FLIGHT DEPT PROFILE
VIH Cougar tackles big jobs with tough crews flying larger Sikorsky, AW and Eurocopter helos
Increasing use of S92s, AW139s and EC135s allows this operator to carry out oil rig supply and EMS missions in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
By Jay Selman
Members of VIH Cougar team at GAO (Galliano LA) with S92 and AW139. (L–R) Capt Mike Gregersen, Mechanic Don Holston, Capt John Bicket, Mechanic Dave Switzenberg, Chief Pilot Rusty Munsey, Mechanic Brett Misemer, Capt Phil Fallis, Rescue Specialist Jim Peters, Dir of Ops Larry Lippert, Paramedic Richard Cormier, Capt Jim Burt and Paramedic Bret Davis.
In and around the Gulf of Mexico, where the helicopter still rules supreme, a small company with a strange name is making a big difference. VIH Cougar Helicopters is a Part 135 air carrier that operates a Sikorsky S92 and an AgustaWestland AW139 based at GAO (Galliano LA).
(The "VIH" is an allusion to VIH Helicopters, while "Cougar" alludes to Cougar Helicopters. Both are Canadian helicopter companies). VIH Cougar owns a 2nd AW139 and a Bell 206 JetRanger which it plans to use on future projects.
In addition to these aircraft, VIH Cougar's GAO facility supports the operation of Sikorsky S61Ns and S92s operated by its Canadian namesake Cougar Helicopters. Cougar operates in the US under a certificate of authorization issued by FAA's Southwest Region and ops specs issued to its air operator certificate by Transport Canada.
VIH Cougar also has a growing operation in Alaska which includes a new hangar at ENA (Kenai AK). It has won a long-term contract for its EC135 and has a very busy summer schedule for its AS350.
One aspect of VIH Cougar Helicopters that makes it unique is its affiliation with Canadian-based Cougar Helicopters, which operates Canadian-registered S61s, S76s and S92s. The GAO-based pilots are required to hold both US and Canadian licenses to allow flexibility in flying the Canadian-registered S61s and S92s which rotate in and out of GAO, as well as occasional temporary deployments to fly the Canadian S92s in Canada and elsewhere.
Flying in the Gulf
VIH Cougar AgustaWestland AW139 lifts off from a platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Of the roughly 15,000 structures in the Gulf, about 5%—or 10% of helidecks—can handle the AW139.
Lionel "Rusty" Munsey, chief pilot at GAO, says, "There are a total of 30 pilots at VIH Cougar, of which between 9 and 12 are based at Galliano at any one time. The rest are usually temporarily deployed to the Canadian operation. Cougar has several aircraft operating in Greenland, which accepts the Transport Canada license.
Our goal is to have each pilot trained in 2 aircraft types—either the S92 and S61, or the S61 and AW139. Further, they are licensed in both countries. Each company has its own ground and flight training program that must be successfully completed by each pilot."
Munsey, a retired US Coast Guard pilot, has over 7000 hrs TT in a variety of aircraft, including the S61, S62, AW139, Eurocopter AS365N, Bell UH1, JetRanger and 407, Lockheed C130 and Beech 1900D. He has 5 years with VIH Cougar, 3 of them as chief pilot.
There are more than 15,000 structures in the Gulf of Mexico, notes Munsey, about half of which have helicopter platforms. Approximately 10% of these can accommodate the AW139, and about 100 can hold the S92.
He says, "We generally fly to contracted platforms, so we are quite familiar with these. However, you never know where an emergency call might require us to fly to, so we're always on our toes. The majority of our flying consists of EMS, heavy hoisting and sling loads, primarily in the Gulf. The S92 is equipped with VIH Aerospace auxiliary fuel tanks to give it about 1 hr of extended air time."
Sikorsky S92 is the undisputed heavyweight champion of helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico. (Inset) S92 front office.
Munsey points out that all aircraft are equipped for night IFR flying. Both the AW139 and S92 have integral night vision goggle (NVG) technology, but crews are not yet using goggles.
Munsey says, "Virtually all of our night flying is for EMS work, and platforms are well lit at night. So are the hospitals we land at. So, while the aircraft are delivered with NVG capability, our operation doesn't demand it."
"Flying in the Gulf is an acquired art," says Munsey. "You don't just take a new helicopter pilot and turn him loose in the Gulf. Humidity plays havoc with density altitude, so critical when you are operating at max weights, which we try not to."
He continues, "Thunderstorms can pop up in an instant here—so we have to be aware and be extremely familiar with the helicopter's capabilities. This is particularly important with the S92, since not all of the local hospitals can handle its weight. All offshore platforms are clearly marked with the size and weight allowances, and our contractors are also aware of our capabilities and restrictions."
There are published rules and regulations for flying in the Gulf, of course. Munsey says, "ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast] is coming, but even at that, the airspace over the Gulf can get crowded. On busy days there can be up to 400 aircraft in that airspace. Smaller aircraft might not show up on standard TCAS, but they do show up on ours.
Our aircraft are also equipped with a state-of-the-art Blue Sky Network tracking, data and voice communications system on board, so we can offer advanced satellite-based aircraft tracking and communications to every customer."
VIH Cougar has experienced very low pilot turnover. In the 5 years he has been with the company, Munsey says the company has only lost 4 pilots, all to overseas opportunities. When hiring new pilots, he looks for at least 3000 hrs, preferably in medium to big ships. He adds, "I particularly like ex-military types with search-and-rescue experience. When we're not flying contracted missions, we keep current on our training, including the demanding skills of hoisting."
Of the aircraft VIH Cougar operates, Munsey says, "The S61 has long been the gold standard of Western-built heavylift helicopters—and numerically it still is. They're still used to carry the President, which is probably the best testament to the old girl. The S92 is, in my opinion, the only helicopter that can replace the S61—it's in a class by itself.
"The AW139 is a fast, smooth, roomy medium-cabin aircraft that compares quite favorably to its competitors in terms of economy. Both our helicopters and those of Cougar share operating standards and equipment that adhere to the best standards principle."