Newly emerging and developing aviation technologies (alongside a global pandemic that continues to change the playing field!) means that the needs and capabilities of helicopter operators are constantly evolving. The role equipment industry, which serves to add functionality to aircraft, continues to adapt and grow as a response to these evolving operational needs.
Oceania Aviation is an aviation support provider based in New Zealand but with a large global customer base, offering everything from aircraft and part sales to maintenance, repair and overhaul across airframes, engines and components. However, it is the company’s Airborne Systems division – focused on role equipment design, manufacturing, and installation – that is truly making waves, both in New Zealand and across international markets such as North America, Asia and beyond. Asian Sky Group’s Alud Davies chatted to Oceania’s Head of Operations, Grant Crenfeldt, to find out more about helicopter role equipment and how it assists operators in increasing their functionality, expanding their capabilities and growing revenue for aviation businesses.
So first of all – can you explain for those that aren’t so familiar, what exactly role equipment is and the type of products this includes?
Role equipment, sometimes referred to simply as modifications, covers any specialist equipment that can expand the role and capability of a helicopter to suit the needs of its operator. This includes a wide range of products – it could be cargo pods or baskets, which allow the aircraft to carry hard-to-transport equipment, spray systems for aerial agriculture work, cargo hooks and systems to allow transport of loads external to the aircraft, and control systems that allow for the operation of these types of equipment. Operators who invest in role equipment are usually seeking additional capabilities that will enhance their business operations, whether it be within the utility sector, for agricultural operators, or tourism providers. For example, aerial firefighting operators will have some sort of cargo swing system working in conjunction with a monsoon bucket that holds thousands of litres of water to ‘drop’ as required. For commercial helicopter operators involved in adventure tourism, equipment such as bike racks can allow transport of mountain bikes into otherwise inaccessible terrain, and cargo pods can carry equipment such as snow gear, hunting and fishing equipment that can’t be carried inside the aircraft.
How did Oceania Aviation get into the role equipment industry, having started out as a parts sales and MRO provider?
Oceania Aviation’s history dates back to 1992 with the sale of a pair of MD helicopter blades, evolving into a full-service MRO business over the following decade. Our role equipment division (Airborne Systems) started in the early 2000s as a smaller side project, working out of Oceania’s large Harvard Lane projects hangar in Ardmore Airport, Auckland. At its inception, Airborne Systems was essentially an optional additional service for customers who purchased aircraft from Oceania and wanted to add additional capabilities. Basically, the team would provide modifications, largely cargo swings to start with, for existing customers who asked for those additional capabilities. Since the Airborne team was able to create customized products in-house, they were able to keep the costs down for the operator, and over a short period of time, we started to see more and more requests for this type of equipment. From there, significant growth and demand came fairly organically. The hangar got busier and more well-known throughout the local industry, and an increasing number of aircraft were sold by Oceania to either tourist operators or agriculture operators – who requested further products which had to be designed, built, and installed from scratch. The division now operates from a larger purpose-built workshop, where many of our role equipment solutions are designed, prototyped, and manufactured for new and existing customers.
Tell us more about the role equipment product range that Oceania Aviation offers – are there particular products that are most popular?
Our Airborne Systems division has around 400 modifications that we own, showing the extent to which the team provides specific and unique solutions for our customers. In addition to these mods, Oceania has gained around a dozen Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs), allowing the equipment or modification to be used across any aircraft of the same model type and is usually pursued when there is significant demand for that equipment or modification. So the products for which we have gained STCs are naturally our most popular equipment. Leading the way certainly in New Zealand and Australia, but also starting to see healthy demand internationally, is our AS350 Spray System, which enables operators to carry and dispense over 1000 litres for agricultural spraying. We also have a Spray System for the MD500 and are in development for other helicopter models (watch this space!). Our AS350 Cargo Pod is also very popular amongst tourism operators, and international demand has led us to gain FAA and Transport Canada certification alongside the NZCAA STC which covers New Zealand and Australia. Other popular products include our AS350 Cargo Swing System, the AS350 Bike Rack and our AS350 Seat Shift Kit (for external load operations). Obviously, a lot of our popular products are designed for the AS350, and this is because of the high proportion of these Airbus models across New Zealand and Australia – the original rotary markets our Airborne Systems division started manufacturing for. We have made many modifications/products for Bell, MD and other OEMs though – and as we continue to see more and more demand for equipment designed for other helicopter types, we will continue to meet this demand and pursue STCs for our most popular systems across particular OEMs and helicopter types.
And you’re currently pursuing FAA certification for your popular AS350 Spray System, correct?
Yes, we are currently going through the process to seek approval for our AS350 Spray system and hope to have this completed late 2022. We will have a full system displayed under a Helicopter at HAI so our customers can experience how easy it is to take on and off an aircraft. Like most of our products, the catalyst for seeking this approval came from organic customer demand. Thanks to our US-based sister company, Heli Parts Network (HPN), we have some strong relationships in this market. Having recently worked on a number of AS350 reconfigurations and refurbishments from our Nevada-based hangar for aircraft sales customers in the US, we had several customers mention that they would love to add our Spray System to the turnkey package we offer. This set the wheels in motion to discuss the opportunity with several other partners throughout the US, and we found that there is strong market demand – feedback was that there isn’t a system that matches ours in terms of weight, functionality and capacity. We are super excited to be able to display our Spray System at the HAI Heli Expo, as we know that many major global operators and all our OEM partners will be attending, being one of the largest helicopter events of the year. We welcome any Asian Sky Media readers to come and check it out (and chat to our team) at Booth #7444 – we’ll have our Airborne Systems Manager there to provide any advice, information and expertise around role equipment you may be seeking.
Regarding the Supplemental Type Certificate – is this a difficult/lengthy process?
Understandably, modifying the capability of a helicopter, and thus the weight or balance of the aircraft, requires a rigorous certification process. STCs require approval from the industry regulator, which means that the approval process is more stringent and can take a lot longer than a one-off modification. The process of certification involves collaboration with a Part 146 design company to design and validate a tailored concept, before building a prototype. Once the design and all documentation are finalized between the two parties and a prototype has been signed off, everything goes to the regulator to assess for certification. The STC process also requires vigorous testing, including flight tests for larger equipment (such as spray systems and cargo pods). The timeline to secure an STC can vary, depending on the time taken to design and build the new product, as well as the schedule of the regulator – be that the NZCAA (New Zealand), FAA (United States), or other jurisdictions. As I said earlier, we will be seeking FAA approval for our AS350 Spray Systems and hope to have this completed later in 2022. We are optimistic that this is an achievable goal, given that we already have certification by the NZCAA, and it is a case of validating the certification for the US market (as opposed to developing a ‘new’ product and having it certified for the first time).
Do you outsource much of your role equipment design and manufacturing? Tell us about the team based in New Zealand.
As mentioned, we do work with a Part 146 certified design organization as part of the product design process. We’re proud to also have an extensive in-house team of engineers, design engineers and manufacturing specialists that look after our role equipment business within the Airborne Systems division. This is complemented by our Blades and Composites facility and team, which specializes in the overhaul and repair of composite rotor blades as well as a range of other composite repairs and modifications. We used to outsource some of our composites manufacturing as we previously didn’t have the in-house capabilities (we would use a composites partner organization to manufacture our spray tanks and pods), but as of late last year, we entered into a partnership with Aero Composites to buy their manufacturing equipment as well as bringing a design engineer from their team onboard. This has accelerated our growth and expansion, allowing us to have all composites manufacturing done in-house and with even more experience and capability added to the team. The large-scale manufacturing equipment that we now have set up within our Composites division means that we are able to manufacture two spray tanks per month, with the view to increase this capacity to four per month in the near future to keep up with forecasted demand.
And finally, what’s the future looking like for role equipment and Oceania Aviation’s place in the industry?
Technological developments in the rotary space continue to evolve at a rapid pace, and for Oceania Aviation we feel that it’s about bringing these technologies in, to work in a complementary way to our own ongoing developments. There is a lot of opportunity in adapting traditionally land-based agricultural systems to helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which means producing smaller and lighter systems that are specialized for aviation specifically – this also works well with our expertise in producing lightweight composite products. Developing technology does require our teams to stay on their toes; as new versions of aircraft, components and systems come out, we need to be able to modify our designs and sometimes re-certify installations that were using previous technology. But it also provides significant opportunities to adopt and offer new capabilities, products, and ideas to our customers as the technology evolves.
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