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Heliconia: Who dares wins

By Frédéric Lert

Published on: August 24, 2023
Estimated reading time 21 minutes, seconds.

Founded in Morocco and then finding great success off the coast of Senegal, Heliconia has shown itself to be a resilient operator, adept at navigating the complex West African offshore market.

Establishing a company in the highly competitive and exacting offshore transport sector is no mean feat. Doing so while developing a country’s rotary-wing industry is another challenge entirely. But this is exactly what Heliconia has been doing in Senegal for the last decade, as the West African offshore market rapidly develops.

The story of the company that became Heliconia begins in 2008, when Daniel Sigaud and Aurélie Georges teamed to buy Moroccan operator Helisud Marcoc. Sigaud brought extensive experience from his time in the oil logistics industry throughout Nigeria and Angola, while Georges added her background as a professional helicopter pilot and instructor at the Bristow Academy.

Two Heliconia AW139s fly in formation. One of the aircraft is configured for SAR operations (top), with the other equipped for offshore transport (bottom). Anthony Pecchi Photo

“Our challenge was to create a real helicopter operator in Morocco, with a focus on [VIP and tourism] passenger transport, maintenance work for power line and electricity grids, and the development of a national EMS [emergency medical service] service,” Georges told Vertical.

The business has grown rapidly over the years, driven by the organization of several major sporting events in the country.

For its activities in Morocco, Heliconia relies on an Airbus fleet and has a staff of about 50 people, including more than 25 qualified Moroccan pilots and mechanics. The company is committed to training local staff, and believes this will be a crucial factor if it is to continue its development and expansion in the future.

Heliconia said it chose the AW139 for its offshore work due to its popularity and proven track record in the sector. Anthony Pecchi Photo

The company changed its name from Helisud Maroc to Heliconia in 2012, and the following year, Morocco launched its first oil exploration campaigns with the support of two oil groups: Kosmos Energy and Cairn Energy. Heliconia was interested in the market, but the bar to entry was very high.

“A door was opened thanks to a partnership with Tunisavia, which already had experience in the market and was able to provide the aircraft [AS365 Dauphins], the crews and the mechanics,” said Clément Gil, the company’s director of offshore operations. “We provided the local air operating permit and took care of all the logistics. The partnership worked well, and when Cairn Energy went to Senegal, they offered an opportunity to support their operations [there] in cooperation with Tunisavia.”

As part of the exploration project that was later named Sangomar, Cairn Energy made an important discovery off the coast of Senegal. To support the energy company, Heliconia invested heavily in the country, setting up a structure and obtaining an aerial exploitation permit.

“Obtaining approval was the result of cooperation between the Senegalese aviation authority [ANACIM] and the French DGAC [Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile] — as Senegal had no experience in helicopter activities at the time,” said Gil. “In March 2017, after 18 months of work, we became the first and only Senegalese helicopter operator to date, with Senegalese personnel, an operational base set up in the former Léopold Sedar Senghor International Airport, and [Leonardo] AW139s registered in the country.”

Heliconia now has eight AW139s in its fleet. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Heliconia began operations with a license based on onshore activities, which then rapidly expanded to offshore oil-and-gas, allowing it to obtain a license aligned with IOGP (International Oil and Gas Producers) standards.

The company started with two AW139s, before gradually expanding its fleet. The operator now has eight aircraft.

“When we started in the offshore business, the AW139 had a proven track record and was the preferred aircraft for oil companies,” said Georges. “On the Heliconia side, we didn’t have an offshore machine, and we had to show that we were serious and that we hit the mark. So it was only logical that we should turn to this aircraft, which was, and still is, the most popular in the industry.”

Georges said Leonardo has been “a faithful partner” in Heliconia’s development. “Its sales department took us seriously, believed in us, and helped our development by establishing a real partner relationship.”

Anthony Pecchi Photo

Indeed, Heliconia became a Leonardo service center in Morocco in 2014, and is now expanding that capability to Senegal.

Overcoming challenges

The study of distances in the West African region also showed that the AW139 was well suited for future opportunities. This was the case for the Sangomar and Greater Tortue Ahmeyim projects in Senegal and Mauritania. Now these projects are entering the production phase, with one of the fields located on the border of the exclusive economic zones of Mauritania and Senegal. A cooperation agreement between the two countries has resulted in a logistical base being set up in Dakar, Senegal, which is close to the platforms.

Gil said Heliconia’s achievements in the offshore world have come despite facing major challenges. These include the 2016 oil crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the difficulty of establishing itself in an industry with very high investment and skill requirements. “To maintain IOGP standard approvals, we need pilots, mechanics and ground operations staff with experience of these standards, and a quality and safety department,” he said. “All of this requires training, very specific equipment, infrastructure, parts inventory and maintenance procedures to IOGP standards.”

Once the oil discoveries in Senegal were made, Kosmos Energy sold part of its stake to British Petroleum.

Heliconia’s SAR aircraft must be available to respond to calls during daylight hours, and ready for departure within 20 minutes during passenger transport operations. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“I think [BP was] very impressed by our flexibility and the energy we put into raising our standards,” said Gil. “Above all, they were aware of the efforts made to develop local resources in Senegal, with staff, structures, accreditations, etc. Local development was also their strategy in the region, and they saw that we had not waited for the contracts to invest in the field.”

In 2018, Heliconia won a call for tenders launched by BP for an exploration and development campaign between Senegal and Mauritania. A few months later, in January 2020, Heliconia won a competition launched by the Italian oil company Eni to support production activity in Ghana. For once, it was a contract offering long-term visibility, but operations had to begin within a month.

“We had to move very quickly — for us, this contract was the holy grail,” said Gil. “It allowed us to perpetuate our activity and our development in the West African region. We mobilized in record time, using our Senegalese approvals thanks to an agreement with the Ghanaian civil aviation authority.”

Heliconia’s SAR aircraft must be available to respond to calls during daylight hours, and ready for departure within 20 minutes during passenger transport operations. Anthony Pecchi Photo

The company then launched a subsidiary — Heliconia EcoAlpha Services Ghana (Heliconia EAS). This was born out of a solid partnership between the Heliconia Group and the Ghanaian company EcoAlpha Services, which specializes in oil logistics in the country.

Operations with Eni started in February 2020 — just as the impact of the Covid pandemic began to be felt around the world. Soon afterward, all contracts with BP in Senegal were terminated and exploration was suspended. Eni continued its operations in Ghana, but drastically reduced them, requiring just one aircraft, rather than two. Heliconia, which then had a total fleet of six AW139s, was flying only one. Times were tough.

“But at that time, thinking about the future, BP wanted us to maintain the infrastructure in Dakar and supported us so that we could survive,” said Gil. “Thanks to them and the support of our shareholders, we maintained our approvals, kept our local staff, and even continued to develop their skills. We had to negotiate with the leasing companies to keep Heliconia alive, but we managed — even if 2021 was an extremely difficult period.”

Heliconia’s SAR aircraft must be available to respond to calls during daylight hours, and ready for departure within 20 minutes during passenger transport operations. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Forward planning

As the Covid crisis faded, Heliconia was ready to move forward. In July 2021, the development of the discovery made by Cairn Energy seven years earlier began. The work was done with an Australian oil company, Woodside Energy, which issued a call for tenders for three helicopters: two for passenger transport and medical evacuations, and the third for search-and-rescue (SAR) missions at sea.

Heliconia won the tender, and the company consolidated and developed its team of Senegalese professionals, deploying 30 pilots of different nationalities (including French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Finnish) in the country. This team diversity is found companywide, from ground staff and mechanics to avionics specialists.

The next objective for Heliconia Senegal is to train Senegalese pilots and engineers to IOGP standards. This will be made possible during the production phase of the offshore oil fields, which will provide the helicopter operator with the visibility required for the implementation of such an investment program.

For Heliconia, this operation is also an opportunity to gain competence with the implementation of the SAR aircraft, which must be permanently available during daylight hours for hoisting operations at sea. During passenger transport operations, the aircraft is on alert for departure within 20 minutes of a call. The remainder of the time, the alert is at one hour.

Gil said the company built up its expertise internally, while simultaneously relying on the expertise of — and personnel from — Air Rescue U.K., which specializes in the supply of SAR crews.

Since 2020, the Senegalese Air Force has been training its pilots on the Bell 505, based on a training agreement signed with the U.S. helicopter manufacturer. However, between 2016 and 2020, it was Heliconia Senegal’s responsibility to train the force’s pilots to the CPL-H level on the Bell 206.

Heliconia’s SAR aircraft must be available to respond to calls during daylight hours, and ready for departure within 20 minutes during passenger transport operations. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Heliconia Senegal still maintains its training partnership with the presidential squadron, which uses an AW139. The company trains its pilots and manages the airworthiness and the heaviest maintenance operations of the aircraft, always taking into account the need to transfer skills and expertise.

Today, Heliconia has successfully established itself in Senegal. In a country where offshore oil-and-gas activity was almost non-existent before 2014, the operator chose to take a step into the unknown to launch itself and invest heavily in anticipation of offshore development. The gamble has paid off, as Heliconia Senegal now has an air operating license, a base and well-trained local staff. Its objective is now to reduce costs by pooling the use of aircraft between different operators, via sharing agreements.

“We developed this idea in 2017 thanks to Kosmos Energy, and have since generalized the [operating] model in cooperation with BP, Shell, Total and Woodside in Senegal and the region,” said Gil. “The sharing of helicopters and infrastructure that we have created has a direct impact on costs and [is a] financial benefit to Senegal.”

The future looks bright for Heliconia, with potential investment from the Senegalese government offering the likelihood of long-term contracts. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Another project to come concerns a change in ownership of Heliconia Senegal, to allow the emergence of a Senegalese national champion in helicopter work.
The company will eventually have access to sufficient long-term contracts to invest and develop, for example by targeting onshore activity, and implementing sharing strategies with confidence.

The narrowness of the Senegalese market does not allow for competition that could be destructive for its players. The current scenario is an increase in capital with a 40-percent participation by the Senegalese government, and the eventual creation of a stable structure that could be called Heli-Senegal. This is certainly a winning bet for both the Senegalese government and Heliconia.

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