Germany-based rotary operator Northern Helicopter is all set to begin flights in the Arctic and Antarctic for shipping company F Laeisz. It will operate three BK 117C1 helicopters to support research vessel Polarstern, chartered to the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI).
Northern Helicopter will provide the flight crew and ensure the airworthiness of the helicopters, and it has commissioned the maintenance division of its shareholder company DRF Luftrettung for maintenance and technical operation of the aircraft during the expedition. The contract begins in June 2022 and runs for three years with an option to extend for a further two years.
“The assignment is a great recognition of our high quality and committed work in recent years," says managing director Armin Ortmann. "Entry into the research aviation segment is another important step in the development of our company. We look forward to a long term partnership with the shipping company and the AWI.”
After lying in the shipyard in Bremerhaven, the Polarstern vessel will set sail at the end of June 2022. Traditionally, the research icebreaker goes on expeditions to the Arctic in the summer months and to the Antarctic from November to March. The tasks of the helicopter crew during the individual research projects can vary. For example, the helicopters enable the scientists to cover a large area when taking ice thickness measurements; the measuring device hovers over the ice as an external load of the helicopter. During supply flights to Neumayer Station III, which is inhabited all year round, the helicopters also transport sensitive equipment that has to be brought from the ship to the station without vibration. And, of course, they are always there when people need to be transported quickly to the ship.
“During the tender process, Northern Helicopter's competence and commitment were very convincing. We look forward to a professional collaboration in the service of science in the remote polar regions,” says F Laeisz head of the research fleet Michael Thurmann.
Missions in the cold, fog and darkness, such as those required on the Polarstern expedition, are part of everyday life for the pilots of Northern Helicopter. They are on high alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at the German stations in St Peter-Ording and in Güttin on the island of Rügen for medical emergencies both at sea and along the coast. The often challenging weather conditions in the North Sea place a lot of demands on the crews of the offshore rescue helicopters. Regular training under real conditions qualify them for these requirements and for the upcoming Polarstern expeditions.
“Before the research ship leaves the port, the pilots are given additional training and preparation for the extreme conditions in the polar regions, such as 24 hour nights in the Arctic winter or the bright, glaring light of the Antarctic summer,” says Northern Helicopters pilot and head of the Polarstern project Lars Vaupel. Vaupel has already accompanied 22 previous Arctic and Antarctic missions and achieved over 700 flight hours in the polar region alone. For him, the upcoming polar expeditions are a kind of homecoming.
For the maintenance of the helicopters, technicians from DRF Luftrettung's operation centre will accompany the expedition. Its facility in Rheinmünster near Karlsruhe is a recognised training company. On site, around 130 technicians have a total of 15 workshop areas (docks) and adjacent workshops for the repair of components such as engines or avionics. The base's 15 docks include 11 that are designated for helicopter maintenance, two docks for helicopter training as well as distribution, and two docks for Learjet maintenance. Furthermore, mobile maintenance teams are deployed for minor checks, maintenance or short term malfunctions on the helicopters and aircraft. The maintenance division carries out around 2,500 maintenance orders annually. Experts for the BK 117C1, the helicopter type used on the Polarstern expeditions, also work at the DRF facility. Northern Helicopter also has its BK fleet regularly serviced in the operation centre.