A Sikorsky S-76D operated by National Helicopter Services, Ltd. is bathed in late afternoon light, manuevering above a solid cloud deck over the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean.
Throughout the tropical blue/green waters of the Caribbean there are thousands of individual islands. Some are tiny, undeveloped outposts of natural habitat. Others are quite large with vibrant population and business centers, and alluring beach resorts that attract visitors from around the globe. Many islands are governed as territories of foreign countries; others have formed their own governments to establish themselves as sovereign island nations. But common among almost all is their dependence on the almighty tourist dollar to create jobs and sustain their economies.
At the south of the Lesser Antilles island chain, and just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela and mainland South America, lies the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T). Tourism here, at the eastern boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean, is certainly an important cog in the economic wheel, but with the discovery of oil off the T&T coast in the late 1960s, the country found a bigger fortune underneath its waters. Commercial oil deliveries began in 1972, and today, T&T is the largest oil-and-gas producer in the Caribbean.
The large red roof building is NHSL’s main office and hangar facility. The framed building beyond the smaller red roof building is the future home of Trinidad and Tobago Aviation Institute.
As the industry flourished, the need for reliable offshore helicopter support became apparent, and, in 1989, the T&T government partnered with The National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago to create National Helicopter Services Limited (NHSL) to provide it. (The government was an 82 percent shareholder, with the utility company owning the remainder.) The assets of the T&T Ministry of National Security Air Division Helicopter Unit became the new NHSL, and flight operations began the following year.
“NHSL was formed for the purpose of providing offshore helicopter services to the oil-and-gas sector and other commercial entities, as well as [to continue] services to government — particularly in an emergency or disaster situation,” said Marc Dasent, NHSL’s chairman.
The NHSL S-76D rear has seating for 12 passengers, each seat with integrated shoulder restraints.
The company’s headquarters are in Couva, on the west coast of Trinidad, about 20 miles south of the capital city of Port of Spain. With a fleet of seven Sikorsky S-76 aircraft, NHSL moves an average of 70,000 passengers annually, providing the offshore oil-and-gas sector with crew changes and medevacs, while also offering medevacs in critical cases for locals and visitors throughout T&T and the smaller nearby islands. The company has also completed long-distance missions as far away as Montserrat (over 400 miles north of T&T) to help evacuate a village following a volcanic eruption; and to Grenada, where crews were required to fly repeated 120-mile (193-kilometer) legs over water to provide aid and support after a hurricane hit the island.
“The distances we typically operate make the S-76 the ideal platform,” said Homer Solomon, the company’s director of operations. “The safety systems, speed, reliability, and fuel efficiency of the machines ensure that our clients enjoy the most efficient offerings possible. From where I sit, it is truly the best combination to have in order to best satisfy the varied travel and operational experiences sought by our clients.”
A Sikorsky Fleet
NHSL has flown Sikorsky helicopters since it began operations. Over the years, it has flown 12 S-76s (including the S-76A, the S-76A++, the S-76C++, and the S-76D), logging more than 100,000 hours.
The high tech glass cockpit of the S-76D, featuring Thales Top Deck avionics suite. The two dome objects on the center console are the Cockpit Control Devices for controlling the various panel displays via finger activated switches and a trackball.
“Our longstanding relationship with Sikorsky was based on the reliability and robustness of the S-76 legacy, and the value that they place on their customers,” said Joshey Mahabir, NHSL’s general manager and CEO. “Our operations are indeed very small when compared to other international operators, but we are nonetheless treated as equals.”
The seven S-76s currently in the NHSL fleet include three Sikorsky S-76C++ and four S-76D aircraft, which all meet the standards of the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (OGP). The fleet averages 550 hours per month, with the S-76D currently averaging 100 hours per month.
“The S-76D is a natural progression for NHSL, as we have full confidence in the S-76 platform based on its performance, safety, and operational availability,” said Dasent. “Its safety features stand out against all others in its class.”
NHSL’s expansive hangar provides ample room for maintenance as well as housing aircraft.
NHSL completed the first-ever commercial revenue flight with the S-76D in February 2014, and since then its S-76Ds have flown 2,750 hours — with an estimated availability above 90 percent. “As far as we could find, that was the fastest that anybody had ever clocked that many flight hours,” said David Martin, Sikorsky’s director for the commercial energy & oil sector. “[The S-76D] gets up and goes to work every day.”
NHSL’s chief pilot is Sean Reid, who has many years of experience flying the S-76. “The [S-76] D model has many advantages over the legacy aircraft,” he said. “The fuel burn is noticeably less, which allows for more payload to be carried over the same distance; the cabin is quieter; [and] vibration levels lower — making this the most comfortable S-76 variant.”
David Martin, Sikorsky’s director, energy and oil sector; John Gow, Sikorsky aftermarket manager, Latin America; Joshey Mahabir, NHSL’s general manager and CEO; Adam Schierholz, deputy regional executive Latin America and Caribbean; and Albert Rodriguez, Sikorsky account service manager.
To achieve this performance, Sikorsky engineers incorporated the latest technology into the all-composite main and tail rotor blades, which reduced the noise and increased efficiency. The gears inside the transmission have been what Sikorsky refers to as “super finished” to contribute to the reduction of in-cabin noise levels. Finally, an active vibration control system greatly reduces vibrations throughout the airframe.
The aircraft is powered by twin Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210 turbine engines with dual-channel FADEC. These provide a significant increase in power while reducing fuel burn; they consume an average of 630 to 640 pounds of fuel per hour (92 to 94 gallons).
How do the new engines and the S-76D perform in the hot and humid conditions of the tropics? “The Pratt & Whitney engines are more than up to the task,” said Reid. “Most helideck takeoffs are effortless with very little exposure time after rotation.”
Two of NHSL’s S-76Ds — but there are subtle differences between them. The closer aircraft has slightly larger rear cabin windows, a customer option offered by Sikorsky after serial number 37.
Perhaps the most visually evident improvement to the S-76D is found in the cockpit, in the form of the Thales Top Deck avionics suite. This fully integrated glass panel cockpit is the first of its kind to be offered by a helicopter OEM, and advances helicopter piloting to now be on par with flying the latest business jets.
The Thales system utilizes an intuitive finger-controlled cursor device that allows the pilot to easily scroll through and select the various system functions required. “The suite is very different to anything that has been in any [previous] S-76 cockpit,” said Reid. “It is a beautiful system that enhances cockpit ergonomics and situational awareness like never before. Most things are no more than two clicks away.”
A health usage monitoring system (HUMS), adapted from the one used in the Sikorsky S-92, provides maintenance personnel and Sikorsky engineers with a daily status report from a number of aircraft components and systems.
NHSL chief pilot Sean Reid began his helicopter career flying in the Jamaican Defense Force.
“This S-76 is a modern helicopter,” said Reid. “The cockpit is more ergonomic and the ability to select and control the information that you need is ideal and in keeping with modern industry standards. The performance is more than adequate, giving confidence that you have that power when you need it. Sikorsky has exceeded expectations with regard to the AFCS [automatic flight control system]. The system makes flying the aircraft a dream with a significant improvement in flight control accuracy.”
Building for the Future
NHSL has 178 people on staff, including 33 pilots and 79 aircraft maintenance, engineering and line service/support personnel. Set in a somewhat rural setting, the NHSL main facility is quite large and houses the administrative offices, meeting facilities, passenger processing area, aircraft control tower, and an expansive hangar for housing and maintaining the fleet.
Keeping aircraft flying: Teddy Dalchan, one of NHSL’s licensed maintenance engineers.
One hundred yards across a large aircraft movement apron and grass departure corridor is a smaller complex. This serves as a remote passenger processing/loading area to relieve congestion during busy periods.
Just beyond the smaller complex is a multistory framework under construction, which will house the University of Trinidad and Tobago Aviation Institute (UTTAI) once its completed later this year. The institute is a multi-faceted strategic initiative in which NHSL, the University of Trinidad & Tobago, Caribbean Airlines Limited, Metal Industries Company Limited, and the Trinidad and Tobago Civil Aviation Authority are partnering to provide expert training for technical personnel in the areas of aviation maintenance and engineering. Sikorsky Aircraft is also exploring opportunities to lend support to the institute, which will be the first of its kind in the region.
Scott Lewis (left) works to ensure a safe work environment while dispatcher Aaron Blackman handles passenger movement.
“There is a shortage of qualified personnel in the aviation sector and more so in the rotary [wing] arena,” said Mahabir. “This partnership would provide that level of personnel to fulfill this gap.”
The success of UTTAI is extremely valuable for T&T to ensure the stability and growth of the region’s aviation industry, and is of particular interest to NHSL due to its external maintenance work. For the past 10 years, NHSL has been the maintenance provider for the National Operations Center (NOC) Air Division, which is a national security and law enforcement aviation element that also provides disaster relief, search-and-rescue (SAR) and medical transportation throughout T&T.
First officer James Leighton has been flying with NHSL for two years.
“NHSL provides maintenance, air crew training, guidance and oversight for professional aviation management for the air operations unit of NOC,” said NOC executive director Garvin Heerah. “They have been partly responsible for the development of the air operations unit of the NOC.”
The NOC helicopters include an S-76A++ and a new S-76D earmarked for counter terrorism, and it recently inked a deal with Bell Helicopters for four 429s and a SAR-configured 412EPI.
Going forward, NHSL is optimistically focused on growth and pursuing new opportunities, not just in the local T&T market, but throughout the Caribbean and South America. In that vein, while there are over 60 oilrigs dotting the waters around T&T, ExxonMobil recently made a significant oil discovery many miles south of T&T —120 miles off the coast of Guyana — that may require a significant volume of traffic to be taken much further afield.
The technology and engineering applied to the tail rotor significantly reduced the external acoustic signature of the S-76D.
“We are moving to upgrade our fleet of aircraft with the newer S-76D, and are looking into the future with the S-92 as the Trinidad & Tobago exploration moves into the deep water blocks and further offshore,” said Mahabir.
A recently completed four-month drilling contract with Exxon Guyana, which utilized two S-76Ds, has given NHSL a toehold in the country. “We keenly look forward to business opportunities in Guyana, as we are there for the long haul,” said Mahabir. “Of course, this would mean more aircraft, and as such we have already started the discussions with Sikorsky on this matter.”
In order to meet some of the requirements of working farther offshore, NHSL is also developing deepwater SAR capabilities. “We have started our SAR program with the acquisition of a fully equipped aircraft [an S-76C++], which would be operational in Trinidad by the end of August 2015,” said Mahabir.
Originally designated S-74 during development in the mid 1970s, its designation was changed to S-76 in 1976 in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial.
NHSL is understandably committed to anticipating and adapting to the rapidly changing needs of its commercial customers. But it also understands its responsibility to the residents and visitors of T&T, as well as their island neighbors, in providing an enhanced level of emergency response and rescue capabilities.
Their dedication to this is particularly evident in the development of its new deepwater SAR role. “This is just the beginning of our entry into this market,” said Mahabir. “We will be moving full speed ahead in developing our full potential to fill the void in this region.”