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Before it was optimistically rebranded as the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa’s famous headland was known as the Cape of Storms. And “Cape of Storms” is still a fitting nickname for the region near Africa’s southern tip, which is notorious for gale-force winds and rough seas. Maritime technology may have advanced significantly since Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias first rounded the cape in 1488, but it’s still no match for Mother Nature.
So ships still run into trouble here, and sometimes they run aground. When they do, the first priority is safely evacuating the crew. The next is protecting sensitive coastal environments from leaks of fuel and oil, often necessitating complex salvage operations that can last for days or weeks. In such cases, helicopter support can be critical: for ferrying crewmembers off the ship and salvage experts onto it, and transporting the towing chains and other equipment needed to remove the wreck.
For these services, salvors like the Dutch company SMIT Salvage often turn to Aerios Global Aviation (AGA). Based in Cape Town, South Africa, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of the Cape of Good Hope, AGA has built a business catering to maritime traffic transiting those often stormy waters. Many of the operations it conducts are routine transfers of cargo and personnel. But with its hoist-equipped Airbus EC145, AGA also stands ready to provide rescue and medevac services offshore, and to support the salvage of vessels that have no good hope left.
Moreover, the company does much of this in the same rough weather that can be so tough on its customers. As AGA chief pilot Stephen Merry explained, “In the wintertime, we’re continuously battered by cold fronts, and that’s usually when the vessels will run into trouble, or start running aground. So 90 percent of the flying we do is in the bad weather — swells up to 10, 12 meters, and the winds pumping up to 60 knots. That’s probably our biggest challenge, flying out in those conditions.”
Carving a niche
AGA was founded in 2011 by CEO Malcolm Pitcher, an experienced flight engineer and maintenance engineer who has operated and managed aircraft in some of the harshest environments on the planet. Immediately prior to AGA, Pitcher was overseeing a fleet of 15 Mil Mi-8 helicopters in Afghanistan. With his new company, he envisioned putting this dependable Russian helicopter model to work under a Western operational framework, compliant with Western safety standards and best practices.
South Africa was an ideal location for the new venture, because the country already had some Mi-8s on its civil aircraft register. With foreign partners, Pitcher started AGA with two Mi-8MTV1 helicopters in South Africa, which were subsequently deployed on humanitarian contracts throughout Africa. Closer to home, the Mi-8s also proved to be an ideal platform for ship salvage operations, thanks to their robust build and four-tonne (8,800-pound) lifting capacity.
“The Mi-8 lifts up to four tonnes of steel chain or equipment at a time, so it’s a useful tool,” Pitcher said. “It’s a flying truck, really, [and] it does the job very, very well.”
In August 2013, AGA deployed an Mi-8 in support of salvage operations for the Kiani Satu, a cargo vessel that ran hard aground at Buffels Bay, around 260 miles (420 kilometers) east of Cape Town. With several of the vessel’s double bottom tanks breached, and bunker oil leaking into the ocean, SMIT was contracted to salvage the vessel in order to minimize the environmental damage.
SMIT crews managed to pump oil from the breached lower tanks into the upper tanks, and from there into portable tanks that were flown off the ship in multiple airlifts. Meanwhile, the salvage tug SMIT Amandla was eventually able to refloat the vessel and tow it more than 100 nautical miles offshore, where it sank in deep water. Just days later, AGA was called upon to support another SMIT Salvage job when the coal carrier MV Smart ran onto a sand bar and broke in half near Richards Bay, on South Africa’s eastern coast.
While the Mi-8s were earning their keep, AGA was also expanding into Western aircraft models with the addition of two Airbus AS365 N2 Dauphin helicopters. Although available to the general maritime industry, these were targeted specifically toward the offshore oil-and-gas industry, including oil and gas tankers making their way past Cape Town. From the beginning, AGA set its sights on compliance with International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) report 390 standards (recently revised as report 590), and the company has now been audited and approved by a number of oil-and-gas customers.
In 2016, Pitcher’s foreign partners withdrew from the company, taking with them the Mi-8s and, eventually, the Dauphins. To replace them, AGA acquired an EC145 that according to Pitcher is “the perfect utility helicopter.” Certified for operation under instrument flight rules (IFR) and equipped with a Goodrich hoist, the twin-engine, Category A EC145 is capable of the most demanding offshore missions, including rescues. But its large, open cabin can be quickly reconfigured for helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) and VIP transport, which has allowed AGA to expand into new markets onshore, too.
“We decided to be a very diverse operation using utility helicopters,” Pitcher explained. Having an aircraft as versatile as the EC145 has “allowed us to use it for a number of diverse projects in the industry,” he said.
From a pilot’s perspective, “the 145 is a great platform, especially for HEMS and anything hoisting-related,” said Merry, who traveled to Metro Aviation’s Helicopter Flight Training Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, for training on the model. “The reliability is great. It makes our life up front very easy, it’s got all the good avionics, autopilot for the IFR and night stuff that we do.”
The EC145’s spacious cabin also makes life easier for the rear crew. Hoist operator and maintenance engineer Shane Beeton described the 145 as the “gold standard” for a rescue helicopter. “It’s a very stable platform,” he said. “The smaller rotor disc and the very powerful hoist, large cabin doors and the large cabin allow it to be very versatile both for offshore operations as well as rescue operations, or just general moving of people around.”
Augmenting the EC145 is another proven utility helicopter, a Bell 206L4 LongRanger that is a cost-effective alternative for missions that do not require twin engines, IFR, or hoist capability.
According to Pitcher, everything AGA does is guided by the company motto of “Quality, Safety, and Integrity.”
“I come from an airline background and we always operate to the high standards of an airline. It’s always been a belief of mine that you give quality, safety, and integrity, because that way you’re giving good customer service, you’re giving a very safe operation all the time,” he said.
AGA conducts a formal risk assessment before every flight. Moreover, Pitcher said, he teaches his employees to embrace audits as a validation of their high achievement and an opportunity for further improvement. “You should be doing your job; if you’re doing it correctly you operate to those high standards at all times,” he said. “So we welcome being audited by the oil-and-gas industry, by any of the particular clients, or by the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority].”
Despite this emphasis on high standards, the small team at AGA has a relaxed camaraderie. According to pilot Abri Le Roux, “We strike a nice balance where it is very professional and we have all our affairs in order, but at the same time we’re all friends and we get along nicely.”
“We all work together as a unit,” Merry echoed. “There’s never a thing where, ‘It’s not my job,’ or ‘That’s not something that I’m meant to do, it’s not in my job spec.’ Everybody kind of pulls together and we’re all working in the same direction.”
AGA has a collaborative approach to working with other companies, too. AGA has long provided offshore medical evacuation services, in recent years sourcing medical crewmembers from South African Paramedic Services, owned by Neil Gargan. Now, Gargan has launched a new company called Airborne 24, which has partnered with AGA to expand its HEMS offering with a focus on serving private patients.
To this end, Airborne 24 and AGA have removable medical interiors for both the EC145 and the LongRanger, including stretchers, ventilators, oxygen, syringe drivers, full cardiac 12-lead ECG monitors with capnography and saturation monitoring, and medical packs. Airborne 24 contributes advanced life support (ALS) paramedics and medical licensing to the partnership, while AGA is responsible for the aviation services and certifications.
According to Gargan, the EC145 has brought a new level of HEMS capability to the region. “There are very few helicopters in South Africa particularly . . . that can transport two stretcher patients if we require,” he said, also emphasizing the EC145’s twin engines and full IFR capabilities. Meanwhile, the backup LongRanger, which has nearly identical medical equipment, also serves a valuable niche: “During normal daylight operations with the patient stable from a hospital to another one, we’ll use the LongRanger, which cost-wise is ideal for medical aid.”
Gargan sees potential to expand Airborne 24 both within the country, and beyond. “South Africa is [a] limited market, and Africa itself is very much a potential market. So yes, we are looking outside of South Africa as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pitcher has been working to add Mi-8s back onto AGA’s operating certificate, which could further expand its international operations. At press time, he expected his first Mi-8 to arrive in country by the end of the year.
“We’re looking forward to having the Mi-8s back in South Africa,” he told Vertical in October. With them, he said, “[we’re] planning to go back into the United Nations World Food Programme, and doing our humanitarian work, which we did in Africa before.”
For Le Roux, it is the missions in which AGA brings all of its talents and technology to bear in helping others that he finds most rewarding.
“My favorite kinds of missions are the ones where you feel like [you’ve] really made a difference in someone’s life,” he said, giving the example of transporting a patient who otherwise would have had no hope of reaching definitive medical care.
“You might fly out as it’s getting dark into an unlit, unprepared area somewhere [using] NVGs . . . and then fly back in IMC [instrument meteorological conditions], doing IFR,” he continued. “That’s not something you can do in South Africa very often, so we’re very privileged that we get an opportunity to do that kind of flying, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”