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Flying through the Torngat Mountains with Geoff Goodyear is quite an experience. The stunningly beautiful mountain range, punctuated by expansive valleys, plunging fjords and ancient glaciers, lies at the northern tip of Newfoundland and Labrador and reaches over into eastern Quebec. It’s a frontier land on the edge of the unforgiving North Atlantic; its remoteness perhaps illustrated by the fact that it lies far enough north to have an Arctic tundra climate. Even in summer, icebergs dot the coast, while polar bears, black bears and caribou roam the varied terrain. Suffice it to say, it provides a feast for the eyes; experiencing it from several hundred feet, flying above, around, and through seemingly narrow gaps in the jagged peaks, is a feast for the senses.
Goodyear, president of Universal Helicopters Newfoundland Limited (UHNL), recently invited Vertical up to the base camp at the Torngat Mountains National Park — Canada’s newest such reserve — to spend a few days at one of Universal’s more exotic operating locations as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary.
“You’ve got this maze of valleys and canyons, and every now and then you come across a glacier or a polar bear… it’s like a big playground,” said Goodyear. “I don’t mean that to sound flippant or cavalier . . . but sometimes you’re flying through these valleys on a real nice day, and you can’t help but pinch yourself. People are paying a lot of money to see what is arguably one of the world’s last wild places, and you’re here just having the time of your life!”
The choice of the Torngats as a meeting spot to discuss Universal’s past, present and future seemed an appropriate choice: the supply of aviation services to the base camp may be a relatively new chapter in the company’s long and storied history, but it requires Universal to be a true Jack — and master — of all trades, and well symbolizes its deep ties to the land and people it serves. It’s increasingly providing a means to service a market Universal sees as being an important element of its future — a flourishing adventure tourism industry — and has allowed the company to establish strong ties with the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies (the business arm of the Nunatsiavut Government, a regional Inuit government within Labrador), which owns and operates the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station. (The strength of this tie and the trust that has developed between the two companies was illustrated shortly after Vertical’s visit, with the announcement that the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies had agreed to purchase Universal, marking an exciting new chapter in the company’s future as it becomes Universal Helicopters Newfoundland and Labrador LP.)
A typical day — if there is such a thing — for Universal in the Torngats could involve slinging equipment out to a remote location to set up a research camp, picking up a group of hikers who’ve spent several days exploring the wilderness, or giving an aerial tour of the mountains to a group from base camp. It also provides vital emergency support in case a medevac is required; there are no roads leading to this outpost, and the only other way out is by boat. But this sort of environment, and the challenge of working in it, is nothing new for Universal; it has built its reputation over the previous five decades as an extremely reliable and flexible operator that’s able to get the job done, whatever its scope, in some of the world’s most challenging conditions.
Back to the Beginning
Universal is something of a Newfoundland and Labrador aviation institution — one of only two rotary-wing operators that has its head offices within the province, and a company that values the importance of hiring locals when possible, not only due to the likelihood of them having more permanent ties to their communities, but also because they’re experienced with the unique challenges the province presents, and are not intimidated by the environment.
Given all this, it’s somewhat surprising to discover that the company’s roots actually trace back to the town of Carp, Ont., which now lies within the outer reaches of Ottawa. In 1963, aviation pioneer Russell Bradley (founder of Bradley Air Services, which exists today as First Air), Garry Fields (founder of G. Fields Air Services Ltd.) and Herb Johnson established Universal Helicopters Limited, as it was then known, with a fleet of two aircraft — a Hiller UH-12E and a Brantly B-2. Although Universal originated in Ontario, it didn’t take long for its operations to spread to the province with which it would later become synonymous — Newfoundland and Labrador. Johnson’s wife was a native of St. John’s, N.L., and he worked some connections there to get associated with Eastern Provincial Airways (EPA), allowing Universal to work in the province (which had relatively protectionist operating restrictions at the time) under the EPA banner — effectively wet leasing the aircraft. The company’s first base on the island was established in Gander in 1966 to support the Bay D’Espoir hydroelectric development, and operations on the East Coast flourished to such an extent that it became clear that the company’s future lay with Canada’s youngest province; helicopter operations ceased in Carp in 1970.
But this wasn’t the only significant change on the horizon as Universal entered the new decade. Operating giant Okanagan Helicopters purchased the company in 1970, and operated it as a subsidiary for the next 17 years, flying a range of aircraft across a broad range of missions, from utility visual flight rules (VFR) mineral exploration missions inland, to instrument flight rules (IFR) transport for oil rig workers offshore. However, a further change in ownership in 1987 returned the company to private hands and refocused its operations. Renowned Newfoundland entrepreneur Harold Steele, who already owned 51 percent of the company, purchased the remaining 49 percent of Universal’s shares from Okanagan, and Universal Helicopters Newfoundland Limited (UHNL) was born. Steele immediately brought in Norm Noseworthy (who was Universal’s chief engineer) and Paul Williams (who was Universal’s president at the time) as partners and minority shareholders.
According to Goodyear, who joined the company in 1979, the change back to private ownership gave Universal a flexibility and vision it didn’t have as part of a larger organization; Okanagan kept the division’s IFR aircraft, and Universal left the offshore transport sector. “Essentially, we kind of solidified our core skill sets, which would be day, VFR, utility operations,” he said.
At the Hub
Today, the company is headquartered in Goose Bay, a town of about 7,500 located in central Labrador. Aviation has played a hugely important role in the history of the town; a crucial transport and supply hub between North America and Europe during World War II, the community built up around the Canadian Forces base and United States Air Force base located at the airport, and for many years the former base hosted permanent detachments of the Royal Air Force, German Luftwaffe, Italian Aeronautica Militaire, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Only the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 5 Wing remains today, but the town is still an important aviation hub — both provincially and for trans-Atlantic crossings.
In addition to the head office in Goose Bay, Universal has three bases on the island of Newfoundland — in the provincial capital St. John’s, Pasadena (on the west coast), and Gander (in the center). Across the four bases, the company has 40 employees (along with eight contract pilots) and 19 aircraft (including Bell 407s, 206L4s, and 206LRs, and Eurocopter AS350 BAs and an AS350 B3e). For much of its existence, Universal operated an all-Bell Helicopter fleet, but branched out with the addition of Eurocopter AS350 AStars 15 years ago — a move that, along with the addition of Bell 407s, has been part of a very gradual and customer-driven shift from light to intermediate aircraft.
Goodyear said the greater horsepower offered by these aircraft has given the company more flexibility in some of the missions it conducts, broadening the scope and geographical spread of its operations. In terms of the latter, the company tends to migrate north and south rather than east and west. “We find the skill sets that we’ve been able to develop over the years in Newfoundland and Labrador suit us quite properly for operations in the Arctic,” said Goodyear, “so it’s natural that we would try to provide our services there rather than try to migrate west, where there’s all sorts of very competent operators who are already supplying their wares.”
The geographical spread of the company’s operations can be huge. On one occasion, it had four aircraft working in support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the coast of Louisiana at the same time as it had machines up in the High Arctic. “I was sitting in my office and I was watching my computer screen on the SkyWeb,” said Goodyear. “I could see we had machines up in the [North] Pole, machines all down through Newfoundland and Labrador, and then I had four machines lit up in New Orleans. And for just a hint of a brief second, I had visions of global domination. And then the phone rings and it’s the dispatcher… One of our machines up in the Naskaupi River had called in and a black bear had just eaten its floats. And the bubble burst just like that. Welcome to my world!”
Goodyear describes the breadth of Universal’s work as “limited only by horsepower and imagination.” More common missions include wildlife research and management, mineral exploration, natural resource development, firefighting, construction support for major infrastructure projects, and operational support for research in the High Arctic. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the variety of operations the company has flown. “We don’t necessarily fit into a specific groove,” said Goodyear. “There’s not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t come by with a requirement outside of what we had been doing before.”
The challenges for a pilot working in Newfoundland and Labrador are as varied as the topography and climate (temperatures can plunge down to -35 C in the winter and go up to +35 C in the summer). “One of the bigger challenges is not necessarily learning how to fly in these types of conditions; it’s learning when you shouldn’t be flying in these types of conditions — being able to say ‘no,’ wand accept the fact that there’s a day gone by and you’ll have to plug away and fill the gaps another day,” said Goodyear. On the flip side, he added, being able to ply your trade in what is a land of extremes has its benefits, both personally and professionally. “I find it rewarding — and I’ve no doubt that for a lot of other pilots it’s a source of pride that they’re able to conduct themselves on a regular basis in what are arguably some of the world’s most challenging conditions,” he said.
The tools with which to handle these conditions have inevitably changed over the years, but a particularly longstanding aircraft has been the Bell 206L LongRanger, due to one of several technical innovations the company has employed. “We re-engined all of them — we were one of the first operators to go with the [Rolls-Royce 250] C20R engine in the L,” said Goodyear. “When we were working at sea level or not too far above sea level, that gave us excellent performance . . . and extended the life of those aircraft even into today. Some of our clients are loathe at the prospect of getting rid of them because they’re so efficient in terms of fuel.”
Universal was also a pioneer of the SkyTrac system, was among the first to install Iridium satellite phones in the cockpits of its aircraft, and was one of the first operators of the Bell 407 in North America. The company is also in the process of establishing a new emergency medical service (EMS) operation at its location in St. John’s. Part of its contract with the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government, the service is a VFR operation that uses a Bell 407 configured specifically for EMS operations, with Spectrum Aeromed being the prime suppliers of the equipment, which was then installed in-house. Universal believes it to be the first of its type (a full-time intermediate EMS aircraft) in Canada. “It fills what might be a very significant gap between an ill-equipped light aircraft and the fully-equipped twin-engine IFR aircraft,” said Goodyear. “There’s a gap there that we’re happy to be able to fill, and it’s a market that’s being explored.”
Universal has had its head office in its current hangar in Goose Bay since 1999 — previously it had been in a smaller hangar on the other side of the airport, which meant that most of its maintenance, along with its accounting department, needed to be in St. John’s. The new 10,000-square-foot facility allowed it to consolidate and move all departments under one roof. The company is a Bell Helicopter Customer Service Facility, offering a wide range of helicopter maintenance services on the Bell 206 and 407 series. It can perform maintenance up to, but not including, component overhaul, and looks after a number of local private aircraft in addition to its own fleet. Each winter, when flying work is less busy, the maintenance department also does a complete refurbishment of one or two of the older aircraft in the company’s fleet.
According to executive vice president and director of maintenance Norm Noseworthy, the major challenge in his department is getting the parts he needs to keep the aircraft flying — something that is becoming increasingly difficult. “We carry a large spares component, because getting freight into Goose Bay is always a challenge — apart from cost, it’s difficult to do,” he said. “The other challenge is that the [original equipment manufacturers] these days don’t seem to want to stock all our parts. . . . They want you to forecast, they want to know when you’re going to need something. But sometimes it’s hard to forecast, and then when you have a requirement of something that’s out of the norm — parts that won’t quite last their life or fail — you want those parts quickly, and that’s always a challenge.”
Noseworthy joined Universal as an apprentice aircraft maintenance engineer (AME) in 1967, and said the company tries to take on at least one apprentice each year. “This year we took on two,” he said. “Everybody we have now came through Gander [College of the North Atlantic] trade school. . . . We take them on, then they put in another year and a half of apprenticeship before they can actually get their license.”
Steve Penney has been an AME at Universal for eight years. Having grown up in Goose Bay, he stayed local in beginning his apprenticeship with a fixed-wing airline in the town, before completing it with Universal. “The company itself was a draw,” said Penney. “I heard that Universal had a vacancy for an AME apprentice . . . so I opted to give rotary-wing a try, and I haven’t really looked back!”
Penney said the appeal of the work was the stability the company provided and the variety of challenges and customers he encounters. “One week it’s forestry, the next week it’s a mining company, and the next month you’re with a bunch of scientists studying how far a glacier moved in the last 1,000 years,” he said. “The spectrum of what we do is amazing. In the last six years since I got my licence, I’ve been out on an ice camp off Ellesmere Island, in Alert at the top of Nunavut [the most northerly settlement in the world], working on a yacht, in a mining camp, doing forestry work… you name it!”
An open-door policy ensures lines of communication are good throughout the company. “There’s none of this, ‘That’s our president there, you see him once in a while and you can’t talk to him,’ ” said Penney. “Everyone knows each other, from the top down. And even our owner, he comes in and he’s on the hangar floor, talking to everybody, asking everybody how it’s going. That’s a big draw. Everybody knows each other, and it’s a pretty tight-knit group.”
The company’s approach certainly seems to be working, as it enjoys exceptional employee retention, with many holding several decades of service with Universal. For Noseworthy, this is one key element of the company’s success over the past 50 years. The other key is its excellent and long-standing relationships with its clients — a sentiment echoed by Greg Baikie, Universal’s vice president of operations. “A customer can call us and say, I need to do what I did last week,” said Baikie. “Well, we know exactly what they did last week, or last year, or several years ago, and where they’re going. We know Newfoundland and Labrador intimately — where every little nook and cranny is. They might call someone and say, ‘We need to go up here,’ — but another company can’t get up there because there’s no fuel. Well, we know where there’s a drop of fuel, so we can do it. It’s not a bragging thing, it’s just that we’re a Newfoundland and Labrador company and we have a lot of longevity with our crews.”
Goodyear said the company doesn’t take any of its relationships with its customers for granted. “We work very, very hard to maintain them as key relationships and will do whatever we can to make sure the clients get the best value,” he said. “You have to have the client’s long-term interest at heart. It may reduce some of your short-term revenue, but we’re not in it for a sprint, we’re in it for a marathon.”
A similar sentiment drives the company’s leading role in developing safety management systems. Goodyear fronted that effort under previous company president Paul Williams, developing what he describes as a sort of safety management system for Universal before the term had even been coined. He started the Safety Committee on the Helicopter Association of Canada, became a board member and was subsequently chair of the association. For his efforts, he was recognized with the Canadian Aviation Safety Award from Transport Canada, and a Eurocopter Innovations in Safety Award. “We took our responsibilities as a member of the industry quite seriously, and it was a question of outreach, trying to share our experiences — good and bad — with other companies,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, the colors of the aircraft might be different, but our fates are joined at the hip, particularly when it comes to safety management. An incident or event in one company adversely affects another. So it’s in everyone’s interests to make it a holistic approach to safety management, rather than an individual approach.”
Challenge of Diversification
What does the future hold for Universal Helicopters as it looks beyond its golden anniversary? Further development won’t see any great swelling of aircraft numbers — the company believes its current management setup allows for a maximum of 22 to 24 aircraft. Anything beyond that would require adding another layer of management, and that’s not something it’s keen to do. Instead, it hopes to continue gradually adding capacity through the replacement of its light aircraft with intermediates. “What you’re doing is increasing the efficiency of the company without increasing the infrastructure,” said Goodyear. “If you get any bigger, you lose touch with what’s going on on the floor.”
The company is also well aware it cannot afford to rest on its laurels in a market where sectors of work fluctuate and are changeable year on year. “One of the biggest challenges we face is diversifying our market,” said Goodyear. “When you’re in a relatively small region and you don’t have many different types of aircraft, it’s difficult to diversify the market. We’ve been able to do that in some measure, to find other markets, other things to do in our regions to make it a healthier long-term environment.” The new EMS aircraft in St. John’s is one such solution, while the company also hopes to see its share of work — which could be considerable — from supporting the $7 billion hydroelectric Lower Churchill Project in Labrador. The advent of adventure tourism in the region is another promising operational avenue. “It’s an evolving market that is not going to keep the [entire] fleet busy, but over time it could fill in some nice areas,” said Goodyear. “We’re working hard to make sure we establish our place as a frontrunner in it.” Judging from the beaming smiles and wide-eyed excitement of the tourists that climbed out of Universal’s Bell 407 in the Torngat Mountains, the company is well set to do so.
Oliver Johnson is managing editor of Vertical Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]