Helicopter Academy pilots world success

The following is an article by the Australian Financial Review and Anne Fulwood. We thank and acknowledge the Australian Financial Review and Anne Fulwood for the article and photo.

Photo Caption: Hats off . . . Jan Becker says, ‘We train more helicopter pilots per year than the Australian Defence Force and we do it three times faster and three times cheaper.’ (Photo: Glenn Hunt)

Enterprising woman

Anne Fulwood

As a highly skilled midwife and registered nurse for more than two decades, Jan Becker knows the global value of expert training and experience.

She has successfully deployed that philosophy to the business of training helicopter pilots from all over the world at Becker ­Helicopter Services (BHS) on the Sunshine Coast, her internationally recognised ­training facility which turned over about $20 million for the 2013 financial year.

BHS is the first civilian helicopter training academy in the country to offer an international helicopter licence – previously the domain of the military – which has been ­critical to securing multimillion-dollar contracts. “We train more helicopter pilots per year than the Australian Defence Force and we do it three times faster and three times cheaper,” says the vivacious Becker.

A full international licence takes 180 hours of flying over 10 months, and includes training in advanced night-vision goggles, advanced formation, mountains, pinnacles, sling-load and fire-fighting.

Becker says: “We are the only place in the world doing this training. Our biggest ­competitor is the American military doing training at Fort Rucker in Alabama.”

The flight school can claim the biggest privately owned fleet of Bell 206 helicopters in the world, behind the military. There are 14, valued at $1 million each.

Aim to pass on skills

It is a business Becker founded about 18 years ago after marvelling at the expertise of her husband, Mike, a helicopter pilot with about 15,000 flying hours, whose skills she thought should be passed on to the next generation. “I told him he could teach, and I would set up a business to make it happen,” she laughs. “His experience is a selling point.” Much of his know-how includes flying thousands of hours in the mountains of New Guinea with Shell Oil in the mid-1990s.

A confluence of timing and history favoured Becker, now in her late 40s. First she discovered there was no registered training diploma anywhere in the world for an international helicopter pilot’s licence. Second, about 60,000 pilots who had trained during the Vietnam era were nearing retirement and who would replace them?

“You could never envisage training that many pilots again,” she says. “There has never been a time in history, before or since, that was ripe to start a helicopter business.”

She and Mike sold their house, borrowed about $150,000, bought an old 1961 Bell 47 military helicopter for $85,000 and yielded about $198,000 from their first full financial year in 1997.

She will never eradicate from her mind their original hangar adjacent to Noosa Airport, with no lavatory and no air-conditioning. Becker used to plan a timetable on a whiteboard, while caring for their first-born of two daughters. She also did occasional nursing shifts to “keep us from going out the door backwards”.

Extra income was generated through charter flights, and sales of DVDs and books on flight instruction.

Becker says when they launched in 1996, about 85 per cent of students were local because it took “a long time to get through the regulatory hurdles” to take international students.

Business revenues grew by 2000 as BHS-trained pilots for various clients including corporate, oil exploration, fire-fighting or surf lifesaving services. Then came September 11, the Bali bombing, the collapse of Ansett Airlines and bird flu.

“It nearly destroyed our business,” recalls Becker, who by then had six helicopters, 18 staff and equity in 80 per cent of the fleet.

Global focus

She cut staff, sold four helicopters and wrote a strategic plan with a focus on the international market. “I realised we did not want to be reliant on one economy, one ­government or one exchange rate.”

She also targeted global military clientele.

About 85 per cent of clients in the past five years have been international, and the remainder are from Australia. Of 75 pilots who trained with Becker last year, 15 per cent were women.

The mix of students includes military, paramilitary and emergency services trainees, and about 15 per cent are privately funded individual or corporate students. Consultations with civil aviation departments in the United Kingdom, Norway and the Netherlands, and a meeting with the head of the European Aviation Safety Authority enabled Becker and her husband to develop a model for their training certificate – “a hybrid of the British, European and American licences all rolled into one”.

International licence a turning point

Determined and tenacious, Becker finally achieved the goal of becoming a Registered Training Organisation about five years ago, through the Australian Skills Quality Authority. A Certificate 4 is the basic helicopter pilot’s licence which, with additional ratings, has “morphed” into the International Helicopter Pilots Licence (IPHL).

“We became the only place in the world where you could get one – it was a marketing success,” Becker says, triumphant. All applications and communications are done through the website, which she managed from the start.

Becker says the IHPL proved the turning point for revenues, which had plateaued at about $1.9 million for about 10 years until 2009. That year, they signed a $30 million contract with the Saudi Arabian National Guard to train its pilots. “Regulatory-wise it was huge as it had to be federally approved and it is government to government.”

The company is regularly audited, and Becker estimates compliance costs each year run into “the hundreds of thousands”.

Among the 30 pilots on staff, Becker says her top five are all highly skilled, from the Australian, South African or British military, and could earn up to $220,000 a year.

Originally from Nelson in New Zealand, Becker has flying in her DNA. Her father helped launch Airfast in Singapore, which became one of the biggest helicopter companies in the world.

Becker herself recently got her commercial helicopter pilot’s licence, with nearly 300 flying hours.

As for achieving the dream of training the next generation of pilots, Becker reckons that whether it is fire-fighting in Colorado, Antarctic exploration or animal culling and protection in Africa, chances are the pilot was trained by her team.

– The Australian Financial Review


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