Reaching New Heights
By Bill Tice
If you are going to have a chat with Peter Barratt you better block some time off in your calendar and be prepared for some serious coffee – strong and dark and brewed in a European press style coffee maker.
By Bill Tice
Barratt, who likes to talk and is the boisterous vice-president and operations manager for West Coast Helicopters, is quick to point out though that his coffee dependence is not responsible for his outgoing persona. “The buzz is all me,” he confesses. “My brew of choice is dark roast, fair trade, organic, decaffeinated coffee,” he adds with an emphasis on the decaffeinated.
West Coast Helicopters is a progressive and continually growing contender in the competitive helicopter business on Vancouver Island and the rugged and remote west coast of British Columbia’s mainland. With its steep mountains, vast expanses of water and hostile weather conditions, the territory is not for the faint of heart nor the ill prepared. It is, however, a place where helicopters are a necessity for everything from transporting forestry workers to desolate logging camps and fighting wildfires, to flying medical personnel and supplies into remote First Nations communities and dropping celebrities and business moguls into luxury fishing lodges.
It’s a lifestyle and a job Barratt has come to love over the years. He came to Port McNeill on Vancouver Island in 1977 to fly for Okanagan Helicopters, which later became Canadian Helicopters. He never left. “I told my boss I would stay here for two years if the fishing was good,” Barratt jokes. “It was great so here I am,” he continues as he finishes his second cup of decaf.
Barratt left Okanagan in 1993 to start West Coast helicopters with three other partners. They bought out one of the partners and today, three of the original four – Barratt, Terry Eissfeldt and Granger Avery – are the principals. You might not know it by looking around the recently completed operations complex West Coast has just moved in to, complete with a cavernous hangar, an employee gym, a comfortable customer reception area and spacious offices, but it hasn’t been an easy ride for the trio.
“See that picnic table over there,” Barratt says as he motions over to the far side of a grassy landing strip at the tiny Port McNeill airport. “That’s how we started. I was sitting at that picnic table with my partners and we had a 206B Jet Ranger and an A-Star “B” model. No hangar. No office. Just a plan to fly 1,800 hours in our first year. We did 1,802, which was enough to make us profitable and we built everything up from there.”
To raise funds for the business, Barratt says in the early days they worked day and night. “We cashed in all our pop bottles,” he jokes. “We built the company’s original hangar ourselves with the help of a friend who was out of work, and I also did some other building projects with him to make extra money. I was flying during the day and then at night and on weekends I was banging nails with him on schools and building outhouses for local parks and campgrounds.”
West Coast Today
Today, West Coast has four bases, including Port McNeill, which also serves as head office for the company. The other bases are at Nanaimo and Campbell River on Vancouver Island and at Bella Coola on the west coast of the mainland. The company has also grown substantially in terms of equipment and now operates predominantly Eurocopter AStar Series machines, including three B models, one BA model, and five B2 models. They also have a 206B Jet Ranger and two McDonnell Douglas 500D model (MD500D) helicopters. It’s a fleet that works well for West Coast as it gives them a number of choices for seating and load capacity, which in turn provides them with flexibility when matching an aircraft to the job at hand. The AStar B2 and BA models accommodate up to six passengers each, the AStar B model can take five passengers, while each of the other aircraft in the stable can each seat up to four passengers. In terms of weight, internal load ratings are from 800 lbs on the Jet Ranger to 1650 lbs on the AStar B2, while external hook load capacity starts at 1000 lbs on the Jet Ranger and goes up to 2200 lbs on the largest AStar.
Barratt and his partners are extremely proud of the company’s new operations centre in Port McNeill, which was completed in early May of this year. At almost 16,000 sq. ft., the new building is over six times the size of West Coast’s original office and hangar, which was just 2,400 sq. ft. “We have 24 of our 44 employees at this operation and we were stepping on each other,” Barratt explains. “We had two or three people in each office. It was just ridiculous. We also needed more hangar space because of the climate and coastal location here in Port McNeill. It’s a corrosive environment for helicopters and up until now, we couldn’t keep all of our aircraft inside.”
The new hangar, which is an 8,900-sq.-ft. structure supplied by JDG Construction in North Vancouver, B.C., has four massive overhead doors. Barratt is particularly pleased with an engineering feature that allows the posts on each side of the doors to be moved. “If you simply open the overhead doors, the new hangar can accommodate four AStar helicopters,” he explains. “But the building is self-supporting and the posts are on tracks so once you have the doors open, you can slide the posts to the sides, which means we could fit up to eight helicopters in the hangar if we had to.”
The 6,800 sq. ft. of office space on two floors is adjacent to the hangar, and the two buildings share common walls on two sides. “We went with a wood frame building for the office space as it is much nicer to look at than the traditional aluminum square box industrial structures that are common in rural areas,” Barratt says, while adding that they went “green” while making the upgrades. The state-of-the-art structure, which was designed with environmental stewardship in mind, features a three-kilowatt wind turbine for power and a rain catch roof that can divert enough rain water to fill five 750-gallon in-ground drums. The collected rainwater is filtered through a brand new ultraviolet system, which supplies the office and hangar with an abundant supply of fresh water.
The new facilities also feature a pilots lounge, complete with maps and access to weather forecasts and other planning tools, a full kitchen/lunch room for employees, the gym, customer reception area and offices, and a few extras such as specialized drying and storage rooms for outdoor clothing and fishing gear that is used by recreational customers.
The business and client base has changed for Barratt and his partners over the years and the image portrayed by the new digs is important, especially for consumers or business people seeking the ultimate recreational or corporate getaway. But the owners at West Coast have not forgotten their roots, which stem back to the forest industry. “At one time, 92% of our business came from the forest industry,” Barratt says. “Today, we are somewhat equally split between forestry, tourism, and other miscellaneous projects.”
Like many suppliers to the multitude of forest industry companies working on Canada’s west coast, including Vancouver Island, West Coast Helicopters felt the crunch when the bottom fell out of the lumber business five years ago. With falling lumber prices and markets, the logging business went into a freefall as well, with many forest industry companies curtailing harvesting production significantly, or simply just fading away. Even the major producers with huge government forest licences cut production and budgets significantly. For Barratt and his crews, the impact was significant as in many cases the first items companies looked at when cutting budgets were the big ticket items, helicopters being one of them.
“Depending on what you are trying to achieve, cutting the helicopter budget is really a shortsighted solution,” argues Barratt, citing a project they did for one of the major forest products companies on the coast as an example. “They were looking at setting up a camp and sending their crews in by boat, which was a five-hour commute each way so they asked us for a budget for flying the guys in every day. We came in at 2% higher than the camp and boat option, but the crews were going home every night. We had three helicopters on the job so we could get everyone in and out in just 20 minutes each way, which resulted in the logging crews being much more productive when they were in the block and they got the wood out much quicker. In the long run, the company determined they actually saved a considerable amount of money by using the helicopters.”
In addition to flying crews in and out of remote locations, other forest industry work for West Coast includes cone raking, which they do with a specialized collection tool they designed and built themselves, GPS co-ordinated aerial fertilizing, and fire fighting with bucket drops. Recently, they have been training their crews in drip torching for broadcast burns and other fire suppression jobs. “We see the forest industry business coming back again at some point and we want to be ready to go when it does, so we have kept our training efforts up,” says Barratt. “The forest industry has been a good part of our business in the past and we are confident it will grow again in the future, it’s just a matter of timing.”
Barratt says they have also adjusted their fleet slightly in anticipation of a forest industry recovery. “We had worked up to a fleet of intermediate-size helicopters so we have brought in a few lighter machines that are more cost-effective to operate and that will position us well.”
Safety and Employees First
Barratt says looking after employees is a top priority for West Coast. “Right up front, I can tell you our employees are number one, and we feel strongly that if you look after your employees, they will look after the company and then everyone benefits.”
At West Coast, it’s a philosophy that reaches well beyond providing the new comfortable working areas and the employee gym and Barratt stresses that it plays a big part in another area the company considers crucial to its success – safety.
“Everyone has to be on the same page when it comes to safety and we have already had our safety management system (SMS) in place for five years,” Barratt explains. “Having an SMS in place will eventually be required for all helicopter operators by Transport Canada, but we are well ahead of the curve. As a matter of fact, our chief pilot and aviation safety officer, Doug Strachan, has been delivering SMS seminars to other operators for Transport Canada and the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority.”
But it’s not just Transport Canada and the FAA that fosters this kind of safety program. It’s become crucial to attracting some large corporate customers who want to ensure the safety of their employees is paramount. That includes the large contingent of forest industry companies West Coast has worked with in the past and hopes to work with again in the future, and organizations such as BC Hydro, which is the primary electricity provider in B.C. “When BC Hydro was looking for preferred suppliers in the helicopter business, they sent questionnaires out to over 100 helicopter companies province wide with questions related to safety systems,” Barratt explains. “Companies that passed the questionnaire were then audited by Hydro and if they passed the audit, they were put on the list of approved companies. Only 14 helicopter companies, including West Coast, are on the list.”
When asked about the current business conditions for West Coast, Barratt sighs a little and admits, “we could be busier,” although he adds, “I’m not worried,” while noting they had a decent summer with firefighting work on the coast of B.C. and in the interior but also went further afield. “We went outside of our more traditional areas for forest fire fighting and did work as far east as Saskatchewan.”
They also ramped up the GPS fertilization program this past summer, investing in new technology that allows them to fertilize areas of trees while avoiding fish creeks or other environmentally sensitive areas.
“We will come through this and we will be stronger because of it,” Barratt says. “The helicopter industry in Canada can be a bit of a roller-coaster ride and in a downturn like we are currently experiencing, helicopter budgets are one of the first things to get cut, and when things pick up, they are one of the last items to be added. Here at West Coast, we have a safety record that is second to none, we have well-maintained equipment, some of the best people in the industry working for us, and we are here for the long run. We are confident that when the economy does turn around, everything we have done will pay off and we will be well positioned to move forward,” he concludes as he pours another cup of his favourite brew, decaf of course.