When it comes to the debate over climate change, you won’t find Ray Cronin lining up with the sceptics.
As the boss of specialist aviation group Kestrel, he has seen first hand how the influence of climate change has grown year by year to produce what is one of the few true growth ‘industries” in the helicopter sector: fighting fires.
Kestrel, based at Mangalore, Victoria, provides emergency response and firefighting support with its fleet of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, including the versatile heavy-lift Erickson Air-Crane.
It’s been another busy fire season, particularly in Victoria and Tasmania.
“Climate change is certainly ensuring that we’re busy. We’ve seen fires internationally grow at the rate of about 10 per cent in activity and volume.”
“Kestrel’s about the same. Our fleet just seems to expand at that sort of rate, as well. The discussion now is centred around our firefighting capacity: how we can increase volumes of water and foams and proactively deliver.”
A key issue is the maintenance of firefighting staff given a telescoping of fire seasons around the world. “We used to have a good break between the fire seasons, and the different hemispheres, but they’re now merging.”
“We either don’t have enough staff coming in or we lose a lot of staff going back overseas because the American and Canadian seasons are starting early there, too.”
Cronin is one of Australia’s most experienced helicopter pilots and instructors. He has extensive experience in the general aviation industry and has logged more than 10,000 flying hours throughout his 42-year career. He holds the record of being the country’s longest continuous serving helicopter chief pilot and helicopter chief flying instructor.
He has had first-hand involvement in pilot training syllabus development to all licence and rating levels and has been an adviser to the CASA on safety and training issues.
Combined with Kestrel, that’s just his “day job”. Outside all that he is president of the Australian Helicopter Industry Association which gives him a unique insight into the health or otherwise of the various rotary-powered sectors.
The verdict on the year to June? “Steady as she goes”.
“I think we’re marking time,” he said.
“We’re not really seeing any growth in any particular direction. There’s obviously a changing of the guard in some of the aircraft with the 139’s and 189’s coming in and replacing the legacy fleet of 412’s. So there’s quite a change there, but really, that’s the only place there’s really any significance.
“I wouldn’t say we’re going behind, and we’re not going forward. There’s some new projects popping up around the countryside, but only serving to replace other projects that are falling away – in the LNG construction phase, for example.”
“Steady as she goes” over the past two years is actually an improvement on a prior period that registered the slowest growth on record. There have been signs in the past 24 months of a more optimistic outlook in Australia after one of the slowest growth periods on record, with particular emphasis on the EMS and SAR sectors, some movement in resources, and a continued focus on mustering.
“I think the mustering scene’s very healthy and stable. Because cattle prices are good,” Cronin said. “There’s not likely to be any change there. There are a lot more properties becoming self-reliant.”
All that said, steady as she goes is a long way short of the sustained eight to 10 per cent average annual national fleet growth recorded in the period between the early 2000s and 2008-9 when resource prices spiked and helicopter activity in oil, mining and exploration, in particular, was at its peak.
The problems began with the fall in prices, highlighted in the crash in oil from a spike of $US145 a barrel in 2008 to a low of around $US30 a barrel in 2016. The paradox is that while there was a flow on to the cost of fuel across the aviation sector (including the subsequent long period of some of the lowest passenger aviation fares in history) the price differential hit the extraction and exploration sector hard.
Similar pressures affect the general charter and tourism sectors and while the Australian economy has remained relatively healthy, inbound tourism has proved susceptible to changing fortunes. Sightseeing and tourism ferry flights, for example, are particularly sensitive to the health of the Chinese and Japanese economies, and rumblings linked to tariff protection issues between China and the United States have not helped.
The good news for fleet growth is that the oil price is winding back up ($US66 a barrel at the time of writing). In an interview with Australian Aviation last year the AHIA’s Peter Crook said the helicopter fleet boom-bust cycle has a history of six to eight-year peaks and troughs.
Other than the scenic and VIP sectors which have seen the introduction of new types (see breakout this feature), the AW139 is still very much the new workhorse on the commercial scene. It was the centre-piece of an April announcement by the Perth-based helicopter contractor CHC to renew its contract with the RAAF for SAR services at five bases around Australia.
A nationwide focus on the 139 underlines the sustained patronage of the two level-D full flight simulators: the CAE 3000 series simulator as part of the Toll Aeromedical Crewing Excellence Training Centre at Bankstown, and the more recent Thales LifeFlight HEMS Academy simulator as part of the Aviation Australia education campus at Brisbane Airport.
It also underscores the importance of the Leonardo service centre and logistics facility opened at Essendon Airport last year to support its regional customers.
There is no doubt the issue of regulatory reform aimed at aligning CASA requirement with the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the European Aviation Safety Authority has led to several years of angst within the industry.
Hopes of a speedy resolution of reform changes to training (Parts 141 and 142) and licensing (Part 61) after the transition period began in September 2014 have been dogged by delay, driven in particular by a debate over whether some of the more stringent European regulations should apply to Australia.
John Skeen from Lifeflight put it this way last year: “Smaller industry players are finding it difficult to fully comply with higher compliance and safety standards – many of which have or should have been in place years ago. Now faced with having to comply with these higher standards means a significant change to the business model and in many cases, newer technology helicopters to meet those standards.”
There are flow-on effects in other areas. Cronin says one of the major problems in Australia comes from a lack of flight examiners. “There’s probably only about a quarter of what we need. So accessing qualifications is really difficult,” he said.
“A lot of the examiners that are left are around my age. Myself and a few others, we’re nearly at the retirement end of our careers and we’re all running businesses, as well.”
“So, to be able to give time to the industry, to do flight checks, is really difficult. And CASA’s also got the same problem. They don’t have a lot of helicopter people available either. When you put in health issues and courses that they’ve got to do and other responsibilities, there’s a real shortage at the flight test office of helicopter examining capability.”
“What we need to do is to remove some of the testing requirements.”
I think one thing that would help the industry enormously, and I talk to CASA about it, is a multi-engine class rating which would basically cover anything under 5,700 kg.
Apart from negotiations with CASA over regs, Cronin is also heavily involved in trying to solve the engine problems allied to the Robinson R22 and 44s, a resolution particularly critical given the dominance of the types on the Australian register.
A Flight Safety awareness bulletin issued last year summed the problem up as : “Industry participants are seeing a significant increase in incidences of premature engine cylinder removals due to exhaust valve and valve guide wear, predominantly affecting Heli Mustering operations across the northern regions of Australia.”
In several cases, cylinder changes have occurred within the first 100 hourly inspection due to failed compression testing.
“It has been widely theorised that changes in avgas grade have caused the described problem when aircraft operations are conducted in high outside air temperature (OAT) environments. However, at this time it has not been conclusively determined that changes in the fuel composition is the source of the engine problems.”
A clear understanding of all potential causative factors needs to be established before any solutions can be recommended.
“An investigative stakeholder group has been formed with representation from Lycoming as the primarily affected engine manufacturer, Viva Energy Australia as the primary fuel supplier and the Australian Helicopter Industry Association, together with a number of prominently affected operators and maintainers in Queensland and the Northern Territory.”
The bulletin also says problems are not limited to Lycoming products, as cylinders fitted with parts manufacturer approval (PMA) parts have also failed in similar circumstances, and Continental engines installed in fixed-wing aircraft have had similar occurrences.
The bulletin recommends aircraft operators pay stringent attention to fuel storage and handling, maintenance of cooling system baffles, cowls and shrouds, engine fuel flow, ensuring the accuracy of engine gauges and operating engines within cylinder head temperature limits.
Cronin set up a small panel including an ATSB investigator, a fuel chemist and an engine overhaul expert and along with the association’s Paul Tyrell. “We’ve gone a long way,” Cronin said. We’ve taken samples and investigated every component in the chain.
“So, we’re getting close.”
“It is crazy and we’re treating it as a matter of urgency to really get it solved because it’s only going to be a matter of time before there’s an accident.”