July 06, 2012
For more than half a century Dyce-based Bristow Helicopters Limited has been providing helicopter services with a major focus on the oil and gas industry in the North-east of Scotland.
Bristow's excellent reputation was further reinforced when the business recently secured the contract to provide Search and Rescue (SAR) services in the north of Scotland for the UK Government.
In the basic terms of numbers of aircraft operated and global presence, the business can easily be considered as one of the energy industry's leading helicopter service providers in regions including the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, Australia, Brazil, Nigeria, Russia and Trinidad.
Upbeat magazine caught up with Captain Matt Rhodes, Chief Pilot of the company's Aberdeen operation, to gain an insight into the day in the life of a helicopter pilot.
Matt left school in 1993 with the intention of following in the footsteps of his father - a military airman. Matt's career in flying began at school in Aberdeen where he was awarded a Sixth Form and Flying Scholarship by the Royal Air Force, completing his private pilot training at the age of 17 ready to embark on the career of his dreams. However, he fell victim to the military defense cuts meaning his place at the end of the scholarship was lost and his dreams put on hold.
Determined to find another route into the industry Matt took the long way round. In 1994 he got a foot in the door as he secured a job at Aberdeen Airport. He undertook many jobs on the ground - learning the inner workings of the airport and the aeronautical industry in the roles of aircraft dispatcher, customer services, security and ground operations.
Taking the next step, Matt's first flying job was in the role of cabin crew for KLM. It was during this time that he struck it lucky and was successfully awarded sponsorship with Bristow Helicopters Limited. At the company's training school he was put through his paces as a helicopter pilot, first undertaking ground training before progressing to learning to fly a two-seater helicopter and passing 13 exams on technical and navigational subjects, completing his flying training program within nine months.
From here Matt has worked his way up through the ranks working from almost all of Bristow's UK bases including Norwich, Humberside and Scatsta in Shetland, as well as being based offshore on some of the platforms from time to time.
At Bristow everything they do is focused around their Target Zero Safety initiative and there's no greater testament to the strength of the Bristow team than achieving zero aviation accidents in its commercial operations.
Matt explained: "Zero accidents means everything to Bristow employees and their families on both a professional and personal level. Not only are we intent on achieving zero accidents in aviation, we are now focusing on zero accidents in the work place. Our aim is that every employee leaves work in the same condition at the end of their shift as when they arrived. This undertaking means the world to the passengers who fly with us and to the companies that choose us to transport their personnel.
"To further differentiate between Bristow and its competitors, we have expanded our well-established and successful Global Target Zero safety program to focus on three areas, Target Zero Accidents, Target Zero Downtime and Target Zero Complaints. The latter two seek to maximize uptime and service levels for our clients."
In order to achieve this industry leading position, Bristow, as with many other businesses, places considerable emphasis on the continued training of its employees. The company operates a state- of-the-art training facility at its site in Aberdeen, for which it has recently acquired a fourth flight simulator.
"This investment was primarily brought about by our internal demand for simulator training and to meet the demands of new technology and practices for our aircraft", comments Matt.
"We already have a very impressive training and simulator facility but we made the decision to invest further to continue to train our crews to a world-class level. We hope to have our additional simulator completely operational by 2013 and while they are utilized first and foremost for internal training, we do offer some third party work from the facility for other operators around the world.
"The modern helicopters that we fly these days are highly automated. With this new level of automation, the role of the pilot has had to change. The emphasis is now placed on pilots having to closely monitor the aircraft's complex systems while still maintaining the ability to handle the aircraft under all conditions when required."
A typical day as a pilot starts the previous evening. At 6pm the flight schedules are published and pilots are advised of the following day's program. The next morning they report for duty an hour before their flight is due to depart and carry out all pre-flight planning calculations for their flight. This includes taking into account weather conditions, payload and fuel availability both on and offshore.
They could be making a short hop to a boat installation, just 60 miles offshore, which you can practically see from Aberdeen, or they might be flying up to 200 miles offshore to a remote platform.
"In the main the work which we undertake for the oil and gas industry is ferrying workers to and from the platforms. However, there are some specialized operations, for instance carrying underslung loads which we might be delivering to rigs or airborne visual inspections of the platform's flare tip to check condition and serviceability. Since these jobs are slightly different from the norm they can be interesting and exciting."
As a helicopter pilot, Matt and his team, based at Dyce, have been trained to be totally flexible and able to cope with the often rapidly changing conditions that frequently occur during North Sea operations.
"One of the main factors here in the North Sea is the weather. On one occasion, I was flying offshore and the rig we were due to land on became engulfed in fog. We were forced to re- route and head for another nearby installation.
"Just as we were approaching the second rig the fog bank changed direction enveloping the rig we were diverting to. We had no choice but to turn back to the original rig, which had now cleared and we touched down just as the fog returned. Our level of training is so detailed that we're highly equipped to deal with situations such as these and instinct really kicks in."
Matt is lucky enough to have made his way to the top in this enviable and highly skilled role.
"It sounds like a cliche but there really isn't a down side to the job. I am paid to fly a multi- million pound piece of machinery in one of the most challenging and demanding environments and there's no job I'd rather do. The view from my office is one of the best in the world. When you take off in the morning, you're the first flight in the air as the sun is rising and it's quiet all around you, there is no better feeling.
"I've been lucky enough to fly aircraft back from overseas and on one occasion was tasked to fly one of our aircraft from Miami to Belem in Brazil. Over the space of a week we flew at heights of 500 - 1,000 feet over the Bahamas, the West Indies and the northernmost countries of South America before finally arriving in Belem. It was a completely unique and amazing flight. Once the aircraft had been handed over to the crew that was going to be operating it, we were afforded a couple of days in Rio before heading back to the UK, a welcome break after a long week flying.
"Another noteworthy flight was when the Press and Journal asked us to fly the election day papers to Inverness so that they could be the first to have the results on the news stands. Setting off from Aberdeen at 6am with two tons of newspapers was quite a special/unique day for me. My first paid job was a newspaper round in Blackburn so to be able to deliver this load really took things to the next level!"
With Bristow's fleet in continuous operation, the company's project portfolio is large. The announcement this year of the award of the SAR services in the north of Scotland is something that Bristow is very proud of, representing a major milestone both commercially and operationally. Importantly, it reinforces their belief that it makes sense for clients to always looks towards Bristow when concerned about safety and reliability - a key aspect of helicopter transportation highlighting the fact that there is considerable value in selecting Bristow's services.