VIH Aviation Group is the banner under which a group of helicopter service companies operate. With safety always a top priority, the group’s services extend into the jungle, out 200-300 nautical miles or into the arctic for a rescue mission. Lorie Greenspan flies high with the fly boys to tell the story.
Helicopters are great machines. They can hover, act as aerial cranes and fly into remote areas of the earth. During a search and rescue, the pilot of an airplane can do little more than wave. A helicopter pilot can lower his machine and get the rescue accomplished.
So it is with VIH Aviation Group, a company that has been getting the job done since 1955, when it was founded by Ted Henson with a single Bell 47 helicopter to service the forestry industry. Henson had partnered with Bill Boeing Jr., a Seattle-based Bell dealer and son of the founder of Boeing Aircraft, to get the company off the ground. Henson was killed in a 1957 crash, whereupon his wife, Lynn, took the company’s helm until she married Alf Stringer, a founder of Okanagan Helicopters. He ran the company from 1963 to 1985.
After several ownership groups and shareholders, Ken Norie became the sole owner of VIH in the late 1990s and later acquired Northern Mountain Helicopters in British Columbia and Cougar Helicopters on the East Coast to rapidly expand the company. In 2003, VIH expanded to lend support to both onshore and offshore oil as well as mining, in addition to forestry. The company also offers heli-skiing and heli-fishing support – to areas in Northwest Canada only accessible by air – as well as air ambulance and search and rescue services.
A FLEET OF SERVICES
Under the banner of VIH Aviation Group, the company operates a fleet of approximately 85 helicopters consisting of 14 varieties of Sikorsky, Kamov, Eurocopter and Bell. The VIH Group also operates a major helicopter repair center as well as an FBO corporate aircraft terminal offering fuel services at the Victoria International Airport.
There are also four other companies rounding out the VIH complement of services. VIH Helicopters Ltd. has bases throughout Western Canada and employs a team of over 250 professionals. Among its fleet is the Kamov KA32A11BC, built specifically for slinging operations. Its unique coaxial rotor system makes ultimate use of the 4500shp generated by turbine engines, providing enhanced stability and power reserves for long-line operations. Reliability, lift capacity and productivity make the KA32 an effective log yarding machine, which is particularly suited to selective logging. “These helicopters fly in and lift large payloads,” explains Rick Burt, vice president, offshore oil and gas. “They’ve been deployed to Taiwan to support dam building and road construction; in Brazil to support Petrobras, the country’s oil company, in construction of a large pipeline, and in Peru, in support of onshore oil companies to move around drill rigs.”
Also in the VIH group, VIH Aerospace offers cost effective, high quality maintenance products and services. In addition to a fully integrated CAD system, VIH Aerospace Engineering offers customers assistance with STC approval of special installations, understanding the requirements of modern regulatory agencies, ensuring that products designed by the engineering team meet or exceed all standards. VIH Aerospace also employs overhaul technicians who are qualified to repair a vast array of helicopter components, and adept avionics technicians who have fabricated miles of wiring. Modern aircraft are equipped with an increasingly complex and sophisticated array of communication and navigation equipment, and VIH Aerospace technicians are skilled at maintaining these systems.
The company’s VIH Cougar services the United States from coast to coast with Bell 205, Bell 212 and Sikorsky S61 helicopters. VIH Cougar offers medium- and heavy-lift service to various markets including fire fighting and heli-logging. Crews are highly trained in all safety aspects of helicopter logging, fire prevention and suppression, heavy lift and construction as well as emergency medevac procedures. With experience running into the tens of thousands of flight hours each, VIH Cougar pilots offer precision long-lining experience for logging, fire fighting and construction applications.
Finally, Cougar Helicopters Inc. is Canada’s premiere off shore oil and gas helicopter service provider with permanent facilities in St John’s and Halifax, supporting the oil and gas fields off the coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
Cougar Helicopters operates Sikorsky S92, S61 and S76 helicopters as well as a fleet of Eurocopter Super Pumas, offering customers first class service. Cougar operates its fleet daily along the North Atlantic Coast, an area that experiences some of the world’s most demanding weather conditions, including freezing precipitation. With daily service to destinations 200 nautical miles offshore over freezing cold water and icebergs, Cougar Helicopters has maintained its reputation of uninterrupted service, minimum down time and superior cost efficiency.
SEARCH, RESCUE, LIFT, TRANSPORT
One of the many benefits of VIH’s collective team of pilots and technologies is their ability to perform critical search and rescue missions, as they did during Hurricane Katrina, as well as in Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories. Helicopters, as witnessed and recounted by true stories such as The Perfect Storm, can fly into tricky – even dangerous – areas, on land or over water, to lower personnel to perform rescue operations.
One special capability, explains Burt, lies in each helicopter’s vertical reference expertise, referring to a line attached to a cargo hook extending 100-200 feet below the aircraft, providing the dexterity to navigate between dense trees to deliver supplies and similarly, to transport oil rig parts.
In the mining industry, the company’s helicopters have supported the construction of roads in mines; one project, Galore Creek Mine in British Columbia, entailed building a road into a mountain pass, where the helicopters were charged with delivering equipment such as bulldozers broken into pieces for easy transport.
On the recreation end, heli tourism, such as heli-skiing and helifishing, has become a major component of the company’s business. Both high-end recreational niches, their sites are among the most remote on the planet, accessible only by helicopter.
A unique piece of business came last August with the first Democratic election in Angola in 16 years. VIH was hired to fly around the elected officials; says Burt, the mobilization presented the company with a logistics challenge: The company contracted six of its helicopters and arranged for their transport in a Russian Antonov plane all in 10 days.
The six-month, multi-million-dollar contract involved using the helicopters for pre-election and post-election transportation work in the southwestern African nation, where elections took place Sept. 5. The helicopters flew international observers throughout the country and helped them set up polling booths before the election. Some helicopters were used as mobile polling stations during the election, flying to remote communities and offshore oil rigs. The helicopters also provided a kind of national transit service after the election because many roads are impassable and need repairs.
The six VIH helicopters were part of an international contingent of 30 copters under contract to a private company working for the Angolan government. VIH sent two Sikorsky S-92s, two Sikorsky S-61s, a Bell 212 and a Eurocopter EC135. According to a company press release, it cost about $1.4 million to transport the helicopters from Canada to Angola.
MAKING A ‘HELIVA’ DIFFERENCE
Delivering so much capability and service makes helicopters some of the most versatile machines on earth. “Their ability to hoist or carry to remote locations or access remote locations – landing in a jungle or on an offshore platform makes them truly useful in so many regions,” notes Burt. Hand in hand with that is the company’s high level of commitment to safety which, Burt adds, “is the engine that makes us go.”
Each year, all VIH Aviation Group pilots are put through rigorous training courses as well as specific orientation on all helicopters they will be flying. Maintenance staff attend factory-approved proficiency courses on a regular basis. The VIH Aviation Group is also an environmentally sensitive company, having implemented a “fly neighborly” program to minimize impact on human and animal populations. It has also installed EnviroTank™ fuel tanks at all of its locations and has an extensive safety program to minimize environmental damage.
Annual growth at 25 percent over the last few years has made VIH the third major global supplier of helicopter offshore oil and gas support. With newer and more advanced projects on the horizon in the industries it services, VIH Aviation will no doubt propel itself to the top of its industry.