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Living Large

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the famed German architect whose pioneering spirit set him apart from his 20th-century contemporaries, once stated, “God is in the details,” when commenting on the restraint in modern design.


March 8, 2011
By Matt Nicholls


Topics

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the famed German architect whose pioneering spirit set him apart from his 20th-century contemporaries, once stated, “God is in the details,” when commenting on the restraint in modern design.

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Talon’s AS350-B C-FTHZ takes to the skies in the mountains just north of Vancouver. (Photo by Matt Nicholls)


 

It was this steadfast commitment to minute elements and a “less is more” mantra that propelled him to the top of his industry – creating iconic, balanced structures of space and simplicity that continue to impress today.

Spend a few hours with Talon Helicopters’ president and operations manager Peter Murray at the company’s efficient home base at Vancouver International Airport and it’s evident this same pioneering spirit and steadfast attention to detail is alive and well in the Canadian helicopter industry.

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To say the 50-year-old Vancouver native is passionate about his craft and seeks to deliver the best experience for his clients is an understatement. When I arrived at the Talon hangar on a crisp November afternoon, Murray gave me a warm smile and hearty handshake before quickly disappearing into the cockpit of one of the mainstays of the Talon fleet – the Eurocopter TwinStar 355F2 Max sitting nearby. No time to waste; Murray needs to speak. He motions me closer to have a peek inside the cockpit and starts explaining in intricate detail about the aircraft’s makeover a few years back.

Purchased in Newfoundland from CHC Helicopters, this 1981 AS355F1 has been carefully reconfigured to suit Talon specifications for ease of pilot use and concerns for the utmost safety standards for clients. Safety is paramount at Talon and Murray works tirelessly with engineers and pilots to ensure the fleet always exceeds standards.

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Talon's clients come from a wide cross-section of industries, which includes CTV's Chopper 9. (Photo courtesy of Talon Helicopters)


 

Murray designed and implemented the changes on the TwinStar himself with the help of Maxcraft Avionics, located in Pitt Meadows, B.C. The results are impressive: from luxurious leather seats, to a retooled electrical system, to manipulation of pilot controls, to shrinking of the overhead panel – it’s all the “Talon way.”

“I’ll be honest with you, Matt. I think I do have a bit of OCD,” Murray jokes as he moves on to show me another aircraft in the Talon fleet, a Eurocopter AS350B2 (of which Talon has two). “But it only applies to the helicopters – it doesn’t to my home life. I do care about details, and I think it drives everybody around here crazy, but that’s OK. That’s my job in life.”

Concentrating on all aspects of the business from marketing to flying is a critical part of survival in today’s market, says Murray, especially for a small operation like Talon – and it means plenty of long hours from its president. “I’m the accountable executive, office manager, president and line pilot . . . but you have to be for the customer. And it shows in the final product. I can honestly say, nobody does it like we do.”

New Beginnings
Murray’s passion for the helicopter industry – and his deep understanding of his local environment – can be traced back to his roots. Murray grew up in North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley and spent countless hours exploring the vast outdoor wilderness of Seymour Demonstration Forest and Grouse Mountain.

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Presenting just the right image is part of what Talon is all about, says president Peter Murray. “Whether people like it or
not, marketing is a critical part of your success – and you must be carrying it out consistently.“ (Photo by Matt Nicholls)


 

His connection and passion for nature was obvious at an early age, but his love of helicopters was born in his teens. At 17, he got his first ride just east of Pemberton on June 27, 1978, in a Gazelle piloted by Ron Jeffery, a good friend to this day. Murray was hooked; he knew this would become his career. “It seemed like a rocket to me,” he says.

Murray started training after high school at the Delta Helicopter School. Upon completing the program in 1982, he eventually caught on with a local company flying an Enstrom, which they used to search for pine mushrooms. In 1990, he moved over to Canadian Helicopters and was placed in the Mountain Training course in Penticton. He soon progressed to base pilot and base manager, but decided the corporate world was not his long-term aspiration – starting his own firm was. On April 22, 1997, Talon was born. It started small with a smattering of clients and has grown to 10 staff with loyal clients in such industries as film, fire fighting, telecommunications, SAR and television.

Murray has been very selective in forming his team, adding that it takes a special kind of pilot to fly with the firm. Most have come from major B.C. operators such as Canadian Helicopters or Highland Helicopters, where they have acquired the skills necessary to handle a variety of roles. Longlining experience is crucial, he says. Pilots need at least a couple of thousand hours of mountain flying experience, but that isn’t always enough.

“Even a couple of thousand hours of mountain flying doesn’t give you longlining experience,” says Murray. “Our stuff is all about placing a load on a little platform amongst guide wires and towers; a minimum of 150 feet of line would be a short line here.”

Attitude is also critical, as chief pilot Kelsey Wheeler can attest. He understands the demands of Talon’s clientele – and his boss – and admits it takes a unique pilot to “get it.” Like Murray, Wheeler is a former employee of Canadian Helicopters. When Wheeler came on board five years ago – “we joke we are stuck to each other,” he says – the 35-year-old had amassed 2,500 hours of flying time. He’s closer to twice that now. Wheeler loves the diverse nature of his job and the benefits of working in the city environment – working close by and returning home each day to his young family. Many pilots his age still return to a desolate northern oil base camp each night. Murray has a young family as well, making work/life balance a key part of Talon’s corporate culture.

“One of the great things about working at Talon is you never know what you’re going to be doing each day,” Wheeler says. “One day, you could be flying some rich guys doing some film work, then you’ll be fighting fires. You might even be in a beer commercial.”

Working with a leader like Murray is also a plus – and it’s fun. “There aren’t a lot of quiet moments with Peter around,” he says, laughing.

Marketing Magic
Finding the right mix of talent is key to any successful firm, but creating the right image is equally important. In creating his company, Murray was careful to project the right image. “Talon” was chosen because it’s rugged, aggressive, and fits the image of the West Coast. “It also says, ‘I’ve got you, we’re not letting you go,’” Murray points out. It projects an image of things being done with care, efficiency and strength.

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Mountain SAR operations are a key component of Talon’s business. Many of these rescues take place in questionable weather conditions and during the fading light of day. (Photo by Matt Nicholls)


 

Choosing yellow as the fleet colour was done for a variety of reasons. It is a highly visible colour, essential in an environment like Vancouver’s that gets plenty of cloudy, rainy conditions. Few companies at the time chose a solid colour for their helicopters and yellow was rare, distinctive. Murray still smiles when he hears the comments others make when they see one of the Talon fleet in action. “When I’m bucketing at a fire, I always hear over the radio, ‘I love that colour,’” says Murray. “Yellow is not my favourite colour, but it works for us.”

Mix and Match
A diversified business model is paramount for smaller helicopter operators, and Murray admits there have been some challenges in the past few years with “rich” competitors – “rivals,” as he likes to call them – cutting into their business.

“They took business away from us at low prices because they have the money to do so, but they’ve now since pulled back because they’ve lost money,” Murray says. “It’s not about personality; it’s about not having a lot of experience in the business and going in cheap.”

Some of Talon’s important clients include major telecommunications companies – Rogers, Bell, Telus, Metro Vancouver – and others in the areas of fire fighting, Class D rescue, dam construction, maintenance, watershed, snow surveys and TV camera work (HD or film). Some pilots also do what they do best – act like helicopter pilots in TV shows and movies.

Another top client is CTV News: Talon operates “Chopper 9,” a Bell 206L-4 that keeps watch over the city. “They’re a great customer in the way they listen to us about safety and weather. They absolutely do not push, and are very safe.”

Safe and Sound
Of all the operations Talon flies, its role in SAR in the Vancouver area may be the most vital. Talon has been involved in hundreds of flight hours of training and working with local SAR operations in the Greater Vancouver area, including teams from Lions Bay, Chilliwack, Coquitlam, Ridge Meadows, Squamish, Whistler and North Shore Search and Rescue.

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Talon works with several major telecommunications companies, including Rogers, Bell and Telus. (Photo by Matt Nicholls)


 

Having performed countless numbers of Class D missions over the past 20 years, Murray is an expert in longline rescues, and is accident and incident free. He has received several awards for his SAR work over the years, including the 2010 Leadership Award of the National Search and Rescue Awards of Excellence Program. The prestigious award, presented by Lt.-Gen. W. Semianiw of Canada Command last September in Montreal, recognizes exemplary service, commitment and dedication to SAR services across the country.

“Basically, the award is for the length of time I have been involved in SAR,” Murray says, modestly. “I’ve been doing it for about 20 years, not only just going out on paid searches (the government pays for our helicopter), but providing advanced training to local teams.”

Most SOS calls – including the gruelling, high-profile rescue of injured Vancouver snowshoer Chris Morley from a steep slope above Theta lake in January 2007 – come in near dusk, leaving rescuers with a fast-fading window of daylight to mount an operation often made more challenging by unpredictable weather conditions and tricky terrain. It’s an environment in which the cool, calm Murray excels.

“Flying through that crap with the doors off . . . it’s very challenging and when you’re done, you feel great. It’s a job well done and you helped some people out who were in a very precarious position,” he says.

Tim Jones, search-and-rescue manager for North Shore Rescue, the organization that nominated Murray for the award, has flown with the Talon president dating back to when the two worked together at Canadian Helicopters. He has high praise for Murray’s ability to run a business while still finding time to give of himself as a volunteer for SAR operations – many of which cut into precious family time.

“I am so appreciative of and impressed with what he represents as a small operator in this country,” says Jones. “It’s the passion of flying and dealing with the challenges of running a successful business that impress me the most about Peter. For me, I learned all about what it is to succeed in this business.”

Jones also marvels at Murray’s commitment to the SAR cause – he always manages to volunteer his time and equipment for SAR operations at all hours of the day and night when required. “And he does it all because of his bona fide sense of community,” says Jones. “He’s a tremendous pilot, one we rely on immensely. If Peter wasn’t around, we, as an organization, would be in big trouble.”

Slow and Steady Approach
While receiving accolades is nice, Murray would prefer to focus his energies on building his firm. He is optimistic Talon will continue to win contracts in the competitive B.C. space, and forge stronger relationships with existing customers.

“In any business, you can’t let it stagnate, you’ve got to keep spicing up what you’re going to deliver,” says Murray. “You can’t just stand still in this or any business . . . McDonald’s just didn’t make the cheeseburger and stop there.”

For Peter Murray, stagnation simply won’t do – it just won’t happen. Living large on the B.C. coast, living his dream? Now, that’s more like it!

Pillars of Strength
Keys to Success in a Tough Market

  • A calculated approach. Upgrading the fleet to four B-3s would be wonderful, Talon’s Peter Murray says, but it’s not fiscally responsible. “Move slow with fleet development. You have to look at how many years, how many hours it takes to get that investment back.”
  • Work to standardize. Trust and empower your engineers to understand the needs of the pilots. It’s always team first. “I’m fortunate the engineers I have feel the same way and I don’t restrict them from what they will spend money on for the aircraft. There’s no holding back.”
  • Be resourceful. It applies to everything – even the computer system. Murray purchased a computer worth $6,000 for $250 and upgraded it with a new copy of Windows 7, some new RAM, and it runs like a charm. “I do all the marketing stuff too, all the packages, I do all that stuff. Maybe it’s called micromanaging but it’s too expensive to hire people to do it right.”
  • Never compromise on safety. Talon has an SMS system in place, but it’s about more than just a label – it’s the intrinsic nature of all aspects of a business. “It’s not a ‘Safety Marketing System.’ Show me your incidents and accidents, show me the attitude of your people, show me the type of spots they are picking to land . . . that’s when I will tell you if you are running a safe operation.”
  • Put customers first. Adding accents will translate into more business. “When you travel around Canada and look at helicopter operations, typically they are in the bush. They’re like pickup trucks – they get dirty. That’s not our market. We are going to put in leather seats, stereo headsets and new windows; the right things bring customers back and elevate us to a new level.”

Sweet Rides
Detailing the Talon Fleet

  • Bell 206L-4: “Chopper 9” used to provide ENG service to CTV News. It’s equipped with an FLIR stabilized camera system and digital microwave downlink. It is always equipped with emergency pop-out floats. It’s the only full-time news helicopter in Vancouver. The pilots flying Chopper 9 are all experienced mountain pilots who also perform SAR work, including Class D rescue, forest fire protection and aerial camera work for film.
  • Eurocopter TwinStar 355F2 Max Peter Murray initiated and worked out a new improved electrical system for the aircraft with Maxcraft Avionics. The aircraft is used primarily for low-level flight over built-up areas, including film work and external lift work. It is also the aircraft of choice for Class D rescue for SAR work.
  • Eurocopter AStar 350B and Eurocopter AStar 350B2 The AStars and TwinStar are used equally for fire fighting, construction, powerline and film work. They are all equipped with Eurocopter Squirrel Cheeks, and pop-out floats for the AStars for over-water flight.
  • Eurocopter EC-120B New to the fleet, uses will include fire fighting, tours and film work.


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