Building itself up from a single Robinson R44 tour company, Nord Helikopter in Norway has gone from strength to strength, growing into becoming one of the busiest operators in the country.
Norway, home to some of the most dramatic and spectacular scenery in the world, and some of the most tempestuous weather. With over five million inhabitants living among mountains, lakes, glaciers, and deep coastal fjords carving up the country, building a sustainable infrastructure is a mammoth undertaking, where helicopters play a fundamental part. Construction, cinematography, gas and oil, sightseeing and search and rescue make up the lion’s share of helicopter operations in Norway. In the week we visited Norway nineteen tourists had to be rescued by helicopter off of mountains and Fjords in the area after underestimating the difficulty of the terrain or becoming lost.
Although beautiful, weather can change in an instant for Nord Helikopter pilots who must react accordingly.
On the west coast, in the town of Ålesund, known for its Art Nouveau architecture and as a top tourist destination, stands the headquarters and main base of helicopter operations for Nord Helikopter. Established in 2007, Nord Helikopter started with a single Robinson R44, flying tours that showcased the breathtaking scenery of the area, later moving to offering VIP hotel transfers.
Nine years later, the company boasts a fleet of eight Airbus AS350 helicopters. Comprising of an all Airbus Helicopters fleet of Astar models consisting of a B3+, a B3, and six B3e helicopters. The company has continually grown over the years, adding a new aircraft annually to compensate for the ever-increasing demand for services. Nord Helicopter also operates a second base in Norway, located five hours south of Ålesund in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway after the capital, Oslo.
Nord Helikopter CEO Erlend Folstad has been in the helicopter business for over a decade. Folstad also held roles as the Managing Director of Fjord Helicopters and Head of Sales for Airlift Helicopters. Erlend brings a wealth of experience, passion, and determination to the organization, helping them remain the premier onshore helicopter company in Norway. Folstad’s infectious drive and determination have rubbed off on his team, who perform their various roles within the business with just as much passion, his team displaying a high level of professionalism and commitment to safety on the job.
These factors combining recently when the company secured a four-year partnership with Heliscan and HeliTeam (Two other major onshore helicopter operators), to construct 180 kilometers (111.8 miles) of new high capacity power lines to support the critical infrastructure of Norway, upgrading the existing lines, between the Norwegian towns of Namsos and Surna. The partnership, creating the country’s largest inland helicopter supplier, comprising of a total of twenty-two aircraft and seventy personnel spread between the three companies.
Øystese is a small town 47 kilometers (29 miles) west of Bergen, due to the mountainous terrain, it can take over an hour and a half to drive the 86 kilometer (53 miles) journey from Bergen but only 10 minutes by helicopter. Perched halfway up a mountain on the outskirts of town, is a small, purpose built gravel staging area for constructing a new $3.6million power line across the valley. Stattnet, Norway’s state-owned enterprise responsible for construction, operation and ongoing management of the stem power grid, sub-contracted Nord Helikopter to help build the new line while removing the current infrastructure.
The staging area, packed full of winches, fuel and cable drums, pulleys, rows of insulators stacked in crates and other equipment, is a hive of constant activity with a stream of new materials coming in by truck daily. Back in the far corner almost hidden from sight, is a bright orange AS350B3e, one of the many assigned to this contract from Nord Helicopter, crewed by veteran pilot Kristian Backer and his loadmaster Asbjørn Engevik. Kristian has been a pilot for over twelve years and is one of sixteen permanent and freelance pilots employed by the company, working a fourteen on fourteen off rotation.
The weather in the construction area is not always great, suffering IFR conditions often, as low lying cloud is very typical for the area. Sometimes the weather lifts as the temperature rises, but some day’s progress slowly due to a combination of rain showers, low clouds, and fog that hampers progress. Backer informs us that two weeks before our arrival, it was clear blue skies and sunshine, but the eight weeks prior had been nothing but continuous rain, slowing progress to a crawl as the area became soaked by the most rainfall it had seen in over a century.
As the day rolls on, Backer and other pilots on this contract must continually assess the weather around them. Constantly evaluating to avoid becoming stuck on the side of the mountain or flying in conditions that could see pilots become caught in weather that could lead to an Inadvertent Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IIMC) situation. Weather in the area frequently sees warm moist air from over the fjords that gust up the mountains, causing the air to cool and condense, creating hazardous conditions in a matter of minutes.
Asbjørn, our loadmaster on the flight, is one of nine working for the company who are all commercial pilots. The loadmasters working for Nord Helikopter are required to complete at least two years as a loadmaster before starting their flight training in the Astar for Nord.
Passengers are not permitted to fly without a loadmaster escorting them in and out of the aircraft – including being dropped at off-site locations, limiting the carrying capacity of clients from five to four in the interest of safety.
As soon as a break in the weather occurs, the crew immediately jump into action, spooling up the turbine. A previous load brief from the construction supervisor notifies the team of the type loads and the order they are to be transported. This, in turn, tells the loadmaster if they should get in the helicopter or stay behind to hook up any equipment or loads needing transportation to one of the offsite locations.
Along the three kilometer span of the power line, there are multiple construction sites with as many as twenty-five workers that may require relocating to different spots on the project each day. Weather can vary drastically at each location due to the terrain, which further complicates a pilot’s day as well as the daily progress of the project.
Two hundred kilometers directly south of Øystese, is the small town of Tonstad, A six-hour drive by road, this rural Norwegian town is the current staging area for a second major line construction from Feda, south through Øksendal to Tonstad. The new power line is predominantly running parallel with the old power line for fifty kilometers as part of the Vestre corridor project.
Nord Helikopters has three of the company’s AS350B3e helicopters working on this project. A week before our visit a fourth helicopter had to be transported back to Bergen for repairs after a chip light revealed metal filings in the main rotor gearbox. According to the manufacturer, the aircraft could have been flown for a couple of hours to get it to a repair station, but Nord Helikopters, with their safety first commitment, decided not to take the risk. The company, instead choosing to load the aircraft on a truck and transport it back to Bergen for inspection and service.
The three AS350’s operating on the Vestre corridor project each have designated staging areas spread over eight kilometers, the staging areas each covering three different operations required to complete the project; concrete pouring, tower erection, and cable pulling, also performing routine missions of moving people and equipment from each location.
Executing the mission
Ship one, flown by Magnus Fridh from Sweden and Asbjorn Engevik his loadmaster, located at the northernmost staging are just 2km east of the town of Tonstad. Their primary responsibility, transferring cement loads from cement trucks into the field to lay the foundations for the multitude of towers erected as part of the project.
A 450-liter bucket hangs 100 feet below the aircraft capable of carrying about 1170kg (2580lbs). The bucket adding 60kg (132lbs) in weight and the long line adding another 20kg (44lbs) to the slung load. The total weight of 1306kg (2880lbs) bringing the sling load very close to the max gross weight of the AS350 at 1400kg (3086lbs). Although crews try to limit loads to between 1000-1100kg that will leave power in reserve if needed, some bucket loads carry as much as 500 liters, putting the total weight close to 1300kg (2866lbs.) Loads of this weight are only transported by the helicopter in cool, calm conditions with low-density altitude to ensure enough power reserve remains.
Ship two, located 3km south of staging area one and is crewed by pilot Hans Marius Ringdal and his loadmaster Rikke Nilsen, one of only two female loadmasters in the company, the second being Kristine Holen, a twenty-one-year-old EASA Commercial pilot making her way into the industry. From their staging site perched on the side of a mountain, they fly in the steel framework to construct the towers, where ground crews then assemble them in midair.
Due to safety concerns, and depending on the weight of the load, it’s not uncommon for Ringdal to fly solo, to preserve every ounce of power required to hover the aircraft out of ground effect. While hovering some 200-300 feet in the air, an incredibly steady hand is needed to gently maneuver the giant steel loads into position without risking injury to the workers below. A task that Ringdal makes look easy.
With winds not only affecting the aircraft but the underslung load, Ringdal says that no matter how many times he’s done this, it’s always his most nerve-wracking part of the mission for him. One slip in concentration could be catastrophic for everyone. Ringdal continuously scans his instruments and the load below, listening to the pitch of the turbine and always looking for a location to set down in the unlikely event of a forced landing. Letting out a long breath, Ringdal smiles as the ground crew gives him the all clear signal and unhook another heavy load.
Aircraft three is operated by pilot by Karl Sygna and loadmaster Marcus Le Veau from Sweden. This crew having the dual tasking of cable pulling and flying Stattnet executives and engineers wanting to see how the project progresses when required.
When conducting a cable pull, the helicopter is used to transport a thinner lighter line spooling from a drum at the location, which is then pulled as far as several kilometers away to a winching system. Pulleys located on the outer cross members of each tower have small arms pointing diagonally up and away from the tower, that allow the pilot to slide the cable down the arm through a gate, locking it into place. The pilot can then continue onto the next tower without the cable falling off.
As far as complex operations go, this contract fulfilled by the team at Nord Helikopter has to be at the top of the list with some incredibly complex processes that all happen at once on this contract. From the pilots to the loadmasters and all the way to the general manager of the company, each of the companies staff shows passion for their work and the safety of all around them during this operation.
As work continues on one of the largest power upgrades in Norwegian history, we left our time with Nord Helikopter with a newfound respect for those that fly in this challenging environment daily. Having to deal with the pressures of safe operation all while keeping a constant eye on the ever changing weather in the area is something not every pilot could achieve on a daily basis, but one in which the team at Nord Helikopter seem to thrive.
Watch video of a Nord Helikopter As-350 landing at one of the offsite locations during our shoot.