Helicopter Film Services of Denham, UK, is adding an Airbus Helicopters AS350B3e Squirrel to its fleet, following the reliable operation of two AS355F1 twins and another AS350 Single. Md Jeremy Braben feels the Squirrel has become the default airframe for filming from the sky: “The camera mounting equipment has become more prevalent for Squirrels than for any other helicopter,” he says.
“If we wanted to use Agusta 109s there is only one bracket that we can use, and for Bell 429s nothing has been built yet. The brackets for EC135s or 145s are for broadcast and surveillance systems not the larger cinema systems we use, which require more robust gimbals. The Squirrels by that virtue are the most common in this sector and are a sensible choice for us.”
Braben also chose the type because much of the work of HFS takes place in congested airspace, especially around London. “You have to have twin engines to go to the places that we would like to go to,” he adds.
HFS believes that the B3 is an exceptionally capable helicopter, due to its power output, while the AS355F1s also boast an impressive power to weight ratio. “One of the prime characteristics that we look for is that the machine is lightweight, because our kit weighs up to about 250kg. For this reason, big IFR machines don't really cut it for us.”
Braben also has a research and development branch to his business, where he develops frames which can be mounted on to a helicopter to perform filming tasks. Payload bracketry for the Sikorsky S-92, the AW139 and the Bell 412 has all been designed and built by HFS. This bracketry was initially designed for military applications but is now being applied to civil uses as well. He continues: “If you go to design a piece of equipment for a helicopter, you are going to look at the helicopter that is available most widely. It used to be the Bell JetRanger and it probably still is the JetRanger, but from now we believe it will be the Squirrel.
“You need a helicopter with a short nose, so putting a big nose bracket and 100 kilos up front would be impossible on an airframe such as the 109. You simply can't get enough counterweight back because it is a long, long way from the mast, and the idea is to keep everything as close to the centre of gravity as possible.”
Shifts in European legislation are tightening standards: “It used to be the case, certainly in America, that you would design a bracket, somebody signs it off, then hang it on an aircraft and off you go. Those days are gone. So that's going to be our biggest challenge: equipment certification.”
The company has been involved in an array of high profile cinema projects over the past few years, including the critically acclaimed 2013 film 'Rush', for which Braben was head of aerial film production. He has worked as director of photography on many occasions too, liaising with the film's director on the ground, and says that such experiences mean that high profile clients put a great deal of trust in his business.
Though charter is not a core part of the business, and HFS does not have its own AOC, Braben reveals that he has been approached by film crews and cast to perform ad hoc flights, and is regularly asked which aircraft he would recommend. “We're not going after the charter market generally, we're not looking at taking charter work away from most companies whose bread and butter is charter. But we do get very specific charter-led requests aligned to the film and media business,” he adds. Such requests have meant that HFS has acted as a broker several times. Braben recalls some of the most recent instances: “I found out who the passengers were for the route in question, and knowing those passengers and their habits, I had to inform the company who was wanting to put these passengers in a small jet that a Mustang would not be sufficient. I anticipated the passenger would turn up with three times the capacity of that aircraft, and in fact he did – he brought an entourage of eight people. Little bits of knowledge like that do help.”