Posted 7 years 297 days ago ago by Admin
Many of the greatest adventure stories begin with three simple words: There I was…. This tale of a pioneering aviation company in the setting of insanely turquoise blue waters, white sandy beaches, cascading waterfalls, and lush mountain jungles deserves an adventurous introduction. So ...
THERE I WAS sitting in a car wash parking lot at a busy intersection in downtown Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. (We’ll get to the water and jungles later.) I’m knocking back a frosty Presidente beer and chili dog empanada.
After four days in this country, I am starting to feel “Dominicanized.” I’m thinking I could live in this paradise and frequently nurse a cold beer. But the nagging question is: Where would I work?
One interesting option for us helicopter aficionados would be to seek employment at Helidosa Aviation Group based in Santo Domingo. (This would not necessarily be a legal employment option, but more about that later too.) Still, it could be a possibility, and I traveled the country visiting Helidosa’s various aviation operations to learn more about this family-owned business, which went from an inspired idea in 1992 to an international aviation company now operating a diverse fleet of helicopters within the D.R. and a fleet of jets worldwide.
Gonzalo Castillo, one of the principal founders of Helidosa, is a self-made Dominican. He got his entrepreneurial start in 1984 owning a computer business, and in addition to building that successful company he also created a construction enterprise. Then in 1992, Castillo was inspired by his first helicopter experience when he decided to take an Alaskan helicopter tour to see a glacier. His first thought was: If people would pay to go see a chunk of ice, surely they would take helicopter flights back home in the D.R. with all of its natural beauty. So immediately upon returning to his homeland, Castillo registered the business name of Helidosa Helicopteros Dominicos S.A.
Helidosa simmered on the back burner while other business ventures received attention from the serial entrepreneur. However, nine years later in 2001, the heat was turned up on that simmering pot and it was moved to the forefront when the company bought its first helicopter—a Bell 206 B3 JetRanger. Alex Castillo, the eldest son of Gonzalo and current Helidosa CEO, recalls that first week the helicopter was put into service. (Note: Alex is the Castillo that will be quoted throughout this story.) He was 15 years old and in summer camp, when his father excitedly called to report that the new helicopter flew a grand total of six hours in its first week. The goal was to be flying hundreds of hours per week.
BOOM AND BUST
Shortly after the initial launch of Helidosa in 2001, the nation’s economy grew—a fortuitous beginning for the fledgling startup. The eastern part of the island (an area surrounding the municipality of Punta Cana) was targeted for several very large real estate developments, with such names as Donald Trump, Jack Nicklaus, and Nick Faldo behind them. Today, these beach and golf resort destinations give the area a Palm Beach, Florida, look and feel.
Helidosa was destined to service a hotspot for upscale tourists and power players. Demand for helicopters climbed. In approximately five years, the company grew from one rotorcraft to 16, with seven used for corporate operations and nine used for tour flights.
Then in 2007, this flight to success began to experience turbulence as the U.S. banking system declined during the credit crisis. Connected economies around the world swooned, including that of the Dominican Republic ... and Helidosa. Castillo explains, “When America sneezes, the D.R. gets pneumonia!”
AERO AMBULANCIA AIDS RECOVERY
As business declined during the economic downturn, Helidosa explored ideas to create new revenue streams, which resulted in the founding of Helidosa Aero Ambulancia. This new air ambulance operation began by billing each patient for each flight. After all, this was the traditional business model. However, during a casual conversation between Gonzalo and a colleague, the colleague said, “You’ve got it all wrong; instead of charging a lot of money to very few people, you should consider charging a little bit of money to a lot of people.”
The light bulb in Gonzalo’s brain switched on and he instituted an air ambulance membership program that everyone in the country could afford. If a person was not covered, it was only because they chose not to be. The affordable price is $2.99 USD per month per person, with the insurance company collecting premiums and forwarding $1.40 of each premium per month to Helidosa. There’s no small print, no pre-screening. For that amount of money, if you need to be flown to a medical facility, no matter where you are on the island they come and get you … guaranteed.
On the very first day the membership program was in service, 14 September 2009, there was a fire that burned two new premium payers. These members were flown to a trauma center. The word spread and seven months later the program had 1,000 members … and 10,000 members eight months after that. Today the program boasts 320,000 members, with a Bell 430 and Bell 206L serving as primary mission helicopters that fly an average of two patients per day.
Air Evac Lifeteam, the second largest EMS operator in the U.S., was the first to pioneer the membership model. Did Helidosa Aero Ambulancia get that business concept from them? "Honest to God, we did not. We actually came up with that idea on our own," said Castillo. He went on to explain that they did subsequently reach out to the U.S. company early on. Air Evac’s CEO at that time, Colin Collins, invited the Helidosa team to West Plains, Missouri, so they could get an in-depth look at Air Evac operations. It was then that Helidosa first realized that Air Evac was also using a membership model. "Our visit to Air Evac Lifeteam was a great learning experience, and we used it to model and fine-tune our operations," said Castillo.
Since Helidosa was the first civil helicopter operation in the D.R., the government had no regulatory framework in place. So the company took the initiative and sent a team to the U.S. to see what regs and standards were in place for operations like theirs. With Parts 91, 119, and 135 in hand, the team essentially came back home and told authorities that these regulations were the starting point from which it would be operating ... and told the government to catch up. Imagine the heads exploding at the FAA if an operator tried to pull that off in the U.S.!
HIRING IS HARD
Since it was the first civil helicopter operator in the D.R., hiring personnel is still one of the most significant continuing challenges Helidosa faces. They are prohibited from hiring outside the country for most positions, including pilots and aviation managers. "For example, it would have been much easier to hire an experienced director of maintenance from another country, but it was not allowed," said Castillo. "We had to take competent people from totally unrelated fields and get them certified in areas of maintenance, factory schools, and management. This was extremely difficult and we had to do it across all positions with 70 percent of our personnel.”
Since Helidosa is only allowed to hire Dominican pilots, which is a very small pool of civilian and military helicopter pilots, if the company wishes to hire outside the country it has to go through a lengthy proof of need and approval process with the Dominican pilots association. Of the company’s 18 pilots, half are civilian and the other half are active duty pilots from the Air Force of the Dominican Republic.
A very unique relationship exists between Helidosa and the military. Since the D.R. military only has a handful of helicopters, there is not much military flying to go around. Therefore, experience is tough to come by. The military allows its helicopter pilots to work full time for Helidosa (for substantially higher pay) rather than sit on base not flying. So Helidosa gets a trained pilot to use in its commercial operations, and the military is able to maintain a much more experienced pilot force in exchange—everybody wins. The only caveat is that these pilots still have to be available to the military, either for training or in time of national need.
Job Announcement: Helidosa can now hire mechanics from outside the D.R., and they have a need for experienced and qualified helicopter mechanics.
30,000 FEET AND BEYOND
With Aero Ambulancia helicopter operations rapidly expanding, Helidosa noticed they were getting more requests for fixed-wing EMS transfers. So in 2011, the company decided to invest in a Cessna Citation Bravo jet in an effort to enhance service.
The jet was successful, but not initially in the EMS market as anticipated. Rather, 80 percent of its trips were corporate charters. One reason the jet EMS business did not meet first expectations is because Helidosa received objections that they lacked experience and accreditation from potential referrers in the U.S., Europe, and other more developed regions.
To overcome this obstacle, the company went on a tear to boost its credibility by adopting tough international standards, ratings, and accreditations from the FAA, EASA, IS-BAO, ISO 9000, URAME, and ARGUS.
This investment in higher certifications and credibility has proven worthwhile, as the company now operates a fleet of six Cessna Citation jets, consisting of Sovereign, X, XLS, CJ2, Mustang, and Bravo models. The jet business currently represents 65 percent of the company's revenue (60% corporate / 40% EMS flights) and opportunity for further growth continues as Helidosa is scheduled to take delivery of two additional jets this year.
CORPORATE / UTILITY FLEET
Helidosa's core business revenues are derived from four main sources: jet operations, helicopter tours, corporate/utility helicopter charters, and the medical membership program.
On the corporate/utility helicopter side, Helidosa operates a variety of Bell helicopters, including the Bell 429, 407, 212, and 206. The 429 and 407 are very well suited for VIP and executive charter and can transport politicians and business people from one side of the island to the other in a quick, efficient, and cost-effective manner.
One of the more interesting aircraft in the fleet is the Bell 212, which is Helidosa’s multi-mission workhorse. Two pilots operate it, and the aircraft is equipped to be used for a variety of missions: personnel/cargo hauling to remote locations, utility work, long-line hauling, vertical reference ops, search and rescue (SAR), disaster relief, and as a back-up aircraft for Aero Ambulancia ops. The Bell 212 is SAR capable with a rescue hoist, and its crews have also been trained in SAR by both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.
Helidosa Excursions is the company’s tourism business that showcases the country’s tropical offerings with a fleet of five Robinson R66s with powerful turbine Rolls-Royce RR300 engines, two Bell 206Ls, and one Bell 206B. If you want romance, the Champagne Night Flight provides a tropical party of music, indigenous food, and of course champagne. Another opportunity for amor is to take Helidosa’s flight to the private island of Saona for a seaside lobster lunch.
More adventurous passengers may enjoy a trip deep into the mountain jungle where they land at the base of Salto La Jalda, the highest waterfall in the Caribbean. For an even more immersive experience, opt for the Rancho Excursion. This package incorporates helicopter touring, boogies (two/four-person dune buggies), swimming in natural underground caves, and a culinary cornucopia of some of the the country’s best food and drink offerings—all in one day!
AN AMERICAN IN PARADISE
Island tourism is expected to grow from its current 5 million visitors per year to 10 million by 2020. In order to accommodate that increase, Helidosa needed to get more efficient in its tour ops. To meet that challenge, the company received an exception to the “hire only Dominicans” rule and employed U.S. citizen Dave Hardin to become vice president of tour operations. According to Castillo, over the last year Hardin has been key to not only growing tourism revenue, but also improving efficiencies while instituting a very high level of safety standards. “What’s not to like,” said Castillo. “Dave is a former U.S. Army pilot, prior general manager of Papillon Helicopters (the largest tour op in the world), and former director of safety for the second largest EMS helicopter operator in the world. He has the perfect set of skills to manage our tour ops.”
Castillo expounds on improvements Hardin introduced. “Prior to Dave taking over, a 100-passenger tour day would take all seven or eight helicopters and our day would be very chaotic and stressful. He created efficiencies in the system that have not only brought a more calm and methodical approach, but increased our performance load factor to consistently be above 85 percent. We can now do 100 passengers at a slower pace with only three or four helicopters and this makes for a safer and more profitable operation.”
On separate trips I’ve experienced the island of Hispaniola’s two nations. Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti share similarities. Each country has approximately 10 million in population with pockets of severe poverty. Yet, it’s my observation that geographic isolationism coupled with relatively few natural resources has cultivated a spirit for survival, optimism, and resourcefulness in the island’s people. Gonzalo and Alex Castillo and their Helidosa team seem to be a perfect and proud representation of that spirit.
It’s one thing to start a helicopter operation in a fully developed economy with infrastructure. It’s a completely different endeavor to create a highly successful, diverse, global aviation company in a country with no civil helicopters, no related personnel, no infrastructure, and no government guidance. In the D.R., the Castillo family and the Helidosa team have a reputation for being aviation pioneers, and I am sure that legacy will live on for many years to come. I for one hope to repeatedly return to this island, with frosty beer in hand, and check up on that prediction. It’s the least I can do for our readers.