Flying Northwestern Quebec

Héli-inter Overcomes the Challenges
James Careless
September 30, 2008
By James Careless
Héli-inter Overcomes the Challenges

Malartic in the Val d'Or area is effectively the ‘port of entry’ to Hydro Quebec’s massive James Bay hydroelectric project.  
Northwestern Quebec is a wild and rugged land; a place where mineral exploration and mining has long driven the regional economy. In fact, the town of Malartic (population 3,704) was at the centre of a 1930s gold rush in the area. It is located near the area’s three largest gold mines; Canadian Malartic, Eastern Malartic and Malartic Goldfields. Although these mines closed in the 1960s, mining remains important to the local economy and to Héli-inter,the helicopter operator based in this historic town.

“Héli-inter started in 1998 with just one aircraft based in the Saguenay-Lac St-Jean area,” says Michel Rochette, the company’s operations manager. “Over the years the company added a few helicopters to its fleet. Then, in 2002, our president Benoit Allard saw that there were business opportunities to be grasped by moving the base to Malartic, in the Val d'Or area.” Specifically, Malartic is effectively the ‘port of entry’ to Hydro Quebec’s massive James Bay hydroelectric project, plus mining projects in northwestern Quebec and northeastern Ontario.

Allard’s decision has paid off for Héli-inter. Since moving to Malartic in 2002, the company has grown from four to 18 helicopters. “We fly all of Eurocopter’s AStar models plus Bell 206s and 205s,” Rochette says. “Today, we provide helicopter services to Hydro Quebec for their construction programs, as well as maintenance of their power lines and installations. We also help mining companies in their mineral exploration efforts, help government agencies fight forest fires, conduct wildlife surveys from the air, and pretty much anything else that our clients need us to do.” In short, the company flies whatever missions its clients require, no matter what the terrain or distance – weather permitting.

Héli-inter’s workforce includes 25 pilots, 10 AMEs and 10 AME apprentices. Like other companies seeking qualified staff, the company looks locally and beyond for new blood. Pilots mostly come to Héli-inter via employment ads plus word of mouth from the company’s existing pilots. “Our area is a great place to live if you like outdoor sports like fishing and hunting,” says Rochette. “Since many of our flights also go out of Montreal, it is possible to work for us while living in that city.”

On the AME side, “we regularly visit the École nationale d’aéro-technique in Montreal to sign up graduates,” he says. ÉNA is the province’s sole educational facility for training technicians in the fields of aircraft manufacturing technology, aircraft maintenance, and avionics. “We compete there with other helicopter and aircraft companies to attract the best new talent.” This not always an easy sell, since AMEs and their apprentices work in small groups at Héli-inter, compared to the large work forces found in urban maintenance hangars in Montreal and other major Canadian cities.

Rochette is a helicopter pilot with 6,500 hours to his credit. “I started to fly in 1986 in Northern Quebec and Ontario,” he says. “Over the years, I accumulated experience in different functions such as safety officer, training pilot, check pilot and chief pilot. In February 2004, I got the opportunity to join Héli-inter as operations manager.” Looking back, Rochette says that “my entire career has been a challenge, always trying to do better day after day. I think that fighting a forest fire with a Bell 205 and a water bucket was among my favourite flying challenges. The engine failure I had in-flight with a Bell 205 is the kind I like to avoid, but anyway, I managed to land it on a bush road without suffering damage.”

Flying to remote hydroelectric sites and mining camps is beautiful visually but demanding mentally.
  Héli-inter provides services to Hydro Quebec for their construction programs, as well as maintenance of their power lines and installations.
Working in northwestern Quebec exposes a pilot to many different flying conditions. There’s the biting cold, high winds and blinding snow of winter, offset by the heat and resultant thinner air aloft during summer. Add blackflies, mosquitoes and extremely rough living conditions while in the field, and this is a place reserved for people who truly love the outdoors.

Then there’s the work itself. Flying to remote hydroelectric sites and mining camps is beautiful visually but demanding mentally: you must think through your flight plan thoroughly before taking off, because you can’t just land at the next airport 10 minutes away for extra fuel or a quick repair! In the same vein, pilots in Canada’s remote regions have to know their aircraft well, and be able to cope if something goes wrong. Again, this is no place for weekend pilots.

Parts are also an issue in this region, given that they have to shipped in from major urban centres such as Montreal and Toronto. This is why it is important for Héli-inter to keep regularly-replaced components in stock, even though maintaining such an inventory adds to its operating costs. It’s an extra cost that has to be passed on to customers, but that is part of the reality of flying in northwestern Quebec and northeastern Ontario.

Héli-inter flies all of Eurocopter’s AStar models plus Bell 206s and 205s with a workforce that includes 25 pilots, 10 AMEs and 10 AME apprentices.  
Attracting qualified pilots is hard enough at the best of times, but given the current shortage, it is a real challenge for Héli-inter. “It is difficult to find good staff so when we find them, we take good care of them,” says Rochette. “In fact, our main preoccupation is to keep our current staff in place, and to train and retain new young pilots and mechanics.”

Héli-inter works on a 30-days-on, 14-days-off schedule, leaving lots of time for personal life. When a staff member has a schedule conflict, “we try to work around it,” Rochette says. Héli-inter also provides extra training for new pilots in skills such as long-lining and water-bucketing. “We look for pilots with good basic skills and qualifications, then take the time to teach them what they need to know to fly in this region,” he says. “Working for us is an opportunity for pilots to broaden their skill base, making themselves more valuable to the industry as a whole.”

Hand-in-hand with keeping staff is attracting customers. Although there are a lot of people needing helicopter transportation in this region, “competition is fierce in this ferocious market,” he says. “Winning our share of business and keeping our people from going elsewhere are ongoing issues for us.” Fortunately, Héli-inter’s emphasis on customer service and building repeat business helps. The key is to get new clients in the door, so that the company can begin to win them over, motivating them to become repeat customers.

 Despite these challenges, Rochette is optimistic about Héli-inter’s future prospects. “All of the markets that we serve are looking promising,” he says.
“We are also aided by the fact that we have a very diverse fleet of Eurocopters and Bells, able to handle a wide range of missions. Add our competent staff and the quality of our service – which we are always trying to improve – and I expect that Héli-inter will continue to grow and take more of the market in the years ahead.”

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