Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Supply and Demand: Forest Helicopters up for the Challenge

Bart Stevenson was born and raised in the northwestern Ontario town of Kenora (population now 15,000). He learned to fly there in 1974 through a 100-hour training program offered by Viking Helicopters. “The cost of the course was $10,000, but you were guaranteed a job upon completion.” And indeed that’s what happened: Stevenson went to work for Viking Helicopters in a variety of locations, but flew mainly out of its Thompson, Man., base.


May 27, 2008
By James Careless

Topics
may-june-2008
(Left to right): Norm Jones, chief pilot; Bart
Stevenson, owner and president; and Doug McIlroy, director of
maintenance. (Photo by Cathy Warren)

Bart Stevenson was born and raised in the northwestern Ontario town of Kenora (population now 15,000). He learned to fly there in 1974 through a 100-hour training program offered by Viking Helicopters. “The cost of the course was $10,000, but you were guaranteed a job upon completion.” And indeed that’s what happened: Stevenson went to work for Viking Helicopters in a variety of locations, but flew mainly out of its Thompson, Man., base.

Fast-forward to today. Stevenson is now president and owner of Forest Helicopters, which operates five Eurocopter AS350s (soon to be six) and a Bell 206B JetRanger. Forest employs 12 pilots, seven engineers/apprentices, and two office staff. Most of its work supports the mining industry, utilities (Hydro One/Bell Canada) and the Ontario Fire Management Program. All of this is co-ordinated from a hangar Bart and his wife Linda built on their 90 acres of waterfront property in Kenora.

Beginnings
Stevenson flew with Viking Helicopters until 1988. He then moved back to Kenora with Linda and children Amy and Scott. For employment, he signed up with Midwest Helicopters, which was serving most of northwestern Ontario. He was hired as Kenora base manager, working under Midwest operations VP/chief pilot Norm Jones.

“In 1997, Midwest ran into some financial problems and sold off most of their fleet,” says Stevenson. “They offered to sell us the Bell 206B I had been flying for them. So, after some discussion with Linda, we decided to go ahead with the purchase and go into business for ourselves.” To pay for the used 206B, the Stevensons got a bank loan that was secured on the value of their newly built waterfront home. “I then built a small hangar on our property to protect and service the helicopter,” he says. “With that, we were in business.”

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With Midwest effectively out of service, the newly formed Forest Helicopters was able to step into its shoes in northwestern Ontario. “We started flying in April of that year and it is fair to say that we took off with gusto,” says Stevenson. “We were busy from the very beginning. That’s why I soon hired Norm Jones to work with me, and we leased a second 206B for him to fly.”

supply2
A majority of Forest’s work involves supporting the mining industry, utilities and the Ontario Fire Management Program.
(Photo by Scott Stevenson)

Fast Growth
In its first two years of business, Forest Helicopters’ two-pilot team flew a total of 3,200 hours. Initially, the schedule was filled by Bell Canada, which was doing a major upgrade of its remote microwave radio transmission system. Before this project began to wind down, more work came in from utilities, mining exploration, and fire-suppression clients.

The result: Two aircraft and two pilots were not enough. To keep up with the demand. Stevenson had to get more helicopters and more people to fly them.

“We bought our first Eurocopter AS350 (AStar) D in 2000,” says Stevenson. “It was a very big step financially, and I have to admit that we were nervous about taking it. But the gamble paid off: Many of our customers preferred the AStar to the 206B, which is why we have since added four more 350s over the years, and are scheduled to get two more.”

As for pilots – despite the ongoing shortage of skilled people worldwide, Forest Helicopters has managed to attract seasoned professionals. Some of the key reasons have been very lucrative pay packages – “a far cry from my early days at $300/month and $3/flight hour,” says Stevenson – good work rotations, and well-equipped and maintained aircraft. Forest Helicopters now operates out of Kenora and a sub-base at Pickle Lake, Ont. The company also serves Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Nunavut.

The bottom line: quality service, good pilots, and advanced aircraft have driven Forest Helicopters’ growth from a one bird/one man shop to the multi-aircraft/multi-pilot corporation that it is today.

supply3
Forest Helicopters now operates out of Kenora and a
sub-base at Pickle Lake, Ont. The company also serves Quebec, Manitoba,
Saskatchewan, and Nunavut.
(Photo by Doug McIlroy)

Keeping the Customers Happy
In its early days, Forest Helicopters benefited from Midwest Helicopters’ client base. It was able to step into the latter’s shoes, and carry on the business that Midwest had been forced to relinquish. That said, no company can last forever on the remains of another. To thrive, it must make its own way and develop its own loyal clientele. Judging by its success, Forest Helicopters has done just that. Its constant expansion since 1997 speaks to the quality of its customer service, and Bart Stevenson’s commitment to making his customers happy.

“Our success is very much due to the hard work of our staff, but it would not have happened without our loyal customer base,” he says. The secret of Stevenson’s success? “Our customers are friends first and customers second,” he replies. “We care about their experience with us from start to finish, and about them as people too.”

Clearly, Forest Helicopters is doing something right. Even with two new AStars being added to the fleet – including a heavier-lifting, longer range AS350B3 – the company has to work hard to keep up with customer demand. The demand is so strong, in fact, “that we are looking to lease hangar space somewhere, so that we can have a bigger facility to work in,” says Stevenson. “Besides, we are a bit tired of the business having taken over our property!” To put it mildly, this local Kenora boy has definitely made good.

supplysidebarPolar Bear Express
As a pilot with 34 years and 22,000 hours of flight experience, Bart Stevenson has flown all kinds of missions. He says the most memorable were during his time with Viking Helicopters in Manitoba. “Every year, polar bears migrate to Hudson Bay to get onto the winter pack ice to hunt seals,” Stevenson says. “Unfortunately, some of them get to the sea by cutting through Churchill at the bay’s edge. More than once, I’ve been hired to fly wildlife experts equipped with dart guns above the streets of Churchill to tranquilize the bears from the air. There were times, while piloting a Hughes 500, that we chased a polar bear down main street past local residents out shopping, walking the dog, or even pushing a baby carriage!”

Pictured: Forest Helicopters operates five Eurocopter AS350s (soon to be six) and a Bell 206B JetRanger.
 


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