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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Offshore Notebook

By Pat Gray

How cool would it be to walk up to the Sikorsky factory and hand them a multi-million dollar check for 10 S-76s? I have wondered if buying a helicopter is as big a chore as buying a car. Then I wondered about the prospects of purchasing a bunch of helicopters for a fleet operator. How do you buy 10 big expensive helicopters at one time? Is it difficult? Are there discounts for bulk purchases?

Paul Mouisset, aircraft sales and acquisition manager with Bristow Group in New Iberia, La., spent some time explaining how they approach this process.

When Bristow makes the decision to add a new helicopter, there are the usual determining factors at play. It must meet customer requirements, be reasonably priced, have good manufacturer support and be available within the timeframe needed.

Generally, Bristow prefers to purchase new factory aircraft. However, there are times when it is more convenient to go to the used market to meet immediate needs. If so, the used helicopter must meet stringent requirements, such as having no history flying with an offshore operator, no history of accidents and an acceptable level of total airframe time. Also, the company typically does not trade in its used helicopters, preferring to sell them on the open market.

When dealing with OEMs for new helicopter purchases, it is, of course, a contract sale with each side outlining their expectations. Method of payment is through routine commercial paper documents. Mouisset emphasized that Bristow pays cash for all its helicopter purchases.

Do negotiations take place? Yes, and the intensity depends on the circumstances. Sometimes a particular helicopter will match up evenly with another factory competitor, just like with Ford and Chevrolet before the government owned the auto industry. In the event that the decision is tough to make, certain things like price and added value become very important.

With each new delivery, the manufacturer will provide airframe maintenance and pilot training, and sometimes power plant and factory avionics training.

It’s not unusual for Bristow to buy helicopters in groups, with the number depending on current needs. Once they are off the assembly line, have gone through the factory testing and are declared ready for delivery, Bristow will send a flyaway acceptance inspector and qualified pilot to perform an inspection. All manufacturer discrepancies are worked out before Bristow signs off and receives the aircraft. It is then flown to New Iberia for further work.

Depending on the manufacturer and the type of helicopter, it may not go directly to New Iberia, but make a detour to a completion company, such as Keystone Helicopter in Coatesville, Pa. (owned by Sikorsky) to have pop-out floats and interiors installed. In some cases, mechanics equip the helicopters with factory avionics if they are integral to the airframe.

When the aircraft leave the factory, they feature green primer paint with only the N-number painted on. When they arrive at the home base, they are painted in the company livery and given a new registration number, based on which country the helicopter will operate in. But that’s only part of the story. These green helicopters must also be prepared for their role as offshore transporters in a very corrosive environment — that is, salt air and the daily movements of hundreds of offshore roughnecks and production workers. It is unlikely that the helicopters will be landing at the Wall Street Heliport.

Years of repetitious flight operations have shown where the wear spots are on different types of helicopters, plus refinements needed for comfort and safety of the passengers. Many of the installations are regulatory and customer-required, such as external life rafts, cabin emergency exit lighting and cargo tie-downs. Some of the additional refinements include snap vents in windows, stainless steel doublers on baggage compartment door sills, a stainless steel doubler below the fuel tank filler and rearview mirrors. A corrosion-inhibiting product may also be applied.

As a final step, Bristow Group installs avionics needed for the offshore mission. The company’s Air Logistics division estimates that equipping and preparing a helicopter for its offshore life costs between $400,000 and $500,000. A bit more expensive than decking out the family bus.

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