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Flying for oil

The departure lounge is as well appointed as that of any executive fixed-base operator.

March 22, 2012  By James Marasa

The departure lounge is as well appointed as that of any executive fixed-base operator. However, where one might traditionally expect to see BlackBerry-wielding businessmen dressed in suits and ties, those waiting to board North Cariboo Air on this day are more comfortably outfitted in hooded sweatshirts and work boots. The turboprops on North Cariboo’s ramp at Edmonton International are not bound for conventional business aviation hubs like Toronto or Teterboro – rather, the destinations today are Wabasca and Conklin Leismer in the oil fields of Alberta.

Workers head for the oil sands overfly, one of the many oil refineries northeast of Edmonton. The Alberta government claims oil reserves of 171.3 billion barrels, making the oil sands the third-largest crude oil reserve in the world.
Photo: James Marasa


A perennial windfall to the economy of Canada’s only debt-free province, the oil sands speak for roughly 140,000 square kilometres of Northern Alberta real estate. Provincial government figures claim proven oil reserves of some 171.3 billion barrels, making the oil sands the third-largest crude oil reserve in the world. As the price of oil fluctuates between roughly $80 and north of $110 per barrel, the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates the oil sands will create more than $307 billion in tax revenue across Canada over the next 25 years. With new jobs continually being added to an industry that has already experienced considerable growth, the transport of workers to remote regions of Northern Alberta has revealed itself to be a major undertaking. As much as they aim to capitalize on this growth by moving people to and from the oil fields, in doing so, air operators must safely traverse inherent logistical challenges.

James Wakulchyk, North Cariboo’s quality assurance manager for flight operations, captains one of the company’s Dash-8 300s on the day I join the crew on a flight to Conklin. As the aircraft levels off at flight level 210, the ride is mostly smooth but flying the Alberta skies comes not without its seasonal hazards. Embedded in the broken cloud layers this afternoon are thunderstorms building with the summer warming of the prairie horizon.

Shell Canada’s Dornier 328 lands at Josephburg Municipal Airport, 10 minutes from the company’s Scotford Upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. By employing its own aircraft and investing in improvements to the airport, Shell Canada has dramatically reduced commuting times for its employees who previously would have landed at Edmonton International Airport. Photo: Marcel Maure


As he monitors the more threatening cells on the aircraft’s weather radar, Wakulchyk adjusts the heading bug to keep a safe distance. However, with the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range paralleling our track less than 10 miles off the right wing, room to manoeuvre is limited. In close proximity to an air-weapons range is no place for complacency, and Conklin-bound aircraft must duck below the 7,000-foot floor of Cold Lake’s restricted airspace before manoeuvring for an approach. As the Dash-8 descends out of controlled airspace the sky dissolves to a low overcast and radio chatter from the Edmonton Centre frequency fades. Before the aircraft banks right toward the airstrip, Wakulchyk remarks that on a clear day, it is possible to see CF-18 Hornets from 4 Wing Cold Lake dogfighting overhead.

On touchdown, Wakulchyk uses a balance of beta-range pitch and brakes to smoothly slow the turboprop. “Technically, this is a gravel runway,” he says as we taxi towards the portable terminal building. “We just get it down and get it stopped.”

Flight into uncontrolled airspace and remote airstrips typically gets oil sands flying, bringing what Wakulchyk describes as “the potential for higher risk.” All the same, he insists that conceivable hazards are well mitigated through standard operating procedures and airport-specific training for flight crews. “We treat every airport with respect,” he says. “When deciding whether or not a flight can be undertaken at a remote airstrip, we always assess the risk first.”

The Conklin Leismer Aerodrome, operated by Leismer Aerodrome Limited, serves a long-term oil sands development project. Despite the remote setting and limited access, Wakulchyk explains that Statoil – a Norway-based energy company – has invested heavily in the airport

infrastructure. Among its other facilities, Conklin boasts a full weather station and an aerodrome advisory service staffed by former Flight Service Specialists. Wakulchyk sums up his praise for the airport’s services in a single word: “Excellent.”

An expected surge in demand for workers in the oil sands bodes well for operators like North Cariboo who are poising themselves for continued growth in the region. Photo: James Marasa


While charter work is at the core of North Cariboo’s business, it operates to the same regulated standards as a major airline. And though the idea of a bush pilot loading up an airplane and flying under the weather to try and “get in” seems to linger in the mind of the public, Wakulchyk is quick to dispel that notion. He explains that the Safety Management System (SMS) concept has been one of the driving forces behind an industry-wide shift in attitude.

“We no longer accept risk – we manage it,” he says, stressing that many multinational oil companies hold contracted air operators to more stringent standards than those prescribed by Transport Canada. “All our major clients review us,” he says. “They have a safety standard that they like to see. Maintaining a high standard in safety and service is how we keep the business.”

Nevertheless, safety is a collaborative process. Traffic has grown steadily in “the patch” and Wakulchyk expects those numbers to continue to rise. He is quick to praise NAV CANADA for its work done in consultation with local operators. Under an initiative whereby customers have been able to voice concerns and suggestions, levels of service have increased in the oil patch, most notably with the design and implementation of RNAV routes to de-conflict traffic in and out of uncontrolled airspace.

Private companies such as JetPro, an Alberta-based engineering firm, have been instrumental in that process with their design of GPS and WAAS approaches to some smaller and private airstrips. NAV CANADA has increased its level of service and surveillance capability at certain airports as well. “Around Fort McMurray, there are a lot of aerodromes close together – some with overlapping approach waypoints,” Wakulchyk says.  “Installing a tower at Fort McMurray was huge.”

While most companies working in the oil sands rely on private air operators to ferry employees to and from work, others such as Calgary-based Suncor prefer the autonomy that only a dedicated fleet of aircraft can provide. “Suncor has operated its own aircraft for the past 65 years,” says Bill Grainger, Suncor’s director of transportation. “I think that comes as a surprise to most people.”

Grainger explains that over the past six decades, Suncor has cultivated what he calls a “longevity of understanding” when it comes to the value of operating an in-house flight department. Though the costs of maintaining a five-strong corporate jet fleet boasting two CRJ900s and a Citation X would be prohibitive to many smaller companies, Grainger proclaims aviation to be “essential to Suncor’s business.” The value, he explains, manifests itself in the preservation of operational control of the company’s variable transportation elements.

According to Grainger, passenger loads carried by Suncor jets have increased from 800 per month to a dizzying 25,000 per month over the past six years. Grainger lauds the quality of an aviation wing that now employs over 70 people: “We run our flight department like an airline,” he says. “We employ flight attendants and maintain the operation to a high level of professionalism.”

As a Dash-8 arrives at Conklin, ground crews prepare to disembark passengers on their way to work at Statoil. Despite Conklin’s remote setting and limited access, the Norway-based energy company has invested heavily in the airport infrastructure. Photo: James Marasa


While Suncor may utilize commercial carriers and charter companies to manage overflow on occasion, the sheer demand for aircraft means that Suncor could not afford to rely on outside transportation providers alone. Grainger explains that internal business units are generally able to tailor the flight schedule to their unique requirements. “Flexibility is very important to Suncor,” he says. And though he can’t say the same for aircraft availability among independent operators, Grainger sees Suncor’s aviation arm growing to keep pace with business over the foreseeable future.

“Over the next few years, people are going to be fighting over aircraft,” Grainger says. “We are already talking about a shortage of workers in the oil sands.” Suncor’s unique ability to adjust to changing demands on its workforce on short notice is made possible only by maintaining a corporate aviation department – an asset Suncor plans to preserve as new projects develop and current ones continue to expand.

In the meantime, a projected surge in demand for workers and the consequential need to transport them, bodes well for operators such as North Cariboo. Already running private boarding lounges in Calgary and Edmonton with full security screening, Wakulchyk explains that the company is looking at ways to expand its capacity. “We are always asking what is going to take us to the next level?” he says.

Runways such as Conklin’s 5,200 feet of gravel preclude the use of conventional corporate jets. Consequently, the need for heavier lifting capability out of “austere airstrips” means that the acquisition of a larger transport category such as the BA-146 seems likely, according to Wakulchyk.

Looking forward, politically stable oil will without doubt, continue to play an important role in world economics. Emerging and growing economies increasingly bolstered by and reliant on Canadian oil will open up unique opportunities for air operators to thrive. With no easing in the price of oil expected, new work boots should be seen stepping on board Alberta airplanes for some time.


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