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Have Helicopters, Will Travel

If you need to lease a helicopter, for immediate use somewhere on planet Earth, contact VIH Helicopters in North Saanich, B.C. They’ll get it to wherever you need it, and they’ll even fly it there!


March 12, 2010
By James Careless

If you need to lease a helicopter, for immediate use somewhere on planet Earth, contact VIH Helicopters in North Saanich, B.C. They’ll get it to wherever you need it, and they’ll even fly it there!

OK, so we exaggerate, but not very much. VIH is based just north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, but regularly leases aircraft from its 85 helicopter fleet – made up of Bell, Eurocopter, Kamov and Sikorsky models – and ships them to wherever the client needs them. A case in point: VIH provided six helicopters – two Sikorsky S-92s, two Sikorsky S-61s (one being an S-61L), a Bell 212 and a Eurocopter EC135 – to Angola to help monitor that country’s 2008 elections. And yes, they even flew them from Canada to Africa … but not how you’d expect.

helitravel1
The VIH Vancouver crew loads part of its fleet onto the leased Antonov An-124 en route to Angola. The company also sent its own assembly crew.


Enter the Antonov
It is 13,979 km (7,548 nautical miles) from Vancouver International Airport to Luanda, the capital of Angola. Even with topped external fuel tanks – and a cargo hold full of fuel – this is outside the range of VIH’s helicopters. Instead, the company leased passage on two Antonov An-124 cargo jets. The Sikorsky 61s and Bell 212 flew on one Antonov from Vancouver; the S-92s and the EC135 were sent on another Antonov from St. John’s, N.L., five days later.

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“We simply call our Antonov leasing agent and ask him to arrange the flight,” says Corey Taylor, VIH Helicopters’ operations manager. “Then we fly our helicopters to Vancouver International Airport, and have them loaded there.”

The four-engine Antonov An-124 is the largest heavy lifter in the world and, as shown by photos shot during the loading of VIH’s Angola mission, it’s roomy inside too. At first glance, it looks like the helicopters could just be rolled into the cargo bay as is. In fact, they almost were.

helitravel2  
VIH’s role in Angola included flying ballot boxes and
election observers to remote parts of the country.


 

 “We just had to remove the main and tail rotors from the 212 and 135, and pack them in boxes stowed alongside the aircraft,” Taylor says. “However, the S-92s and S-61s required a bit more work. Besides removing the rotors, we had to remove the main gear boxes before loading, packing them in protected cases.”

As for rolling them on, the smaller helicopters were moved using wheeled dollies, while the Sikorskys were pushed in on their own landing gear. “In Vancouver, we had to get the S-61s and the 212 across the main runway to get to the Antonov, which was over by the Air Canada ramp,” he notes. “It was like a funeral procession lined up on one side of the runway, waiting for our chance to scoot across between flights!”

Shipping a helicopter by air is not like sending a package by Fed-Ex: You cannot count on those at the receiving end to put it back together by themselves. This is why VIH Helicopters sent its own technicians on the Antonov An-124, to do the reassembly work in Angola. They were carried in a windowless cabin area, located against the upper spine of the aircraft. “This and the cockpit are the only parts of the An-124 that are pressurized,” says Taylor. “There are seats up there for 20, plus two washrooms and sleeping quarters for six.”

Once in Luanda, Angola, VIH’s team reassembled the six helicopters, and then sent them off with their pilots to do their client’s bidding. They worked as part of a 30-helicopter fleet, ferrying international observers helping to ensure free and fair elections in September of 2008. Some even served as mobile polling stations, flying ballot boxes to offshore oil platforms and remote communities.

Red Hot Return
VIH Helicopters rents its aircraft on a 30-day basis. Sometime contracts get extended, when clients find other uses for their aircraft. Such was the case in Angola: Once the election was over, the S-92s and EC-135 saw their leases extended. Currently, they are providing aerial transportation in parts of Angola with limited road access.

helitravel3  
Once in Angola, VIH's team reassembled the six
helicopters.


 

The S-61s and Bell 212 were also rented past the election, but not for long. That’s why VIH Helicopters arranged to bring them back in the summer of 2009 . . . only to have them snapped up for use by the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch. The reason was a particularly bad fire season, brought on by hot temperatures and limited rainfall. The result, by summer’s end, were 3,091 fires that consumed 229,068 ha of forest, at an estimated fire fighting cost to the Branch of $387.4 million.

“We needed the two S-61s to fight fires along the coast, while the 212 was needed in Kamloops, in the B.C. interior,” says Corey Taylor. “The problem was time: Once the helicopters were leased, we needed to get them back from Africa as soon as possible.”

Once again, an Antonov An-124 was leased, and sent to Luanda with a VIH technical crew. They removed the rotors and S-61 gearboxes; then took off for home with a single refueling stopover in the Cape Verde Islands, off Africa’s west coast.

“As soon as we touched down in Vancouver, our guys got to work getting the three helicopters ready for flight,” he says. “The two S-61s were ready for service within a day, which was no mean feat: We had to use portable cranes to lift their gearboxes out of their crates and back into the aircraft, then reattach the Carson Composite Main Rotor blades [Carson composite blades offer more lift, range and speed than the original Sikorsky metal blades]. Then we had to fly them back to our base in North Saanich, before sending them off to fight fires.” Meanwhile, the Bell 212 didn’t get to go back to base: Once reassembled, it was flown directly to Kamloops, B.C.

helitravel4  
One of two Sikorsky S-61s sent to Angola to help monitor elections flies above some majestic landscapes in the country’s southeastern region.


 

In their work with the B.C. government, all three aircraft used water buckets. The S-61s were also used to ferry crew and equipment; especially the S-61L, which has a cargo compartment in its hull. “We were flying lots of people and cargo all summer long,” says Taylor. “With the Carson composite blades, the S-61s can lift up to 10,000 pounds each.”

Moving on Down
If there really is no rest for the wicked, you have to wonder what VIH Helicopter’s fleet has done to deserve its fate. Specifically, the two S-61s that were in Angola in 2008 and fought fires in Canada during the summer of 2009, are on the road again! This time, they are off to Australia, to provide helicopters services to the country’s offshore oil and gas industry.

“It will take three days to get there by Antonov,” Corey Taylor predicts. “I expect we’ll fly down through the States, get fuel in Panama and then make a final stopover in Quito, Ecuador before crossing the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, we’ve got the same captain who has transported our aircraft in so many flights around the world, so he knows what he’s doing.”

After that, who knows? At VIH Helicopters, the world really is the limit.


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