features Bellavia: A good name in Athens

Bellavia has set the trend for Greek helicopter operations since 1992, and has navigated turbulent economic waters by diversifying its operation.
Avatar for Jon Duke By Jon Duke | December 20, 2022

Estimated reading time 16 minutes, 37 seconds.

With its thousands of islands scattered across the Aegean and Ionian Seas, and its Mediterranean climate attracting tourists by the million, you’d think Greece would be the cradle of European helicopter operations as well as the cradle of Western civilization.

From left: Bellavia’s co-founder Panagiotis Belesiotis, company accountable manager Rania Belesioti, and Konstantinos Belesiotis – a third generation helicopter engineer. Lloyd Horgan Photo

But, as Bellavia’s Kostas Belesiotis explained, that kind of logic doesn’t hold water.

“Greece is a small country, and helicopters were something used only by the military or firefighters,” he said. “People had in their mind that if they saw a helicopter, something bad was going on.”

But this didn’t deter Belesiotis’s grandfather, with whom he shares his name, when he founded the company in 1991 as the first family-owned helicopter company in Greece. In a nation unfamiliar with helicopters, there were hurdles from the outset and the race was to be a marathon, not a sprint.

“The biggest challenge was to convince people that we were doing something good, and not something that would cause them harm or conflict with their values,” explained Belesiotis, who is now the ground operations manager at Bellavia, as well as being a qualified mechanic himself.

“It took 15 to 20 years for local people here to understand what a helicopter can do, and how it could be good for their daily lives and the economy, as well as other companies.”

Despite Bellavia now being an experienced operator with a fleet of helicopters, the company had its genesis in engineering; having been formed after its founder left the Hellenic air force with experience maintaining a Bell 206.

“In 1992, my father went to [the Bell Helicopter factory at] Fort Worth with my grandfather for the 206 maintenance course, and then again in ’94 to learn the 407,” said Belesiotis.

Fromm top: a Bell 429, Bell 407, Bell 505, and Bell 206B3 JetRanger take off in formation. Lloyd Horgan Photo
A Bell 429 (foreground) and 505 operated by Bellavia fly in formation close to the Temple of Poseidon in Greece. Lloyd Horgan Photo

While maintenance was at the heart of the business, Bellavia was also an aircraft operator from the outset, with aerial work its initial focus.

“It’s a maintenance organization, but we have always been involved with operations like sling loading, fertilizer spraying, and pipeline and powerline survey,” said Belesiotis.

All this activity began to bring local people around to the idea that helicopters could be beneficial, and it also attracted some positive attention from the government. Now, Bellavia holds contracts for aerial work all over Greece, and while technology has moved forward, so has the complexity of its operations.

One of the most notable evolutions was the transition from surveying powerlines to actively participating in their maintenance. High tension powerline insulators get dirty over time, and this can lead to the line voltage “flashing over” that conductive layer of dirt and causing an expensive outage. This is avoided by washing the insulators, but doing so with the high-voltage lines still live takes particular care, for obvious reasons.

Pilot Christos Leventis at the controls of a Bellavia Bell 206 near Sounion as he flies back to base. Lloyd Horgan Photo

Despite this being a task well suited to helicopters, it is relatively uncommon in Europe, and Bellavia is one of the few companies that offers the service using the USA Airmobile Ins-A-Wash system. It’s a 30 foot (10 meter) long articulated spray boom mounted — in Bellavia’s case — on one of its Bell 206s, which is also equipped with a water tank and a gasoline-powered pump capable of delivering up to 900 psi in the cleaning fluid. Needless to say, it’s not without risk.

“The most challenging operation is washing live high-tension power line insulators,” said Belesiotis. “Safety standards in Greece are high, and local authorities are very strict. This might not always be good for the operator, but we are happy because it also protects us.”

Diversifying the business

Strict regulation and a commitment to safety keep the operating risks under control, but Bellavia’s focus on these kinds of operations brought strategic risks, too.

“Most of these specialized operations come from government contracts, so during the economic crisis between 2009 to 2016, almost everything stopped,” explained Belesiotis. “We had almost zero helicopter operations, except maintenance and maybe some VIP flights, which were also very difficult to find.”

Diversification is conventionally considered a growth strategy, but for Bellavia it was a survival mechanism, as the global financial crisis deprived it of revenue. Its response made good use of its existing assets and expertise.

“We introduced air ambulance flights, which gave us a boost of around 100 to 150 hours per year for each helicopter,” said Belesiotis. “It wasn’t much, but it helped the company to survive.”

After 2016, the tourism industry in Greece began to pick up again, and this is a trend that has continued, despite the Covid pandemic.

“We were lucky during Covid, because we experienced a large increase in the internal tourism industry,” Belesiotis said.

He explained that local business owners were also realizing that the helicopter represented a means of transportation that was well suited to flying people safely during the pandemic, allowing a more personal, tailored, and private experience.

“Due to some good actions from the government [in terms of Covid management measures], we had the tourism we wanted, and we also had the operation with the local customers,” he said.

Helicopters can provide a quick and easy way to travel between Greece’s islands, potentially saving hours of travel by boat. Lloyd Horgan Photo

Having experienced the benefits of helicopter travel during the pandemic, those customers have proven loyal in the years that followed. With the economy also recovering, Bellavia now has a busy flying program, as well as its original engineering operation, which forms its own part 145 maintenance facility.

“At the moment, we focus on maintaining our own aircraft and an associate company that has a training operation with Robinson R44s,” said Belesiotis. “From time to time, we are appointed by other operators or private owners.”

With such a wide range of activities, the company needs its people to be as multi-talented as its business, not only for efficiency, but also resilience.

“Bellavia is a small operator and we have always been self-financed,” explained Belesiotis. “We have about 15 people, including pilots, ground personnel, finance and safety compliance and management personnel. Our people need to be able to take on more than one role.”

Stelios Ioukis is one of those people. A helicopter mechanic who also started his career in the army, he since followed his dream to learn to fly helicopters. He is now a pilot, training instructor and a mechanic with Bellavia.

“Helicopters have become more popular in Greece in the last few years,” he explained. “Due to the geography of Greece, it can take five or six hours to get to an island by boat, whereas for a helicopter it’s a 20-minute flight.”

The 505 is the most recent addition to the fleet, but it has made a good impression among pilots and passengers. Lloyd Horgan Photo

Ioukis flies all of the single-engine helicopters in Bellavia’s fleet, which is comprised almost exclusively of Bell helicopters, with Bell 206 JetRangers, a 407 and an Airbus Helicopters EC120B.

The latest addition to the stable is a Bell 505, and after only a month at the company, Ioukis said the new helicopter was making an impression.

“I’m really amazed by the capabilities of the 505. It’s surprisingly smooth for a two-bladed helicopter,” he said. “It seems to handle turbulence in a similar way to the 407 and it will fit perfectly between that and the 206.”

Expanding the fleet

Belesiotis explained that while aircraft like the 505 represent a step forward from the older generation in terms of their maintenance, it leads to more dependence on good manufacturer support. He said this was part of the decision behind a majority-Bell fleet.

“New generation helicopters have fewer maintenance tasks, but it’s more manufacturer focused,” he said. “We know that with Bell helicopters, we have the best support. For our type of operations — we cannot afford to be grounded — it’s very important to have that immediate response from the manufacturer, and it’s less complicated to follow their instructions than with some other companies.”

Bellavia’s close ties with Bell doubtless influenced the decision that brought a twin-engine helicopter back onto its books in 2021, in the form of a Bell 429. The aircraft was acquired through a strategic alliance with NW, and joined the Bellavia fleet at the same time as pilot Ole Waagø.

Originally from Norway, and having trained as a pilot following a career in the chemical industry, he had 10 years’ experience flying the 429 and was the first pilot in Europe to be type rated on the aircraft. Bell’s demo pilot in Europe mentioned the opportunity in Greece during a conversation.

“Two days later, I was having a proficiency check here,” he laughed.

The 429 is used for charter flights, and Waagø is understandably enthusiastic about the aircraft.

“It’s an advanced aircraft, with a lot of technology,” he explained. “But for the pilot this makes it simple, and operation is very easy.”

Having two engines also means that the aircraft is permitted to operate over open water without the need for a flotation system, and provides plenty of power.

“The powerplant gives us a good power margin, even with one engine out,” said Waagø. “Most of our operations are sea level or maximum 1,000 feet [305 meters], and in the summer over the tarmac it can be 42 to 45 C [107 to 113 F]. But with the 429, it’s not really a challenge at all because of the power available.”

The 429 is equipped with a VIP interior, comprising two aft seats separated by a small arm-rest cabinet, and three more facing rearwards in a club-seating layout. This effectively separates the rear cabin from the pilot, but the left-hand cockpit seat is available for one more passenger if the aircraft is being flown single-pilot.

“Our operations are mostly single pilot,” said Waagø. “But some clients specify a safety pilot also.”

With longer distance over-water charters now made possible, it’s no surprise that island-hopping is an important part of the aircraft’s repertoire.

“Most of the flights we have are to Mykonos [island],” said Waagø. “But many other customers fly to private villas and resorts.”

With flying legs as long as 1.5 to two hours, the three-axis autopilot is also a welcome addition.

“The autopilot is very stable and gives me more time to communicate with the passengers and make them feel safe,” he said. “To engage it is maybe three buttons and then you have time to monitor the instruments or traffic and conduct other tasks.”

The addition of the twin-engine Bell 429 has meant that longer distance over-water charters are now possible. Lloyd Horgan Photo

As popular as the new helicopter is with its pilots, it has also been popular with the customers.

“It’s been a success this year, and we are hoping to do even better next year,” said Waagø. “We will probably start a little earlier, so maybe looking at 50 hours more next year.”

Talking about a busy summer season of twin-engine charter flying seems like a long stretch from the company’s first steps spraying fertilizer with a Bell 47.

The company’s diversity helped it through lean times, and it hopes to further increase flying hours next year. Lloyd Horgan Photo

Bellavia has navigated not only local skepticism, but also an international financial downturn, near-collapse of the local economy, and a global pandemic. It has done so by sailing with the prevailing conditions rather than fighting against them, and it was no surprise when Kostas explained that a key strength of the company lies in the multiple talents of its people.

“It’s not a one-man show, it’s a family company,” he said. “Everyone must know how to act on a helipad; how to act in the hangar; how to communicate with one another and to always have in mind that you are part of a team.” 

Notice a spelling mistake or typo?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Report an error or typo

Have a story idea you would like to suggest?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Suggest a story

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *