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You would be hard pressed to find a more passionate gathering of helicopter enthusiasts and pilots in North America than the annual HeliClub fly-in at the Mont Tremblant resort 100 kilometres (62 miles) northwest of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains.
This year, more than 86 private helicopter pilots converged to test fly new helicopter models, take safety courses, attend workshops, meet industry VIPs, and see old and new friends who share a passion for flying private helicopters.
The unexpected sunny weather for the event, held from May 31 to June 1, brought a record 34 private helicopters the first morning to the historic St Jovite airfield, and more touched down the following day.
The 1,006 metre (3,300 foot) turf airport used to be a gathering point for the rich and famous. It was established in the early 1920s by F.H. “Tom” Wheeler to welcome fly-in visitors to the family’s Gray Rocks hotel, the first resort in the Laurentian mountains and the first resort in Canada to operate an aircraft.
Today, HeliClub has 154 pilot members and 235 associate members who fly with members but are not pilots (e.g. friends and family).
VIP from Robinson
This year’s fly-in guest of honour was Pete Riedl, vice-president of Engineering at Robinson Helicopter in Torrance, Calif.
Forty-years ago, the original two-seat R22 was certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on March 16, 1979. The R22’s simple design, simple maintenance schedule, and original US$40,000 price tag resonated with operators and stimulated personal helicopter ownership, which greatly expanded with the introduction of the four-seat R44 in 1993.
Robinson estimates that the 4,800 R22s, 6,900 R44s and 900 R66s delivered over the past 40 years have flown more than 40 million flight hours.
Today, the R44 is the world’s best-selling helicopter and the most popular private helicopter in Canada and especially Quebec.
In fact, 135 (55 per cent) of the 244 private R44s in Canada are based in Quebec and the R44 accounts for 49 per cent of Quebec’s 273 privately-owned helicopters – the largest fleet in Canada.
Riedl’s evening presentation mostly highlighted his involvement in the development of the R44 and R66. “I had intended to spend more time talking about future projects, but it was running late,” said Riedl.
“I hear about a lot of airplane fly-ins, but helicopter fly-ins seem quite rare. This is the perfect event to both socialize and to have a positive safety impact with the seminars. It’s always difficult to find an aviation event that is also enjoyable for the non-aviation-minded spouses. HelicoStore nailed it. (My wife) Irene and I met some very interesting people, and everyone seemed to really enjoy the event.”
Robinson delivered 316 helicopters in 2018 and is producing one R22, two R66s and four R44s a week (including the two-seat R44 Cadet).
Riedl’s team is constantly developing product improvements and new options for its helicopters, which are sold through independently owned and operated dealers throughout the world, like HelicoStore.
Company founder Frank Robinson hired Riedl in the mid-1980s after he completed a Master’s degree at UC Berkley. Today, he oversees a small team of 20 engineers responsible for helicopter designs as well as product improvements, options and safety.
“Frank’s idea was that he wanted his engineers to have a whole view of the aircraft, not be specialists, and he also encouraged us to fly,” said Riedl, who has logged about 1,500 hours as a helicopter pilot.
Earlier this year Kurt Robinson revealed that the company plans to test fly an R44 powered by a diesel engine, which is expected to offer a 25 per cent lower fuel consumption and improved altitude performance. Robinson is years away from making a production decision, but dealers in countries where avgas is expensive or non-existent (such as Russia) have long sought a diesel-powered R44.
Other VIPs in attendance at the fly-in included helicopter pilot and retired National Hockey League right-winger Guy Lafleur, who this year arrived as a passenger in a corporate Bell 429 owned by a Montreal-based real estate developer.
This year, St Jovite hosted a record number of training and pilot demo flights in Robinson (R44 and R66), Bell (505, 407, 429), and Airbus (120B and 130) models with Leonardo Helicopters participating for the first time, utilizing a VIP AW109 Grand New flown in from Toronto.
Leonardo says the AW109SP is in the same class as the Bell 429 and Airbus H135. It believes the Canadian private helicopter market is “seeing an uptick” as economic growth in the U.S. stimulates the economy in Canada.
Robinson has a 40-year history of supporting private helicopter owners through its dealer network and Bell has renewed its focus on the private owner-pilot market since certifying the Bell 505 JetRanger X, which is assembled 72 km (45 miles) away from Mont Tremblant in Mirabel, Que.
HeliClub is the brainchild of HelicoStore, which was founded in 1992 and became a Robinson helicopter distributor in 1998. After supporting more than 210 private owners in the process of acquiring their helicopters, HelicoStore decided to create a club in Quebec that offered helicopter flying, social, and support benefits loosely modelled on Quebec’s popular snowmobile clubs.
Members enjoy helicopter trips and social events together and get deals on services like training, maintenance, insurance, fuel, financing and hangar storage.
HelicoStore owner and HeliClub leader Jean-Charles Emter said the goal of the club “is for members to have fun with their helicopter and stay safe.”
Last year, accidents tragically claimed the lives of HeliClub members. In response, the main focus of this year’s HeliClub fly-in was flight safety, with three workshops that were well attended by members.
The first workshop provided owner-pilots with the opportunity to improve their skills by learning from the mistakes of others. One objective was to provide private pilots with the decision-making tools to avoid weather risks such as flying into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).
The second workshop was for regular helicopter passengers (e.g. family and friends) who wanted to play a more active role in the cockpit or assist in an emergency.
The third course was a primer on helicopter autopilots. Today, both the R44 and R66 are available with an optional Genesys Aerosystems HeliSAS (Helicopter Stability Augmentation System) which has greatly enhanced safety and helped stimulate new aircraft sales.
Many pilots used the fly-in to take recurrent training with an instructor and practice autorotations at the far end of the airport.
Five of the volunteers working the flight line were young pilots who recently completed commercial pilot training at Helicraft, Passport Helicopters or Chinook Helicopters in B.C., including two students from France and one from Switzerland.
HeliClub members come from all walks of life and a wide range of professions, but all share a passion for helicopters.
Businessman Tony Martel is a regular at the fly-in with his highly polished green and black Robinson R44 Raven I, with an altimeter painted on the side.
“I always dreamed of flying a helicopter, but it was too expensive, so I started flying ultralight fixed-wing aircraft in 2005-2006 instead,” said Martel, who started polishing cars as a teenager and founded a mobile polishing business in his 20s.
A small job polishing a Cessna led to new work polishing Convair 580s flown by Hydro Quebec and shining up high performance Bombardier Challenger and Global business jets prior to delivery.
Martel’s life changed about seven years ago when he was snowmobiling in northern Quebec and a Robinson R44 pilot landed beside him while he was having breakfast.
“I thought, ‘It’s my turn now,’ and I started groundschool two days later,” recalled Martel, who then hired an instructor to teach him how to fly the new R44 he bought from HelicoStore in 2012.
Martel flies his R44 regularly for business and pleasure and keeps the aircraft in a small hangar next to his house west of Montreal on the Ottawa River.
“The Robinson R44 is a great aircraft and an intelligent choice for a guy like me. It has great performance and can carry four people. If I wasn’t doing a lot of different outdoor activities and travelling, I’d probably have an R66 or a Bell 505.”
Martel flies between 100 and 150 hours a year and estimates his direct operating costs are about $600 per hour (including inspections, annuals, insurance, depreciation and fuel) because of the low utilization rate.
This year, pilots came to the fly-in from as far away as Louisiana. Steps are now being taken to expand HeliClub to the Ontario market, which is home to only 93 private helicopters “but has four times the wealth” of Quebec, explained Emter.
To this end, HelicoStore recently formed a partnership with Heli-Lynx of Stoney Creek, Ont., which was purchased by private helicopter owners Rob Tyler and Bill Kurtin earlier this year.
Heli-Lynx plans to expand its business around the VIP sector, offering customized completions, maintenance, and support for private operators in Ontario and Quebec. It recently completed two Airbus H125/350 helicopters with VIP interiors for American customers.
HelicoStore and Heli-Lynx are planning events in the Toronto area that will expose more people to the practical and fun aspects of helicopter ownership.