It has been a long flight since local entrepreneur Garry Forman purchased his first helicopter in 1975.
Today, his company, Yellowhead Helicopters, is a growing industry name. Along the way, his fleet has shuttled celebrities such as Gene Hackman and Canadian politicians such as Prime Ministers Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Jean ChrÔ©tien. But at the heart of the family-run company still lies small-town values for quality of life and community involvement. Recently The Rocky Mountain Goat sat down with Operations Manager Jacob Forman, one of Garry Forman’s sons, to get an update on significant developments that have created a buzz around the hanger.
Forman says the company is working on opening a new base in Kamloops. As a result of the much-publicized 2008 crash of a Bell 206 carrying BC Hydro crews into a residential street in Cranbrook, B.C. hydro initiated an audit of all helicopter carrier companies they commission. The result was a much shorter list, Forman says. Yellowhead was one company that passed the audit.
But he says there are other factors at play in this expansion. The air operations divisions of B.C. Forestry has been moved from Victoria to Kamloops this year and there are advantages to having bases in larger centers. Clients such as mining companies will fly their managers and investors into a larger regional airport like Kamloops, and expect a helicopter pick-up right on-site to transport to remote locations.
Purchasing a brand-new helicopter is no small task. The company recently purchased another Bell 407. Originally Yellowhead placed a deposited order for a Bell 417, a higher performance helicopter based on the same airframe as the modern 407, but when the program was cancelled, the order was transferred, and a third 407 has now been added to Yellowhead’s fleet.
Forman says compared to its 206 Jet Ranger and Long Ranger predecessor, the 407 is significantly faster, and has at least double the payload capabilities of the 206 Jet Ranger. The machine is very popular with the mining and heli-skiing communities, and it seems to be gaining popularity within the forest industry as well, Forman says. Modern safety requirements are part of the reason behind the growth in demand for larger aircraft since they demand a certain total airframe weight. Today a Jet Ranger is almost 200 lbs heavier than 30 years ago simply because of higher requirements when it comes to carry-on emergency equipment, and even things like modern seatbelts.
“They all add up. Also, people are getting bigger.”
Besides a new base and purchasing of brand new aircraft, Yellowhead is also up grading and expanding their medium-lift fleet. Yellowhead has moved quickly to replace their 204’s with two 205’s recently acquired from an Australian company.
The two 205’s were originally purchased by the Omanian Police Department and served in an enforcement role in Oman for 33 years. After this, they were purchased by an Australian company which then turned around and sold them off fairly quickly. They both have very low hours, only 6,000 each, but have required many upgrades. Forman says Oman is a very humid, highly corrosive environment for a helicopter, so some airframe parts had to be replaced. The equipment requirements of Canadian jurisdictions are also unique, and moving a helicopter from one country to another requires many retrofits.
The Bell medium-life helicopters may be very old, but they still have a bright future, Forman says. The Canadian operations of Pratt & Whitney are in the process of developing a new generation of engine designed for the Bell 205. This new engine will consume 20 per cent less fuel with a 50 per cent increase in Horsepower. If this program is successful it will keep the Bell 205 series mediums in the market well into the 21st century. Yellowhead has a deposit on this engine, and if the engine gets approved, Yellowhead will be the very first in Canada to outfit with this newer engine.
“It will completely transform that aircraft”.
Yellowhead has considered expanding into the twin engine market. At one point an order was placed for a Bell 427. The program was cancelled, however the order has rolled over to the Bell 429 program which, according to Forman looks like it will be a success. Despite this, Foreman does not see the company taking delivery of such an aircraft soon.
“Yellowhead is conservative. We will let others go through the teething pains.”
The 429 twin-engine helicopter costs roughly $5,500/hour to keep in the air, about twice as much as a 407, and only offers a larger cabin and the safety precaution of having two engines. But Forman says single engines also have a great safety record. In Yellowhead’s history, there have only been two engine failures both with successful auto-rotations. Both were caused by foreign objects, not mechanical failures. Since these incidents, all the company’s helicopters have more filters to prevent air-borne debris from entering the engine.
Yellowhead Helicopters has remained a private family company based in Valemount since the time it was founded, which reflects its values.
“In a private company, profit is not the only consideration. It is nice not being driven by shareholders who live on the moon.”
Forman says there are many quality of life decisions which have led to Yellowhead remaining in Valemount. However, they do come at a price.
“Some costs are higher when you are not located in a larger center. But this is home. We could outsource the head office to New Delhi if we wanted, but we all like the view here.”
Forman says the company donates to local community efforts such as meals on wheels, minor hockey and other sports in contrast to larger companies that tend to support nation-wide charities like the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
“If at the same time it enhances the quality of life for our employees and ourselves, it is an extra benefit.”
He says if a community is better-off, employees are happier.
“We compete with the larger centers for good skilled employees so we need to support local things like minor hockey and speed skating. Some people do need more than just the backcountry type experience. They do like to have a nice dinner, or maybe see a nice show. If they have families the kids need something to do.”
When asked if the company feels that their community investments have brought returns, Forman said “most definitely!”
As of 2010, Yellowhead Helicopters employs approximately 40 people at seven permanent bases and several seasonal bases mainly in British Columbia. The head office and largest base is still located about five kilometres north of Valemount.