Cougar Helicopters: A Canadian Aviation Success Going Global

A Canadian aviation success going global
Blair Watson
April 02, 2008
By Blair Watson
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During the past 12 years, Cougar Helicopters has flown oil rig crews between St. John’s and the world’s largest offshore oil platform located about 170 nautical miles southeast of St. John’s. (Photos by Cougar Helicopters staff and courtesy of Cougar Helicopters)
Rising out of the waters several miles from the shores of Newfoundland, Louisiana and Alaska are metallic behemoths in which people live and work. These marvels of engineering are oil rigs, complex structures with one primary purpose: to extract petroleum from the earth’s submarine crust. To achieve this objective, specialists are required, and the most efficient way to transport workers between the rigs and coastal bases is via helicopter. The need for such transportation has provided a Canadian company, Cougar Helicopters, with significant business during the past 22 years and excellent future opportunities.

Cougar Helicopters began in 1986 as the brainchild of Jim Johnston. The company’s first business was doing VFR shuttle flights between downtown Halifax and Halifax International Airport. The same year, Cougar was awarded a contract by the federal government to provide search and rescue (SAR) in the Maritimes, and conduct aerial patrols of the Georgia Bank (on the Canada-US border by Nova Scotia). To meet the contractual requirements stipulated by the National Search and Rescue Secretariat and Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a Sikorsky S-76 was acquired and based in Yarmouth, N.S. Cougar’s aircrews have performed a number of rescues over the years, including one in 1991 involving 10 people hoisted from a doomed fishing vessel that was taking on water in high seas.

In 1990, management at Cougar Helicopters decided to expand the company’s operations by providing air transportation services to the petroleum industry. A second S-76 was bought to shuttle crews to/from Conoco oil rigs off the coast of Spain. The following year, Cougar began shuttling crews to Canada’s first offshore oil production platform, an operation contracted by Lasmo Plc, a British petroleum company. The work continued for more than a decade.

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Cougar was awarded the Hibernia helicopter support contract in 1995. The Hibernia offshore petroleum area is located in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.
The capabilities and industry reputation that Cougar acquired during this period were key reasons why the company was awarded the much-desired Hibernia helicopter support contract in 1995. The Hibernia offshore petroleum area is located in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Cougar’s capabilities included having a Super Puma certified for flight into known icing and developing the lowest helicopter takeoff and landing limits in the world. The company also invested considerable resources to develop leading-edge GPS equipment for its fleet and advanced simulator training for its pilots. Cougar was the first helicopter operator to have its Super Puma, S-61 and S-76 simulators certified. In 1997, Cougar was the first North American helicopter operator to obtain ISO 9001:2000 certification.

During the past 12 years, Cougar Helicopters has flown oil rig crews between St. John’s and the world’s largest offshore oil platform - known simply as “Hibernia,” and weighing more than one million tonnes - located about 170 nautical miles southeast of St. John’s. The company is also the helicopter operator of choice for Petro-Canada and Husky Energy, shuttling crews to the Terra Nova and White Rose offshore oilfields, respectively. Other business includes contracts with British Petroleum offshore operations in the Gulf of Mexico and Shell Oil rigs in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Having experienced significant growth over 18 years and possessing an excellent reputation in the helicopter industry, Cougar became a part of the Vancouver Island Helicopters (VIH) Aviation Group in 2004.

Cougar Helicopters is the first operator of rotary-wing aircraft in North America to have its dispatch operation certified by a civil aviation authority. Transport Canada-certified personnel share dispatch responsibility with captains, and provide flight following and other services such as checking the weather and monitoring fuel consumption. Thanks to satellite-based tracking and communications equipment, dispatch staff in the St. John’s operations centre are able to monitor the company’s fleet of eight aircraft 24/7. Cougar invested $1.3 million to expand its facilities in St. John’s; the work was completed in October 2007.

In Canada, Cougar Helicopters not only flies offshore oil rig crews to/from platforms in the Hibernia, Terra Nova, and White Rose oilfields, it also provides SAR services for the maritime area east of Newfoundland. This year, the company established a S-61 base at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. Because an estimated 25% of the world’s oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic, exploration and development in Canada’s North are expected to increase dramatically over the next generation. Cougar Helicopters has positioned itself to take advantage of new business opportunities in the region.

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Thanks to satellite-based tracking and communications equipment, dispatch staff in the St. John’s operations centre are able to monitor the company’s fleet of eight aircraft 24/7.

During the past couple of years, a niche market has developed in the US that the Specialty Air Services (SAS) of Cougar Helicopters has filled nicely. Petroleum companies with offshore rigs in US waters require SAS, and Cougar has become an internationally recognized leader in the field. In the Gulf of Mexico alone there are approximately 2,200 oil rigs and a fleet of about 700 helicopters that transport 3,000+ workers between the rigs and the Gulf States. Cougar has SAS aircraft based in Louisiana at Galiano and in Alaska at Barrow.

Innovation has been an important part of Cougar Helicopters since its early days. In addition to developing – with the cooperation and support of Transport Canada – the lowest takeoff and landing limits for a helicopter operator (600 RVR for takeoff and approaches, and a decision height of 100 ft.), Cougar has developed lighting to enhance landing in low visibility, rotor ice protection, and more. Working with the National Research Council of Canada Institute for Aerospace Research and other parties, Cougar Helicopters has produced enhanced/night vision equipment for pilots, which were integrated into the company’s flight operations last year.

Another example of the company’s commitment to innovation includes a rotor blade/airfoil developed by Carson Helicopters with the support of Cougar Helicopters and the VIH Aviation Group. The airfoil is aerodynamically more efficient, which results in 10-12% greater performance for the S-61. Cougar has also equipped its S-61 aircraft with FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) and high-intensity search lights for SAR operations. With such specialized equipment, as well as new wiring, upgraded avionics and other improvements, the value of each S-61 is about $10 million.

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In Canada, Cougar Helicopters also provides SAR services for the maritime area east of Newfoundland. (Photo by Cougar Helicopters staff and courtesy of Cougar Helicopters.)

Through VIH Aerospace, Cougar Helicopters will be implementing auto-hover technology in its SAR aircraft this year. Costing $2 million per installation, the system will allow helicopters to descend to as low as 75 feet above the water at night in order to carry out a rescue mission using the hoist. The electronics of the auto-hover system (developed by another company) utilizes the latest in Doppler and GPS technology. Cougar personnel are also reviewing systems that capture data about engine performance, airframe vibrations, aircraft attitude, and other aspects of flight. The data can be downloaded daily and reviewed by Maintenance and Flight Operations to detect any problems or issues that need to be addressed.

A significant change experienced by operators such as Cougar Helicopters involves the placement of more offshore oil rigs further out to sea (up to 300 nm) in order to access new pockets of petroleum. The areas closer to shore  (200 nm and less) have either been depleted, or they will be over the next decade. To provide petroleum companies with the offshore airlift capability they need, Cougar Helicopters, with VIH Aerospace, has developed an auxiliary fuel tank system for the S-92 that extends the aircraft’s range by 200 nm (about 1.5 flight hours). The company has sold the tank system to third parties.

Cougar’s operations and projects require considerable human resources and expertise. The company employs 150 people, including 65 pilots, approximately 60% of whom have civil aviation backgrounds (the rest are ex-military). Cougar continues to expand its heavy lift helicopter capability with the acquisition of three new S-92 aircraft, costing about $25 million each. In Louisiana, Cougar Helicopters’ sister company, Western Airways, has applied for FAA Part 135 certification. Cougar is also pursuing work in Australia and Asia. As the 21st-century unfolds, “going global” accurately describes Cougar Helicopters, a notable Canadian aviation success.



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