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Friday, October 1, 2004

E Pluribus UNUM

BB Heli is just a small Swiss operator, yet it helps form one of the largest helicopter fleets per capita in Europe

Sometimes the significance of a company is not so much based on its own operations, but rather on what it represents as a portio

By Douglas W. Nelms in Zurich, Switzerland

Switzerland has some 42 helicopter operators registered, of which only two have more than 10 helicopters in service and only four with ten in service, according to Markus Herzig, a Swiss aircraft statistician. The largest is Air Glaciers with 28 helicopters, of which 21 are currently in operation providing services ranging from air taxi and charter to heli-skiing and sightseeing.

Second largest is Rega, with 10 A109s and five EC145s. Rega provides air ambulance service throughout Switzerland under a member-subscription basis. The majority of the remaining helicopter operators generally own only one to four helicopters.

Typical of these small operators is BB Heli AG of Zurich, a company that founder and CEO Markus Baumann calls "small but smart." BB Heli operates two Bell Helicopter 206B3s and a Eurocopter EC120 for a full range of services, from air taxi/charter operations to flight training and heli-skiing.

With a "seven days a week, 365 days a year" operation that performs virtually every type of helicopter operation that comes down the road, one of BB Heli's major concerns today deals with new regulations facing the Swiss industry, Baumann said.

Despite Switzerland not being a member of the European Union, it is a member of the Joint Aviation Authority, and the Swiss civil aviation authority has stated that Swiss regulations will fall into line with the Joint Aviation Regulations as mandated by the European Aviation Safety Agency, Baumann said. He noted that Swiss regulations dealing with fixed-wing aircraft are now completed and match the JAA regulations, but that the regulations are still being worked out for the helicopter community. Theoretically, all helicopter regulations should be in compliance by mid-2005. "But from our experience, I think it will be 2007," he said. He noted that one of the problems is that the Swiss regulations are more strict than the JARs, "so the Swiss will have to rewrite everything, trying to keep it as strict but still meeting the JARs."

The biggest problem is the paperwork, he said. Swiss helicopter companies such as BB Heli, which tend to operate with very limited office staff, will have to hire full-time personnel to deal with the quality-control management and paperwork.

"The Swiss FAA doesn't help companies getting ready for the JAR regulations. They just say, `Okay, next year we start the JAR regulations. Help yourself'." However, BB Heli is now part of a new Swiss flight instructor association formed, in part, to help in getting the paperwork done "so we can go (to the Swiss authorities) and say we have it." He added that he will have to hire two full-time people to handle the paperwork required by the new regulations.

Baumann currently has as his total full-time office staff Peter Kuhn, who serves as head of operations. Kuhn is also a pilot but only has a private helicopter rating. He is, however, working on his commercial license so he can also fly as a pilot for the company. For flight operations, the only full-time pilot is Baumann himself "and about 10 freelance pilots," Baumann said. The freelancers are pilots whose full-time jobs are flying for the police, Swiss air rescue or the Swiss aviation authority, he said.

About 50 percent of BB Heli's flying is for commercial flights, with 20 percent being air taxi, photo flights and news gather, while 30 percent is sightseeing. The remaining 50 percent is split with 30 percent for flight school training and 20 percent private rental--"basically aircraft rentals to allow a pilot to get the minimum number of hours per year," Baumann said. BB Heli is currently averaging about 400-600 hours per year on each of its three helicopters but expects to increase that by about 100 hours per helicopter during 2005.

BB Heli had been doing more newsgathering "a few years ago," doing traffic watch for radio stations using webcams to oversee the traffic, he said. "We did it for two or three years, but there were a lot of people (on the ground) watching the traffic who could contact the radio stations by telephones much faster than the helicopter. And the helicopters were circling over populated areas, so you have a lot of noise complaints. As for covering accidents, such as trains colliding, there is a rule that helicopters have to keep a 500 meter radius up to 3,000 ft. with no overflight."

Baumann earned his fixed-wing license in 1964 and his rotary wing rating in 1984. In 1991, he founded BB Heli with money partially provided by his brother, hence the title "BB Heli AG" for "Baumann and Baumann." He started with a single Bell JetRanger, providing private charters for pilots with their own licenses. Shortly afterwards he began ab initio flight training, followed by getting more into commercial work.

Today, the company has grown to the two Bell 206B3s and EC120. It had owned a Robinson Helicopter R22 for flight training, but to get a commercial license in Switzerland, it must be in turbine helicopter. "We do not do commercial flights in piston engine (aircraft)," Baumann said.

Pilot training is primarily done in the 206. Cost is CHF 1,020 (roughly $800) per flight hour. Cost per flight hour in the EC120 is about $935. Ground school ranges from CHF $1,170 to $1,560. Total cost for pilot training up through a commercial rating runs to about $85,800. BB Heli's prices are in line with other flight schools throughout Switzerland and countries such as France, Germany and Austria, although Italy is a bit higher, according to Kuhn.

BB Heli AG is now a founding member of the new "Swiss Helicopter School Association," (SHSA) that was formed last June 21 and is headed by Guido Brun, managing director and chief pilot with Heli Sitterdorf AG, as well as an A340 captain with Swiss International Airlines.

"The purpose of the association is to establish a flight training organization covering JAR-FCL 2 on behalf of our members," Brun said. "At present, we represent nine helicopter schools in Switzerland. These will stay independent economically, but their instructors will report to the head of training. The organization will also take care of areas such as quality control and instructor's refresher training," he said.

Most small Swiss flight schools are licensed as Registered Facilities, which only allows students to earn a private pilots rating, Brun said. Under JAR-FCL 2, advance ratings require training from a licensed Flight Training Organization having at least one full-time head of training and one full time chief flight instructor, he said.

"As most of the helicopter schools in Switzerland are too small to apply for an FTO license, I recommended that the small schools get together to form a combined FTO. Our Swiss HSA has eight flight schools plus one school for theoretical training as members," Brun said. "We represent about 35 percent of the training market in Switzerland." However, the schools continue to be commercially and financially independent, "and even competitors," to each other, he said.

Baumann is chief flight instructor for the new association, responsible for maintaining contact with the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCA), checking all completed training forms sent to him by the individual flight instructors and forwarding them to the FOCA. He is also responsible for the quality of the training provided by the flight instructors of the member schools. Head of Training for the new association is Marco Peyer. Chief Ground Instructor is Urs Kueffer.

BB Heli conducts its flight training in cooperation with the Eichenberger flight schools in Buttwil and Zurich, providing training from rank beginner up to commercial ratings. Once a pilot has his or her private license, he (or she) can rent the helicopters to build time. And pilots who obtain the necessary commercial rating through BB Heli are given priority in hiring, Baumann said.

In Switzerland today there are roughly 1,200 helicopter pilots, of which about 400 are commercial rated, "so we have a lot of pilots wanting to fly for us."

Baumann noted that Switzerland has the largest ratio of pilots to the number of helicopters (roughly 4.35 pilots per helicopter) in Europe, as well as having the most helicopters in relation to the population (just over 280 helicopters to a national population of about seven million).

While there are a lot of commercially rated pilots in Switzerland, "they are not necessarily good enough for BB Heli," Baumann said. Along with being mountain trained, pilots have to have the right attitude for the job, he said. "A 300-hr.-pilot well-trained and having the right philosophy for BB Heli is better than a 3,000-hr. pilot without the right philosophy." The basic philosophy of the company is to provide any requirement for transportation, "including ground transportation and even working as a travel agency," he said. So, key ingredients are perfect punctuality and safety. "Safety is a major thing. We have had one accident, a crash of the R22. The pilot had mast bumping. That was the end of the Robinson era. Otherwise, we have had a perfect safety record."

Maintenance on the aircraft is done by outside vendors, with the EC120 being sent to Ben Air in Grenchen, and the two 206s going to Heli-Linth in Haltengut.

Baumann said that he gets good support from Bell for the 206s, with "never a problem getting spare parts," the problem is that the technology for the 206 is 30 years old. "We are waiting for something like the Light Utility Helicopter."

As for the EC120, "When we started getting spare parts, it was very complicated," he said. "The airframe is not so bad, but the problem is with the Turbomeca engine. They need 10 days more than any other company doing the same work. Two years ago, we had a hot start on an engine and had to send it back to the factory. It took three months to get it back. The aircraft was on the ground the entire time. For a small company, that is a lot of loss of revenue."

For the future, Baumann would like to remain with three aircraft, although "the perfect fleet for BB would be one JetRanger for training and private pilot charters, two EC120s and, if it is necessary because someday we have the regulations that we must have twin engines, then something like the EC135 or Bell 427."

Unlike many western European companies, Switzerland does not restrict single-engine helicopters from operating populated areas. "But it is being discussed," Baumann said.

Another major problem that BB Heli and other Swiss operators face is weather. Few of the operators fly helicopters that are single-pilot IFR equipped or have de-icing, which means a fairly large percentage of flights have to be cancelled because of inclement weather.

Kuhn said that about half of their sightseeing flights and about 20 percent of the air taxi flights get cancelled, although only about 5 percent of the training flights are cancelled because of bad weather. He added, however, that BB Heli can fly IFR missions by subchartering a twin-engine helicopter. "Overall, we are losing about 10 percent of the flights due to bad weather," he said.

Another problem with Swiss helicopter operations deals with the country not being a member of the European Union. As a result, the first landing into another country must be at an airport with customs--then reversed on returning to Switzerland.

In Geneva, this problem has been resolved by the presence of French custom officials being at the Geneva Airport FBO. The French border runs just outside the perimeter of the Geneva Airport, so the French provide custom officials for operators, such as Swift Copter, which are based there. Once cleared by the French officials at Geneva Airport, the helicopter can land pretty much anywhere within the EU countries.

Keeping the requirement to land at major cities in mind, Baumann said that they could fly nonstop to cities such as Vienna, Prague, Frankfurt, Einhover, Brussels, Strasborg, Paris, Lille, Milan, Genoa, Turino and throughout the Provence/Cote d'Azur region.

As for landing outside of airports, "Each country has different restrictions. In Austria and Italy, there are very strong regulations about landing. We rarely get permission to land outside of an airport. Germany and France are easier for landing permission. In France, we make a flight plan with the nearest airport with customs (officials). We get yearly permissions."

In Switzerland itself, landing off an airport is allowed anywhere below 1,100 m. (3,609 ft.) ASL and a minimum 100 m. (328 ft.) horizontally from the nearest structure.

"Above 1,100 m., we're only allowed to land on official mountain helipads. And there are only 48 such helipads," Baumann said. "In order to land at that high altitude, pilots need special training, a mountain education. The requirement for permission to land above 1,100 m. is a political thing. Regulations came in about 20 years ago to avoid noise and pollution in these natural areas, although there are no restrictions for rescue or transport helicopters. In the Swiss Alps, we have lots of transport, such as for transporting cows. BB Heli doesn't transport cows, but others do." The transporting of cows is only for sick or hurt cows, or if they are caught in high areas with snow and need to be carried down, he said.

Special permission is required from the local community for putting in ski lifts, "but everyone wants tourists and skiing, so that is not problem," he said.

For additional information on helicopter statistics in Switzerland, go to www.swissheli.com.

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