PDG Helicopters is one of the UK's largest on-shore helicopter operators. With a fleet of 18 helicopters including the Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel, AS355 Twin Squirrel, AS365 Dauphin and the BO105 aircraft, PDG is well-positioned to take on a wide variety of projects, including external load work, film, television and other aerial camera work, fire fighting, electrical utility work, tourism and corporate charter, construction, spraying, medical evacuation and live fish transfers. Because their helicopters perform such a wide variety of operations, we took some time recently to speak with Alex Johnson, Head of Sales & Marketing at PDG Helicopters, to find out more about their operations.
Even though PDG provides almost every service imaginable with helicopters, working with power utilities is their largest business segment. "There are 11 separate utility districts in the UK, and PDG works with eight of these, primarily performing aerial survey and overhead line inspection work," said Mr. Johnson.
This activity is managed through their Symbion Power division, which inspects thousands of kilometers of overhead power line each year. Of particular interest is their work with thermal imaging, which provides instant analysis of potential hot spots through use of an onboard computer running radiometric software. This new technology allows utilities to quickly and precisely identify lines that need maintenance work, while also providing a way to rate the seriousness of the problems found to better schedule repair work.
All of PDG's helicopters are equipped for external load lifting—and the sky is the limit when it comes to the kinds of lifting work PDG is willing to take on, including:
- Live fish transfers
- Bags of stone (footpath renewals)
- Cement for hill top radio masts
- General construction
- Rooftop air conditioning units
- Power line construction
Live Fish Transfers
Salmon farming is big business in Scotland, and PDG has created work for their helicopters in this industry. They transport Atlantic Salmon smolts from the inland, fresh-water pens to the whale boats that will carry them out to the ocean cages where they will develop into adult fish, ready for harvest. "A lot of the farms have merged now, so there aren't as many companies as there once were, but we do work with most of them," said Johnson. "A lot of it has to do with the geography of Scotland. There are places where it's very difficult to get a lorrie or other kind of conveyance to move the smolts from fresh water to sea water."
"We've developed specially designed buckets and bags with their own oxygenation systems that can lift about a ton of smolts at a time, which is about 5,000 fish. And we do it with less than a 1% mortality rate, which makes helicopter transport much more cost-effective, even when other methods of transportation may be available. Another benefit is that helicopter lifting is much more precise, and lets you move the smolts in a way that keeps them from mixing with the wild stocks."
While fire fighting activities can bring in substantial revenues for helicopter operators in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it's not a large source of revenue in the UK. "We work with the local Fire & Rescue Services on standby most years, as we don't get as many fires here as other regions of the world," said Johnson. "Some years we'll get more work in it than other years, especially if a fire happens in a less accessible place to get to, when you really need a helicopter to be affective." PDG uses Bambi buckets to fight both forest and moorland fires because they can be easily filled from lochs or ponds.
A much more dependable source of business comes from providing helicopter shuttle services for golfers between all the renowned golf courses. "We can book a whole fleet of helicopters to ferry people in and out of the major tournaments, like the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth that just took place," said Johnson. " That's core business to us, because it's good business to get. Our helicopter service lets golfers play two courses in a single day, which isn't possible otherwise. "
Bracken is an invasive weed in the UK that spreads via underground rhizomes. It is toxic to livestock and can be toxic to humans as well. It also provides an excellent breeding ground for sheep tick, which are carriers of the Lyme, Louping Ill and Redwater viruses. PDG puts their helicopters to work to help control and contain the spread of bracken.
According to Johnson, "There's actually a very small window to spray bracken effectively, and that's between the end of July and the end of August. So there's just about a month's time that you can spray and get rid of it, but using helicopters lets you spray a large area in a very short span of time. And a single application during this time period is good for up to two years."
"We also use GPS and maps to ensure that we are spraying the areas to be covered with minimal overlap, and we work very closely with the Environmental Agency to ensure that we are spraying everything properly."
PDG on Their Onboard Equipment
Mr. Johnson said that PDG uses the Onboard AS350 Swing Suspension systems, but even more important to their external load operations are the Onboard remote hooks. "We tried hook equipment from quite a few companies, and we just weren't happy with the results we were getting. We had a lot of mechanical failures and electrical failures, which we have not had with the equipment from Onboard. Using your equipment has helped us become quite a bit more efficient."
When asked about Onboard's customer service, Johnson laughed and said "Given that there's less mechanical and electrical failures, we've not needed a lot of maintenance work, but any time we've had to call for service we've been very happy with the service we've received. We would definitely recommend Onboard's cargo hook equipment to other operators."