“Our goal is to be ready for when the oil and gas resurgence occurs and continue to partner with the oil and gas companies who are investing in Alaska… We’re waiting for those remote outlier areas to open up, because that’s when we’re going to see a big renaissance of helicopter services on the North Slope.”
—Chris Maynard, Vice President/Director of Sales
Pathfinder Aviation
A helicopter approaches an oil rig. One of the main uses for helicopters on oil rigs is crew transfers.

Pathfinder Aviation

High Function, Low Impact Air Services
Helicopters in Alaska’s industries
By Isaac Stone Simonelli

elicopter services fill a specific need in Alaska’s extraction industries. The mining and oil and gas industries rely on rotary-winged aircraft for everything from site testing to crew changeovers in the vast, remote areas in which these industries operate.

With many of the large, legacy helicopter operators based Outside leaving the state to seek higher returns in the last ten years, Alaska’s helicopter services are now dominated by mid- and small-sized operators, explains Chris Maynard, the vice president and director of sales for Pathfinder Aviation.

“At one point of time, we had Erickson Helicopters here, you had Bristow, you had most of the major Gulf of Mexico oil and gas operators up here, but they’ve all pulled out of Alaska to chase higher-margin oil and gas work around the world,” Maynard says. “That leaves more of the mid-sized companies serving the marketplace, and we’re probably the largest oil and gas operator in the state right now.”

“Our goal is to be ready for when the oil and gas resurgence occurs and continue to partner with the oil and gas companies who are investing in Alaska… We’re waiting for those remote outlier areas to open up, because that’s when we’re going to see a big renaissance of helicopter services on the North Slope.”
—Chris Maynard, Vice President/Director of Sales
Pathfinder Aviation
Flying for the Oilfield
Pathfinder, founded in 2001, originally focused on utility work, which mostly caters to transporting officials and scientists from various state and federal bureaus and departments—such as the US Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, and Alaska Volcano Observatory—to remote areas. Such work is also tied to the oil and gas industry, since agencies and researchers need access to areas such as NPR-A or the 1002 region of ANWR long before projects are operational, under construction, approved for construction, receive permits, or are even in the permitting process. Scientists need to begin their assessments—taking fish counts, conducting hydration studies, providing archaeological assessments, and so on, explains Maynard.

“We started out as a utility-work type of operation and grew into oil and gas. We’ve been supporting the oil and gas industry since the mid-2000s. We’re one of the largest operators in Alaska supporting the oil and gas industry,” he says.

With an aggressive growth plan, Pathfinder looks to add two to three aircraft to its fleet of sixteen (fifteen helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft) year-on-year for the foreseeable future.

“And, of course, we can get more helicopters as needed by the contract. If a customer establishes the need for more helicopters for their project, we’d go out and get more helicopters,” Maynard says.

This approach of increased investment by the owner group comes despite an ongoing, statewide recession. But even as oil prices continue to fluctuate, oil and gas companies have found ways to improve their efficiency and develop practices to keep costs, including the costs of helicopter services, down.

The drop in oil prices forced Pathfinder and other helicopter service companies based in the 49th State to further diversify their portfolio.

“We perform a lot of work in the firefighting industry; we do a lot of work in the mining industry; we are doing a lot of utility work in general,” Maynard says, noting that they also dip into the tourism industry—including providing services to heli-ski guides all over Alaska.

Though the company has diversified since the downturn, it continues to maintain permanent bases in Prudhoe Bay, Nome, Anchorage, and Homer, where the company was founded.

“Our goal is to be ready for when the oil and gas resurgence occurs and continue to partner with the oil and gas companies who are investing in Alaska,” Maynard says. “We’re waiting for those remote outlier areas to open up, because that’s when we’re going to see a big renaissance of helicopter services on the North Slope.”

Even without such a resurgence there is a certain level of steady work to be done for the oil and gas industry, though such work varies between regions and seasons.

In Cook Inlet, helicopters primarily provide passenger service to oil rigs. In order to meet the high standards of the oil and gas industry, twin-engine helicopters, such as Airbus EC135s or Bell 212s, are used. Though boat access is possible to Cook Inlet platforms, many shift transfers are conducted via helicopter, as well as some cargo transportation.

“You can get to the Cook Inlet platforms via boat, but it’s not very reliable and the Cook Inlet tides are very fast and make guaranteed service via boat not as reliable as the helicopter,” Maynard explains.

On the North Slope, most of the work is also primarily personnel transport, especially during the spring and fall.

“Typically speaking, the helicopters are used during the shoulder season between when they can run crew boats in the summer and have the ice road in the winter and can do more vehicular traffic out to the islands,” Maynard says. “Most of our oil and gas work on the North Slope comes at the same time of the year: freeze-up and breakup.”

Workers run through an aircraft down drill.

Mark Stigar/
Pathfinder Aviation

Workers run through an aircraft down drill.

Mark Stigar/
Pathfinder Aviation

Inspections and Collections
For Alyeska Pipeline Service Company the day-to-day needs for helicopter services are different than those of an extraction company.

“Helicopters support various functions along the pipeline, including emergency response and preparedness, safety, and integrity surveillance. The purpose of helicopter services is to ensure the safety of our people, pipeline, and environment,” explains Michelle Egan, chief communications officer for Alyeska.

“Alyeska uses helicopter services on a daily basis if weather allows. Helicopters are strategically positioned throughout the pipeline corridor to ensure we have coverage.” Egan confirms that Alyeska doesn’t own or operate any helicopters but has staff who work closely with contractors across the corridor. While the pilot flies, there will usually be an Alyeska employee onboard to carry out additional tasks, such as surveillance.

Though Alyeska regularly monitors the pipeline via helicopter, the long summers of constant light in the far north usher in a different type of work for helicopter operators who secure contracts with exploration companies.

“We come out and take different engineers and geologists out to do sampling, look at water tables, stick picking, and so on,” Maynard says.

“Stick picking” refers to the collection of delineators that were placed along ice roads, Maynard explains. Often, there will be sections of ice road that companies were unable to access in time to collect the delineators. However, they must be removed from the tundra to minimize the impact on the environment.

Missions to collect debris and take samples are carried out in a variety of different helicopters, depending on the customers’ needs, though all Pathfinder helicopters are outfitted with bear paws (similar in concept to snowshoes, bear paws provide stability on soft and uneven terrain and added grip on ice or other hard surfaces) on the skids, designed to have minimal impact on the tundra.

“Landing a helicopter on the tundra is permissible and allowed; it does not affect the tundra or cause scarring in the tundra,” Maynard says, noting that the usual reason oil and gas companies hire helicopters for such trips is because they can land, giving passengers access to remote areas. “If you want to fly a sensor over a pipeline, that kind of work usually goes to fixed wing aircraft. But if you need an aircraft to land next to the pipeline and go investigate something—land somewhere an airplane can’t land, obviously—that’s where a helicopter comes into play.”

The preference for fixed-wing aircraft when conducting flyovers with sensors comes from them being inherently cheaper to operate than a helicopter. However, because helicopters play an essential role in transporting people and gear to remote locations that neither planes nor land-based vehicles can access certain times of the year, Maynard says he’s not worried about the rapid development of drone technology.

“Drones are a long ways away from taking workers to and from the platform,” he says. “They’re not going to be able to stop and pick up sticks or a core sample in the foreseeable future.”

In the summer and early fall there’s a recurring assignment for those providing helicopter services: ice road building.

“Some subcontractors need to go out and check the lakes with Zodiacs and sonars in order to apply for their permits to put in ice roads because you need to have a certain size or depth of lake to pull the water off of it in order to build ice roads,” Maynard says.

And they get to these remote water sources via helicopter.

And in Mining…
Unlike in the oil and gas industry, where helicopters play an essential role from exploration phases through production phases, in the mining industry in Alaska helicopter work is largely on the exploration side.

“There are a few remote mines that do have helicopter services to support production,” Maynard says. “But most of the work is from an exploration side, where we’re dealing with geologists, hydrologists, obtaining core samples, performing core drilling, and a lot more.”

One significantly different task assigned to a helicopter crew working a mining contract versus an oil and gas job is moving and assembling the drill rig.

“These drills are broken down into flyable weights, where we can use our aircraft to move them up a hillside,” Maynard says. “Then the ground crew will carefully reassemble the drill up on the hillside with the helicopter holding the key pieces in place.”

For such precision work, which is essentially on par with operating an aerial crane, helicopter companies will put their best long-line pilot in the cockpit.

“We move a lot of the drill rigs around. Then, once the drill rigs are moved, we turn into a shuttle bus, moving people up and down the hillside, as well as supplies and core samples back to the core tent,” Maynard says.

A helicopter awaits its next mission.

Pathfinder Aviation

A helicopter awaits its next mission.

Pathfinder Aviation

Remaining Competitive
Even with its large fleet and strong financial backing, Maynard says competition remains stiff in the industry.

“A lot of helicopter contracts go out to bid: sometimes they change hands, you win them back some years, while in others they end up with the competitors. It’s definitely a competitive landscape. We are focused on partnering with our customers to come up with creative solutions to meet their needs. I’d say we have a decent amount of oil and gas work in Alaska, but we are always looking to take on more,” Maynard says.

One change the company plans is to phase into its services by mid-spring flight operational quality assurance, also known as flight data monitoring (FDM), which is a method for capturing, analyzing, and visualizing data generated by an aircraft during flight. Analysis of this data helps improve flight safety, increase maintenance effectiveness, and reduce operational costs. “We’ll be the only helicopter operator—that we are aware of—to use it in our aircraft in Alaska.”

By using the Appareo Vision 1,000 FDM to monitor the history of the flight, Pathfinder’s FDM team will acquire the data needed to improve operational safety and efficacy. The additional monitoring will also assure that there are no variances outside the parameters set for a specific task, increasing safety for the company’s crews, aircraft, and passengers, he explains.

Though Maynard says the new system will increase the company’s competitive edge in the Alaska marketplace, he notes that, in general, safety systems and standards are becoming more unified. This is a change from ten to twenty years ago when safety systems were proprietary and closely guarded. Now, many of these same operators are members of HeliOffshore, a global, safety-focused association for the offshore helicopter industry.

“It’s awesome to see the amount of sharing of safety systems and information that is happening today that didn’t happen a decade or two ago,” Maynard says. “The days of comparing safety standards among different, larger scale operators [are] dwindling as most are adopting and implementing similar standards.”

Maynard says most contract bids for helicopter services are very close in cost, within a few percentage points. However, one way a company can dash its chances of renewing a contract is by clocking excessive amounts of downtime, also known as AOG or “aircraft on ground.”

“In the mining industry, if we go AOG, you can’t run the drill, you can’t run the core samples, the whole operation comes to a screeching halt—and you’re talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in operations costs,” Maynard says.

With millions of dollars worth of spare parts on hand, paired up with an industry-leading supply chain and logistics team, Pathfinder is able to keep its AOG to a bare minimum.

“We have spare helicopters, spare parts inventory, ample amount of highly trained mechanics, and qualified pilots to serve the industries we are supporting. Not all of our competitors can say that.

“We thrive in remote, austere locations—as Alaskans, we know more about remote operations than our Lower 48 competitors.

“I think that some of our local competitors do these same things very well also. Dealing with the remoteness is inherent to Alaskan operators in general. We’re really good, very tenacious. We figure it out and do it safely, which is different than other operators in other regions in the world.”