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12 Apostles

12 Apostles Helicopters fly tourists along some of Australia's most amazing scenery.

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The Great Ocean Road on Victoria’s southern coast provides some of the most iconic Australian scenes, especially the rock formations known as The Twelve Apostles, a series of limestone stack formations protruding from the Great Australian Bight. Stretching 243km (151mi) between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Allansford, returned soldiers built the original road between 1919 and 1932. The road is an important tourist attraction in the region because much of the road hugs the coastline allowing visitors to see the Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean. Officially, the ocean to the south of Australia is the Indian Ocean, but Australia regards that area as the Southern Ocean. The Great Ocean Road travels through Port Campbell, providing access to its natural limestone and sandstone formations such as The Grotto, London Arch and of course, The Twelve Apostles.

Nestled between the Port Campbell National and Twelve Apostle National Marine Parks, Twelve Apostles Helicopters (12AH) started in 2000 on a property 4kms east of Port Campbell. Present owner Richard Nesseler acquired the company in 2009. That is a story in itself and demonstrates the challenges of establishing a successful scenic helicopter operation in Australia.

How it started

Richard’s family has managed farming property along the Great Ocean Road for 40 years. Helicopters would pass through, mainly doing aerial work such as photography, using their paddocks as landing areas – and this where he first got a taste for the industry. He got to know well one operator who used a Hughes 300 for scenic flying in the area on a seasonal basis. The operator and the family became good friends and working from a caravan; the operation was low key. In 1995 however, when the pilot was killed when the helicopter broke up inflight on its way to undergo maintenance, Richard lost interest for some time. "I was in Year 11, and it hit me pretty hard. I started thinking that maybe this wasn't the game for me; it's not worth losing your life over."

A few years after the accident, another operator, ‘PremiAir’, had begun leasing an area of the property from the family using Robinson R44s. “I saw they were using R44s and that these aircraft appeared morerobust.” In the meantime, Parks Victoria also leased adjacent land and established a visitors center. He warmed to the idea of flying helicopters again, and before the tenant's lease was due to end on the property, Richard approached his family about taking it over. The family had already built a terminal and hangar on the site. He did his flying training at Melbourne’s Moorabbin Airport with The Helicopter Group, starting a company he called, ‘The Edge Helicopters. “I borrowed from our bank and purchased four R44s,” he explained. “It was a bold move as I initially only had work for two machines. It was tough at first because the ex-tenant went to Twelve Apostles Helicopters with contracts from Melbourne tour operators and when they moved, the passengers went with them. I really had too many helicopters.”

What happened with the move though was that by not being next the visitors center, busses from Melbourne were returning late and business for 12AH at its location, which was just eight kilometers down the road from the visitors center, started dropping away. A three-hour drive from Melbourne, the tour operators, could not entertain an additional stop and late returns to the Melbourne hotels and so the wheels quickly came off the arrangement. 

When it became apparent that the scenic work was falling away, the then 12 AH owner wanted to move away from that type of flying and instead, do utility work. He approached Richard to sell 12AH, and when Richard bought the company, he found himself going from having too many, to not having enough, helicopters to service the developing tourism market. He now operated both heliports and had contracts with tour operators that he needed to fill. The relationship with the tour operators is almost symbiotic. To enable the business to operate every day of the year as it does, having the tour operators onside was vital. “They sell our tickets for us, certainly for a commission but that works for them, and we get the volume of work."

Once he had secured work from the tour operators, he committed to a new EC130 B4 and now, in addition to three R44s he has four H130s (T2). He has gone from basically, having 12 seats available with three R44s to 37 seats with the addition of the four H130s. That may not sound a lot but with each helicopter able to do up to 4 flights an hour, basically the company has three times more seats versus the previous 48 seats available. So, when 12AH needs to fly several hundred passengers a day in the off-peak season and much more during the peak, that difference can make or break the business. Richard has continued to focus his energies and resources on developing his scenic flying business, choosing not to spread his wings into other parts of the industry.

The peak season is a relatively short time between Christmas Day and about mid-February when Chinese New Year is finishing up. "In that six weeks, you have to make sure everything is running and running smoothly." He even has to employ extra staff just to cover that peak season. Richard said that overseas tourism to the area, “has exploded.” He sees an ongoing year-to-year increase, that also appearing throughout the year, not just during the peak. Although Australians are known as avid travelers, 75% of the tourists on the Great Ocean Road are from overseas, primarily Asia. “You know the story,” Richard reflects, “no-one travels in their back yard.” The local tourist associations are trying to get Australians to visit the area, especially during the off-peak period. It is also important that people understand that to truly appreciate the area, it's not just a one-day trip from Melbourne. I spent a week in the area and found that this was not enough to fully appreciate the rural landscape by the sea, the rainforests or the spectacular coastline.

 

Airbus

The move the H130 was strategic in that it provided the business the ability to expand. “The H130 is a fantastic product and Airbus knows that they have the best scenic flight platform available," Richard said. "I do think, however, they rest on their laurels on the customer support. They love selling the aircraft but don't seem to be able to adequately support the client once the aircraft is sold."

The Robinson is the most popular helicopter in Australia used for everything from mustering to flight training. “Robinson support on the other hand,” continued Richard, “is excellent due to their numbers here in Australia.” "The fleet mix allows 12AH to select the best option depending on such factors as the number of passengers; the range needed, and personal preferences."

During the peak season in summer, the H130s fly their 150 hours about every three to four weeks. "So when Airbus in Melbourne here was taking two weeks to do a 600 hourly, that was just unacceptable,” complained Richard. Faced with having to buy another two helicopters to cater for the extensive turnaround times, Richard approached Yungur Aviation at Moorabbin Airport near Melbourne. "I flew the helicopter in at 5 PM, engineers swarmed over it, and I had it back the next morning, ready for operations. You really can’t ask for much better than that.” Richard said that while he pays a premium for that sort of service, it is worth every penny. “Yungur seems to be set up for that approach I think because they support many of the firefighting helicopters here."

The H130 is the ideal aircraft for scenic flying according to Richard due to its room, power and the fact that everyone can see out. He has also found the H130 (T2) to be a significant improvement over the original EC130. Although the T2 has an extra 100 horsepower, Richard said that wasn’t a consideration in moving to the new model because the original had more than enough power for the work at 12AH. The big improvements made, as far as 12AH were concerned, were the air conditioning and having the two sliding cabin doors. "There's a lot of glass, and it can get very hot. The old 130's air conditioning was a bit hit and miss and would often not clear the condensation that formed on the inside of the glass when people who might have been a little wet got in the aircraft. The new one just works so much better – you can set the temperature on the system and let it do its job." The two sliding doors allow three ground staff to handle two passengers each to quickly embark and disembark the helicopter, which is essential given the narrow window of flying the company has each day to look after the itinerant tourists from the tour companies. It allows for minimal ground time and maximizing the passengers’ time airborne.

Maintenance is always one of those challenges that operators face at some time, especially as they grow. Working so close to the ocean has challenges, especially corrosion control. The constant crashing of the Southern Ocean against the beaches and cliffs of the area puts massive amounts of salt into the air. Regular washing and corrosion control are needed.

Doing Business

When he was developing the business, Richard went to the USA to observe Maverick Helicopter’s operations in Las Vegas. Although there were some similarities, he noted that there were significant differences. "They operate such a different scale and such a different mission from us." "We're both doing scenic, but they have such a long transit to the Grand Canyon whereas our base is located at the scene – we are like being at the Canyon for them.”

"For us, 15 minutes is our most popular flight so where they may get two or three tours per machine per day; we get that per hour at our peak. It's an entirely different dynamic; they fly their machines hard and fast to get there; we stay below 100kts, and everyone gets to enjoy the ride from the beginning."

"Being where we are also makes it a lot more affordable; where you're looking at $700 for a tour in the Canyon, here you can have the tour for $145." That in itself causes challenges. The turn-around of flights is so rapid that there has to be an efficient use of what little time on the ground is available. Technology plays a huge part in making the whole venture possible. "We employed a software engineer to build us a ticketing system that’s fast, reliable and adaptable that accommodated the 130 as well as the 44s.” The PDA’s can tell ground staff immediately who bought the tickets, all their details including what flights they are on. “As well as meeting all the regulatory requirements for record keeping, the system allows us to build the flights on the spot and provide an immediate weight and balance for each flight.”

The aircraft all depart to operate offshore and avoid flying over visitors and the Apostles themselves. Local authorities imposed these conditions on the permit owners by local authorities in consultation with Parks Victoria with which they comply. Someone coming from outside the area can (and do) operate however they want, provided it is in accordance with the aviation rules. The Local and Parks authorities do not control the airspace. Richard explains, “Look if we didn’t have the rules, we would do some things the same; I'm a local, am sympathetic to the local communities concerns, and I want to make this business sustainable. I don't want to take advantage of the situation.”

In the early days, the helicopters weren't equipped with floats, so the flight route was necessarily over the cliff tops to stay within autorotational distance of land. Now they are all equipped and fly about a half mile offshore making less impact on the environment. Also, the H130s are a quiet helicopter, further lessening the impact and dulling potential complaints. The offshore route also allows the customers to look across at the coast and apostles rather than down on them.

My observation is that the helicopters do far less damage than the multitude of people following the walking paths but once again, it seems perception is more important than actuality when dealing with Australian public authorities. Richard says that 12AH lives in the area and works with Parks (after all Parks leases the visitor’s center land from his family) to keep the good relationship. One downside is that nearly every complaint about a helicopter, usually about another operator, first comes to him because he is the visible helicopter representative.

The 20-year plan for the area appears to be an idea of closing off the road and diverting it inland. The area would then be closed up, and the only access would be through a ‘park and ride' arrangement. Park the car at a carpark and the park service takes you in another bus. With thousands of people visiting each day during the peak season, it is unlikely that there would be enough infrastructure. Such an approach would likely kill off local tourism in the area and as Richard noted, "it would probably kill this business." Much of the joy of the visit is driving the coast road. My recommendation is to experience this part of the world while you can.

The routine has to be streamlined to meet the needs of their customers. Peak season or not, all customers follow the same workflow. They choose from one of three flight options ranging in length from 15 minutes to 1 hour. As payment is taken, their weight and name are recorded on an ePad. They are then presented with a boarding pass, which they take out from the terminal building to the boarding gate. Here staff is waiting to welcome them, provide the safety brief and fit their life jackets. After their boarding passes are scanned, and flights are built either for the R44 (up to three passengers) or the H130 (up to seven passengers). Escorted to the waiting aircraft, the passengers board with the help of staff.

The pilot welcomes everyone aboard before departure, provides some further specific safety information and the flight then departs. All flights are recorded via an onboard four-camera HD video system. Customers can view this in real time from a screen on the dash. During the flight, the pilot provides a running commentary as well as answering any questions. On return, customers are assisted disembarking and escorted back to the gate. They have an option of viewing their flight and purchasing the video on a USB stick or departing for their next place along the Great Ocean Road. Richard has found that because the flights are so affordable, people are taking their first flights in helicopters ever; making the whole experience even more memorable. Richard explained that it is a great business, “People almost hug you when they come off the flights because the experience is so overwhelming and that is tahe best advertisement; word of mouth."

With not a lot in the way of landmass between Africa, Antarctica, and the southern Australian coast, the weather can be brutal. There's an old quip about the weather in Victoria; "if you don't like the weather, wait an hour” That is what the Great Ocean Road is like, especially in Winter. Weather passes through very quickly and as a result; there's usually a weather window sometime during the day that makes the scenic flying worthwhile. Often, the weather makes the sights even more spectacular.

CASA Australia has tried to introduce a raft of new rules based on EASA despite the Australian industry regarding the rules as being unsuitable and considers them a quick way to destroy what has become a viable helicopter industry. The implementation has been an unmitigated disaster and people in CASA are still working through the myriad of problems the new rules have introduced. Asked about the current issues the industry has with the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Richard says that he would, “prefer to stay out of that mess.” “They hear us but either don’t seem to listen or simply ignore what we are saying as a collective group.” 

People

Currently, 12AH has 12 full-time staff, all commercial helicopter pilots. Jobs for pilots fresh out of training are few and far between in Australia, but 12AH offers those with the right attributes a way into the industry. Most of the 12AH pilots are on their first flying jobs following training. “The pilots are reasonably transient which keeps the team fresh,” Richard explains. “They stay between two and four years." There are certainly worse places to get those first hours, but the area has its challenges for young people. "The area is essentially rural and pretty quiet," notes Richard. "They've formed their own basketball team now, and I think that's helped them fit into the local community."

Starting out working on the ground in passenger management, the pilots then move to the R44. After gaining further experience and being observed by Richard, those assessed as being suitable are offered turbine endorsements paid and move to the H130. When selecting pilots to work for 12AH, Richard says that above allemployees, he looks for a customer service excellence background. He believes that the scenic flying is a good way for a pilot to build experience. "This is a pretty benign environment, and the only thing that can get a bit hairy is the weather, but really, it’s just like flying extended circuits.” He is seeing people stay longer now, though, probably due to the downturn in the resource industry and the flow-on effects to the helicopter industry in Australia.

The staff takes the opportunity for leave on rotation during the winter. During the peak season, the days are long, and so most work a 4½-day week. He also brings in casual staff over the season to supplement the permanent crew. When asked if there were any lessons he learned, he retorts, “Lessons - too many to list! I won’t be giving any away, though. But the high point is making the whole show work efficiently and receiving praise from our customers.”

 

 

 

 

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