Colloquy: Offshore helicopters (commuting on a rotary wing and a prayer)

Flying offshore is one of the world's safest commutes.

Offshore activity drives the global market for oil and gas-related helicopter services, which is estimated to be worth US$24 billion over the next five years, 2014-2018. Companies that provide rotary wing ferry services to and from rigs and vessels have been expanding fleets and ordering new aircraft. A few months ago, investment bank Barclays predicted that the oil and gas industry will need 300 new helicopters between now and 2020.

New models have been developed with greater range and enhanced safety features to support operations further offshore. These include the AgustaWestland AW189, Bell 525, Airbus EC175, and new Russian Mi-38, which will begin production in 2015.

A recent offshore civil helicopter market report expects increasing growth in Asia, Australasia, Africa, and Latin America and notes that 60% of service expenditures are for medium helicopters. New-generation models, such as EC175 and AW189, have advanced safety systems for offshore work.

Most helicopters for the oil and gas industry are built by four rotorcraft manufacturers:

  • Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica SpA.
  • Airbus Helicopters, a division of Airbus Group NV, formerly Eurocopter Group.
  • Texas-based Bell Helicopter, a division of Textron Inc.
  • Connecticut-based Sikorsky, a United Technologies Corp. company.

A major manufacturer of light civil helicopters is Robinson Helicopter Co., based at Zamperini Field in Torrance, California. The company has produced more than 10,000 aircraft since 1979, and was the top manufacturer worldwide in 2013, selling 523 light helicopters.


Another very large manufacturer, Russian Helicopters JSC, was established in 2007 as part of state corporation Rostec. It is now the sole Russian rotorcraft designer and manufacturer, with headquarters in Moscow. There are more than 8500 Russian helicopters currently operating, representing 14% of the world’s fleet, but they are not as widely distributed as the other manufacturers.

“Market demand for medium and heavy commercial helicopters is largely driven by operators servicing the oil and gas industry,” and these comprise 76% of Russia’s fleet, according to the company’s magazine (May 2014).

Russian Helicopters is opening pilot service centers in key markets, including India, China, and Latin America.


CHC Helicopters, based in Richmond, British Columbia and part of CHC Group Ltd., says it is the largest commercial helicopter services company in the world, and recently ordered 33 more new helicopters. CHC subsidiary Heli-One, headquartered in Delta, British Columbia, provides international maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations, as well as offshore transportation.

Houston-based Bristow Group says it controls about one-third of the global fleet that services the oil and gas industry. Bristow Group said it is investing more than $1 billion in 47 new helicopters, “more in one year than in the previous 30 months combined,” according to Jonathan Baliff, who became CEO in July.

Houston’s Era Group Inc. runs Era Helicopters LLC, which primarily serves the oil and gas industry. The company is focused on the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, but also operates in China, India, and Australia, among other countries. Sten L. Gustafson resigned as CEO in August and the Era board named Christopher S. Bradshaw, Era’s EVP and CFO, as acting CEO, effective 29 August 2014. Era is acquiring 20 more helicopters, including four Sikorsky S92 heavy helicopters for $129 million.

Flight simulators

The boom is also bringing a surge of new flight simulation training devices, as operators try to improve safety.

Steve Phillips, VP communications for FlightSafety International, said “For the most part, the oil and gas community requires helicopter operators who provide them services to adopt not only simulation training but also safety management system programs, prudent regulations and improved avionics to reduce accidents.”

Helicopters are safer today than ever before. Offshore workers can rely on more than a "rotary wing and a prayer!"

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