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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

New Australian Body Set to Grapple with Growing Pains

Four years after the collapse of the Helicopter Association of Australasia, a new body, the Australian Helicopter Industry Association, is being formed to represent the booming sector. Its formation couldn’t come at a better time as the local industry experiences rapid growth at the same time as it grapples with skill shortages and regulatory issues which threaten its future prosperity and its ability to benefit from Asia-Pacific region opportunities.

By Emma Kelly

Australasia’s first Robinson R66 in flight over Sydney. Imported by Heliflite, the region’s longest-serving R66 distributor.

Australia’s helicopter industry is set to have its first representative body since the collapse in 2008 of the former Helicopter Association of Australasia (HAA) with the formation of the Australian Helicopter Industry Association (AHIA). The move couldn’t come at a better time for the local industry as it experiences phenomenal growth, largely on the back of a booming energy and resources sector, but at the same time faces “a lot of pressure points obstructing development of the helicopter industry,” according to Rob Rich, a former HAA president and ex-general manager of Chopperline Flight Training, who has spearheaded the formation of the new body.

The HAA was formed in 1984 after a dispute with Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) over the Sydney CBD heliport at Darling Harbour, but the association folded in 2008 after 26 years of service to the Australian helicopter community. Its demise was a result of a change in its business model, with the association employing salaried staff for the first time, and the effect of the global financial crisis.

A catalyst for the formation of the AHIA was the death in August 2011 of well-known and respected ABC helicopter pilot Gary Ticehurst in a night helicopter accident at Lake Eyre in South Australia. Ticehurst was a former president and committee member of the HAA and drove numerous projects for the industry. “It has taken Gary’s death to jolt people into doing something positive for the industry once again,” says Rich.

The Australian helicopter industry today is a very different one to that represented by the HAA in its early days. The helicopter fleet is undergoing an expansion which is showing no signs of abating, says Rich. The industry growth rate is 11.4 percent—or three times that of the Australian economy. The fleet has doubled in the past 10 years—from just 980 to 1,964 by the end of the fiscal year 2011/12 at the end of June—and it is expected to double again in only seven years. The AHIA says 3.5 helicopters have been added to the register every week since July 1, 2011, or more than four new jobs each week. When the HAA collapsed in 2008 it was representing a fleet of 1,450. In comparison, the AHIA notes that the country’s fixed-wing general aviation fleet is almost in recession, with a growth rate not even reaching one percent.

The piston fleet dominates, representing 64 percent of the total fleet, with an extra 155 pistons entering the fleet in fiscal year 2011/12. Robinson helicopters account for 59 percent of this fleet, with the R22 leading at 531 and the R44 following with 467 registered. Then come the Bell 47 (78), Hughes-Schweizer 269 at 53 and RotorWay (51). The single-engine fleet has slowed to a growth rate of three percent, with numbers increasing from 488 to 502. The top five helicopters in this class are the Bell 206 (227), Eurocopter AS350 (134), Hughes 369 (25), Eurocopter 120 (26) and Bell OH-58 (18).

The multi-engine sector grew 7.6 percent during the year to 211 helicopters. In June, the top five registrations were the Bell 412 at 33, Kawasaki BK117 (31), Sikorsky S-76 (29), Eurocopter 332 (22) and AgustaWestland 139 (11). The AHIA predicts that the multi-engine fleet will more than triple from 211 to 756 over the next seven years, with substantial growth expected over the next two years on the back of heavy industry growth in the north of Australia, particularly major oil and gas projects.

p48_Australian_MH60_072709_HMAS_Ballarat.jpegMH-60 lands on HMAS Balllarat in this 2009 photo.

Growth in the sector overall is being driven largely by the demands of Asia for energy and mineral resources, while search and rescue (SAR) and helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) operations are also increasing in line with demands for improved emergency services in remote areas.

Some 60 percent of the Australian helicopter industry is located within the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, which boast growth rates at least twice the GDP thanks to growing energy and mining industries.

But with growth comes challenges, with skills shortages and training issues at the top of the list. There is already a shortage of instructors and it is only going to get worse, predicts the AHIA. Rich says the transfer of Australian Army and Navy helicopter pilot training to a civilian contract under the Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS), scheduled from early 2016, will drain the country’s 30 flying training schools of highly experienced staff. “The lack of night, instrument and night vision goggle instructors even now is becoming critical,” says Rich. In addition, there is a skill shortage in engineering trades.

The local industry needs to seek training and consultancy business opportunities in the wider Asia-Pacific region where a rapid growth of the rotary industry is expected in the near term. China, for example, despite having a small helicopter fleet today, has the potential to lead helicopter ownership tables in the future, with disaster relief, rescue and aeromedical operations all set to be growth areas in the country. The Australian helicopter industry also faces regulatory hurdles, with the AHIA pointing to long delays and inefficiencies with CASA’s pilot licensing and examination system, and a raft of regulatory changes set to impact the sector. “Agencies, such as CASA need our help when planning to regulate new technology heading our way,” Rich recently wrote on the Bladeslapper Internet forum for the Australian helicopter industry.

In particular, operational performance standards for heavy helicopters is an area in which the AHIA needs to be involved, as well as the introduction of the new CASA Part 133 rule, covering the use of rotorcraft in Australian air transport operations, and the Part 142 training rules, and the new CAAP 92 relating to landing areas. “We must accept the fact we are hurtling down the path to translate a lot of our operational standards into those used within Europe and the United States … some standards will need to be addressed before they become law,” says Rich.

The AHIA should also be involved in the rewriting of the instructors manual and needs to look at why so many students are failing the commercial pilots license examinations when the syllabus and exam have not changed.

The AHIA is set to discuss challenges facing the sector at its planned inaugural annual general meeting (AGM) at Brisbane International Airport on November 3.

Also to be confirmed at the AGM will be the AHIA’s committee. A temporary volunteer steering committee leading up to the AGM has been appointed, with Sydney-based Peter Crook named steering committee president. Crook is a former Bell Helicopter sales executive and now heads up his own consultancy PKC Aviation which specializes in sourcing and selling helicopters, pre-buy inspections, certificates of airworthiness, finance, insurance, freight, maintenance, repair and overhaul activities. Sydney-based Mark Scrymgeour is steering committee vice-president. Scrymgeour, who holds a commercial helicopter license, is the fleet logistics manager for refrigerated transport company Fridgelog and was formerly the national franchise development manager for Caltex Australia. He brings extensive executive experience from other transport related industries to the role, says Rich. Brisbane-based Rich, who is now an aviation marketing consultant, is steering committee secretary/treasurer and also responsible for AHIA business development, membership and expositions.

The AHIA also plans to celebrate the CASA helicopter register passing the 2,000th helicopter milestone at the AGM in November.

The official launch of the AHIA is planned for next year’s Australian International Air Show at Avalon in Victoria in February. The association will use Avalon to showcase the local helicopter industry with a view to promote the industry’s capabilities to the wider Asia-Pacific region in order to win business from the region. “This is a wonderful opportunity to promote ourselves as best we can,” says Rich. The former HAA ran a similar Helicopter Showcase at Avalon and allowed the industry to display helicopters and its capabilities

The organizers of the Avalon show, Aerospace Australia Limited, are offering to help the fledgling association by supporting an AHIA Helicopter Conference to be held during the show at the Melbourne Convention Center, as well as providing facilities for displays, presentations and conferences at the air show site during the trade days. The AAL was due to finalize its commitment to the AHIA at its board meeting at the end of August.

The AHIA will be a not-for-profit organization that will provide wider coverage of the industry than the HAA, which was effectively a pilot association, says Rich. “In the past, this suited the needs of an industry then operating relatively unsophisticated rotorcraft, where logistic and maintenance support requirements were minimal. Today, more expensive and technically advanced helicopters are coming into service and the logistical and technical support industry has developed substantially due to the increasing number of civilian and military heavy helicopters,” he adds.

The AHIA structure will include a national executive, six branches which will mirror CASA boundaries and divisions focusing on areas such as new operational roles, advances in technology and industry groups including SAR, HEMs, offshore, mustering, training, police and CASA regulatory issues. The AHIA will also establish links with international bodies, including the U.S. Helicopter Association International.

Rich elaborates: “The aim of the overseas links is to be part of the enormous growth in helicopter training activities which will occur in the Asian region, in much the same way as Australia supported the Asia-Pacific airline industry pilot training programs.”

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