Searching for fleeing asylum seekers and illegal fishing boats, mid-air medical retrieval, marine transfers, law enforcement, firefighting, defence force aircrewmen training and general charter is all in a day’s work for the diverse team at Australian Helicopters.
The company is headquartered in Brisbane with major bases in South Australia and along the east coast and is one of the largest Australian-owned helicopter companies in the country.
According to Chief Executive Officer, Neil Shea, the company has experienced a relatively fast but steady climb upwards since the original company, Reef Helicopters, started with one helicopter in 1990.
“Australian Helicopters was officially formed in mid 2004, when Reef Helicopters merged with Marine Helicopters based in central Queensland. Initially, business consisted of helicopter transfers for marine pilots to and from ships, and aeromedical and surveillance operations from island bases in Australia’s northern waters and the mainland,” Shea says.
“It’s been a controlled growth period ever since with Australian Helicopters securing a series of national, state government and major public utility contracts.
“We now boast a fleet of 19 twin and single engine helicopters at eight bases from Adelaide to the Torres Strait.”
Shea had a lengthy and respected record in the aviation industry when he took on the role of CEO at Australian Helicopters in 2006.
He brought with him significant commercial acumen to help secure new contracts and grow the company. Previous roles included CEO at major regional airlines Eastern Australia Airlines and RegionalLink and COO at Regional Express (REX).
Government and public sector contracts have seen Australian Helicopters become experienced operators in surveillance, search and rescue, law enforcement, emergency medical services, aerial firefighting, marine pilot transfers, tourism, VIP and general charter.
Two of its major contracts, worth a combined $152 million, were secured by Australian Helicopters in 2005.
First was the seven-year contract for the South Australian Government Rescue Helicopter service, which commenced in December 2005. The contract provides support to the SAPOL STAR Group for patrol, pursuit and tactical police operations and an aeromedical retrieval service for the State health department.
“The MAC Rescue Helicopter Service contract is unique in that it provides a helicopter platform for four vital emergency services to South Australians – hospitals, police, country fire service and ambulance,” Shea says
“Each year the service performs more than 700 missions including transport of critically ill patients, tracking down cars in high speed chases, searching for people, boats and drug crops and spotting, mapping and fighting fires.”
In the same year, Australian Helicopters won the Australian Customs and Border Protection contract to deliver Border Protection Command response and surveillance in the Torres Strait for 12 years commencing July 2007.
TECHNOLOGY IMPROVING COMMUNICATION
In May 2010, Australian Helicopter’s Bell 412 aircraft, responsible for the Torres Strait contract, was the first of its kind in Australia to be fitted with state-of-the art surveillance technology.
The new technology, called the Surveillance Information Management (SIM) system, delivers the latest in airborne broadband communication capabilities. This means crews on patrol are now able to transmit live location, surveillance images and communications information back to federal government headquarters in Canberra and receive informed instructions in real time.
“The SIM system will significantly improve communications and surveillance abilities in the Torres Strait,” Shea says.
“The Bell 412 carries out critical surveillance and response activity for Australian Customs and Border Protection in the remote Torres Strait region and is tasked to provide search and rescue and medical evacuation services to the Torres Strait community.”
Australian Helicopters was also one of the first commercial companies in Australia to adopt Night Vision Goggles technology, which was previously limited to military use.
Shea said governments, Federal and State, were realising the benefits of helicopter operations and the relationship between civilian and military contractors would further increase over the next few years.
“They see that they can use civil register aircraft for aeromedical support during military exercises and use us for training and rescue,” he says.
“Rather than tying up a Blackhawk to be on standby for rescue, it can be off the ground for operational work.”
Since 2007, the company has provided the Australian Army with two Bell 412 SP helicopters as part of a $22 million civilian contract, in partnership with Boeing Australia.
“The Bell 412 SP is used for crash response and loadmaster training as the cabin configuration closely resembles the Blackhawk. This means training exercises can run as efficiently as possible.
“The Bell 412 helicopter is a recognised workhorse capable of performing a host of utility functions.”
The Crash Response helicopter, based at Oakey in south-west Queensland, is equipped to respond to any aircraft emergency at the Army flight training centre and is capable of transporting two patients and a dedicated medical team to Toowoomba or Brisbane hospitals in all weather conditions.
FACILITATING AMBULANCE TRANSFERS
More recently, Australian Helicopters has included Ambulance Victoria among its client list. It provides two helicopters, pilots, engineers and crew to service the Essendon and Warrnambool areas. Medical treatment is provided by Ambulance Victoria’s intensive care paramedics.
“Ambulance transfers have reached new heights in Victoria with the commencement of our $55 million Rotary Wing Air Services Agreement,” he says.
“The Bell 412 EP twin turbine-engine machines are able to fly the 360km distance between Portland to Melbourne in less than 90 minutes and 220km between Warrnambool to Melbourne in an hour.
“The technology and performance of the Bell 412 will allow operations from Warrnambool to reach patients close to the South Australian border, north to the Grampians, oil rigs in the Southern Ocean and East towards Geelong.”
Other clients include Queensland’s Emergency Services, Newcastle Port Corporation, the Delaware North Resort at Heron Island, Ergon Energy Pty Ltd, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Geosolutions.
Shea says the company’s excellent safety and service record had helped it secure new contracts.
“Safety is paramount and it’s been acknowledged by an Excellence in Aviation Safety Award from Aviation Safety Australia,” he says.
“As well as our meticulous safety record, we are continually investing in the latest engineering and professional development training courses and programs to ensure our staff remain at the top of their chosen fields.”
Australian Helicopters currently employs a workforce of 137 which includes 68 aircrew, and 26 full-time Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers.
“We aim for a well-rounded and multi-faceted workforce and we also believe in passing on the highly developed skills of our engineers by employing apprentices. This industry won’t survive without an injection of newly skilled people.”
Shea says Australian Helicopters had worked hard to develop its extremely diverse and professional reputation.
“We are equally proud of the fact that there are many people throughout Australia who are alive today because of the service we provide.”