VIH Aviation Soars in a Competitive Industry

Flying has fascinated us ever since the Wright Brothers took that first flight in 1903. Today, we have airliners capable of carrying 300-plus passengers more than 7,000 miles at speeds approaching 1,000 miles an hour. The aeronautical industry has come a long way in just over 100 years, and for 60 of those years, the local firm VIH Aviation Group has been a major industry player.

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Jen Norie, general manager of VIH Helicopters, with a Bell 47G2 helicopter in a hangar at the company’s headquarters in Victoria. VIH started in 1955 with a single Bell 47G2 helicopter and today operates a fleet of over 50 helicopters of many varieties. Photograph by Simon Desrochers.

The most interesting aviation stories feature individuals who have blazed their own trail across the skies, people like Frank Norie and his son Ken, owners of VIH Aviation Group, a local firm celebrating its 60th anniversary in April.

Headquartered in North Saanich, the company has offices in St. Johns, Newfoundland and Goffs, Nova Scotia. It has five operating companies under its banner, which collectively employ about 400 people — and it operates aircraft across Canada and in some of the world’s most inhospitable regions.

VIH Helicopters, the oldest of the five companies, started out in 1955 as Vancouver Island Helicopters. Today, it’s the oldest privately owned helicopter company in Canada. It all started with Ted Hensen, a Victoria automotive mechanic, who wanted to fly helicopters to provide services to the Island. He raised financing and approached the Seattle Bell Helicopter dealership, owned by Bill Boeing Jr., to purchase a Bell 47 helicopter.

Boeing saw potential and offered to take shares in return for defraying part of the cost of the aircraft. Unfortunately, their relationship was short-lived; while flying for the BC Power Corporation carrying out site surveys for a dam in western B.C. (one of their first major contracts) Hensen went missing. Neither he nor his helicopter were ever found.
Hensen’s wife, Lynn, who handled the company’s administrative affairs, carried on and in the early 60s brought in Alf Stringer, one of the founders of Okanagan Helicopters, whom she later married, to run the company.

A Company Takes Off
Several years later, Frank Norie and his brother entered the picture. They were in the conventional logging business using traditional ground equipment and flying fixed-wing aircraft.

“A friend of my father’s was also a logger and had bought a Bell 47,” Ken Norie recalls. “He convinced my dad it was far more appropriate than [flying] fixed wing for timber cruising, getting in and out of remote logging camps when the weather wasn’t so good. So my dad ended up buying one. This was 1969 and he learned to fly it at VIH … [who] helped him buy it and carried out the required regular maintenance.”

So began a business relationship between Frank Norie and VIH. “At the time he bought the helicopter,” Ken recalls, “I was 14 or 15 … he taught me to fly it because it had dual controls.” Ken then took his official training at VIH, got a private licence at 17, a commercial licence at 18, and went to work for VIH a few days later. The year was 1973 and Ken became the youngest person in Canada at that time to get his helicopter licence.
Within two years, Boeing sold his shares to Frank Norie and in the mid-80s Frank made further investments. Then, during the early 90s, Ken began buying shares in his father’s company. By 2000, he was in a position to buy out his father and take 100 per cent ownership.

Driving Growth
During the last 14 years in an ever-changing industry, during tough economic times, the company has become increasingly successful. Didier Moinier, the company’s senior VP of global development, says, “Overall, there have been big changes in the past 10 years since the new generation of helicopters came out … the big driver these days, money-wise and activity-wise, is offshore oil and gas exploration.”

He notes that since 2005, when the first Sikorsky S-92 was delivered, the industry has grown more sophisticated and features more airline-type operations than “adventure, jump in the cockpit and go flying.”

Ken Norie’s daughter Jen, general manager of VIH Helicopters, agrees with Didier. “It’s more regulated and there’s been a lot more cooperation between companies, government and customers to form best practices. Now there are safety standards you have to conform to [that were] never in place before …”

New technology allows Jen to check the exact location of any aircraft, day or night, on her cell phone, or on a big screen in VIH’s operations room. “Pilot’s have iPads in their helicopters,” she says.

“They have all their maps on them … they take pictures of their flight tickets and email them to us so we can bill customers.”

If any aircraft drops below 100 feet, or if a pilot presses a panic button, it triggers an alarm back in Victoria. The system was tested recently when a Peruvian VIP accidentally hit the button with his leg while on a site survey.

Asked what has made the company so successful, Didier credits Ken for making smart decisions. One of them was VIH’s decision to purchase the Kamov helicopter from Russia. A heavy lift helicopter, the Kamov has two rotors that counter-rotate so there’s no tail rotor. All the power goes to the main rotors.

In many ways, this decision to purchase the Kamov instead of another helicopter demonstrates why VIH is an industry leader. Management has an innate ability to identify and act upon opportunities. They attend industry conferences where they meet with logistics and navigation experts from oil companies to discuss future needs and direction. It’s about knowing what clients need.

No other operator in North America has managed to purchase and fly a Kamov. Asked why, Didier says it’s probably, in part, to do with an inherent cynicism toward Russian technology (perhaps left over from the Cold War years), along with the difficulty of penetrating the Russian system. VIH has built a special relationship with Kamov and has two Russian-speaking employees working in Russia. The Russian company uses VIH as their flagship for promoting its aircraft to western markets.

“We’re always looking for that next opportunity,” says Ken, “something to be ahead of everybody else.”

Purchasing the Kamov, originally designed as a ship-borne submarine killer, and to use it for fighting wildfires, logging and construction projects, must have seemed out of left field to others in the industry. Many undoubtedly thought of Russian cars and expected the helicopter to be of lower quality. Graham Lavery, pilot and writer at Vertical magazine, said in his article on the Kamov, “These pre-conceived notions … led me to believe the Ka-32 would be rough, clumsy, and perhaps even slightly unwieldy …” But Lavery admitted he couldn’t have been more wrong — and in 1998 VIH made Canadian aviation history by getting Transport Canada certification for the Kamov.

Today, VIH has four of these highly profitable Kamovs. They have seen service in Canada and in northwest China, Taiwan, Sudan, Cameroon, and during the aftermath of the 7.6 magnitude earthquake in Kashmir in 2005.

Currently, one Kamov is constructing a camp and moving oil rigs in the Amazon Basin of Peru on a two-year contract; another two are in Saskatchewan helping build a power line.
“ … these longer contracts are relatively unheard of in this business,” says Jen. “It’s usually a case of helicopters jumping all over the place from job to job for two months at the most …”

VIH has managed to secure longer-term contracts not only because its fleet of Kamovs is well suited to the niche it operates in, but also due to the capabilities of its pilots and maintenance crews which allow aircraft to spend more time in the air. And more air time equals more money.

Smart Expansion
Another major turning point for the company was the purchase of Northern Mountain Helicopters in 2002 and Cougar Helicopters in 2003. The latter retained its name and operates Sikorsky S-92 and S-76 helicopters out of several locations on Canada’s East Coast. The company provides passenger transport to the offshore oil industry.

“Not only do they take passengers back and forth to the rigs,” says Jen, “but also we operate a private search and rescue terminal with round-the-clock staff. It’s like a fire hall concept; we can launch a helicopter in under 20 minutes and be out there searching for people.”

Surviving the downtURn — And Thriving
VIH, like most other companies, was hit by the 2008-09 economic downturn, but unlike many companies, they saw the downturn as an opportunity. They decided to sell many of their aircraft and refocus the business.

“At one point VIH had about 95 helicopters,” says Jen. “It was huge; now the group, including Cougar, has 15 helicopters. We contracted them to a former competitor and they took over the contracts, with crew and management. So, it wasn’t a crisis — it went smoothly.”

“In the last three years we refocused on just heavy helicopters,” says Didier, “because it’s such a niche market … Throughout the last 20 years the heavy helicopters have always been profitable.”

The parent company doesn’t fly all the aircraft it owns. “VIH Aviation Group carries out dry leasing of large heavy helicopters,” Ken explains, “so right now we own five Sikorsky S-92s with two more coming in the next while, which we dry lease out to other operators. A dry lease is like financing — we buy helicopters and make them available, normally for a 10-year term, with our clients crewing them.”

One project where VIH Aviation Group leads the way is in building long-range fuel tanks for the Sikorsky S-92. VIH manufacturers them in Victoria and sells them to other operators through Sikorsky.

Management consensus is that the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) sector (i.e. mining, oil and gas, hydro, construction, fire suppression and forestry) will be front and centre in the coming years, with possibly eight more aircraft in the air by 2020. “The Arctic is going to be big in the next few years,” says Didier.

The Jet Set
Another growth area, says Jen, is chartering executive jets, with growing local demand coming from business people, the construction industry, developers and international celebrities. “The Challenger 604 was in China a couple of weeks ago — it’s non-stop. It kind of blows my mind that a small but luxurious private jet company from Victoria is flying movie stars internationally,” says Jen.

VIH Execujet also operates a Hawker 800SP jet which is available for charters to destinations throughout North America.

Initially VIH purchased the Hawker 800 to allow their team to travel quickly back and forth to their East Coast businesses. Once they had the aircraft (based at Victoria Airport), pilots, maintenance crews and flight attendants, they discovered a market for it in Victoria/Vancouver. A few years ago, the Hawker was contracted to a company in Greenland for crew changes, so VIH decided to buy a larger jet — the Challenger 604. Since then, both jets are chartered consistently.

A Lasting Legacy
The ambition and passion of the Wright brothers lives on in Ken Norie and his team at this innovative and progressive North Saanich company. And especially in Jen Norie, who started working for VIH when she was 12 years old, doing photocopying for $5 per week. Her professionalism, commitment to the industry, and her enthusiasm and excitement bode well for the future of VIH Aviation Group. As she says, “I understand why people are so attracted to aviation. How can you not be?”