Awash in offshore oil and gas rigs - and customers who have more money than time - the Emirates has long been a home for the helicopter. Private helicopter firms first set up shop in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to serve the oil and gas industry, ferrying workers to coastal rigs and providing aerial surveys. They soon began catering to the VIP crowd, delivering wealthy customers to private mansions, office rooftops or even sand-swept helipads on private islands off the coast.
On the military side, the nation is also a big customer of Boeing and Sikorsky, with attack helicopters such as the Blackhawk, Apache and Chinook heavy transporter all integral parts of the Air Force fleet. Now, private companies are tapping into new businesses such as helicopter tourism and outsourcing search and rescue from the military. Some of the country's oldest firms, with up to three decades of experience, are also being asked to export their equipment and know-how around the region. All this growth is good news for builders of civilian and military rotorcraft, many of whom were present in the Emirates this week for Helishow Dubai, a biannual gathering of helicopter makers, operators and service providers.
For lovers of the aircraft, it was a feast for the eye. Sleek attack machines clad in camouflage were exhibited alongside bulky search-and-rescue craft and elegant VIP and tourism helicopters. The event was staged at the edge of the apron at Dubai International Airport's expo centre, as commercial airliners and business jets took off and landed in the background. "A lot fewer people showed up compared with two years ago," was a popular comment yesterday, as the event wound down and helicopters were either flown off or towed away. "Could be because of the whole financial crisis thing," suggested one exhibitor. But business is strong, according to private operators.
As the largest operator in the Middle East, with 58 helicopters, Abu Dhabi Aviation is primarily an oil and gas industry services provider. But it has found its fleet in high demand, even flying onto construction sites to place the final pieces on developments such as Marina Mall. It now says demand is coming from around the region. In the coming days it will send two Bell 412 helicopters to Oman to transport 18 VIPs into the Empty Quarter. It also has helicopters and crews on long-term contracts in India, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan for private and government clients.
Ed Mitchell, the projects and marketing manager at Abu Dhabi Aviation Helicopters, said the aircraft had more moving parts than jet aeroplanes and were more difficult to maintain. It was for that reason that companies and governments outside the country had chosen to hire his firm, rather than develop their own operations, he said. Demand for training of pilots from the military, commercial operators and even amateur hobbyists has been a boon for the Horizon International Flight Academy in Al Ain. Since 2003, it has trained more than 350 helicopter pilots from the UAE, neighbouring Gulf states and as far afield as Tunisia.
In some cases, the industry growth is putting new demands on the traditional pilot. Aero Gulf, of Dubai, said it was preparing to offer the country's first tilt-rotor aircraft for charter flights. It is a buyer of the Tilt-Rotor 609 from Bell/Agusta, which takes off like a helicopter and then rotates the blades to fly like an aeroplane. Aero Gulf said it expected the new aircraft to arrive about 2011.
Abu Dhabi-based Falcon Aviation is marketing banner-towing services in the nation, while also planning to bring its helicopter tourism business to Abu Dhabi after carrying 10,000 passengers around Dubai since it began the service last year. Although the airshow saw fewer attendees than in previous years, business deals are still being done. MD Helicopters, of the US, said it had sold four of its emergency medical response helicopters - including a fluorescent green model it brought to the Helishow - to authorities in Kuwait and Qatar.
In the past three months, the US-based Sikorsky has signed with an Emirates client for six S76D executive helicopters. Steve Suttles, a regional sales manager for Sikorsky, said he had not seen any impact from the global financial crisis. When asked about his company's prospects in the Gulf, he said: "I think the word I would use is 'phenomenal'." firstname.lastname@example.org