Atlantic heli ops

Sven van Roij visits Atlantic Airways in the Faroe Islands to learn about its operations with the Leonardo AW139


Atlantic Airways’ scheduled flights provide a vital link to remote communities across the Faroes
All photos Sven van Roij

In the Atlantic Ocean, between Scotland and Iceland, lies the rugged archipelago of the Faroe Islands. The location of the 18 treeless, inhospitable islands and their subpolar oceanic climate ensures challenging weather conditions; it rains for around 300 days a year.

Crews of Atlantic Airways, the Faroese flag carrier, skilfully operate a pair of Leonardo AW139 helicopters in the islands’ rugged terrain and the daily strong winds and treacherous fog. The company provides domestic helicopter services, including regular scheduled flights, helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), off shore operations and SAR.

History and fleet

Atlantic Airways has operated from the country’s sole airport, Vágar, since March 1988. The airport, built by the Royal Engineers during World War Two, is home to the company’s small fleet of aircraft and helicopters. As well as the AW139s, the company also operates an Airbus A320 and two A319s. In March 2019, the fleet will be expanded with a leased Airbus A320neo.

Even though the number of aircraft is small, the fleet is modern. In 2012, Atlantic Airways was the first European airline to use required navigation performance – authorisation required (RNP AR) procedures. The RNP AR 0.1 clearance enables the Airbus fleet to perform satellite-based approaches and take-offs in challenging weather conditions, reducing operating minimiums. The technology has increased flight regularity to almost 99.8%. The fixed-wing fleet connects the Faroe Islands with various destinations on the European mainland.

In addition, the company uses two Leonardo AW139s for local operations. These helicopters have been used for two-anda- half years, but helicopters have been the lifeline to the islands for many decades.

Before the late 1970s, when helicopter operations started with a hired helicopter, Royal Danish Navy Alouette IIIs occasionally supported the inhabitants of the remote islands with various transport tasks. More flights started when it became apparent there was a high interest in setting up a public helicopter service.

Atlantic Airways’ Chief Executive Officer Jóhanna á Bergi, also the first female CEO of a Nordic airline, told AIR International: “The Danish aviation company Maersk Air began to offer a helicopter service with the Bell 212 under contract with the Faroese government in 1981. Strandfaraskip Landsins [SSL], the government-owned public transport company of the Faroe Islands, continued the helicopter department in 1984. A decade later, in the spring of 1994, Atlantic Airways started providing domestic helicopter service on behalf of SSL when the helicopter department became part of the company.”

AW139s arrive

For years, operations were flown with the Bell 212 (acquired from Maersk Air in 1994), a Bell 412EP (Enhanced Performance) and a Bell 412HP (High Performance). As part of its fleet renewal programme, the 212 was sold to Air Greenland in December 2008. A few months earlier, in April 2008, Atlantic Airways took delivery of its first AW139.

An Atlantic Airways AW139 departs Bodanes heliport. The company provides scheduled flights to 11 locations across the Faroe Islands three to four times a week.

Purchased to serve the oil and gas industry, this helicopter was on a wet lease contract with Heli Holland Off shore and operated from Den Helder in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, there was less demand for off shore helicopter operations by Atlantic Airways in the North Sea than expected. To reduce financial exposure in the helicopter segment, the AW139 was sold to Wiking Helicopter Service in October 2010. Three months later, the helicopter was delivered to the German company with a lease back option to support possible oil exploration activity in 2011.

At the same time, Atlantic Airways still flew the 412s. Bergi said: “The two aircraft were manufactured in 1993 and 1996 and our company operated them since 2000 for SAR and scheduled passenger transportation.”

In mid-2015, the company opted for the AW139 again when it signed a contract for the delivery of two examples of this type. The 20-year-old 412s were subsequently sold to Agrarflug Helilift in Germany.

Atlantic Airways operates two AW139s from Vágar Airport in the Faroe Islands, the company providing domestic helicopter services, including regular scheduled lights, HEMS, ofshore operations and SAR.
The AW139 offers a modern light deck, which includes a four-axis digital automatic light control system.

The first factory-new AW139 for Atlantic Airways was ferried to the Faroe Islands in December 2015. The aircraft, OY-HIH (c/n 31718) is named Ruth Smith, after a Faroese artist. Four months later, in early April 2016, the second AW139 arrived at Vágar Airport.

This helicopter, OY-HIL (c/n 31722), is named Sámal Joensen-Mikines, after the first recognised painter of the Faroe Islands.

The AW139 allows the company to reach the 200 nautical miles (370km) limit of Faroese territory, after which crews still have 30 minutes’ endurance to carry out a rescue before returning home safely. The type also offers more seats than its predecessor, with 14 passenger seats for scheduled lights instead of nine passengers in the Bell 412, although Bergi said: “However, we only sell 12 tickets per light so locals can always use our transport for unforeseen reasons.”

A true workhorse

The AW139 is ideal for its work in the archipelago given the helicopter’s design. The floor is low and lat, with the fuel cells behind the cabin rather than underneath, and gearbox is mounted on top of the cabin, providing more space inside.

Three times a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, Atlantic Airways provides scheduled helicopter lights to 11 locations spread across the islands.

Bergi said: “Atlantic Airways has a ten-year contract with the Faroese Ministry of Fishery and the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure and Labour. With the contract, our company provides HEMS and domestic transport to the most remote Islands. The contract is in effect from 2016 onwards.”

In the busier summer months, passenger transport is also flown on Mondays due to the many tourists who use the heli-service.

Bergi said: “During the summer months, inhabitants of the islands are often excluded from our helicopter transport since they are less focused on their daily schedule than the tourists. We do see the locals book their tickets at the last moment, as per their needs.

Lately, we have altered our online booking such that it is now only possible to book 30 days in advance for most destinations, and for some destinations only a week in advance.”

The scheduled lights are flown on behalf of the public transport company SSL and therefore subsidised by the government. However, it is also possible to charter the helicopters for transport and sling operations on non-operational days.

Islanders, government and companies hire the helicopter to transport hay, livestock, concrete, timber, sheds, oil barrels and even tractors.

This type of transport is not subsidised by government. A regular scheduled light of half an hour costs around £45 and the helicopter can be chartered for £55 per minute, excluding VAT. Every year, Atlantic Airways crews spend 150 hours in the air for transport and sling load tasks, in addition to the 450 hours to carry out the scheduled lights.

The AW139’s avionics suite is equipped with the RNP technology as onboard the Airbus fleet. Bergi said: “Our crews have gained many years of experience on the type, acquired at other companies in the of shore industry such as Gulf Helicopters and Bel Air Aviation.”

This experience is indispensable when flying over the Faroe Islands, because operations are challenging and diverse. The CEO continued: “The AW139 is one of the most advanced aircraft on the market.

On top of that, we have installed extra advanced equipment. For instance, the light management system contains a SAR package including night vision goggle-compatible cockpit and lighting, UltraForce 350 FLIR [forward looking infrared] and a Spectrolab Nightsun searchlight.

“The four-axis digital automatic light control system enables our crews to fly programmed search patterns fully automatically, auto-hover and mark on target. In addition, all our helicopter pilots receive training sessions twice a year in simulators in Qatar. To prevent catastrophic mission outcomes and to increase safety and flexibility, both of our helicopters are equipped with a double hoist mounted to the starboard side of the aircraft. Despite the solid helicopters and our experienced crews, we cancel around 8% of our helicopter flights every year. Usually this has to do with the wind and heavily reduced visibility.”

Islanders, government and companies hire the AW139s for around 150 hours a year for transport and sling load operations. Here, one of the AW139s prepares to transport fuel barrels to Dímun to power the island.
The AW139 is equipped with 14 passenger seats during scheduled flights instead of nine passengers in the Bell 412 it replaced. The rescue hoist is visible in this photo; Atlantic Airways crews fly about 200 hours for HEMS tasks a year.

Small, but dedicated

Atlantic Airways employs 180 staff, which includes seven helicopter pilots and six rescuers. Together they form three SAR crews. These crews also conduct the regular scheduled flights.

Bergi said: “About four times a year we have to cancel an island hop due to a SAR callout, which obviously has a higher priority.” SAR is a national obligation and is part of the contract with the Faroese government.

She explained: “We have a HEMS crew, consisting of two pilots and two rescuers, on standby 24/7. The Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre [MRCC] Tórshavn coordinates our rescue missions and is the sole point of a scramble.”

The MRCC was established at the Faroe Islands’ capital in 2002 and is part of Vørn, the Faroese National Rescue Services, whose logo is proudly displayed on a side panel of the helicopters. (The SSL logo is also on the aircraft.) Bergi said: “We fly about 200 HEMS hours a year. In the first half of 2018 we had 45 scrambles. Our service was called out on 62 occasions in 2017, compared to 96 occasions in 2016 and 69 occasions in 2015.”

Even though crews have a dual role of carrying out passenger transport and HEMS operations, crew fatigue isn’t a problem. Bergi said: “Atlantic Airways made an agreement with Statens Luftfartsvæsen, the Danish Civil Aviation Administration, regarding flight time limitations [FTL] many years ago. Nowadays, this arrangement still goes well within the latest FTL proposals made by the European Aviation Safety Agency.

“Sometimes we have to be careful with the hours flown due to the FTL, [but] with the limited amount of call outs per year, we did not have had any major problems concerning FTLs. We do monitor our crews with an electronic FTL programme and, so far, [we’ve] only had to call in an extra crew a few times.”

A promising future

The Faroe Islands has had an upsurge in tourists. In 2017, Vágar Airport received a record number of 341,000 passengers. The airport anticipated an increased number of visitors and in 2014 the runway was lengthened by 50% to 5,902ft (1,799m), allowing larger aircraft to land, and a new passenger terminal was inaugurated. A year later, the renovation of the control tower was completed.

Bergi looked ahead to the future of the company, which celebrated its 30th birthday in 2018. She said: “We constantly look at possibilities to improve our fleet. So far, no other type on the market has proved to be a major step ahead from what we operate today. We do see that the fixed-wing market is expanding fast and we also hope to expand our own fixed-wing and helicopter fleet in the upcoming decade.”

Currently, the Faroe Islands is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. To become a strong, independent country in the future, islanders still hope large oil fields will be found under the seabed. However, the last island-based oil company closed its doors three years ago.

There is small interest from gas and oil companies, but no licences for hydrocarbon exploration were rewarded by the Faroese government last year.

Nevertheless, Bergi hopes the helicopter division of Atlantic Airways will participate in the off shore industry again in the foreseeable future.

Pilot Captain Reynskor turns the AW139 during a scheduled flight in typical Faroese weather.