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Catching On

July 8, 2010  By Bill Tice

If you’re going to have a chat with Peter Barratt you’d better block some time off on your calendar and be prepared for some serious coffee — strong and dark and brewed in a European press style coffee maker.

If you’re going to have a chat with Peter Barratt you’d better block some time off on your calendar and be prepared for some serious coffee — strong and dark and brewed in a European press style coffee maker.

Making memories: the successful Katz family fishing excursion was made possible by B.C.'s West Coast Helicopters.


Barratt, who likes to talk and is the boisterous vice president/operations manager for West Coast Helicopters, is quick to point out though that his coffee dependence is not responsible for his outgoing persona. “The buzz is all me,” he confesses. “My brew of choice is dark roast, fair trade, organic, decaffeinated coffee,” he adds with an emphasis on the decaffeinated.

West Coast Helicopters is a progressive and continually growing contender in the competitive helicopter business on Vancouver Island and the rugged and remote west coast of British Columbia’s mainland. With its steep mountains, vast expanses of water and hostile weather conditions, the territory is not for the faint of heart or the ill prepared. It is, however, a place where helicopters are a necessity for everything from flying medical personnel and supplies into remote First Nations communities and transporting forestry workers to desolate logging camps, to fighting wildfires and flying celebrities and business moguls into luxury fishing lodges.

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 Heliskiing, and other adventure-based
operations, are a strong part of the West Coast Helicopters business
(Photo courtesy of West Coast Helicopters)


It’s a lifestyle and a job Barratt has come to love over the years. He came to Port McNeill on Vancouver Island in 1977 to fly for Okanagan Helicopters, which later became Canadian Helicopters. He never left. “I told my boss I would stay here for two years if the fishing was good,” Barratt jokes. “It was great so here I am,” he continues as he finishes his second cup of decaf.

Barratt left Okanagan in 1993 to start West Coast Helicopters with three other partners. They bought out one of the partners and today, three of the original four — Barratt, Terry Eissfeldt and Granger Avery — are the principals. You might not know it by looking around the recently completed operations complex West Coast has just moved in to, complete with a cavernous hangar, an employee gym, a comfortable customer reception area and spacious offices, but it hasn’t been an easy ride for the trio.

“See that picnic table over there,” Barratt says as he motions over to the far side of a grassy landing strip at the tiny Port McNeill airport. “That’s how we started. I was sitting at that picnic table with my partners and we had a 206B Jet Ranger and an A-Star “B” model. No hangar. No office. Just a plan to fly 1,800 hours in our first year. We did 1,802, which was enough to make us profitable and we built everything up from there.”

To raise funds for the business, Barratt says in the early days they worked day and night. “We cashed in all our pop bottles,” he jokes. “We built the company’s original hangar ourselves with the help of a friend who was out of work, and I also did some other building projects with him to make extra money. I was flying during the day and then at night and on weekends I was banging nails with him on schools and building outhouses for local parks and campgrounds.”

West Coast Today
Today, West Coast has four bases, including Port McNeill, which also serves as head office for the company. The other bases are at Nanaimo and Campbell River on Vancouver Island and at Bella Coola on the west coast of the mainland. The company has also grown substantially in terms of equipment and now operates predominantly Eurocopter AStar Series machines, including three B models, one BA model, and five B2 models. They also have a 206B Jet Ranger and two McDonnell Douglas 500D model (MD-500D) helicopters. It’s a fleet that works well for West Coast as it gives the company a number of choices for seating and load capacity, which in turn provides them with flexibility when matching an aircraft to the job at hand.

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The company’s Port McNeill base boasts a new 8,900-square-foot hangar that features four massive overhead doors. Proper maintenance is critical to the company’s success.
(Photo by Bill Tice)


The AStar B2 and BA models accommodate up to six passengers each: the AStar B model can take five passengers, while each of the other aircraft in the stable can seat up to four passengers. In terms of weight, internal load ratings are from 800 lbs. on the Jet Ranger to 1,650 lbs. on the AStar B2, while external hook load capacity starts at 1,000 lbs. on the Jet Ranger and goes up to 2,200 lbs. on the largest AStar.

Barratt and his partners are extremely proud of the company’s new operations centre in Port McNeill, which was completed in early May of this year. At almost 16,000 square feet, the new building is over six times the size of West Coast’s original office and hangar, which was just 2,400 square feet. “We have 24 of our 44 employees at this operation and we were stepping on each other,” Barratt explains. “We had two or three people in each office. It was just ridiculous. We also needed more hangar space because of the climate and coastal location here in Port McNeill. It’s a corrosive environment for helicopters and up until now, we couldn’t keep all of our aircraft inside.”

The new hangar, which is an 8,900-square-foot structure supplied by JDG Construction in North Vancouver, B.C., has four massive overhead doors. Barratt is particularly pleased with an engineering feature that allows the posts on each side of the doors to be moved. “If you simply open the overhead doors, the new hangar can accommodate four AStar helicopters,” he explains. “But the building is self-supporting and the posts are on tracks so once you have the doors open, you can slide the posts to the sides, which means we could fit up to eight helicopters in the hangar if we had to.”

The 6,800 square feet of office space on two floors is adjacent to the hangar, and the two buildings share common walls on two sides. “We went with a wood frame building for the office space as it is much nicer to look at than the traditional aluminum square box industrial structures that are common in rural areas,” Barratt says, while adding that they went “green” while making the upgrades. The state-of-the-art structure, which was designed with environmental stewardship in mind, features a three-kilowatt wind turbine for power and a rain catch roof that can divert enough rain water to fill five 750 gallon in-ground drums. The collected rainwater is filtered through a brand new ultraviolet system, which supplies the office and hangar with an abundant supply of fresh water.

The new facilities also feature a pilots lounge, complete with maps and access to weather forecasts and other planning tools, a full kitchen/lunch room for employees, the gym, customer reception area and offices, and a few additional extras such as specialized drying and storage rooms for outdoor clothing and fishing gear that is used by recreational customers.

The Team and Safety
Barratt says looking after employees is a top priority for West Coast. “Right up front, I can tell you our employees are number one, and we feel strongly if you look after your employees, they will look after the company and then everyone benefits.”

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West Coast Helicopters’ president/operations manager Peter Barratt with Terry Eissfeldt, general manager and director of maintenance, in front of the new operations centre at Port McNeill airport. (Photo by Bill Tice)


At West Coast, it’s a philosophy that reaches well beyond providing the new comfortable working areas and the employee gym, and Barratt stresses it plays a big part in another area the company considers crucial to its success – safety.

“Everyone has to be on the same page when it comes to safety and we have already had our safety management system (SMS) in place for five years,” Barratt explains. “Having an SMS in place will eventually be required for all helicopter operators by Transport Canada, but we are well ahead of the curve. As a matter of fact, our chief pilot and aviation safety officer, Doug Strachan, has been delivering SMS seminars to other operators for Transport Canada and the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority.”

West Coast Helicopters’ SMS program is a fully integrated safety management and assessment program designed to identify and rectify hazards before they occur.

“We developed our own hazard identification and reporting system and came up with 3,400 hazards,” Barratt explains. “All files are assessed and mitigated using a severity and probability matrix, which showed the 3,400 hazards could result in 60 incidents. Those 60 incidents could result in 10 accidents, and for every 10 accidents you would typically have one fatality. Our mandate is to have no accidents or fatalities, so we identify and eliminate the hazards, which is non-punitive. If you have an accident it costs the company money and reputation so we encourage our employees to turn in hazard reports and everyone has bought into this.”

It’s not just Transport Canada and the FAA that fosters this kind of safety program. It’s become crucial to attracting some large corporate customers who want to ensure the safety of their employees is paramount. That includes BC Hydro, which is the primary electricity provider in B.C. “When BC Hydro was looking for preferred suppliers in the helicopter business, they sent questionnaires out to over 100 helicopter companies province wide with questions related to safety systems,” Barratt explains. “Companies that passed the questionnaire were then audited by Hydro and if they passed the audit, they were put on the list of approved companies. Only 14 helicopter companies, including West Coast, are on the list.”

Maintenance Program
Proper maintenance is also key to the success of West Coast Helicopters. Not just as it relates to safety, but also for fleet reliability. “We are strong proponents of identifying maintenance requirements before they become an issue,” explains Terry Eissfeldt, one of the partners and West Coast’s general manager and director of maintenance. “We have more maintenance people than most companies and some of the small items that some operators will skip over, we do on a regular basis. It’s costly, but it saves you money in the long run, and it could save lives.

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Good Eats: A group of adventurous helihikers enjoys a memorable meal atop a soaring peak. (Photo courtesy of West Coast Helicopters)


Eissfeldt says the new hangar also helps with maintenance as work that used to be done outside in the elements is now completed inside. “We don’t sit our aircraft outside any longer than we have to and when a helicopter comes in at the end of the day, the pilot does a post flight inspection. Before we had the additional hangar space, that might have been done outside and by flashlight. Now, most of it is done indoors. Our helicopters are also cleaned and lubricated after every flight, and they are looked at every day by one of our mechanics.”

Going Forward
When asked about the current business conditions for West Coast, Barratt sighs a little and admits, “we could be busier,” although he adds, “but I’m not worried.”

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B.C.’s beautiful, but rugged, terrain makes this a challenging, but potentially lucrative, environment for a diverse helicopter operation. (Photo courtesy of West Coast Helicopters)


He has seen the business go from 92 per cent forest industry work when they first started out to a mix last year that was split somewhat equally between forestry, tourism and miscellaneous projects – including exotic helifishing, heliskiing, and helihiking adventures.

“We have a tendency to not react to positive or negative markets,” he says. “I do think there are too many operators going after too small of a pie right now, so to succeed in this business you really need to be doing all of the right things and for all the right reasons.
The helicopter industry in Canada can be a bit of a roller-coaster ride and in a downturn like we are currently experiencing, helicopter budgets are one of the first things to get cut, and when things pick up, they are one of the last items to be added.

Here at West Coast, we have a safety record that is second to none, we have well-maintained equipment, some of the best people in the industry working for us, and we are here for the long run. We are confident that when the economy does turn around, everything we have done will pay off and we will be well positioned to move forward,” he concludes, as he pours another cup of his favourite brew – decaf, of course.


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