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Black Swan Helicopters: The ‘Air Force’ of Berwyn, Alberta

With a population of just 546, the village of Berwyn, Alta. seems an unlikely home for a helicopter charter company. Yet it is: Berwyn is the home of Black Swan Helicopters. Located in the Peace River country on four acres with a 10,000-square-foot hangar and office facilities, Black Swan provides flight services for the oil and gas industry, wildlife managers and regional firefighters.


April 2, 2008
By James Careless

Topics

With a population of just 546, the village of Berwyn, Alta. seems an unlikely home for a helicopter charter company. Yet it is: Berwyn is the home of Black Swan Helicopters. Located in the Peace River country on four acres with a 10,000-square-foot hangar and office facilities, Black Swan provides flight services for the oil and gas industry, wildlife managers and regional firefighters.

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Black Swan’s fleet consists of six R44s of which four are new Raven IIs, an AStar BA, a Bell 206 and an AStar Super D2.

“Our fleet consists of six R44s of which four are new Raven IIs,” says Linda Johnson, who co-owns and operates Black Swan with her husband Wayne. “We also operate an AStar BA and a Bell 206. In 2007 we brought the first AStar Super D2 into Alberta.”

The Johnsons operate Black Swan Helicopters with 17 full-time employees, supplemented by contract pilots and engineers when things get busy. “We have a great team at Black Swan,” Johnson says. “We view ourselves as a large family and we feel very fortunate that everyone works together to achieve the same goal – to be part of a safe and successful company.”

HELICOPTER INDUSTRY VETERANS
The Johnsons founded Black Swan Helicopters in 2003, after spending decades working for other helicopter companies. “Like many people in this industry we were bitten by the ‘aviation bug’ and we continue to enjoy the work,” Linda Johnson explains. “Many colleagues had asked us over the years when we were going to go into our own business. It finally felt right in 2003 to do so.”

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Certainly they had enough experience to understand what they were getting  into. After all, Wayne Johnson has been in the helicopter industry for over 40 years. He spent the first 23 years of his career flying for Midwest Helicopters in Winnipeg, eventually becoming a part-owner in the firm. He then worked with Okanagan Helicopters as a marketing manager in Vancouver, then moved to the company’s Edmonton office when it became Canadian Helicopters. Johnson eventually struck out on his own as a consultant, before returning to flying.

Linda Johnson joined the industry in 1979 at Eagle Copters Ltd. in Calgary, working in Eagle’s stores department. After meeting Wayne, she moved to Winnipeg in 1985, then to Vancouver where she worked at Okanagan Helicopters’ Technical Records Department. She moved up the ranks to become an inventory analyst, then a divisional analyst. When Canadian Helicopters relocated her job to Quebec City in 2002, she resigned, then formed Black Swan Helicopters with her husband.

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Wayne Johnson has been in the helicopter industry for over 40 years.

WHY BERWYN…AND WHY BLACK SWAN?
So what is a helicopter com-pany the size of Black Swan doing in an out-of-the-way village like Berwyn? And why is the Johnsons’ company called “Black Swan”?

Linda Johnson says the answers to both questions are intertwined, with the second answer accounting for the first. “Black Swan Helicopters is based in Western Canada, and when we started to look for a name for the company, we originally looked to form something out of ‘BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan’ of which ‘Black Swan’ was first taken,” she explains. “However, as we began operations in the com-pany, the name took on a new meaning. The term ‘Black Swan’ has been coined to mean a random event that must satisfy the properties of large impact, incomputable probabilities and surprise effect.”

Confused? Read on: It all becomes clear once you know what happened to the Johnsons and their helicopter company.

“In 2005, Black Swan Helicopters settled into a shared facility in Grimshaw, Alta. [population 2,435]. In 2006, the company experienced a ‘Black Swan’ when an arsonist set fire to the other tenant’s bay. Despite the efforts of the fire department, the fire consumed the entire building, and destroyed everything in it, including two helicopters.
“To continue the ‘Black Swan’ in a good way, the mayor of Berwyn appeared on the scene the next day, offering temporary office facilities in the village of Berwyn, 11 km south of Grimshaw. The building used to house a Case Equipment dealership in the early nineties. At that time, the back of the building had been rented out for a heavy equipment repair facility, and additionally, the building had been sold with some conditions yet to be met.

“Incredibly, and unexpectedly, the sale fell through and Black Swan was able to purchase the facility which included 3,000 square feet of office space, stores, and a 7,000-square-foot hangar on 4 1⁄2 acres of fenced property. A little paint and some hard work by all the staff brought the building to life. We’re very happy to be located in Berwyn. It’s a perfect fit for our operation.”

So now you know. 

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Top: Located in oil country, Black Swan Helicopters is very busy these days.

Bottom: Linda Johnson joined the industry in 1979 at Eagle Copters Ltd. in Calgary.

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CHALLENGES
Located as it is in oil country, Black Swan Helicopters is very busy these days. However, such is the pace of business that the company sometimes has a hard time keeping up.

“One of the greatest challenges that we face, as do other companies, is a shortage of experienced crews to meet the high hour requirement for

oil companies,” says Linda Johnson. To cope, “we have hired many low-time pilots and provide a great deal of extra training. We have been able to place them in jobs requiring less hours, until they build up time to get them to the level to meet the ‘1,500-hour’ requirements of the oil companies.” A case in point: Black Swan’s base manager started with just 300 hours on the R44, now has close to 2,000 hours, and is cleared to fly all the aircraft that the company operates.

‘Newbies’ take note: “The flying conditions in this region are good for low-time pilots,” she says. “Some of
the challenges are the summer storms, and cold-weather operations.”

Besides the shortage of experienced pilots, Black Swan fights a never-ending battle to win contracts in a very competitive helicopter market. “As in any business, there is always competition that can figure a way to do it cheaper,” says Johnson, “ so it is usually a roller-coaster ride when tenders are bid.”

However, all of these challenges pale compared to what the company has already survived. “Our biggest challenge to date was the hangar fire of 2006,” she observes. “After recovering from that event, everything that has followed seems incidental.”

LOOKING AHEAD
‘Black swans’ notwithstanding, prospects look good for Berwyn’s own ‘air force.’ Business is brisk at Black Swan Helicopters, and Linda Johnson hopes to grow the company to keep up. “[Our] Future plans are to have a maximum 10 aircraft, but this is dependent on availability of crews,” she says. “We are confident that there will always be people who have a passion for this industry and will enjoy the work despite the challenges that are ever occurring.”

Black Swan’s Fleet
•    six R44s
    (four are new Raven IIs)
•    AStar BA
•    AStar Super D2
•    Bell 206

 


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