features Flying through the pandemic

How helicopter operators are adapting their work and their workplaces to adjust to the new reality of living through a pandemic.
By Dan Megna | June 16, 2020

Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 31 seconds.

Word of a new highly contagious strain of coronavirus first reached many of us shortly before the helicopter industry was due to gather for its biggest annual event — HAI Heli-Expo — in Anaheim, California, at the end of January. The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2), which causes Covid-19 in humans, was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei province. By the end of January, thousands were already infected and tens of thousands under mandatory quarantine, but few people beyond China’s borders understood the threat the virus posed, or grasped the potential social and economic impact of what would become a full-blown global pandemic.

On March 11, the World Health Organization designated the Covid-19 outbreak as a global pandemic. It had rapidly spread across continents and through countries worldwide, infecting over five million people. While all sectors of our seemingly ever-resilient helicopter industry were affected, some operators are facing uncertain futures. Frederick Florin Photo

However, alarm bells were already ringing in the medical community, with proactive air medical operators taking early steps to understand Covid-19 and making plans to cope with its arrival.

Marc Creswell, operations manager for Louisiana-based Acadian Air Med (Air Med), was one of those closely monitoring the spread of the disease early on. “I started seeing this on Jan. 23 on a LSU [Louisiana State University] message board with reports from an American in Wuhan who is originally from Baton Rouge,” he said.

“[He] posted there were seven cities quarantined, however, several million Chinese had left Wuhan to celebrate the Chinese New Year. At that time, I kind of had a feeling that the virus was out of the containment areas.”

Metro Aviation, which provides part 135 operations for 36 air medical operators throughout the U.S. — including Air Med — also recognized the threat. “We are purely an aviation company — we don’t employ any medical personnel,” said Kenny Morrow, Metro’s chief operating officer. “So the first thing we did was assemble medical directors from a handful of our operations customers.”

The EpiShuttle is a single patient isolation pod developed by a Norwegian company and has been employed by a number of European air medical operators for transporting Covid-19 patients. By isolating the patient, the pods reduce the need for time-consuming disinfecting of the aircraft between missions, thus improving protection for the crew and patient. PTI/DPA Photo

Metro used the expert knowledge of these medical directors to develop a strategy for working with the virus. “In the beginning, it wasn’t clear as to how contagious the virus was,” said Morrow. “Was it airborne, surface borne, [what were] the best ways to avoid contracting it? They were all really great people who helped us develop some policy and procedures to protect our pilots. Obviously our main concern is the safety of our personnel, our customers and the people they transport.”

Creswell also established ongoing collaboration with other medical professionals from across the air medical community. “IA Med and the CME Collective has been our arm to talk to others to see how those outside the Metro group are doing things,” he said. “Everybody is learning from everybody — not just on treatment protocols, but on how to decontaminate and limit exposure.”

By the end of February, the disease had erupted globally, and in mid-March, governments around the world declared national health emergencies.

Travel restrictions and sweeping stay-at-home orders were imposed. Businesses deemed “non-essential” were ordered temporarily shut down and 14-day quarantine orders imposed for many travelers.

Louisiana-based Acadian Air Med states, even with the additional PPE and half-face respirators, they are still able to maintain the same high level of care as before Covid-19. Acadian Air Med Photo

Air medical operators began ramping-up on supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). Creswell said, “We started taking steps to order our own P100 masks because we started to hear about the N95 [mask] shortages. The P100 is the half-face respirator, and we equipped all of our helicopter flight medics with that.”

North of the border, Quebec became the epicenter for Covid-19 in Canada, accounting for (as of this writing) nearly half of the overall confirmed cases and fatalities in the county, with a large percentage being the elderly.

Air medical operator Airmedic was thrust in to battle with the disease. It created a Covid-19 team to develop protocols for safeguarding personnel and aid Quebec authorities in understanding best practices for transporting affected patients. It also hired 40 people to work as dedicated aircraft decontamination crews for its fleet of three Airbus EC145es and six Pilatus PC-12s.

“Our team developed a very rigorous intervention protocol combining a disinfection structure and a unique air circulation system to disinfect the aircraft and eliminate the risk of contamination,” said Sophie Larochelle, Airmedic’s executive VP. “This protocol aims to protect our medical team from any Covid contamination and to protect future patients since Airmedic simultaneously continues its usual activities.”

Patient isolation pods provide medical staff and first responder the ability to isolate Covid-19 patients. U.K. Ministry of Defence Photo

Carl Guerard, Airmedic’s VP of business development, said aircraft are actually AOG for five hours after each transport to allow all the particulates to settle down in order to perform a thorough cleaning.

The utility world adapts

Despite the challenges presented in operating in a new socially-distant world, many utility operators appear to be only seeing minor disruptions from the pandemic. Bart Brainerd of Firehawk Helicopters in Florida said he has seen little impact. The company lost a little work when the U.S. Forest Service suspended some burn operations, while progress of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification of its new firefighting tank has slowed.

“Mostly it’s just trying to adapt on almost a daily basis and how to make sure our employees are taking appropriate precautions and how to help keep them safe and healthy during their work day,” Brainerd said.

Rod Tinney, owner of Texas-based Air Center Helicopters (ACH), reported losing a couple of projects, but its many military contracts around the globe are holding firm. “We’ve allowed everyone who wanted to work from home, to do so,” he said. “We’ve given everybody the choice. We’re paying everybody regardless of whether they come into work or not. We don’t want to lose any employees.”

Some operators insinuated policies to not knowingly transport Covid-19 patients by air, opting instead to use ground assets. Rega Photo

The largest challenge the company faced was managing crew changes for personnel on overseas contracts. With commercial air travel compromised and requirements for quarantines and health screenings, ACH looked outside the box for a solution, acquiring a Dassault Falcon 900EX corporate jet to perform crew changes.

Some large operations have drawn on the strength of their diversity. Following the shutdown, Northwest Helicopters in Olympia, Washington, saw almost all of its government flying contracts suspended, forcing the furlough of a number of pilots. A few utility contracts remained, keeping only a couple of aircraft working. The company’s maintenance and manufacturing elements, however, remained strong.

“There were all these exemptions that came out and a number of operations were exempt, so a lot of helicopter operations continued,” said Northwest president/CEO Brian Reynolds. “All the helicopters that were scheduled for maintenance are still showing up. . . . I think a lot of people are looking at this as downtime and said, ‘let’s get these overhauls and maintenance done.’ ”

Northwest’s manufacturing side of the house, Mechanical Systems, did suffer a slowdown when OEM plants shut down in response to the virus. Fortunately, there was still work to be done and technicians were reassigned to other projects — cargo hook repairs and overhauls, and research and design projects.

A key challenge for air medical providers was ensuring adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and training procedures for its use. STARS Photo

“We’ll start to fly summer helicopters, probably toward the end of May,” said Reynolds. “We’ll recall our pilots for the cherry drying operations in eastern Washington and then fire season is going to come no matter what the virus does.”

In Fort McMurray, Alberta, Phoenix Heli-Flight is experiencing relatively minor disruptions affecting its medevac work. This includes the increased costs of being ready to transport Covid patients with extra PPE, as well as the loss of the company’s annual fundraiser for its HERO regional air medical helicopter program, which had to be cancelled.

The company’s annual training also took a hit, with a number of pilots scheduled for simulator training and IFR check rides in Louisiana this spring. These plans were put on hold pending commercial airlines resuming normal service. As of this writing, Transport Canada has granted Phoenix a 90-day extension, which expires in mid-June.

“We had a lot of work in the fall and winter so we went into spring very healthy financially,” said company owner Paul Spring. “We have not laid anybody off. In fact, we hired a new mechanic, a new safety officer and three new pilots.

Acadian Air Med purchased 2,800 3M OV/P100 Respirators to protect their air and ground ambulance medical crews. Acadian Air Med Photo

“What’s even worse than Covid-19 is the price of oil,” Spring added. “Work with the oil industry — everything has been postponed. Everything is shelved for now. Covid-19 just sort of added to the mystery.”
Bearing the brunt of the lockdown

The oil-and-gas industry has felt an enormous impact from Covid-19, both directly with workers at offshore oil facilities becoming infected, and indirectly through the historic drop in demand resulting from lockdown measures.
In the gulf of Mexico, helicopter operators invested a great deal to safeguard passengers and crews. At Era Helicopters, crews and passengers have their temperature checked before they enter the operator’s facility, with dedicated medics screening them before flights.

Inside the terminal, eight-foot-high barriers section off the waiting room into quadrants. “The customers are also staggering their flights to reduce the amount of passengers in the waiting room at one time,” said Paul White, senior VP at Era Helicopters. “We have also introduced regular cleaning protocols for the aircraft and facilities along with modifying protective ‘medical type’ barriers in the crew change aircraft to separate the back cabin from the cockpit.”

Era and Bristow contract with Priority One and Acadian Air Med (respectively) for medical/search-and-rescue (SAR) crews. With the Covid-19 outbreak, the SAR crews were often tasked with transports of patients from the offshore facilities to the mainland for treatment. “Era SAR has seen an increase due to transporting possible Covid-19 patients from January to March,” said White. Over that period, there was a 300 percent increase in missions and over 30 cautionary or known Covid-19 cases.

Some operators actively trace flights to determine if crews have been exposed to patients testing positive for Covid-19. Nightingale Regional Air Ambulance Photo

Despite the challenges offshore, perhaps no sector has been hit harder by the pandemic than the air tour industry. In the early days of the outbreak, operators adopted strict sanitation protocols for terminals and aircraft to safeguard customers and staff while closely monitoring government directives. However, a total suspension of all flights soon became necessary, with fleets parked and staff furloughed.

Maverick Helicopters is one of the major players in the air tour industry, operating a fleet of 47 Airbus EC/H130 helicopters. “The destinations we fly into — Las Vegas, Grand Canyon and Hawaii — are heavy travel destinations for leisure travelers and a lot of group business, corporate groups and incentive groups,” said Bryan Kroten, VP of marketing at Maverick Aviation Group. “Those markets have obviously been affected by Covid-19 as the rest of the world has.

“International guests are very prime for the Grand Canyon flights, which are the feeders for Sundance, Papillon, Maverick… for many of the companies,” he continued. “I think everybody understands that international travel will not come back any time soon. I think we’ll be severely impacted over the next couple years.”

In Hawaii, Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours’ fleet of 25 helicopters sits mostly idle, the exception being a few students choosing to continue helicopter flight training.

Aerial tourism company Maverick Helicopters reopened its operations on May 22, offering customers a buy-one-get-one offer on helicopter flights over Las Vegas, Nevada. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“With the islands presently devoid of any tourists, it’s going to take a while to see families returning and people feeling comfortable in traveling again, relaxing their anxiety to go and do things they might normally do,” said Ben Fouts, the company’s CEO. “I think what we’re planning for is a slow return. We don’t expect it to go back to where it was before this started.

Other flight training operators have experienced varying degrees of disruption to their schedules. Civic Helicopters in southern California estimates their business is down by as much as 80 percent. “Our change has been mostly on the demand side,” said VP of operations Candise Tu. “Consequentially, because of those demand side changes, we’ve taken half our fleet off the insurance.”

In Florida, Palm Beach Helicopters reports flight training is down, but only about 25 percent. “We haven’t suffered significantly,” said company owner Dan Crowe. “We have students who travel here from all parts of the world and because of various travel restrictions and lockdowns and things like that, they can’t get their visas or they just can’t travel, so they’re delayed for a period of time. But we’re still doing flight training with students we already had in-house.”

A global impact

Covid-19 has wrought havoc in most every corner of the world.

Helicopters from the French civil security, Securite Civile, have been an invaluable resource for Covid-19 patient transports from all throughout the country, especially for patients from the country’s northeast regions, which were hit particularly bad. Sebastien Bozon Photo

“Many companies can’t sustain [normal operations] in this Covid-19 environment,” said David Dou, president of Tianjin Top General Aviation in China’s port city of Tianjin. “In the near future, companies that haven’t accumulated cash from before or enlist fresh investment will go into bankruptcy. Do not underestimate the impact of the [pandemic]. To restore confidence and return to the past [level of business] may take a long time.”

How various sectors of the helicopter industry “recover” from Covid-19 remains to be seen.

James Viola, president and CEO of Helicopter Association International (HAI) said the pandemic has impacted all those who fix, fly, operate, manufacture, supply, and support helicopters, with business down in every sector.
“Few businesses will escape this pandemic unscathed,” he said, adding that it was likely that some companies will not survive.

However, he said the unique capabilities of VTOL aircraft — and the unique contributions they make to industries around the world — combined with the love those working with helicopters have for their careers, will help the rotary-wing world bounce back and thrive.

Throughout the air medical industry, protocols were quickly adopted for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and, whenever possible, keeping medical crews and patients separate from members of the flight crew. Mike Reyno Photo

“The passion and commitment it takes to launch an aviation career or business will help many of these companies return when it is fiscally possible to do so,” he said. “As the demands for other businesses resume, the corresponding need for rotorcraft support will also return. VTOL aviation is facing challenging times right now, but its future is still bright.”

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