Bristow Australia Exceeding Challenges Down Under

At 5:00 A.M. on any weekday, Perth Airport is a sea of fluorescent work wear as Australia's unique FIFO workforce heads to mines and rigs hundreds or thousands of miles from home.

FIFO standards for fly-in-fly-out, and it is standard practice in the Australian oil and gas industry for everyone, from cleaners and machinery operators to specialist engineers, to travel to their workplace by air, live on-site for several weeks, fly home for a break and then do it all over again. While other nations fly specialists in from time to time, Australia's resource provinces are so remote and sparsely populated that almost all workers involved in their construction and operation are employed on a FIFO basis.

Bristow Transports FIFO Workers

Australia’s total FIFO population is estimated to be up to 160,000. Approximately 4,500 work offshore, with 65 percent catching a Bristow helicopter to reach their destination. In fact, each year Bristow undertakes more than 100,000 passenger journeys to get people to their final work destination, and this has grown in line with the resource boom that has kept Australia largely insulated from the global market downturn. Bristow’s Australia Business Unit (AUSBU) is expecting the number of passengers to increase as much as 25 percent next year. AUSBU is also expanding capacity, with Sikorsky S-92s extending the current fleet count to 28.

Established with its own Air Operators Certificate (AOC) in 1967, AUSBU overcomes challenges including the logistical issues that go with vast distances, harsh natural conditions – cyclones and extreme heat are common – and a very high cost operating environment. AUSBU’s headquarters is in Perth, with a population of 1.9 million. Known as the world’s most isolated city, Perth is located more than 1,300 miles(2,090 km) from the nearest urban center that has a population over 100,000, and more than 2,600 miles (4,180 km) from AUSBU’s most remote helicopter base in Oakey, Queensland.

For clients, Bristow’s commitment to operational excellence is a major drawing card. “We don’t just say we’re going to deliver operational excellence. We actively prove it, by providing measurements on safety, on-time departures, helicopter availability and the speed of our response,” explains AUSBU Director Allan Blake.

Travel Agency Coordinates Fixed-Wing and Helicopter Transport

Bristow has no helicopters at the Perth headquarters, so passengers board fixed-wing aircraft in Perth and fly to Bristow helicopter bases closer to their ultimate destination. These bases are located around Australia; Karratha, Exmouth, Barrow Island, Broome and Darwin are just a few of the far-reaching centers of AUSBU’s helicopter operations.

Bristow Travel, led by Daniel Bowden, opened in November 2013 and handles the booking of fixed-wing aircraft and the scheduling of helicopter flights, offering clients a “one stop shop” travel solution. Bristow not only books flights from Perth to its bases, but also tags passengers’ bags at Perth Airport and weighs them, so passengers need not pick up and re-check their baggage when arriving at heliports. This added convenience means the helicopter manifests are ready to go by the time the passengers board, significantly reducing processing times and turnarounds.

Bristow Travel Pty Ltd is a fully International Air Transport Association (IATA) accredited travel agency, booking travel directly on the Sabre global distribution system. Bristow Travel offers a 24x7, 365 days a year service to clients and is crucial to the total service offering, allowing for the seamless coordination of clients’ staff from home to offshore facility and back home again.

Challenging Environment Requires Extensive Training, Skills

International collaboration and training reinforce the Bristow global safety ethos within Australia. Australian cadet pilots are part of the SureTrack scheme, in which qualified candidates can undertake a two-year program in the U.S., including nine months of training to obtain their commercial pilot license at the internationally recognized Bristow Academy in Florida. AUSBU boasts a team of 116 pilots. Most are highly experienced – those with more than 30 years’ flying for AUSBU include Bob Turner, Steve Pearson, Doug Palermo, Tim Wood, Tony Ferris and Jack Ward.

AUSBU Introduces Sikorsky S-92s to its Fleet

AUSBU operates a diverse fleet of 28 aircraft. Models flown include the Airbus Helicopters EC225, Airbus Helicopters AS332L, AgustaWestland AW139, Sikorsky S-76C++, Kawasaki BK-11B2 and the latest addition, two Sikorsky S-92s, recently joined by two more. The first two Sikorsky S-92s were flown in on a Russian Antonov 124 from the U.S. through Darwin and then on to the Royal Australian Air Force’s Curtin base late last year.

“To use a military base for foreign civilian craft required that we obtain permission from The Department of Defence in Canberra,” says Logistics Manager David Wollage. From Curtin, the S-92s were trucked to Bristow’s base in Broome in Western Australia, where they were reassembled. In addition to being a popular tourist and pearling town, Broome also serves as an oil and gas industry hub.

Wollage and his team – with the help of Bristow’s central supply chain in Aberdeen, UK – have been working to ensure the thousands of new spare parts and equipment required to support the aircraft are at hand.

Project Engineer Max Beattie has been responsible for creating all the new manuals needed, while Pilot Craig Harrington has spearheaded the flying side of things.

AUSBU Pioneers Industry Breakthrough with its Sterile Maintenance Program

One innovation in AUSBU’s operations that is attracting interest is a new Sterile Maintenance Program. “This program ensures that engineers have a quiet environment, absolutely free of interruption or distraction from colleagues or visitors, when they are undertaking safety-critical tasks,” says Neil Seabrook, AUSBU Engineering Manager who led the development of the initiative, which the engineering staff themselves detailed. “As part of our Target Zero safety goals, we hope to prevent incidents where interruptions and disturbances could cause potential issues. When these safety-critical maintenance tasks are being performed, other staff must stay on marked walkways and hold any discussions with teammates away from the hangar. We post signs prominently to advise people that sterile maintenance is in progress.”

Engineer in Charge at Bristow’s largest base in Karratha, Kenny May says the program formalizes and strengthens their existing methods of preventing the “bugbear” of distraction in the hangar.

R U OK? Program Supports Safety, Employee Morale

Bristow’s aircrew and engineers are also on FIFO rosters. Pilots, engineers and logistics, operational and airport staff fly to their helicopter bases, where they work their “swing” – sometimes up to 12 hours a day for two weeks – before heading home for two weeks’ leave.

For those who can find the time and energy, some of the bases are in extraordinary environments. The most notable is Exmouth, home to the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, which is famed for its easily accessible coral and for whale sharks, which are the world’s largest fish at over 40 feet (12 meters) in length – no threat to humans.

May lives in Adelaide, almost 2,485 miles (4,000 km) away from his Karratha workplace. His commute to the remote Western Australian town takes 19 hours door-to-door, including an overnight stop in Perth. “Working FIFO has its challenges but, for me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” he says. A recent initiative to house staff together in a central location has reduced personal problems among staff, who had previously suffered from isolation.

“The climate is so ferocious, you wouldn’t want to walk anywhere even if it’s only a few kilometers away,” he says. In summer, the temperature in Karratha has been known to top 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees centigrade), while cyclones also bring strong wind and rain. “It’s made a huge difference for the guys to be close to shops, to a coffee and to workmates.”

The Human Resources Department is tasked with recruiting employees to fuel the growing business. Bristow Australia recruits most of its staff locally. Its outstanding reputation makes the company an employer of choice, recently attracting 800 applicants for First Officer positions.

Human Resources Coordinator Kylie Cardinal acknowledges that working FIFO can place additional strain on employees and their immediate families – even when employees have time off between rosters. “We have a formal Employee Assistance Program for employees and their families, and we take part annually as a company in R U OK? Day, which emphasizes the value of reaching out to colleagues.

“I believe Bristow was the first company to expand the R U OK? Program beyond Australia to its other business units. We have sponsored the creation of an R U OK? Afield web resource, to promote meaningful conversations among all employees, co-workers, family and friends.”

AUSBU’s Clients are Global Oil and Gas, Oilfield Service Companies

Some of AUSBU’s more recent contract wins are as large in scale as the country in which it operates, as the business unit supports the major oil and gas and oilfield services companies working in the region.

This year AUSBU won a significant eight-year contract to support the development of the Ichthys Field and the construction of a 550-mile (885 km) gas pipeline from the field to onshore processing facilities in the remote north of Western Australia. In order to deliver, AUSBU will need to recruit additional staff and ensure more hours of additional aircraft availability a year, while continuing to deliver on other clients’ goals.

Australian bases might be geographically far apart, but they share a common approach and culture as part of the international Bristow network – with an emphasis on safety, operational excellence, reliability and customer service.

“Whether you’re in the tropics of the remote northwest or being buffeted by the cold winds of the Bass Strait thousands of kilometers away in the southeast, you’ll find Bristow team members working together with a consistent, united approach to support each other and our operations,” says Blake.

AUSBU Goes Above and Beyond for Clients

During the 2014 New Year period, Tropical Cyclone Christine hit Australia’s northwest coast, threatening the safety of workers aboard offshore rigs. Over a five-day period, Bristow transported nearly 2,000 passengers off the de-manned rigs, with no reportable incidents during the evacuation or subsequent redeployment.

The passengers were flown out from bases in Barrow Island, Broome, Exmouth and Karratha, where staff were forced to bunker down without power and where a recently built AUD$7 million (US$6.3 million) hangar suffered storm damage. A wide variety of aircraft were involved in the evacuation / demobilization.

Bristow Defence Industries Provides Maintenance, Logistics Support

Since 1998, Bristow Defence Industries (BDI), a part of AUSBU, has provided maintenance and logistics support from its base at Oakey, Queensland, servicing Super Puma helicopters from the Republic of Singapore Air Force fleet. BDI has a regular staff of 70 engineering, support and management personnel. It contributes to local skills development with an apprentice training program in the aeroskills, avionics and mechanical trades.

BDI has participated for 15 years in an annual military exercise conducted by the Singapore Armed Forces in the military training area at Shoal Water Bay in central Queensland, Australia. The exercise varies in size, but can involve land, sea and air elements, inclusive of heavy lift helicopters and various fixed-wing aircraft. During the exercise, BDI supported more than 450 flying hours with no injuries to staff. In addition to transporting those participating in the exercise, BDI staff also manned a 24/7 SAR capability within the exercise area of operations.

Bristow Employee Helps Sick Children with Bristow Uplift

AUSBU’s commitment to local communities has come full circle in recent months – serving as a very strong reminder to all about the value of Bristow Uplift. In December 2013, Blake presented a AUD$13,000 (US$11,600) check to an innovative charity that makes dreams possible for some of Australia’s sickest children. The donation was used to grant wishes for two children during the Christmas holiday.

In the last two years, AUSBU has formed a strong partnership with the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Employees regularly donate their time volunteering and hosting fundraising days.

Bristow employee Glenn Scott knows firsthand what it’s like to suffer cancer as a child – and the special comfort that comes from having a wish granted by the local charity, the Starlight Children’s Foundation. The 21-year-old is now a ground handler at the airport Bristow manages on Barrow Island, off Western Australia.

“I had just turned nine and felt pretty sick at school one day. Within three days my stomach was huge and I was gaining weight even though I wasn’t eating. Obviously, something was wrong,” Glenn recalls. “After the results from numerous tests came back, the hospital called my family late one night with the news. It happened so quickly. I’d gone from kicking the footy (Australian oval-shaped football) with the boys one day, to being in hospital a couple of days later.”

Glenn spent the next year in hospital in Western Australia receiving chemotherapy. It was an exceptionally difficult period for him and his family. Soon after his treatment was completed, the foundation granted Glenn his ultimate wish – a family holiday to visit Australia’s Gold Coast and its theme parks – an unforgettable event for the family that helped them regroup and enjoy themselves after a horrendous year.

When Glenn discovered that his employer would be teaming up with the charity as part of Bristow Uplift, he relished the opportunity to give other families battling childhood cancer the same opportunity. To raise funds, Glenn and some of his colleagues spent their work breaks painting the airport purple and selling raffle tickets for a signed jersey from the popular Dockers Australian Football League team to passengers. Recently, AUSBU pilots and engineers spent several hours entertaining the young patients and their siblings at Perth’s leading children’s hospital, helping the children to build “flying machines” and being interviewed for a television show broadcast around the hospital.

“It was a wonderful experience to be able to bring them some fun, joy and laughter. I am keen to do it again,” said Senior First Officer Tang Tong Seng.

The original article appeared in Bristow World Issue 1, 2014.