Basing its VIP EC155 B1 out of London Stansted, Heliconnex is poised to expand its bespoke helicopter charter business, as Director Mark Hourigan and Head of Sales and Marketing Samantha Hazelgrove explain
After amassing 4,500 hours flying time, more than half of them as a military helicopter pilot with the Royal Navy, Mark Hourigan decided to start Heliconnex. Specialising in multiple aspects of rotary-wing operations, Heliconnex most visibly provides charter through its own VIP EC155 B1, but also offers a broad sweep of services to helicopter owners, from complete management packages to training advice.
Hourigan had exacting requirements for his helicopter purchase and the choice of an Airbus Helicopters’ model was never guaranteed. “I bought the aircraft in 2019 after months of viewing and discounting other similar medium-sized helicopters, owing to material state and age,” he recalls.
Eventually opting for the EC155, he says: “It suits the corporate role perfectly, with its great range and payload, and low cabin noise. Our aircraft has also been completely reupholstered in the cabin and cockpit. It looks amazing and suits the VIP expectation. The paint scheme has been completely changed to an Aston Martin grey, in a simple, non-branded way, keeping the helicopter very discreet.”
Speaking with EVA as the coronavirus crisis worsened in late March, Hourigan confirmed that the EC155 was undergoing its annual maintenance package and CAA compliance checks. He was expecting it to become operational in April… “notwithstanding the impact of COVID-19 on the business.”
Realistic and Resolute
Barely any aspect of what we used to regard as normality has escaped the ravages of coronavirus, but for Heliconnex, which ought to have seen its business take off this spring as the UK’s season of major sporting events began, it might have been particularly devastating. Yet Samantha Hazelgrove, leading Heliconnex’s sales and marketing effort, remains realistic and resolute.
“The cancellation of all sporting events and the suspension of Glastonbury to next year, with other events to follow suit, has had a huge impact on our industry. The UK helicopter charter industry relies on these events, which generate a lot of demand thanks to the flexibility a helicopter affords. With no events, there is no demand, and this affects the bottom line.
“We have ambitious plans for the business and yes, these are being hampered by COVID-19, but we are resilient and determined to come through the other side. We’re working hard at getting the brand out in the marketplace and our aim is for Heliconnex to be at the forefront of people’s minds when they consider chartering a helicopter.
“Our focus is very much on the corporate and VVIP client and we can tailor-make any itinerary to fit exact requirements, time frames and expectations. We’d also very much like to grow the management side of the business and hopefully expand the fleet in the near future.”
For the time being though, Hourigan explains: “Heliconnex has engaged with the CAA and BHA [British Helicopter Association] to offer support to the nationwide requirement to airlift stores to where they are most needed. This is an exciting development that’s very reminiscent of my military days. I believe the longer-term effects of the pandemic will last through the remainder of the year and with current government strategies developing, our helicopter is well suited to moving vital supplies around the UK and we’re looking forward to demonstrating the flexibility and adaptability of our aircraft and staff.”
Flexibility and made-to-measure charter is fundamental to the Heliconnex offer, but not unique among helicopter operators. So, what should customers expect from the Heliconnex experience?
Hazelgrove explains: “The helicopter is based at Fayair’s excellent Stansted FBO, and Heliconnex can therefore easily provide connections from/to bizjets using the airport. Even if the bizjet uses another Stansted facility, the helicopter can taxi to pick passengers up or drop them off airside, or we can arrange for a smooth ground transfer.
“We personalise client itineraries to afford bird’s-eye views of amazing landmarks, we fly customers to fine dining restaurants, including Le Manoir in Oxford, provide a memorable day at the races, or create the opportunity for a day out in Paris, the possibilities are vast.
“And, from a business rather than leisure point of view, a helicopter is ideal for clients visiting multiple sites in the UK. Large distances can be covered in a much reduced time frame, enabling several site visits to be accomplished in one day. This is the sort of itinerary where a helicopter charter is hugely beneficial to the client.”
While echoing Hazelgrove’s thoughts on charter, Hourigan also describes Heliconnex’s wider business. “Our helicopter management includes all aspects of aircraft ownership, from purely operating on behalf of the owner as a private service, through adding the owner’s aircraft to the charter fleet under a leasing arrangement, to complete end-to-end bespoke aviation management services, including importation, regulation and compliance for clients buying and selling their helicopters.
“There are lots of moving parts and we prefer to take full operational responsibility for all of the aircraft, structuring bespoke packages for individual owners. These frameworks present unique challenges, but the team at Heliconnex offers professional services and advice on all aspects of owning and operating helicopters, including engineering, continuous airworthiness, safety, piloting and training.”
Returning to Heliconnex’s own helicopter, for which the registration G-HCNX has been reserved, Hazelgrove explains: “The EC155 B1 is an advanced aircraft from the renowned Dauphin family, designed for optimum speed and luxuriously appointed with a redesigned cabin. For an aircraft in the midsize category, its flat-floor passenger cabin is massive – 235cuft – plus it has more luggage space, at 88cuft, than you’ll find in some midsize jets.
“Our passenger configuration provides an unrivalled level of comfort. With its luxurious leather interior, G-HCNX can seat six passengers comfortably, plus another in the front when the helicopter is crewed by one pilot. The cabin is very quiet and our two ‘captain’s chairs’ have proved a hit with VVIP clients, since they reflect the first-class travel experience. Smaller aircraft, including the AW109, don’t have this space and certainly won’t be as fast or as comfortable.”
Aston Martin Meteorite Grey
G-HCNX has recently undergone an exterior refurbishment, about which Hourigan and Hazelgrove are very excited. The COVID-19 crisis unfortunately means few photographs of the transformed aircraft were available for this article, but Hazelgrove enthuses: “When it came to the colour choice, it had to be simple and discreet, but with an air of sophistication and elegance. Aston Martin Meteorite Grey delivers all this with a cool edge, appealing to our most discerning clients.”
Although she remains upbeat, Hazelgrove is obviously looking forward to the return of business as normal, or at least the new business of normal. The EC155 B1 will undoubtedly be kept busy on VVIP special event charters in and around London and beyond, but some clients will certainly appreciate not only its long range, in excess of 400nm, equivalent to a flight from Southampton to Inverness, but also its ability to cover distance quickly.
And Hazelgrove says its versatility is expanded further, since it is ideally suited for operations into and out of tight spaces, including the decks of superyachts. “Being twin-engined and IFR-equipped, it is also capable of night operations and flying in adverse weather,” she says.
Such a combination of flexibility and performance enables Heliconnex to rival bizjet operators on some connections, a fine example being London to Paris. Departing Battersea Heliport, without the requirement to transit out of the city to an executive airport, G-HCNX can then land direct in the centre of Paris, eliminating the journey in from the destination airfield.
“Time is very often a critical factor to our clients,” Hazelgrove says, “and an important consideration in trip planning. When it comes to the UK, the helicopter’s versatility pays real dividends. Clients are not restricted to airports – they can even depart from their garden if they have the space to do it.”