March 26, 2012 By Peter Pigott
So, what’s the best way to come up with a name for a fledgling helicopter company? Turn to Hollywood for some creative inspiration, of course!
So, what’s the best way to come up with a name for a fledgling helicopter company? Turn to Hollywood for some creative inspiration, of course! That’s precisely how Ottawa’s Questral Helicopters’ striking namesake came into being.
“Kestrel means a bird that can hover in the wind,” says president Tosh Serafini. “When we were forming the company in 1987, there was a movie my wife was watching and the boat in the movie was named ‘Kestrel.’ so her suggestion was to call the company that – but spell it as ‘Questral.’”
Located in the Avitat building at the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, Questral Helicopters boasts a fleet of three Eurocopter AS350s (with another coming on line in April) and employs nine pilots and six engineers. Serafini, who had been flying helicopters for geophysical survey companies since 1979, owns the firm, and he – along with manager Troy Fisher – was eager to share with Helicopters some insight into operations, the future and what’s in store for 2012.
In our survey business, the contracts are all across the country so there’s no need to move the base of operations at all.”
All three helicopters were in the hangar being worked on the day Helicopters dropped by in early January. “When it’s not busy – say between Christmas and New Year’s, we bring the machines home, do maintenance on them and then they go out again,” Serafini said. “We do our own maintenance, supervised by the company president, who was also the director of maintenance.”
Serafini’s path to Questral is not unlike those of many others who have a passion for aviation. While working as an apprentice electrician in the construction industry, Serafini always had ambitions to be a helicopter pilot. He earned his rotary licence at Canadore College in North Bay but after he was unable to find a job flying, he returned to Canadore to secure an AME (Aircraft Maintenance Engineer) diploma. In the years that followed, while Serafini flew and fixed helicopters, he couldn’t help but notice the need for a helicopter company that concentrated on geophysical surveys. He formed the company in 1987, and now Questral Helicopters is the only commercial helicopter service in North America that specializes in airborne geophysical surveys. Questral does not interpret the geophysical data collected, instead it leaves that to its clients. Says Serafini: “We specialize in flying a grid pattern low to the ground for various companies that bring their own sensors.”
Clients include Fugro Airborne Surveys, Mosaic Mapping Systems, Geoterrex-Dighem, Sanders Geophysics and THEM Geophysics. “It’s our customers that get the contract,” he continued, “so who we fly for depends on them.
When asked how Questral ships machines to distant locations, Serafini said, “If we’re going to Mexico, for example, we fly it down there, but if it’s going overseas we put in a 747. The machine is taken apart – the whole thing fits on one “cookie tray,” (flat metal skid) and is put on the truck to Mirabel Airport. We take it as close as we can to the job where it is reassembled.”
When it comes to hiring new staff, Serafini notes that he always seeks pilots with a minimum requirement of 1,000 hours, and AStar-endorsed applicants are preferred. “We‘re not looking for someone who has 50,000 hours,” Serafini said, “but a person who is open minded and has the willingness to learn and adapt into becoming a good survey pilot.”
So, why the preference for the AS350? “It’s a performance issue,” Fisher said. “And the cabin configuration is wide open so we can load it with all of the customers’ requirements and then have the performance.”
Heading into the new year, Questral is doing well. “We are holding our own because we offer a really good service, but it’s not all gangbusters and things have not bounced back,” said Serafini. “The competition is pretty fierce.” “We’d definitely like to see one or two more machines come on board, and we would remain with AS350s.”
So, how do Serafini and Fisher describe the health of the rotary geophysical survey industry today? Any key challenges ahead? Serafini’s concern is that companies are undercutting each other to buy work. “If everybody would just keep their rates high, there’s still enough work to go around,” he said. Fisher agrees, adding that the problem is especially prevalent in eastern Canada. “Some companies are just starting up and they’re going in with a very low rate,” he said. “You can’t drop your price and still be sustainable. If you do, you can’t offer safe, reliable service. Unfortunately that’s how accidents happen.”