Flying helicopters off ships has, until recently, been pretty much the preserve of the military and specialist operators. But that’s changing as the world’s superyacht fleet grows. According to Boat International magazine, a helicopter deck is the second most popular design feature aboard these exclusive vessels, with only the private deck more desirable. A new breed of explorer vessel is also appearing, aboard which a helicopter is typically considered an essential tool rather than transport convenience.
Head of Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH), Frederic Lemos reckons more than 300 superyachts, around 5% of the global fleet, are aviation capable, with numbers growing year on year. Of these, ACH estimates around 10% are equipped with a certified helideck. “We are seeing a trend where helicopters are increasingly seen as a key yacht-based capability, matching the rise in popularity of explorer yachts and yachts with limited exploration capability, which enable private owners access to unique, and at times inhospitable locations where a helicopter helps to extend the capability.
“We’re also seeing increasing numbers of support vessels, the majority of which have at least limited helicopter capability. Finally, the trend for ever-larger yachts continues and this allows designers and shipbuilders to better cope with the requirements for fully certified helidecks and larger aircraft.”
Safe operations to and from ship require extensive training that extends far beyond the helicopter pilot; in an ideal world, it might extend to the vessel’s entire crew. Safety also derives from an understanding of the vessel and how it interacts with the helicopter, and the environment… The weather is never more important to safe flying when you’re operating with a vessel.
The helicopter therefore adds mobility, practicality and considerable style to a yacht, but is surprisingly complex to integrate and operate safely. Charlotte Pedersen, CEO at Luxaviation Helicopters and a former military helicopter pilot, says: “We’ve seen an increase in requests for helicopters on board both superyachts and explorer yachts. Since the latter are capable of sailing in polar seas, it’s very important that shipyards and owners engage with professional helicopter operators.”
At a very basic level, helicopter/yacht operations might be considered as those where a helicopter shuttles passengers between vessel and shore but isn’t embarked, and those where the helicopter is on board for the voyage. Luxaviation Helicopters supports both models, but, Pedersen insists: “Even though aviation regulations and requirements around the world differ, it requires both experience and strict procedures to safely operate helicopters to and from yachts. We recommend using a professional helicopter company, with the correct approvals and procedures in place.
“There are regulatory challenges too. When charter clients are flown to a yacht under commercial air transport regulations, the helicopter may only land on a commercially approved helideck. It’s up to the helicopter operator to ensure that the yacht’s helicopter landing deck is the correct size and has the approvals necessary for commercial operations.”
Jonathan Turner, Director at Maritime Aviation Support & Training (MAST), describes yacht helicopter operations in terms of commercial helideck versus non-commercial helicopter landing area (HLA). “But irrespective of the way the helicopter operation is categorised, there are many factors to consider when planning to operate helicopters from vessels, including large yachts,” he says.
“These can be broken down into categories including regulatory requirements, safety aspects and operational efficiency, but ultimately, they must also be suitable to meet the requirements of the owner. Regulations tend to cover the basic requirements, although the relevance and interpretation of different regulations will be subjective and determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on factors such as whether the yacht is private or for commercial use; we recommend operators seek independent advice as early as possible. Compliance with the regulations, however, does not guarantee an operation will be safe or efficient; this is where the experience of a specialist maritime aviation company is really of benefit.
“Additional considerations when a helicopter is to remain embarked include refuelling, securing it to the deck, protecting it from the elements, and engineering requirements. If a helicopter is to remain embarked for long durations, extra space on board is likely to be required for additional support equipment.”
Luxaviation Helicopters flies its yacht operations under EASA regulations and CAA-approved procedures that allow it to operate commercial helicopter/yacht missions. “As such, our manuals outline the full training requirements for our crews,” Pedersen says, “and they’re followed strictly. We also operate our own ATO [approved training organisation] where all crews take specific offshore training courses, followed up with regular checks and recurrent training.
“We provide crews with weekly newsletters updating them on developments in helicopter safety. All operations are also conducted according to regulations regarding crew duty times, including when a helicopter is on board.”
Turner agrees that highly-trained, professional crews ought to be the only choice for superyacht helicopter operations even though, as he notes, today’s flying is usually conducted in fair weather conditions. However, with the increasing interest in aviation-capable, explorer-type vessels, he says: “There’s an increasing appetite for owners to visit areas of the world where the weather conditions may be less favourable. In addition, as the size of the vessels increases, so does the number with commercial helidecks, which are designed to be capable of helicopter operations at night and in poor weather.
“Irrespective of the conditions or helideck type, there are best-practice procedures for the operation of helidecks or HLAs, and MAST recommends that every aviation-capable vessel has an iterative system in place for identifying the hazards pertinent to each helideck and for mitigating the associated risks, thereby making helicopter operations as safe as possible. Bespoke helideck operations manuals should be written for each vessel, including standard and emergency operating procedures – SOPs and EOPs – based on their facilities and operations.
“Helideck crews should be trained to an industry-recognised standard, such as the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency [MCA] Large Yacht Helideck Safety Training Syllabus, and to use the vessel’s SOPs and EOPs. We deliver all four courses of the MCA’s syllabus, including training for helideck landing officers (HLOs), helideck assistants (HDAs), helideck firefighting – including live helicopter fires using our bespoke, mobile helicopter firefighting training unit – and helicopter refuelling, using our purpose-built, mobile helicopter refuel training unit.”
In fact, there is an important aviation safety role for every member of a vessel’s crew, regardless of whether they are directly responsible for the helicopter. Turner’s experience shows: “Any crew member has the potential to spot something during the course of their duties that may affect the safety of helicopter operations. That’s why MAST suggests all crew receive an aviation awareness course, including instruction on helicopter hazards and how having a helicopter on board may affect every crewmember. We’ve found that vessels taking this holistic approach to aviation safety benefit greatly. Depending on the role of additional personnel, they may also be trained as helideck assistants, to act as guest guides or as helicopter rescue firefighters.”
Luxaviation specialises in VIP and VVIP operations, moving people expertly around the world as well as operating aircraft on their behalf. The scenario where a helicopter collects passengers off a private jet at an international airport and takes them directly to a yacht is not uncommon, but requires careful planning and a high degree of crew skill, as Pedersen explains: “It is a very complex operation to plan, but we have very experienced crews who are also trusted aviation managers capable of conducting all areas of the operation away from base, plus a fantastic team in our offices. The Starspeed team, our UK helicopter AOC, which manages our global yacht helicopters, has many years’ experience of planning and coordinating every detail of jet, helicopter and yacht operations.”
When a Luxaviation Helicopters-operated machine is embarked, the company’s full management package ensures aircraft availability, including a crew ready and prepared to fly, whenever and wherever required. And if a client wants to embark their aircraft from a point far from base, Luxaviation Helicopters has the capability to dismantle, airfreight, reassemble and air test the machine ready to go on board.
Pedersen notes: “It’s a scenario in which our Starspeed team excels, another complex operation requiring an extremely experienced team, especially since the ‘jumping off’ locations can very remote. But helicopter transport is very addictive – once a client owns one, it’s seldom far away from them – so moving an aircraft from one part of the world to another is rare.”
Luxaviation Helicopters has the facility to work closely with customers when they are choosing or chartering a helicopter for yacht operations and Pedersen considers it perhaps the most important component in achieving efficient, safe operations. “With our many years of experience – Starspeed celebrated its 40th anniversary in September –we understand how important it is to choose the correct helicopter for the client’s mission. We ask questions and analyse which type would suit the client’s needs best. When yacht operations are part of the equation we consider other factors too – for example, will the helicopter fit the helideck?
“Some helicopters suit offshore operations better than others, but there tends to be a degree of compromise. A wheeled undercarriage might provide for softer landings than skids on a moving deck, for example, but wheels may add to costs and maintenance requirements.”
Lemos also has some thoughts on undercarriage and notes: “Our light helicopters, including the light-twin ACH135 and ACH145, are equipped with skids and special, bolt-on wheels for on-deck manoeuvrability. But the benefits of skids is their suitability for a variety of mission types. If a helicopter is expected to support a yacht’s exploration capability and enable owners to reach remote, inaccessible locations, then skids are precisely what’s needed. Our medium helicopters, including the ACH160 and ACH175, which are popular with owners of larger yachts and support vessels, have wheeled undercarriage.”
“When it comes to powerplant,” Pedersen continues, “I always recommend twin engines. It provides more power and gives higher performance, which is extremely reassuring when operating to and from a vessel and, besides, some regulators allow only twin-engined helicopters to operate to yachts and offshore installations.”
Airbus Corporate Helicopters works closely with its customers, optimising its aircraft to individual needs. “While the helicopter’s mission defines the degree of customisation required,” Lemos says, “we’ve delivered a number of modifications for yacht-based helicopters. This can range from anti-corrosion protection to folding blades for compatibility with small, at-sea hangars.
“It’s important to note that in addition to the mission, modifications are influenced by the aircraft type and weight, which means we can customise an ACH175 for a life at sea more extensively than we can an ACH125. Also, HCareFirst, our comprehensive support and services portfolio, helps provide 24/7 global support services, enabling customers to anticipate and manage their yacht-based helicopter availability.”
Another obvious possibility for customisation is paint scheme. Lemos confirms: “Many customers want to match their helicopter to the yacht. In one particularly eye-catching example, German artist Rita Weber created a distinctive blue-on-white, zig-zag livery for an older generation EC135, to complement the Nuvolari & Lenard-designed Quattroelle.”
Pedersen says most modern helicopter avionics suites are more than adequate for yacht operations, but Lemos notes the particular advantages he sees in the Helionix system installed in all ACH’s helicopters, from the light twin-engined ACH135 to the largest helicopter in its portfolio, the ACH175. Nonetheless, he also notes continuing interest from yacht operators in the single-engined ACH125 and ACH130, for which he confirms there are digital cockpit upgrades in the pipeline. Towards the opposite end of the size scale, Lemos reports: “For larger yachts there is strong interest in the ACH160, Airbus Helicopters’ latest offering, much of it coming from yacht owners currently operating AS365 or EC155 aircraft from the Dauphin family.”
There’s clearly more to helicopter/yacht operations than flying out and landing. The yacht needs a safe, obstruction-free area for the aircraft to touch down, with strict regulations determining how that area is configured depending on the type of operation planned. Then there are questions of emergency kit stowage and, if the aircraft will be embarked, decisions need to be made on how support equipment will be carried and even whether a small hangar is required.
The aviation complexities are best understood by the helicopter professionals and the best results for the vessel owner achieved when the shipbuilder and helicopter operator, OEM or other specialist work closely together early in the design process.
As a starting point, ACH has launched an interactive yacht app, available on iTunes and Google Play. Aimed at supporting yacht designers and shipbuilders, it provides key information on yacht design requirements for the full range of ACH helicopters. It’s a useful tool, but, Lemos admits: “Nothing can replace a direct, discrete conversation with the vessel designer. New yacht acquisition or rebuild projects are very expensive and if due care and consideration have not been paid to essential helicopter requirements, the owner may be denied some of the yacht’s best capabilities. The sooner the yacht-based helicopter support experts are consulted, the easier it will be to incorporate capabilities for helicopter operations.”
Pedersen says that alongside its other maritime aviation competencies, Luxaviation Helicopters also provides consultancy services regarding helideck design and considerations for helicopter operations. “It’s a complicated area subject to maritime and aviation regulations, controlled by different authorities; what’s acceptable to one, might need adjustment to satisfy the other.”
MAST also provides consultancy services, for the original design phase of a project, right through the build and into the operational phase. Turner confirms: “During the design phase, there are many considerations for safe helicopter operations, including regulatory requirements, which should be factored in as early as possible. In addition to the regulations, however, getting sound advice from an experienced maritime aviation operator that understands the operational requirements can help achieve helicopter operations that not only meet the regulations, but are as safe and efficient as possible and, crucially, meet the owner’s requirements.”
It’s true throughout aviation that the highest levels of safety and efficiency are achieved through attention to detail. That’s perhaps even more the case when a helicopter operates with a yacht, especially when those details are addressed early. Turner says: “Small details can make big differences if the correct advice is sought; they may also have financial benefits, since mistakes tend to cost time and money. For this reason, MAST prefers to join a project as early as possible and remain with it into the operational phase to ensure the greatest levels of optimisation and safety are achieved.”