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Sunday, February 1, 2009

UAE’s Growing Helicopter Maintenance Centers

By Douglas W. Nelms


With the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula in the late 1950s and early 60s, a huge market was created for the helicopters required to carry men and equipment out to the oil rigs in the Persian Gulf. As a result, in 1976 two helicopter operators started service in what is now the United Arab Emirates, a confederation of seven semi-autonomous emirates, with Abu Dhabi as its capital and Dubai now becoming the financial/business hub of the region. With the exception of the military and police aviation forces, those two operators — Abu Dhabi Aviation (ADA) based in that emirates and Aerogulf Services LLC of Dubai — were the only two helicopter companies in the UAE for roughly the next quarter century. Each provided its own maintenance, sending heavy maintenance items such as engines, transmissions and blades back to the OEMs or specialty shops as far away as Europe. They also provided maintenance to the military and police aviation wings.

However, by the 1980s and 90s, the oil and gas boom had "dropped off pretty dramatically," according to George Tucker, commercial manager for ADA. All the infrastructure was in place, so the only real need was to transport workers back and forth between the oil rigs, he says.

Then, in the late 1980s and early 90s a new boom hit, leading to another spurt in growth in the need for civil helicopters beginning around the first two or three years of the new century. This time it was from the explosive growth in the development of an infrastructure for tourism and business, fueled by money from the oil fields. "There was a lot of building and government projects, a lot of VIP work to include the various ministries wanting transportation, and photography work from people wanting pictures of the development projects," Tucker says.

With the need for more helicopters to serve the ever-growing tourism, VIP/executive transport and business development market, two additional operators were created in the UAE within just the past three years — helidubai in 2005, and Abu Dhabi-based Falcon Aviation Services (FAS) in 2006. Along with increasing the number of helicopters involved in the growing civil market, the shift in civil industries also developed a need not only for increased helicopter maintenance, but a new concept in maintenance.

"There have been a lot of changes in the focus of helicopter maintenance," says A.J. Baker, vice president of FAS. "One factor for us was that we’ve had to become more customer-focused. Nowadays, you’re not providing to a utilitarian unit. You’re providing to individual high-end users who are paying cash for their seats. With the oil companies or the military, somebody else pays the bills and the traveler is seen simply as ‘self-loading freight’."

Unlike in the oil and gas industry, in the corporate and tourism market the person riding in the helicopter is the one paying the bill out of his own pocket, Baker says. "Accordingly, the aircraft has to be cleaner, they have to be better presented and everything has to be elevated in the way maintenance is conducted and the way our staff and the helicopters are presented. We’ve also found that even the more traditional users of helicopters in the region are viewing presentation and how an aircraft is maintained as key factors in selecting a service provider."

Abu Dhabi Aviation

By far the largest of the four civil operators is ADA, which began with two helicopters and a working capital of $544,000. Initially started to serve the offshore oil industry in Abu Dhabi and Oman, it now has a working capital of $110 million and owns and/or maintains 81 helicopters. ADA flies 58 of its own aircraft, including 20 AgustaWestland 139s, 15 Bell 412s, 19 Bell 212s and four Bell 206s. It maintains eight AW139s, six 412s and two BK 117s for the Abu Dhabi Police Air Wing and operates and maintains seven AW139s for the government.

ADA holds maintenance approvals from the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), EASA, FAA and the Saudi Arabian PCA (Presidency of Civil Aviation).

"Maintenance is where we have grown the most in the past 15 years," Tucker says. "We do all of our own heavy maintenance, as well as for the Abu Dhabi police." The company is currently in negotiations with helicopter OEMs for third-party work, primarily AgustaWestland and Eurocopter, Tucker says.

ADA provides maintenance for both military and civil helicopters, including AgustaWestland AS139s and A109s, Bell 206s, 212/412s and 214STs, Eurocopter EC135s, and Agusta Bell 212/412 and 206s. Military aircraft include the AgustaWestland AS139, Bell 205 and 214B, Agusta Bell 212/412 and 206, BO105 and BK117.

Its current customer list includes, among others, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco), the UAE Armed Forces and Air Force, both the Abu Dhabi and Bahrain police, Gulf Helicopters in Qatar and limited maintenance for Aerogulf Services in Dubai.

ADA is based at Abu Dhabi Intl Airport, with two maintenance hangars for both its fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Total hangar floor space is 55,218 square feet (5,130 square meters), with another 40,569 square feet (3,769 square meters) dedicated to engineering management and workshops. The hangars are fully air-conditioned, allowing the workers to remain effective in temperatures that can get up to 60 degrees C, or 140 degrees F.

The company maintains some 20,000 line item spares valued in excess of $30 million. All spares are produced directly by the OEMs or FAA/JAA-approved sources.

The company is a Pratt & Whitney Recognized Maintenance Facility for the PT6 T and A series engines, and PW100 series. Authorized work on the PT6 engines includes hot section inspections, fuel nozzle clean and flow checks, and PT6T C/Box internal inspections. Work on the PW100 series includes hot section inspections and module build-up.

Other workshop maintenance sections include overhaul, structural repair, avionics, battery shop, upholstery, blades, non-destructive testing and paint shop.

Blade repair authorization is for Eurocopter blades. The blade repair shop was commissioned in 2004 and was the first authorized Eurocopter blade repair shop in the Middle East, the company notes. It is authorized to carry out repairs and static balancing for both main and anti-torque rotors for the SA322 Super Puma, SA330 Puma, SA365/366 Dauphin, SA350/SA355 Ecureuil (Astar/Twinstar) and the EC135. Structural repair specialization is limited to Bell’s medium helicopters, the 205, 212 and 412, although ADA "has one of the only certified Bell Helicopter Textron-approved 205/212/412 tailboom jigs outside Europe and North America," the company says.

For non-destructive testing, ADA provides four types: magnetic particle inspection, fluorescent penetrant inspection, eddy current inspection and ultrasonic inspection.

ADA is also authorized to service and repair safety equipment, to include helicopter floatation equipment, life rafts and life preservers.



FAS is the second largest operator in the UAE, with a mixed fleet of 13 AgustaWestland, Bell and Eurocopter helicopters as of mid-December, plus an additional eight scheduled for delivery into 2009. Maintenance for these helicopters, and the companies fixed-wing fleet, is supported with a 1,600 square-meter (17,222 square-foot) maintenance hangar at Al Batten Airport in Abu Dhabi. A second hangar with 5,000 square meters (53,819 square feet) is currently under construction. As with ADA’s hangars, both of the FAS hangars will be fully air conditioned against the oppressive desert heat.

FAS became a certified Eurocopter service center in May 2007, and signed with Sikorsky Aerospace Services at the Dubai Helishow last November to be a customer support center for the S-76. FAS had placed orders for four S-76D helicopters last June as part of its eight-helicopter order.

"The support center for the S-76 will be up and running (this year)," Baker says. "But there is no great urgency since there are no (Sikorsky) machines in country as yet." While Sikorsky has sold several S-92s to the VVIP/head of state market, the S-76 has been a no-show in the Middle East because of lack of performance in the high summer temperatures.

However, "now that the (more powerful) S-76D is available, and has exceptional predicted performance, interest has grown and inquiries are becoming more real," notes Joe Gigantelli, Sikorsky’s vice president, Middle East, Turkey and Africa regions.

The certification by Eurocopter as a maintenance center means that FAS will be authorized by the OEM to work on some 650 Eurocopter helicopters now in service throughout the Arabian Gulf region with both military and civilian operators, according to Eurocopter figures.

Baker said that while FAS is not a certified Bell or AgustaWestland service center, "We are an approved maintenance center and hold an approved maintenance organization (AMO) and can do maintenance on other people’s helicopters." He notes that along with flying Eurocopter EC130s and AS365N3s, FAS also operates Bell 206L3 LongRangers and 412EPS, and the AgustaWestland 109 Grand.

"We do our own maintenance on the Bell and Agusta machines, and are fully self-sufficient for our Bell and Agusta requirements," he said. "What the service centers provide is a guarantee of a higher level of service for the client OEMs. A Eurocopter customer would normally come to us rather than someone else because our staff would have specialist training for that aircraft, and we have links with the OEMs and parts support and everything another operator might not have readily available. It’s not mandatory that other aircraft operators come to us simply because we are a service center, but they certainly would favor us if they see things like service bulletins and warranty work that is required. This is the key reason the service centers exist, to assist helicopter owners/operators in remaining compliant with any contractual obligations that the sellers of aircraft may have."

Like ADA, FAS provides the full range of maintenance services, including engine work "to a certain level," Baker says. "But for major overhauls, we would normally send them off to the OEM. There are no companies here (in the Middle East) who do their own engines to depot level."

Baker notes that one of the critical parts of engine maintenance is the prevention of corrosion from operating in the desert environment. "Our entire fleet is fitted with special sand filters made by the OEMs to enhance our engine life," he points out. "While this is very expensive and adds between a quarter million and a million dollars per aircraft by the time you factor in all the costs of the shipping, labor and downtime, which can be up to three weeks per task. But we find that they are absolutely essential for operations in this environment and provide sound long-term benefits."

Another requirement based on the environment is the need for compressor washes. "We do a compressor wash after virtually every flight. It’s such a moisture-laden environment we’re flying in out here with the humidity and the over salt water work that we do, that a compressor wash becomes an essential element of preventative maintenance."



FAS has also put sand erosion proofing on all of the leading edges of its blades. "We replace this quite regularly, which stops any damage or delamination to the blade itself," Baker says. Despite the constant operation in sandy regions, FAS has not had to do any major blade maintenance in its two and a half years of operations, based on the sand proofing on the blades’ leading edges and the fact that the entire fleet is made up of new aircraft. Baker explains that one of the major issues regarding helicopter maintenance in the Middle East is finding the right engineers as staff, "which is the key to our operations." The maintenance engineers tend to come from the English-speaking countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. "We tend to have a predominance of South Africans, as they are very experienced, highly skilled and happy to be living and working out here," he says.

Aerogulf Services has a dedicated maintenance hangar at Dubai Intl Airport to support its fleet of Bell and Agusta/Bell products to include 206s, 407s, 212s and 412s.

While it performs its own routine maintenance, it has allocated third-party work to Abu Dhabi Aviation to perform technical bulletins, airframe repairs, function tests, component overhauls and NDT inspections.

Work is done under the GCAA regulatory authority for all maintenance, repair and overhaul work for both airframe and engine. Its avionics shop is supported by Bendix King repair station approval. It also offers refurbishment of the Bell helicopters.

The only one of the four civil helicopter operators in the UAE that does not have its own maintenance capabilities is helidubai. FB Helicopters, a joint venture company formed by FR Aviation Group Ltd and Bristow Helicopters Ltd, supports helidubai onsite. This support is part of an overall maintenance support contract made between FBH and the Government of Dubai in 2004. That contract initially called for FBH to provide maintenance for the Dubai Police Air Wing and Dubai Royal Flight. When helidubai was created in 2005, the contract was extended to cover its operations. The support covers first line and depth maintenance, modifications and repairs "in accordance with GCAA approval procedures," the company says. Increased maintenance requirements in UAE is also leading to specialized repair facilities. While Abu Dhabi Aviation has the facilities for Eurocopter blade repair, Bell Helicopter blades are now going to RBI Hawker Ltd, established in 2005 in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Zone.

RBI Hawker is a joint venture between Hawker Pacific Airservices Ltd, based in Dubai, and U.S.-based Rotor Blades Inc. In the three years it has been open, it has repaired more than 600 blades, "and has captured most of the Bell market in the region," according to Alan Parsons, VP aircraft sales, Helicopter Group for Hawker Pacific. Its market is considered to be both civil and military operations throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, he says. Parsons notes that the company has been growing at about 10 percent per year since starting up three years ago, and has now received authority to repair AgustaWestland blades as an authorized service center. It operators under authority of the GCAA, EASA Part 145 and the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA).

RBI is also actively working on approval authority to repair rotor blades for other OEMs, "such as MD Helicopters. MD is trying to expand in the region and looking to RBI for support," he says. MD Helicopters recently announced that it had sold four of its EMS helicopters in Kuwait and Qatar.

"India has also proven to be a big growth area for us," Parsons says. "They traditionally sent blades to Singapore (for repair). RBI has now grabbed that business, with several operators in India now using RBI."

One of the big advantages of RBI is the speed at which a customer can get his blades repaired and returned, he says. "Not only the turnaround time for the repairs, but the time actually consumed getting their blades to and from our facility. And in most cases it is much cheaper than sending by freight to other parts of the world." Prior to RBI Hawker opening its doors, blades traditionally were sent either to Singapore, Europe, the U.S. "and possibly to Australia."

Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone is a large industrial park a few miles outside of Dubai city proper, giving it rapid access to a network of super highways and the Jebel Ali seaport. It will also be very close to the new Maktoum Intl Airport, designed to be the world’s largest airport when it opens later this year. Hawker Pacific is also planning to open an avionics workshop early this year in its Jebel Ali FZ complex, "hopefully by the end of February," according to Ian D’Arcy, technical & project manager.

All of Hawker Pacific’s Middle Eastern avionics requirements were being met by its wholly owned subsidiary, Australian Avionics, based in Cairns, Australia. "But then we saw how much (avionics work) was leaving the (Middle East) region and it became clear there was a local need, so we decided to bring it back to Dubai. Nobody else was providing full, dedicated avionics repair in the UAE," D’Arcy says. Hawker Pacific Avionics will market itself throughout India, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East, "but starting with the immediate area first," he notes. The repair and overhaul company primarily will operate on a strict exchange philosophy, with a customer dropping off an avionics component needing repair in exchange for a similar overhauled or repaired component. It can, however, provide repair and return service if the customer wants it, D’Arcy says.

"Being in Dubai, we can provide same day or next day service in most cases, and we can also do an advance exchange to keep an aircraft from being grounded," he says. D’Arcy also says that they will have mobile installation teams that can provide installation of the avionics for operators who do not have that capability.

The company will provide repair and overhaul on the "whole avionics spectrum" and on a wide range of brands, to include Honeywell, Bendix, King, Garmin, Rockwell Collins, Mid-Continent and Artex. Along with providing avionics support for the growing helicopter industry, it will provide support for general aviation, and corporate/business jets. "We’re also looking at (the possibility of) small airliners such as Bombardier and Embraer. We probably will not do larger airliners. They are not being targeted, although we are looking at 737 and A320 size airliners for longer range consideration."

Hawker Pacific Avionics will operate under EASA Part 145 approval. The facility has roughly 1,500 square feet and will open with an avionics manager and three engineers. "The plans are to go to a maximum of eight engineers, although that will depend on future growth," D’Arcy says.

Also part of the Hawker Pacific complex is Hawker Pacific Hydraulics, an EASA Part 145-certified hydraulic workshop for Bell 212/412 main and anti-torque rotor hydraulic actuators.

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