsidiary of Canadian Helicopters. Every year, HNZ trains 350 civilian, military and police pilots in the mastery of terrain airflow, mountain illusions, cirques and other mountain features. It was the first and only school to be accredited by Airbus Helicopters and Bell for mountain-flying training. Its record includes an impressive 160,000 accident-free mountain terrain-training hours across its fleet.

Every year, HNZ trains 350 civilian, military and police pilots in the mastery of terrain airflow, mountain illusions, cirques and other mountain features.Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters

Pilots who train with HNZ could be deployed anywhere in the world. Over the past decade, it’s mainly involved those preparing to fly in Afghanistan, which features challenging mountainous terrain as that found in the Hindu Kush Mountains, for example.

The majority of civilian and military helicopter pilots learn to fly at sea level, where the air has more density and is capable of providing near-optimal lift for rotor clads and engines. However, at high altitudes, pilots must learn to calculate power margins (the difference between how much power they need within the up-flows or down-flows of winds at mountain altitudes, and how much power is actually available based on the helicopter’s weight, pressure altitude, and outside temperature).

“The performance charts the [original equipment manufacturer] gives us are very important pre-flight planning tools,” said Dave Schwartzenberger, general manager of HNZ Topflight. “But as soon as you get into the vertical component of wind, those charts are not valid anymore.”

Other than U.S. military helicopter pilots flying in Afghanistan, HNZ has also provided training for every helicopter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Pilots with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and German and Norwegian air forces also use HNZ.

One of the biggest hazards of mountain flying is avoiding mountain illusions.

“A basic mountain illusion would be down-slope illusion. If you’re flying close to terrain and you turn away from a mountain slope, the tendency is for us looking out the window as the terrain goes down is for our eyes and our mind to say the horizon is a lot lower than what it seems,” said Schwartzenberger.

If the pilot perceives that the horizon is lower than it actually is and falsely matches the aircraft attitude to that false horizon, the helicopter will start to accelerate and descend. Similarly, if the pilot is flying up slope, he or she will perceive a false horizon that is higher than what the true horizon is, and the helicopter will start to slow down and climb. During mountain-flying demonstrations, HNZ also teaches pilots how to properly judge the altitude of a landing spot in the distance.

A pilot looking up slope at a feature in the distance sees a landing spot, and his or her eyes are automatically higher, perceiving that the false horizon is level to that spot, so it looks level from distance, according to Schwartzenberger.

“During the beginning of our course, we use a feature that sits at about 3,500 feet, and as you fly three to four miles back from it, the feature appears to be level to your altitude at about 2,500 feet, even though it is 1,000 feet higher than you,” he explained. “If you were to look at the feature from the same location four miles away level at 3,500 feet, it would look like the spot is below you. This can be difficult to believe, but your eyes are lying to you.”

The HNZ training fleet includes Airbus AS350 B2/B3s, three Airbus H120s, two Bell 407s and a single Bell 206 Jet Ranger. The instructors place an emphasis on hands and feet flying, the basic skills that some of today’s pilots lose over time after flying in cockpits with more advanced levels of automation.

“I think we’re at a really unique point in the industry where there’s so much automation and new tech that students have to be able to use those systems and manage it, but they still need to be able to do hands and feet flying,” said Schwartzenberger. “It’s still a fundamental aspect of being a pilot — being able to operate a collective, a cyclic and pedals.” RWI