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Helijet International Orders Four Beta eVTOL Aircraft
  • 04 Nov 2023 01:05 AM
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Helijet International Orders Four Beta eVTOL Aircraft

By Kenneth I. Swartz

Vancouver-based Helijet International has placed a firm order for four Beta Technologies Alia 250 electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and secured options for four additional aircraft. When delivered, these will join its current fleet of 19 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

This is the first Canadian order for an eVTOL aircraft for passenger and cargo use and marks a major milestone in the development of the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry in Canada.

Helijet President and CEO Danny Sitnam announced the Beta order on Oct. 31 at the Victoria Harbour Heliport in the British Columbia (BC) provincial capital at a press conference attended by representatives of Beta Technologies, the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility (CAAM) and BC Premier David Eby. 

A View from the Past
On Nov. 27, 1986, Helijet launched scheduled service on a 32-minute helicopter route linking downtown Vancouver with downtown Victoria at the south end of Vancouver Island, off Canada's Pacific coast. Now celebrating 37 years in service, Helijet has boarded more than 2.6 million passengers to become the largest scheduled helicopter airline in the world.

The Vertical Flight Society introduced eVTOL to Sitnam in 2018. Sitnam then shared his vision of how eVTOL aircraft and AAM could be integrated into Helijet’s existing operations when taking part in the March 2019 “Electric VTOL Revolution” panel at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo in Atlanta, Georgia (see the VFS summary article, “The Electric VTOL Industry Shifts Gears,” Vertiflite, May/June 2019 and the panel discussion video recording on YouTube). 

At the time, Sitnam told the VFS session that his helicopter “customers are already asking us if there is any way to reduce their commute time to our heliport in Vancouver.” Sitnam showed maps with hub-and-spoke eVTOL routes radiating from the Vancouver Harbour Heliport and Seattle, Washington's Boeing Field to about a dozen outlying communities.

“We see the potential for eVTOL aircraft to fly shorter routes feeding our mainline routes,” adding that, “light helicopters don’t have the operating economics to serve these routes, and the short distances mean you can’t fly high to reduce the noise,” he added at the time.

A Vision for the Future
At the recent Victoria press conference, Sitnam said that as the world transitions from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Helijet wants to be at the forefront of the transition in aviation and “we see the opportunities with [battery-]electric, hybrid-electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles in the near future.”

“Our plan is to integrate this five-passenger, one-pilot aircraft into our existing network of helicopter services to provide quieter, lower cost, sustainable air transportation for travelers in southwestern BC and the Pacific Northwest. As travelers increasingly look to destinations and transportation options that reflect their own commitments to environmental responsibility, we believe eVTOL service in the region will positively benefit local businesses.”

Sitman believes that eVTOL aircraft “will also have tremendous potential to enhance Helijet’s provision of emergency response, air ambulance and organ transfer services in the Lower Mainland” of British Columbia, “as well as support rural and remote communities in BC that do not have access to affordable and convenient air services.”

Helijet Sikorsky S-76A (C-FZAA) landing at Vancouver Harbour on August 12, 2023. (Photo by Kenneth I. Swartz, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A couple years ago, Sitnam established a charitable organization called “Helicopters Without Borders,” utilizing Helijet Sikorsky S-76s to provide healthcare services to remote First Nations communities in BC. Helijet currently owns 15 Sikorsky S-76A/B/Cs, three Airbus 350B2/B3s and one Bombardier Learjet 31A. This probably makes the Helijet S-76 fleet one of the largest in the world, since the type has been retired by many offshore operators.

Helijet plans to upgrade the waterfront heliports it manages in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo to vertiports to support eVTOL operations, as well as work with local communities to establish new vertiports in BC. However, Sitnam says Helijet has no plans to use the five-passenger Alia A250 to replace its 12-passenger Sikorsky S-76C++ on its scheduled routes to Victoria (61 miles/100 km) or Nanaimo (38 miles/60 km), which are mostly overwater.

Sitnam also stated that Helijet would like to resume cross-border helicopter service linking Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle. Helijet operated scheduled S-76 service between Victoria and Boeing Field for a number of years, beginning in May 1997.

Helijet’s decision to become Beta’s first commercial customer order from Canada is due in part to plans to certify the eVTOL aircraft for instrument flight rules (IFR) operations, which have been the foundation of Helijet’s airline and air ambulance operations since inception.

Premier Eby explained that the Province of BC is committed to embracing and supporting sustainable aviation technology, as well as related infrastructure development opportunities within the province. “This provincial government recognizes the potential of advanced air mobility to decarbonize the aviation sector, improve regional connectivity, improve emergency response times and introduce new manufacturing opportunities in our province,” said Premier Eby. “We congratulate Helijet on their exciting news and look forward to British Columbia becoming a leader in the advanced air mobility sector.”

Helijet’s Leadership
The Beta Alia eVTOL is currently in flight test at the company’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. “We designed Alia to be a reliable, efficient, and sustainable aircraft option that could carry out a variety of missions in all types of geographies, and we’re thrilled to be partnering with Helijet to bring this next generation, net-zero technology to Canadian commuters and travelers,” said Kyle Clark, Beta’s Founder and CEO.

“Between our growing engineering hub in Montreal, our first cross-border flight to the region earlier this year, and the support we’ve received from the government and regulators across Canada, we look forward to continuing to grow our presence in the country. To be able to do that in partnership with the foremost operator in British Columbia is very exciting.”

Beta is targeting certification of its eVTOL aircraft in 2026 by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), followed by Transport Canada (TC) certification.

In December 2021, Helijet entered into an agreement with Blade Urban Air Mobility, Inc. (“Blade”) for the sale of exclusive rights for the booking of flights on Helijet’s scheduled service routes, which Helijet would continue to operate.

In April 2021, Blade announced an agreement to facilitate the purchase of up to 20 Alia eVTOL aircraft for use by its network of operators.

Over the past two years, Helijet has followed and shortlisted three aircraft manufacturers designing and developing eVTOL aircraft. In addition to Beta’s Alia eVTOL, Helijet says it “will continue to consider other shortlisted aircraft make and models for order."

Clean Air for Canada
In July 2008, BC became the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce a carbon tax on fossil fuels, in a province that has abundant, low-cost renewable hydroelectricity. The carbon tax on jet fuel is currently Canadian 16.78 cents/liter but will progressively increase to 28.40 cents/liter by April 2026. British Columbia also continues to lead all Canadian provinces in zero-emissions vehicle market share, accounting for 20.5% of all new registrations by mid-2023.

In 2019, Helijet was a founding member of the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility (CAAM). Since then, CAAM Executive Director JR Hammond and his team have spearheaded the development of an AAM ecosystem across Canada with support from agencies like the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

At the press conference, Hammond reported that the “momentum for Advance Mobility Operations in Canada continues to grow” with the recent launch of Transport Canada's AAM integration team, as well as the Government of Canada’s June 2023 announcement that it was investing C$350M (US$265.9M) in the Initiative for Sustainable Aviation Technology (INSAT) aimed at accelerating the green industrial transformation of the aerospace industry.

On Dec. 10, 2019, Helijet competitor Harbour Air made the first flight of its electric-powered de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver seaplane in Vancouver. The two companies currently compete on routes linking downtown Vancouver with Victoria and Nanaimo.

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