Saudi Arabian operator The Helicopter Company (THC) has signed blockbuster deals with Airbus and Leonardo for at least 43 aircraft, with options for a further 20, as it seeks to quickly build a comprehensive rotary-wing transport and air medical industry in the Kingdom.
VERTICAL MAG ARTICLE BY OLIVER JOHNSON | MARCH 8, 2022 [direct link to the online article at the end of the page]
The orders, announced on the first day of HAI Heli-Expo 2022, in Dallas, Texas, include 20 Airbus H145s and six H160s, with options for a further 10 H145s and four H160s; and 16 Leonardo AW139s and an AW109 Trekker, with options for another six AW139s.
All of the H145s and 10 of the AW139s are destined for the ambitious and unprecedented project of building a comprehensive nationwide helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) sector from scratch within the space of three years.
The HEMS program — to be known as Saudi Air Ambulance — is being developed together with Saudi Red Crescent, and will see 23 bases used (requiring 20 to be established). This will allow Saudi Air Ambulance to cover 90 percent of the population, according to Arnaud Martinez, THC’s chief executive officer.
“We’ll be starting with 12/7 operations in the daytime conducting inter-hospital transfers, then moving up to primary mission, and then to nighttime [with] NVGs [night vision goggles]” said Martinez. “That requires a dedicated focus in terms of training equipment, platform, SOPs [standard operating procedures] and crew resourcing, but on the medical side, we are not just a service provider, we are partner with the Red Crescent, which brings great depth of capability to the program.”
The two types were the clear choices for launching the service, said Martinez. “When we did the full study on what was the scope of this: ‘What’s the mission? What’s the best platform? What’s the most economic scale?’ We always came back to these two platforms,” he said.
A.J. Baker, THC’s chief commercial officer, said the H145 was chosen as it had excelled in the EMS role around the world, while the AW139 was a “proven platform” with THC.
“The AW139 is very reliable, [and] they’ve got that little bit extra range that we’re looking for, as some of the bases that we’re going to have are pretty remote,” he said.
The first AW139s will enter service in May and the first H145 is set to be delivered in July, with the rest of the fleet arriving at regular intervals over the next two years. The completions are being handled by the OEMs, using Air Ambulance Technology interiors.
At Heli-Expo, THC also announced that it has purchased a 51-percent stake in global helicopter distributor Rotortrade. Having worked together on an earlier acquisition, Martinez said Rotortrade was “a great fit” for THC’s operations. In addition to being a successful business, Rotortrade provides THC with a new capability, offering resale options if needed — and it is also handling the full 43-aircraft acquisition and entry into service for THC. This will allow the operator to focus on its existing fleet, which will be growing at a rate of two aircraft a month.
“We have 17 aircraft in day-to-day operations,” said Martinez. “I couldn’t have my technical and operations team focusing on a two-aircraft-a-month ramp up. It was a clear choice to outsource that part of the program.”
Within 24 months, THC will also receive the world’s first H145 full flight simulator (FFS) and an AW139 phase 8 FFS. Both will be provided by the airframe OEMs.
To support the growing fleet, a whole ecosystem will also need to ultimately be created in Saudi Arabia — training centers; maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) centers; completions centers, and support centers.
The creation of the EMS bases — requiring the construction of everything from helipads to hangars — will be similarly rapid. Five EMS bases will be completed this year, eight in 2023, and seven in 2024.
From the ground up
THC — the first national commercial helicopter operator in Saudi Arabia — is no stranger to unprecedented ramp-ups. Backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, THC was only established in 2018, with the aim of contributing to Saudi Vision 2030 — the Kingdom’s plan to diversify its economy and develop public service sectors.
The company’s first helicopter arrived at the end of 2019, and in just over two years the fleet grew to 17 aircraft (10 Airbus H125s, one H130, and six AW139s) and 150 employees. This is projected to swell to about 800 over the next two-and-a-half years, while THC will also add a small fixed-wing fleet.
THC’s operations cover the spectrum, from oil-and-gas to tourism, aerial work, search-and-rescue, medevac and VVIP transportation. “We said instead of focusing on one sector, the needs of the Kingdom are everywhere, so we must be everywhere,” said Martinez.
Aerial filming projects have quickly raised THC’s profile — and shown its capacity to perform challenging work. The company has been providing the aerial support for the famous Dakar Rally for the last three years, covered the first Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix last year, and has been working on National Geographic documentaries and a Hollywood movie filmed in the country.
Enabling this is a core group of hugely experienced personnel who have been tasked with building the company and infrastructure, while building up the local expertise. The latter, known as “Saudization” is a national requirement within the Kingdom.
“People think that the main challenge is the fleet onboarding, but the main challenge is the people,” said Martinez. “You have a double challenge to ramp up and to maintain our planned Saudization rate.”
Pilots and maintenance engineers are sourced from around the world, and have the option of either moving to Saudi Arabia, or going there on their working rotation.
“In the meantime, we have invested in a cadet program and that will be a two-phased approach,” said Martinez. “[Saudi Arabia] is a fixed-wing world, so the first wave are [local] fixed-wing pilots that we convert to rotary within a 10-month program. And the second phase of the cadet program is ab initio — and that is a two-year program.”
A major source of work for the company is the support of three “Giga” projects under construction in the Kingdom: The Red Sea Development Company, NEOM, and the Royal Commission for Al-Ula. All are massive development programs to help build the Saudi Arabia of the future.
“Just a client like NEOM is the size of Belgium, but with all kinds of topography — you have the mountains, you have the Red Sea, you have the desert . . . so you need all kinds of operations [to service it]: search-and-rescue, EMS, [and] VVIP tourism,” said Martinez.
Deliveries of the H160s will begin in October. These are destined for VVIP operations, supporting The Red Sea program, where they will take guests from the region’s airports out to resorts.
Baker said the type’s reduced environmental footprint — Airbus claims 15 percent reduced fuel burn compared to similar sized aircraft — low noise signature, and new technology helped guide its selection.
The remaining six AW139s from the firm order will also be used for corporate transport, with the options for further aircraft providing flexibility as THC decides where best to use them.
Other sectors in Saudi Arabia will soon require a similar ramp-up. Martinez predicts that once mature, the NEOM and Red Sea projects will require about 50 helicopters alone to support them.