Whitney Helicopters

A Start-Up That Is Taking Off!
James Careless
October 01, 2008
By James Careless
A Start-Up That Is Taking Off!

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As helicopter companies go, Whitney Helicopters of Fort St. John, B.C. is young. Actually, given that it only began service in mid-July 2008, Whitney Helicopters is an infant! But flying two new Eurocopter EC120 Colibris and a leased Eurocopter AS350B2 AStar, Whitney Helicopters is already finding its services in demand. In fact, chief pilot/operations manager Bob Batchelor apologized to Helicopters magazine for being unable to talk to us sooner. “It’s just been incredibly busy,” he said. “But when work comes in, you take it; especially when you’re new!”

An Oil and Gas Hub
Located in northeastern B.C., Fort St. John is a prime player in Western Canada’s oil and gas boom. There’s so much business from the boom that this small city of 18,000 “has six helicopter companies, including Whitney,” Batchelor said. “They primarily fly for the oil and gas companies, providing transport and exploration services. There is some other government and natural resources work, but oil and gas dominates the market up here.”

 “Fort St. John is known as B.C.’s oil and gas capital,” said long-time resident Les Whitney, the company’s president and co-founder along with his wife Sandra. “Yet there have been no locally owned-and-operated helicopter operators, until now.”

“There is certainly a lot of need for helicopters up here,” Batchelor said. “In British Columbia, the energy trust/royalty backlash plus several new exploration plays has created a surge in oil and gas activities. There is a comeback in conventional mining exploration and even though forestry is generally in the tank, pine bark beetle-related work has kept some operators very busy. Hence it made good sense for Les and Sandra to open Whitney Helicopters, and for me to join it.”

Whitney’s Flight Crew
A 36-year helicopter veteran who began by flying Hueys and Bell 205s in Vietnam, American-born Batchelor has been working and living in Canada since the early 1970s. “I consider myself to be a Northerner, although there are people here who have lived in the North longer than me,” he said. “I’ve flown in the James Bay region, the Far North out of Inuvik for five years, Fort Nelson, and then Fort St. John since the mid-1980s.”

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Because of Canada’s oil and gas boom, Fort St. John, a small city of 18,000, has six helicopter companies including Whitney.  
Batchelor elected to join Whitney Helicopters “after spending many hours discussing the need for the company with Les,” he said. “Les has been attracted to the helicopter business for many years. About ten years ago just after completing his initial flight training he came to me with a proposition for a helicopter company, but I didn’t take him seriously then.”

“Last year he called me again, but this time he and his wife Sandra came with a solid business plan,” Batchelor continued. “They lacked an experienced management component that they believed I could fill. Their plan included confirmed orders for three brand new Eurocopter helicopters, two EC120Bs and one AS350B3. It also included two other major assets – Les and Sandra’s two sons, Clayton and Wyatt. Clayton is already an experienced helicopter mechanic and Wyatt is currently enrolled in college to become one.”

“We talked, I explained my situation – retirement in about five years – and the absolute necessity for safe operations combined with a high level of service,” he said. “Les and Sandra are easy to like and work with, and make a great team. I really liked the idea of a company with built-in maintenance and I liked the idea of operating new equipment. They agreed with my ‘safe service’ concept and here we are.”

To date, Whitney has purchased the EC-120s, leased the AStar B2, and has an option to buy the heavier-lifting AStar B3 next year. “Both the EC120B and the AS350B3 represent the state-of-the-art in sophisticated, safe, capable, and robust aircraft,” said Les Whitney in a Eurocopter news release. “This is why we’re launching with Eurocopter.”

With an estimated 18,000 hours in his log book, Batchelor has an abundance of flight experience. So do the other two pilots at Whitney Helicopters. Steve Schulte has over 13,000 hours of small, intermediate, medium and heavy helicopter experience, while Gordon Fevang has logged 6,000 accident-free hours.

Challenges
Starting up a new helicopter company is a complex business. For one thing, Whitney Helicopters was only able to start service after it received its Airworthiness Certificate from Transport Canada, which happened in mid-July. “Until that point, we couldn’t go pounding the pavement looking for clients,” Batchelor said. “Since then, we haven’t had to, since many clients came to us because they have flown before with our pilots.”

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To date, Whitney has purchased the EC-120s, leased the AStar B2, and has an option to buy the heavier-lifting AStar B3 next year.
A second consideration is facilities: Although Whitney Helicopters has its own office and outdoor ground space rented at Fort St. John’s North Peace Regional Airport, they don’t have their own hangar. “The time it took until our airworthiness certificate was issued means that we didn’t have time to build a hangar this year,” said Batchelor. “Fortunately, our AMO has hangar space where we can park our helicopters during the fall and winter months. Next year, we have three locations in mind; each of which would be well-suited for a hangar/shop.”

Increased business activity has created a shortage of qualified personnel, pilots and maintenance not just for Whitney Helicopters, but the industry in general. “Companies are finding it harder to attract permanent people to northern locations,” he said. “Many companies are resorting to bringing in seasonal crews from offshore, but that only helps short-term. Hiring temporary staff doesn’t create a sense of reciprocal loyalty that makes an operation tick efficiently and safely. We’re fortunate that I was able to recruit two very senior pilots to join us; I’ve known Gord and Steve for many years. Their experience and safety records are very impressive.”

As the helicopter business matures, many of the machines it flies get old. “High activity levels mean that most operating companies are keeping their aircraft busy and they aren’t presently concerned with their aging fleets and higher operating expenses,” said Batchelor. “One of these days the manufacturers will dictate a change to newer technology by eliminating parts inventories and many operators will be left with a bunch of ‘hangar queens’ in order to continue operating their fleets of old diminishing assets.”

The next challenge is attracting new business. Even with demand from the oil and gas segment, Whitney Helicopters is still trying to sort out its flying schedule, to get the most optimal use out of its fleet.

“There are days when we have more than enough machines, and others where we could use more,” he laughed. “By launching when we did, we have missed much of the ‘high season’ for oil and gas exploration. Still, there is quite a bit of fall and winter flying that we can tap into. Moreover, thanks to the experience of our pilots and our use of cutting-edge Eurocopters, we are rightly seen as a safety-oriented company. In the oil and gas sector, safety is a big priority.”

Speaking of safety, Batchelor is concerned that the current boom market may be compromising flight safety in the industry. “In my opinion service levels and in some cases safety isn’t getting the attention that it should,” he said. “There seems to be a management attitude with some operators that it’s enough to get the job done; it doesn’t matter how. This attitude trickles down to crews and further decreases quality. I don’t like operating that way. As our industry becomes more self-regulating we all need to be more conscious of what we are doing and how we are actually doing it.”

Looking Ahead
Already, Whitney Helicopters’ three Eurocopters are becoming a familiar sight in northwestern skies. More will likely join the fleet as time passes, given the fact that the oil and gas industry is booming in Western Canada, with no end to its prosperity in sight.
“We are proud of what we are doing, and the ‘safe service’ we provide to our clients,” concluded Batchelor. “In the sunset years
of my career, it’s great to be doing a job like this!”

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