Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 37 seconds.
Photos by Mike Reyno
Sitting on the northeastern edge of the Caribbean Sea, the island of Antigua has a natural beauty and charm that has proven an irresistible draw for tourists from North America and across the Atlantic for decades. The island has 365 beaches (one for each day of the year) lined by turquoise waters; gorgeous bays, harbors, and lagoons; fringing coral reefs perfect for snorkeling; and a lush mountainous interior.
But more recently, it has also become home to a helicopter company that is working to return the benefits of rotary-wing flight to not just the island, but throughout this part of the Caribbean.
Established in 2019 by venture capitalist Calvin Ayre and Canadian pilot and engineer Mark Fleming, CalvinAir Helicopters clearly caters to the high-end charter market that vacations in Antigua, offering VIP tours, custom charters, megayacht support and aerial photography. But the company’s ambitions are broader than this niche — Ayre’s philanthropic nature called for CalvinAir to also be able to provide search-and-rescue (SAR) and emergency medical services flights when needed.
The company is led by CEO Fleming, who has deep roots in the Caribbean helicopter industry (his parents had their own operation in Antigua for several years). Fleming, a third-generation pilot/engineer, felt there was a need for luxury charters across the Caribbean and worked together with Ayre to make it a reality.
The company purchased an Airbus EC130 B4 from Eurotec and had it custom configured for its aerial tours. Earlier this year, after more than two successful years in operation and with a growing demand for its services, CalvinAir added a second EC130 B4 — also completed by EuroTec — to its fleet.
Tour and charter offerings
With the natural beauty on offer in Antigua, and the islands of Barbuda and Montserrat nearby, CalvinAir helicopter tours are never boring.
Antigua’s sister island of Barbuda is a popular destination, with its pink sand and secluded beaches. A huge amount of investment has been plowed into Barbuda over the last few years, so it would seem that CalvinAir has found itself in the right place at the right time. The development of Robert De Niro’s new Nobu restaurant (part of a bigger Nobu Beach Inn project), and billionaire John Paul DeJoria’s enormous Barbuda Ocean Club residential resort have provided an incredible opportunity for CalvinAir to meet the transportation needs for their guests.
The nearby island of St. Barts, a popular destination for the rich and famous, has also become an ever-increasing charter request for CalvinAir. “With its close proximity to Barbuda, guests take advantage of the quick 25-minute heli flight to hop over for some lunch or shopping,” said Fleming.
Montserrat is just a 12-minute flight from Antigua, and is home to the active Soufrière Hills volcano. The volcano erupted in 1995, causing the evacuation of Plymouth, Montserrat’s capital city. The city was substantially burnt and largely buried by pyroclastic flows, and today exists as a ghost town. Two-thirds of Montserrat is still classified as an exclusion zone, and the only way to get close to the volcano is by helicopter. CalvinAir offers a 45-minute pilot-narrated tour of the volcano and the destruction it wrought on the island.
CalvinAir also caters to those requiring transport to and from megayachts. “We have a lot of megayachts that visit Antigua, and what’s really important to them is visually appealing aircraft that look just as good as the boat — and of course we are able to meet those demands,” said Fleming.
Antigua Sailing Week is a huge annual event on the island, attracting hundreds of boats and thousands of participants and spectators from around the world. For CalvinAir, this will be a major aerial filming project. “Everybody wants to get shots of their own specific boat, and they really like to get the start and finish of the races,” said Fleming.
In addition to the high-end work the company does, it also has a unique contract with the Montserrat government that sees it fly scientists out to the island’s volcano. “We’ll fly throughout the day, taking the guys out to their various sites, where they are monitoring the volcano for a variety of things — temperature readings and seismic activity, and so forth,” said Fleming.
Many of the medevac missions CalvinAir flies are to Barbuda. “There’s no hospital over there,” explained Fleming. “We will launch and can be there within about 15 minutes. There are several critical care paramedics in Barbuda, and we’ll load up the patient with them and then launch for Antigua — there’s a helipad right at the hospital.”
SAR work typically involves searching for a missing boat. “Obviously, we can cover quite a large amount of distance compared to [rescue] boats,” said Fleming.
“Once we spot the boat, we will then call in the Coast Guard or Antigua and Barbuda Search and Rescue.”
The right ship for the mission
In selecting the EC130 B4 for CalvinAir’s operation, Fleming said it was chosen due to its popularity and success in aerial tourism work around the world.
“Guests want the theater-style seating and air-conditioning, and don’t want to be crammed in the aircraft,” he said. “And then we decided, with the type of clientele we’re flying, that we needed to take it to another level. That’s where EuroTec came in, giving us this luxury aircraft to fly these guests and to build that market.
“EuroTec’s track record in making average-looking aircraft look spectacular made working with them an easy decision for us,” Fleming continued. “We still speak to them all the time because they’re great for maintenance support as well.”
Both aircraft are equipped with the Genesys Aerosystems 2-axis HeliSAS autopilot, and Garmin GTN 650 and 750, coupled to a Garmin 500TXi. The aircraft are also configured with air conditioning, Bose headsets, and a Tour Master camera system with five internal and external cameras. The images are displayed in the front and back, so that guests can see views from different angles during their flight.
“The entire Eurotec team has our clients’ best interests at heart in everything we do,” said Hoss Golanbari, managing partner of EuroTec Canada. “Our mission has always been to support our customers and their aircraft through the entire lifecycle of helicopter ownership, encompassing the initial acquisition, custom completion, and long after final delivery.”
CalvinAir is currently awaiting regulatory approval to use the B4 for external load operations, which would allow it to expand into other mission-critical operations needed in Antigua and surrounding islands. It has also purchased a camera mount for lidar aerial survey work — recently wrapping up a major project in Barbuda — and hopes to do more of this in future.
The rapid growth in work is already providing a full load for the company’s second aircraft. “The two machines are flying pretty much flat out right now,” said Fleming, “so I think we’ll be looking at a third one very soon.”
While setting up an aviation operation in the Caribbean might sound idyllic, the reality calls for a lot of patience, hard work, and forward planning, said Fleming.
“Setting up an aviation business in the Caribbean is extremely, extremely time consuming,” he said.
“People might think you can go to the Caribbean and do whatever you want to do, but they’ve absolutely clamped down on the aviation side,” he said. “Every single thing is meticulously looked through. . . . They have very strict regulations — for the pilots, for example, our duty days are way more strict than in Canada. There’s a lot of overhead.”
CalvinAir’s base is at V.C. Bird International Airport, and it has two other heliports on Antigua: near the capital city, St. John’s, and outside the resort village of Jolly Harbour.
“We would love to have heliports everywhere. We’d love to be able to land at some of these resorts,” said Fleming. “It’s a challenge because the regulator believes every spot a helicopter lands needs to be a fully-fledged heliport — to have everything that you would find at an airport. We’re trying to convince them that you can safely land at these sites with minimum requirements.”
The responsibility for ensuring the aircraft are maintained to the highest standards belongs to Tim Francis, CalvinAir’s director of maintenance. The aircraft are kept inside the company’s 12,000-square-foot (1,115-square-meters) hangar whenever they’re not flying, but corrosion remains the greatest challenge the maintenance team faces, said Francis.
“We’re 100 meters [330 feet] away from the edge of the ocean, facing the oncoming wind,” he said. “All of that salt, the humidity, the UV, all those things start to break down the paint. So, we wash the helicopters every single night, do a compressor rinse three times a week, and every six months, we apply ACF-50 [an anti-corrosion compound] on the airframes to try and subdue that corrosion. But you’ll never get rid of it — all you can do is slow it down.”
Another major challenge is parts supply.
“We have to think of ourselves as a remote base, and try to supply ourselves accordingly — because FedEx Overnight is not FedEx Overnight. FedEx Overnight here is FedEx three-to-four days,” said Francis. “EuroTec does a great job of supplying us with all of our parts, AOG, whatever we need. So, we go to them right away, and they ship FedEx for us and get it here.”
Two other summertime phenomenon provide their own unique challenges.
“We get Sahara dust that gets picked up into the atmosphere, brought over by the jet stream, and dropped on top of us,” said Francis. “It can be so thick that it’s almost like a foggy day here. It’s a very, very fine brown dust, which is obviously detrimental to the engines.”
He said the aircraft’s inlet barrier filters “work fantastically” at keeping the dust out.
The second summer challenge is sargassum — a seaweed that has become a major issue on Caribbean beaches over the last decade.
“It hits the beaches and it starts to decompose and it creates a very corrosive gas,” said Francis. “It’ll start to corrode electronics . . . so we have to be really on top of that for the electrical connections in the aircraft, making sure that they stay positive — or you get little gremlins.”
Francis has four local apprentices helping him — all having recently graduated from technical school.
“When they do their hands-on work for three years they will become — and I’m very excited about this — the very first Antiguan-born helicopter-rated AMEs on the island,” said Francis. “I think that’s a really good thing for the Antiguan culture, too — to see that an operator is using its local workforce and training them up.”
Francis himself is another Canadian transplant.
“The reason the Canadians have an advantage down here is that ECCAA [Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority] validates our licenses, because we’re very much aligned with the British systems,” said Francis. “They make U.S.-trained guys start from scratch. From Canada, all we have to do is do their CARs exam. We could draw from Britain, but the reason we like Canadians is the fieldwork that we’ve had really helps us in this scenario, because it’s like a field maintenance base here.”
With the addition of the second EC130 to its fleet, and a growing demand for charters to neighboring islands, the future is looking bright for this Caribbean operator.
“I really feel our business speaks for itself,” said Fleming. “We’ve put a lot into our heliports, our hangar, our aircraft, marketing, and most importantly our staff, to really have this professional image. We want all of our guests to feel like a VIP — not just the ones who travel around in private jets.”