Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 59 seconds.
Flying in aircraft with livery as varied as the wide-ranging terrain underneath, Chilean operator Ecocopter has made quite the impact in the skies above its South American homeland.
The distinctive designs, created to promote a branch of science or landmark of scientific reasoning, reflect the love company owner Eduardo Ergas has for spreading scientific knowledge. The liveries have included a tribute to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, various sea creatures in celebration of marine biology, planets in a solar system, dinosaurs, chemical compounds, and several tributes to Leonardo da Vinci, including his Vitruvian Man and Aerial Screw.
A businessman with a keen involvement in scientific foundations, Ergas established Ecocopter at the tail end of 2003, and started operations early the following year with the first EC130 in South America.
Ergas bought that first helicopter primarily for private use, but also wanted to explore opportunities for it commercially.
The original plan was to target tourism work, with one of Ecocopter’s first explorations into commercial operations — in partnership with an American tour company — being a bungee jump from the helicopter over the open crater of a volcano in Patagonia, in the south of Chile.
However, it quickly became apparent that there were greater opportunities for work in the mining sector, where the EC130 represented a leap in technology over the older types then in use.
“We were still trying to push the tourism business, but we always got better results in the industrial business,” said Francisco Diaz, the company’s operations manager. Diaz was the second pilot to join the company, following a career in the Chilean air force, in April 2004.
Over the following 16 years, mining has remained the backbone of Ecocopter’s work, even as it has grown in size and geographic focus.
Today, Ecocopter’s fleet of 13 aircraft — a mixture of leased and owned aircraft — includes 10 AS350 Bs and H125s, two EC135 T2s, and one H145. Its headquarters are in Santiago, which serves as the epicenter of its operations. A base in Punta Arenas in Chile’s far south houses two Airbus EC135s, which are used for transport flights to offshore oil-and-gas facilities. Bases in Peru (bordering Chile to the north) and Ecuador (to the north of Peru) have expanded Ecocopter’s operations from national to continental.
Occupying a long strip of land on the western edge of the continent, Chile is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on its west, and the imposing Andes mountain range along much of its east. Just 220 miles (350 kilometers) across at its widest point, the country stretches 2,650 miles (4,720 km) north to south, crossing the most varied landscape imaginable. In the north lies the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. Santiago, the country’s capital and most populous city, sits in its center, with the Andes providing a spectacular backdrop. Further south lie Valdivian temperate rainforests, while the Patagonia region at the country’s southernmost tip contains glacial fjords, snow-capped volcanos, and a spectacular island-dotted coastline. The next stop south is Antarctica, and many trips to the world’s most remote continent begin here.
In such a varied and challenging landscape, helicopters can play a crucial role in connecting people and infrastructure, while reducing the environmental impact of doing so.
Ecocopter has an ambitious plan to “democratize the use of helicopters” in the region, but Diaz explained that this doesn’t mean simply in terms of cost. “The helicopter is a very good tool to do different kind of jobs, especially here in Chile for mining, or building antennas or electrical lines in the mountains,” he said. “We are trying to convey that the helicopter can do it faster, cheaper and [be] more clean for the environment [than traditional construction methods].”
Working with large mining companies such as Barrick Gold Corp., Anglo American, and Codelco has required Ecocopter to establish extremely high operating standards and certifications. Since 2011, it has held Flight Safety Foundation’s Basic Aviation Risk Standard (BARS) — a standard to assist in the risk-based management of aviation activities.
In addition to supporting mining work, Ecocopter offers a typical range of utility operations, with firefighting and heliskiing generally providing substantial workloads in opposing seasons.
“Our main job during summer is giving support for the mining operations, especially in exploration, moving drills and equipment in the mountains,” said Diaz. “We do some construction around mines, especially installing avalanche control devices that they put in the mountains over the mining sites. For the winter, we have heli-ski operations with about seven or eight helicopters, depending on the season.”
Being in the southern hemisphere, winter lasts from June to September, with the peak heli-ski season lasting from mid-July to the end of August. This corresponds with the summer holidays in the northern hemisphere, where the majority of the heli-ski clients come from.
The main heli-skiing operations are in the mountains around Santiago, with Ecocopter offering rapid access to the slopes from a rooftop heliport in the city.
“In 20 minutes, [clients] can start doing their first ski runs,” said Diaz. “They can ski up to midday or 2 p.m., return to Santiago, and they can be in a fancy restaurant and have all the possibilities that a big city can give to you — they don’t have to be in a cabin in the middle of nowhere.”
One of Ecocopter’s most high profile recent contracts was to support the famous Dakar Rally — an annual off-road endurance race that was historically run through Europe and North Africa, but was switched to South America due to security concerns from 2009 to 2019. In all but one of those years, Ecocopter supported the event, typically providing seven or eight helicopters. Three aircraft provide filming support, three were used for medevacs, one transported photographers, and one was used for general logistical support.
For the last seven years, Ecocopter has partnered with Erickson Inc. through its operation in Peru to bring the S-64 Aircrane into the country. This was primarily to serve the oil-and-gas sector in Amazonia, but the heavy-lift giant also worked on some fires in Chile over the last three years.
“It was very well received in the beginning,” said Diaz, “because we were the first company to bring heavy helicopters to the firefighting sector here.” Since then, other heavy-lift types have appeared over fires in Chile, including the first Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. This arrived through another Ecocopter partnership, this time with Timberline Helicopters.
“This season was the first time we put some co-pilots in the cranes with Erickson, but Timberline brought their own crews,” said Diaz. “If the partnership with Timberline continues to grow, the idea is also to put some [Ecocopter] co-pilots and then pilots in control of the aircraft.”
An experienced team
Ecocopter typically has a staff of about 100 in Chile, but with the changes required to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, this has been reduced by about a third. In Peru, where it operates one AS350 B3 and supported the Aircrane, it has a staff of 30; while Ecuador, which has a similar focus on mining as in Chile, has 15 staff working with two AS350 B3s.
The company has 22 pilots on its staff, all of whom have a background in military or police aviation. The right personality is the first thing Ecocopter looks for from new hires, said Diaz, but they are also expected to have at least 1,500 flight hours, including at least 500 hours of turbine time, as well as some commercial experience.
And while the environment in Chile certainly presents its challenges, they are challenges that any Chilean pilot will be well-accustomed to.
“All the pilots in Chile are used to flying from the coast, to the mountains, and from the desert to Patagonia,” said Diaz. “The only pilots we have who are focused on only one operation are the ones working offshore. All the other pilots are utility pilots, they are trained to fly in the mountains doing all the different jobs we do.”
Ecocopter’s mountain work is typically performed at very high altitudes, anywhere from 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) to 16,000 feet (4,900 meters).
The AStar has a hard-won reputation of being well-suited to working in this environment, but Diaz said the H145 has also been a great performer for the company at high altitudes. “It’s much more powerful in high mountains than the B3, but it’s a more expensive helicopter,” he said.
To simplify its pilot training, Ecocopter has installed Frasca Level 5+ H135 and H125 flight training devices (FTDs) in its facility in Santiago. “We decided to do our training internally because it was quite difficult and expensive for us to find slots in B3 simulators worldwide,” said Diaz.
The FTDs are run by Ecotraining, and allow for initial or recurrent courses, mountain, offshore and firefighting training, night training, and instrument flight rules training, to name a few. While the center can be used by external clients, such as the Chilean police force, 80 percent of the hours used on the FTDs are for Ecocopter’s own training.
Keeping the blades turning
There are 29 people servicing the Ecocopter fleet across Chile, led by maintenance manager Fernando Solis and production chief Hernan Leiva Arteaga. Major maintenance is completed at the headquarters in Santiago, where Ecocopter has two hangars. There, the team can perform any maintenance required on the AS350/H125 up to a 12-year inspection; and anything required on the H145 up to an 800-hour inspection. At its base in Punta Arenas, it has full maintenance capability for the EC135 up to a 1,200-hour inspection.
Ecocopter also serves as a representative of Safran in Chile, and is a Safran maintenance repair station.
While the maintenance team does a small amount of third-party maintenance, the vast majority is in-house.
Mechanics generally arrive at the company following a university-delivered aeronautical technician course, or from a technical school. Once at Ecocopter, new mechanics are sent on Airbus and Safran courses, before beginning on-the-job training to gain an in-depth knowledge of the aircraft.
“The mechanics we are training at Ecocopter need to be very flexible, because our operations are very varied — in the desert, high altitude on the mountains, on fires, or navigating the remote southern part of the country,” said Leiva Arteaga.
Ecocopter has separate mechanic pools for working in-house on the major overhauls and going out into the field with the aircraft. Those who travel with the aircraft are expected to be able to perform any maintenance required to keep the aircraft operating for the next 50 hours.
“We operate in the mountains, in the desert, sometimes over the coast, so it’s always necessary to inspect the engines and the entry of the engines, and there’s a lot of cleaning required,” said Solis. “We use a filter on the engines to keep out FOD [foreign object damage], and ordinarily in the mountains we change these filters once a week and clean them as part of the service, because the punishment of the environment is very heavy.”
Looking ahead, Ecocopter plans to make a more significant move into operating medium- or heavy-lift aircraft. Diaz said several aircraft are being considered for this role, including the Black Hawk, the Airbus AS332 L1/L2, and the Leonardo AW139.
The aircraft would fly the same missions Ecocopter currently operates, providing an enhanced lift capability. “For that kind of helicopter, we believe that you can fly it perhaps during summer in firefighting, and during winter or mid seasons for flying for the mining companies,” said Diaz. “We have a big market so we can try to position it where the work is.”
Having spent 16 years at the company, from its first few months as a one-helicopter operation to the regional presence and recognition it now has, Diaz has enjoyed the ride at Ecocopter.
“I am happy and proud of what we have done here,” he said. “We are well known worldwide now because of the painting and our works in the Dakar Rally. The local authority always uses us as an example of a company that does things well, and that makes me proud.”