A new Era: Gulf of Mexico operator on U.S. launch of AW189 & Houma ‘super base’

Finmeccanica helicopter division's AW189 is the latest addition to the Era fleet supporting the oil-and-gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM). As the largest global operator of Finmeccanica helicopters, including the AW119, AW109 and AW139, Era Group also has the distinction of being the launch customer for the AW189 in the Americas. Dan Megna Photo
Finmeccanica helicopter division’s AW189 is the latest addition to the Era fleet supporting the oil-and-gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM). As the largest global operator of Finmeccanica helicopters, including the AW119, AW109 and AW139, Era Group also has the distinction of being the launch customer for the AW189 in the Americas. Dan Megna Photo
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Along the U.S. Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas, the region’s economy and lifestyle is profoundly influenced by the Gulf of Mexico (GoM). The coastal waters support bountiful commercial and recreational fishing and shrimping industries, and provide passage for huge ocean freighters to and from some of the largest and busiest shipping ports in the U.S.In Louisiana and Texas, while the fishing and shipping industries are certainly thriving, it is the oil-and-gas industry which is perhaps most influential. Both onshore and offshore, the region is rich in underground energy resources and exploration, with drilling and production efforts underway around the clock.

The oil-and-gas industry depends heavily on helicopter operators to provide the diverse logistical support required to help sustain its work. From overland pipeline surveys, to freight transport, and the all-important crew change flights that shuttle workers between the mainland and offshore platforms (some more than 200 miles from the coast), the Gulf Coast helicopter fleet completes hundreds of individual flights each day. While most operators fly from dawn to dusk, there are a few that fly around the clock, providing the oil-and-gas industry with life-saving helicopter search-and-rescue (SAR) and medevac capabilities.

The AW189 (foreground) and the Sikorsky S-92, which entered service in October 2015, illustrate Era's commitment to providing customers with alternative solutions to their transportation needs. Dan Megna Photo
The AW189 (foreground) and the Sikorsky S-92, which entered service in October 2015, illustrate Era’s commitment to providing customers with alternative solutions to their transportation needs. Dan Megna Photo
One of the largest operators in the GoM is Era Group, which proudly owns the distinction as the longest serving commercial helicopter operator in the U.S. Based in Houston, Texas, Era operates a diverse fleet of helicopters from a dozen bases in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. Away from the GoM, it also has operational bases in Alaska, as well as in Brazil and Colombia.Each helicopter model in Era’s GoM fleet has been carefully selected to meet customer requirements and mission criteria. Its light single-engine and light twin-engine models include the Finmeccanica (formerly known as AgustaWestland) AW119 Koala and AW109 Power; and the Airbus Helicopters AS350 B2 AStar, EC135 and EC145. These aircraft are well suited for moving five to nine passengers.

The mid-sized aircraft in Era’s GoM fleet are the Finmeccanica AW139; the Sikorsky S-76C++; and the Bell 212. These medium twin-engine machines are engineered for speed and performance, and they excel in short- to medium-distance offshore missions for up to 12 passengers. The AW139 is also the aircraft of choice for Era’s successful offshore SAR program. Utilizing two aircraft and a third as a backup, the program supports the offshore oil-and-gas industry and is closing in on its 1,000th mission.

Era pilots trained to fly the AW189 at the Finmeccanica training facility in Sesto Calende, Italy. The course consisted of 13 days of comprehensive ground school followed by 40 hours in Finmeccanica's Level D simulator, flying from both seats. Dan Megna Photo
Era pilots trained to fly the AW189 at the Finmeccanica training facility in Sesto Calende, Italy. The course consisted of 13 days of comprehensive ground school followed by 40 hours in Finmeccanica’s Level D simulator, flying from both seats. Dan Megna Photo

Era’s heavy lifting has long been the sole responsibility of the Airbus Helicopters H225 Super Puma. This mighty twin-engine aircraft has proven itself as a reliable long-range hauler capable of moving up to 19 passengers or cargo to the most distant deepwater platforms. But while the H225 is highly regarded as a reliable and capable performer, Era is always considering ways to improve the fleet and provide diversification and more efficient and cost-effective solutions for its customers. The company’s recent introduction of two new models at the heavier end of the spectrum — the Sikorsky S-92 and Finmeccanica AW189 — is intended to do just that.

The S-92s entered service with Era in October 2015. Similar to the H225, the S-92 can accommodate up to 19 passengers, and with the S-92’s gross weight expansion (GWE) applied, the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is boosted from 26,500 to 27,700 pounds (from 12,020 to 12,565 kilograms). The H225 and S-92 will share responsibilities for the furthest missions to deepwater platforms that could extend beyond 200 miles. A total of four S-92s have been ordered to complement Era’s fleet with an option to purchase two additional aircraft.

Launching the AW189

Era accepted its first two AW189s in December 2015. The first began revenue operations in February of this year, making Era the AW189 U.S. launch customer. These big brothers to the popular AW139 are configured for 16 passengers and with increased gross weight (IGW) applied, have a maximum takeoff weight of 18,959 pounds (8,600 kilograms). Era expects the AW189 to be highly utilized within 160 miles of the coast.

The AW189 main gearbox offers a 50-minute run-dry capability, providing a significant enhancement to safety and reliability. Dan Megna Photo
The AW189 main gearbox offers a 50-minute run-dry capability, providing a significant enhancement to safety and reliability. Dan Megna Photo
“The AW189 brings an added option for our customers to provide services to deepwater facilities,” said Will Carter, one of Era’s IFR (instrument flight rules) captains flying the AW189 and AW139. “It fills a gap left between the AW139 and the S-92. . . . This aircraft is ideal for a customer who may need more than the 12 seats that an AW139 provides, but doesn’t need an aircraft as large as the S-92 or [H]225.”Carter said pilots appreciate the AW189 from a workload and flight management standpoint, and the electronic control display unit (ECDU) is perhaps most responsible for this. The EDCU replaces traditional switches and circuit breakers and places the control of many systems (including fuel, hydraulics, and electrical) in one convenient unit, decreasing pilot workload. Throughout the flight, the EDCU is constantly assessing all systems and flight parameters against each other and against the aircraft and mission management computers (AMMCs).

“The AMMCs are the central management computers for the entire aircraft,” said Carter. “This gives us the additional safety margin so we know everything is operating as it should be.”

The AW189 is a versatile platform and can be adapted to a multi-mission role including search-and-rescue. Dan Megna Photo
The AW189 is a versatile platform and can be adapted to a multi-mission role including search-and-rescue. Dan Megna Photo

While ease of operation was clearly a major focus in the aircraft’s design, crew and passenger comfort was not overlooked. Crew seats incorporate an adjustable lumbar support system, which certainly makes a difference for pilots during those long days in the cockpit. Carter said that passengers appreciate the space in the AW189’s cabin; while featuring the same number of seats across the width of its cabin (four) as the AW139, it’s 12 inches wider, so each passenger enjoys a bit more shoulder room.

So how is it to fly the AW189? “The AW139 outperforms any other aircraft on the market, and the AW189 is no different,” said Carter. “It has an excellent power to weight ratio, and with the new GE [CT7-2E1] engines, the fuel consumption has come down to levels comparable to the AW139, but still provides the power to carry the extra 3,000-plus pounds more than the AW139. The lower fuel consumption also allows us to carry larger loads further offshore and the OEI [one engine inoperative] performance of the AW189 adds that added safety margin that Era and our customers are looking for.”

The flight deck of the AW189 shares a common cockpit layout with the AW139 and offers technology that enhances efficiency and pilot situational awareness. Dan Megna Photo
The flight deck of the AW189 shares a common cockpit layout with the AW139 and offers technology that enhances efficiency and pilot situational awareness. Dan Megna Photo
Era has seven more AW189s on order and options to purchase another 10. Paul White, Era senior VP, commercial, said the introduction of the AW189 to Era’s fleet — alongside the H225 and S-92 — allowed it to offer a fully customizable fleet solution to meet customers’ needs at various price points. “The fleet diversity gives our partners unparalleled optionality and flexibility to utilize the most efficient aircraft for the job,” he said.Creating a super base

Of Era’s 12 bases serving the GoM, the Houma, Louisiana, “super base” stands as Era’s crown jewel. In June 2015, after a two-year, $22 million renovation and the construction of a massive new hangar, Era celebrated the opening of the 35-acre base with a gala ribbon cutting.

The main passenger or “large ship” terminal was converted from the base’s original aircraft hangar. Today, it’s a 17,899-square-foot modern passenger processing facility and VIP-style lounge serving those heading offshore for work. Walking through the front doors one is greeted by an Era employee who assists passengers with the check-in, utilizing automated touchscreen kiosks for ticketing and baggage. A security screening follows, using the same high-tech automated body and baggage scanning equipment used by the TSA in commercial air terminals. “At five in the morning, we rival any TSA security checkpoint. It just flows.” said Kurt Covington, Era’s director of ground operations, who oversaw the project from concept to completion.

The main passenger terminal provides passengers with a comfortable setting in which to relax as they await their flight. Dan Megna Photo
The main passenger terminal provides passengers with a comfortable setting in which to relax as they await their flight. Dan Megna Photo

Passengers are then welcomed into the bright, spacious lounge area, where 400 comfortable padded chairs and couches are neatly arranged. They can catch a quick nap or enjoy sports or entertainment programming on 10 large flat-screen televisions that encircle the room. Suspended from the ceiling in the center of the room are four enormous television monitors mounted to create a square, similar to the jumbotrons found at indoor sports arenas. This arrangement allows easy viewing from throughout the terminal for broadcast television, or for streaming Internet content like Era’s real-time flight status and flight tracking.

The terminal provides complimentary fresh brewed coffee and passengers can purchase an assortment of beverages and snacks from vending machines. Free Wi-Fi and a custom charging station for electronic devices provide an extra level of convenience.

Beyond the lounge area are separate passenger briefing rooms. Here, passengers receive their pre-flight safety and procedural briefings before being escorted to their aircraft.

Located at Houma-Terrebonne Airport, the 35-acre Houma super base is a premier heliport facility serving the GoM. Dan Megna Photo
Located at Houma-Terrebonne Airport, the 35-acre Houma super base is a premier heliport facility serving the GoM. Dan Megna Photo
Adjacent to the main passenger terminal is the “small ship” terminal. This 4,452-square-foot facility provides a bit more of a casual setting for customers making regular and repetitive local flights. These might include ongoing survey projects or inspection flights, where Era pilots are flying the same inspectors each day using smaller light single or light twin aircraft.Two dedicated ground controllers perched in a second floor loft above the main passenger terminal coordinate the movement of aircraft and personnel throughout the base. On any given morning, there may be several hundred passengers arriving as early as 2 a.m. for their early morning flights offshore. Era estimates this year they will move 120,000 passengers through the facility. During the busiest years, that number may swell to 180,000.

Before the remodel and expansion, the volume of passengers’ cars requiring long-term parking created a parking nightmare. Today, the Houma base has acres of fenced parking immediately adjacent to the terminal. An Era-branded shuttle bus is available for busy periods or runs to nearby hotels.

The passenger and baggage security screening utilizes the latest technology, yet is tailored for efficiency. Dan Megna Photo
The passenger and baggage security screening utilizes the latest technology, yet is tailored for efficiency. Dan Megna Photo
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The new hangar was designed with efficiency and safety in mind. Early in the development stages, Era planners met with maintenance representatives from several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to understand the many parameters and capabilities the hangar needed to have in order to perform maintenance on such a diverse fleet.

“The biggest key to that was the (crane’s) hook height,” said Covington. “So with the fixtures and the gear to pull gearboxes, we came up with the span of the hoist, the rating of the hoist, and the amount of height we needed on those hoists. Once we determined that, we basically built a building around those cranes. And If I have to do another one tomorrow, we’d take an identical approach.”

The hangar spans 40,000 square-feet with twin hangar bays. Each bay has its own 10-ton overhead crane, and the white epoxy floor provides a bright “foreign object damage (FOD) aware” work environment. Technicians enjoy the convenience of Snap-on Level 5 computerized tool boxes, complete with custom Era graphics, which provide the ultimate in tool control. An additional 8,000-square-feet is dedicated to shops, parts storage and office space.

The Airbus Helicopters H225 Super Puma shares long range hauling responsibilities with the S-92. Dan Megna Photo
The Airbus Helicopters H225 Super Puma shares long range hauling responsibilities with the S-92. Dan Megna Photo

The hangar is completely climate controlled. So on those summer days when it’s 100 F (38 C) and 100 percent humidity outside, the hangar maintains a comfortable temperature and humidity. Besides the obvious advantage in personal comfort, the environment protects the aircraft from the damaging effect of the humidity outside.

Optimism despite downturn

In the mid-2000s, the price of oil was beginning its most recent surge, and the oil-and-gas industry was buzzing along in high gear. As a result, Era and the other GoM helicopter operators were enjoying a brisk tempo to their business. By the second half of 2014 however, oil prices began to fall and the oil-and-gas industry responded, taking measures to scale back or postpone exploration and drilling. “People are stacking their rigs and are waiting for things to rebound,” said White. “Our operations are down but we serve a pretty diverse group in the GOM. With the reduction in POB [persons on board] count, customers re-evaluate their transportation needs and the ability to reduce costs by optimizing planning and scheduling to optimize POB and enhance efficiencies.”

White said that while Era’s top line revenue may be down year-on-year, it has ample liquidity and a strong balance sheet. “We always run as a pretty lean and efficient company in the first place,” he said. “Obviously if the activity goes down you need to adjust for that, and we expect to come out of this market downturn very strong.”

Era's massive new hangar provides a fully climate-controlled environment for aircraft storage and maintenance, as well as better protection from storms. Dan Megna Photo
Era’s massive new hangar provides a fully climate-controlled environment for aircraft storage and maintenance, as well as better protection from storms. Dan Megna Photo
In every business, there are cycles and trends. Some are good, and others, not so much. While the present drop in oil prices is causing some belt tightening, Era remains optimistic and is considering new opportunities.”We have a modern, highly diverse helicopter fleet, offering customers superior flexibility,” said White. “As a manger of these assets, we’re looking to put them to work. We can augment the offering with our operational expertise in different end markets — air medical, oil-and-gas, tourism, utility… you name it — or we could place assets on a dry lease. Strategically, we look at any and all potential end markets, not just oil-and-gas.”

But folks throughout the Gulf Coast remain confident oil prices will rebound and the oil-and-gas industry will then resume operations in earnest. When it does, Era will be there, with new aircraft and infrastructure — and a legacy of over 65 years serving the oil-and-gas industry throughout the GoM.

Robert Flores is one of Era's 68 aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs) assigned to the Houma base. There are also two supervisors, six line leads, four support personnel and a regional maintenance manager. Dan Megna Photo
Robert Flores is one of Era’s 68 aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs) assigned to the Houma base. There are also two supervisors, six line leads, four support personnel and a regional maintenance manager. Dan Megna Photo

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