Luxaviation Helicopters CEO Charlotte Pedersen speaks to EVA about the unique capabilities and requirements of VIP helicopter flying
However long-ranged, comfortable or well-connected your jet, it’s never going to deliver you to a mountaintop retreat or helicopter deck. As more passengers demand the kind of access only a helicopter grants, industry is responding with a variety of aircraft and operator solutions. Among them, Luxaviation Helicopters, established in February 2017, is bringing the service and safety standards of Luxaviation’s jet operation to the world of VIP helicopter transportation.
Charlotte Pedersen, Luxaviation Helicopters CEO, is passionate about rotary-wing aviation, having flown the Sikorsky S-61 Sea King as a Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF) search and rescue (SAR) pilot. She explains the motivation behind the new venture: “The Luxaviation Group recognised the VVIP helicopter market as one primed for growth and complementary to the other services it provides. We already provided a full range of services for business jet owners, including help with purchasing, charter, maintenance, flight support and crew resourcing – the next step was obviously the helicopter transfer to their final destination.
“The timing was right because we’d developed to become a worldwide group and recognised that helicopter services weren’t offered on a worldwide basis, because their operators tend to be local.” Go back a couple of decades and business jet operations were similarly fragmentary, with many companies running small fleets, albeit over global ranges. The comparatively limited endurance of helicopters makes them unlikely candidates for global services, but Luxaviation Helicopters has identified a particular need for its services.
“Partly, we’re satisfying clients who are already flying the world and might need their own helicopter at their destination. It means we’re managing a complex set of requirements with a helicopter that needs to be in the Caribbean, let’s say, one month and in Asia the next.” It’s a process that inevitably involves some degree of disassembly, movement by ship or cargo aircraft, and then reassembly and testing ready for the client’s arrival at the destination.
“It’s complicated because whenever you touch an aircraft to take parts off or maintain it, you have to do it by the manual. Then, when you come to reassemble it, you need certified engineers at the destination.” The work has been typical of military operations in the past, but comes as something new to the civilian, VIP market.
Pedersen stresses that it remains an important niche service rather than something Luxaviation Helicopters does on a weekly basis. On the other hand, the company also manages helicopters for clients globally, following industry recommendations and best practices in the particular demands of rotary-wing maintenance. “I’d say helicopter airworthiness is almost more controlled than fixed-wing operations, because there are so many moving parts. Every single one is checked and controlled at regular inspections.
“And when there’s a fault in an individual fixed-wing aircraft it rarely results in a fleet grounding, but it’s more common for helicopters. A huge amount of information is released, and operators need to be aware of it and act upon it, so it’s a complicated area in which we work. Often, the helicopters we manage are based on yachts too, a location a little more challenging than the hangars jets tend to fly from. Planning their maintenance and moving them to a suitable location is another complex requirement and I would say we have the very best team of helicopter experts to help us achieve it, in our offices and in the field with the aircraft.”
Luxaviation Helicopters provides support when a client’s helicopter is away flying from a yacht, the composition of its deployed team varying according to mission, geographical location and local regulations. Usually a team comprises only flight crew, Luxaviation’s global connections ensuring that approved maintenance is always to hand if required, but where regulations insist on engineering self-sufficiency, the company supplies trained personnel as part of the team travelling with the aircraft.
Luxaviation Helicopters announced its first acquisition in September last year, as the UK’s Starspeed came into the group. With 19 managed aircraft and a further four available, its offering includes business and VIP charter, and instrument rating and conversion training. For Pedersen, the British company embodies everything that’s dear to the Luxaviation brand in terms of service quality and expertise.
“We were truly so happy to get them onboard! We researched the market, looking for the perfect company match for us and Starspeed stood out, totally number one for reputation, operational practices, procedures, everything. In 2018 they celebrate 40 years in business; it’s a long time in helicopter operations and proves they’ve done it well. What they do with helicopters is exactly what Luxaviation does with jets.”
Starspeed’s training capabilities shine a spotlight on Luxaviation Helicopters’ wider ambition to become a centre of training excellence as well as setting the global operational standard. Pedersen explains: “When we acquired Starspeed we also acquired one of the UK’s most recognised helicopter training schools. When you operate VVIP helicopters on behalf of private owners, you have to deliver a spotless service that exceeds the client’s expectation. In our business we don’t fly from runway to runway, with the assistance of navigation and weather services, landing lights and so on.
“Instead, we adhere to commercial regulations while flying VVIPs from yacht to yacht, or from their garden to the ship, as well as transferring passengers in and out of busy airports day and night. But we don’t always fly into known locations, we also fly into different spots all around the world and to do this safely you have to make certain your crews are trained extraordinarily well. They must be trained in the missions they actually perform, not just according to standard regulatory training programmes, and the best way to achieve that is with your own training academy.”
Starspeed’s training schools, at Kemble in Gloucestershire and Fairoaks in Surrey, also take third-party students, delivering courses that include yacht operations and other special missions. A typical, though perhaps less obviously challenging mission to flying onto a yacht, might involve lifting a customer from their arrival through a series of stops to inspect manufacturing or other facilities, for example. It’s a schedule that demands not only careful flying, but also complex planning in terms of approvals to land, customs declarations and more; for that, Pedersen says, “We have simply a top operation in Starspeed. They have the knowledge. They know how to handle it in the UK and around the world, while delivering the customer service that represents Luxaviation quality. There’s little point in delivering a seamless flight if there’s a mistake in the invoice, for example, because then that’s what the customer remembers.”
Pedersen is confident Luxaviation Helicopters is well equipped for yacht work, especially in light of the Starspeed acquisition and her perceived future for the requirement. “I believe we’ll see the market expanding, particularly in Asia, as rising wealth leads owners to build larger vessels.
“Yacht flying is particularly affected by weather and requires considerable preparation with the ship in terms of when and where the helicopter will be flying. Crews need to be experienced with the yacht as a moving platform and very thorough procedures need to be in place for operations to the highest safety standards.
“New EASA regulations are also coming into force, demanding that commercial charter flights to yachts have specific approval.” Speaking to EVA late in 2017, Pedersen revealed Starspeed as the only VVIP helicopter operator with the approvals already in place. “They’re about mitigating risk and ensuring safe operations. You need a highly experienced company to manage the operation, not just from the perspective of the helicopter, but also in terms of what happens on the ship. Of course, we go in and help with the preparations and planning on the ship too, ensuring everything is taken care of.
“We give our advice when a client chooses a ship and a helicopter at the same time. If we’re involved in those discussions, we can be sure they receive the very best advice concerning deck size for particular helicopter types and many other factors – would wheels or skids be better for their operation, for example?”
The Modern Helicopter
Pedersen ‘grew up’ on the Sea King, entering the RDAF’s pilot training programme in 1989 as its first female student. A range of higher staff positions followed, including responsibility for helicopter safety equipment and training, experience that leaves her well placed to assess modern helicopter capability.
“Although the basics are very similar, in reality the modern machines are completely different. They have fly-by-wire and really comprehensive avionics. When I started flying, as a Sea King first officer, we used Decca maps and our watches to find our way over water – developments in navigation systems since have been real progress for the better.
“For me, the Sea King was a fantastic transport and SAR platform, but among its limitations was de-icing capability, which is one of the brilliant things many modern helicopters have. Combined with avionics and autopilot – we didn’t have autopilot – it makes them so much safer. Today’s young pilots don’t know how we managed at all!”
Speaking to her, it’s obvious that aviation remains a passion, but Pedersen is typical of so many industry professionals in finding that the business of keeping others flying deprives her of the time necessary for her own. “My licence is still valid but not current. It would take me five weeks to renew with a new type rating and it’s difficult to combine running a helicopter company and sitting on a school bench for more than a month. So, for now, no, I’m not flying.”
Temporarily grounded though she may be, Pedersen nonetheless has a wealth of military helicopter experience to draw upon. “I’m extremely grateful for it, not only the flying, but the management, planning and teamwork experience. Everything I learned in the military environment I bring with me and use today, keeping things simple and clear so there’s no confusion about what needs to be done – writing what needs to be said in a five-line report, rather than generating hundreds of pages to say the same thing.
“But I’ve learned something in each of my jobs, in the military and since, and I take all the good experience from each and take it to the next.” Those jobs actually included a brief period as a civilian helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) pilot, work that proved equally demanding and rewarding, and undoubtedly added to Pedersen’s smorgasbord of experience.
“I found HEMS quite similar to SAR, although more regulated, since during SAR missions it was down to the captain and crew to decide whether to proceed, we didn’t have to strictly follow regulations. In HEMS, even though you have a little more regulatory leeway than in regular commercial flying, you’re still very regulated; it’s clear what you can and can’t do.”
It’s typical of Pedersen that she added an additional challenge to her HEMS flying, by taking a job outside Denmark, indeed, outside Scandinavia. “I flew HEMS in France – that was interesting! Learning the challenges of working in a foreign language, in a different environment was fascinating. Flying HEMS, at night, I’d call up and ask for weather, wondering if they spoke English. The answer was ‘No’, but they were very patient with me, trying my best French, so that although it was challenging at the beginning it actually worked out very well.”
Considering the aerospace business as a whole, Pedersen reckons the enthusiasm of its participants runs deep. “I believe aviation is a passion for everyone who works in the industry. I think they’re here because they find the business fascinating. When I think about Luxaviation Helicopters’ employees, the work they do is not just a job like any other, they have real passion for it. They’re always available when we need them and they’re burning to be involved.
“We serve our clients, ensuring everything around them works perfectly and is spotless. Our employees have to be consistently helpful, cooperative, creative, professional and ready to solve a problem, even when it’s an odd hour of the night. But there’s never a dull moment, no two days are alike and I have to say I think we have fun. That’s what keeps us motivated, it’s that and the great team feeling of satisfaction when a last-minute request works out perfectly and we have happy clients.”
It’s a passion Pedersen is determined to share with newcomers to the industry and, presumably enthused by her own pioneering role in the Danish military, she’s particularly keen to see young people inspired. Freshly returned from an International Aviation Womens Association (IAWA) conference in Berlin when she talked to EVA, Pedersen says she wants to reach every prospective recruit, not just girls and young women: “We discussed how to ensure enough young people are recruited into the industry. My view is that aviation is growing everywhere and set to continue growing. We need more aircraft, more crews and more people generally.
“We need people to understand that aviation isn’t just the crews, it’s the whole business around it. Ground personnel, lawyers, insurance providers, engineers, maintainers and more. I believe it’s a sector that once you’re in it, you’re guaranteed a job in the future. I thought about how we recruit people… and looked at the TED Talks.” The Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talks allow experts and influential thinkers a maximum of 18 minutes to deliver a powerful presentation designed to spread their ideas on a particular subject. Pedersen used the concept as her inspiration.
“In 18 minutes the speakers have to bring their passion for the subject to their audience, helping them understand how fascinating it is. Since everyone in aviation is fascinated by it, I think it should be quite easy to bring that passion to youngsters. We need to go out and talk to them, taking that passion to them in their last years of school, when they’re making decisions and will understand that this is a sector where they might be guaranteed a job.
“They need to see that it’s no less interesting to be an aviation lawyer or financier than it is to be a pilot. We need to go out and tell them about all the jobs in aviation, explain that not all of them require six years of university study.
“I thought if I had a great presentation about the industry, with clear ideas on how you get into the different sectors, I could challenge our 1,750 employees to go out and talk to just one class in their neighbourhood or child’s school. I did a quick calculation. If each employee talks to an average 25 students, Luxaviation alone would speak to 43,000 students. Once I have a presentation ready, I’ll definitely be challenging our company, I’m certain that when you’re passionate about something you can convince others.
“This is such a diverse industry with a real need for experts in all areas, and there are many people in key positions who will be retiring in the next 15 years. Our task is to ensure the next generation are there, ready to take over.”
For Pedersen, Luxaviation embodies everything that is good about aviation. The company’s chief operations officer before she moved to the helicopter division, she emphasises the synergy between Luxaviation’s jet and helicopter provision, which delivers a consistent, coordinated, single-source solution from when the jet takes off, to the helicopter landing at the final destination. “Our customers say, ‘I need to go from Airport A to Airport B and then to my ship,’ and we can take care of that.” It’s a uniquely ‘helicopter’ solution, delivered in a way only Luxaviation can.