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Interview

with Dimmie de Milander, Group Commercial Director, Starlite Aviation Group

16.03.2012 / Energyboardroom

Starlite Group has worked on various types of assignments such as rescue operations, NGO work, as well as in the oil and gas alone. If we focus on the latter sector however, what can you say about the track record that the company has managed to build?
Our first offshore work was in 2007 and since then we have been engaged in drilling operations in Northern Namibia in 2008, as well as seismic surveys for CGGVeritas in Madagascar, Mozambique, Guinea-Conakry and Namibia. We have also worked on seismic surveys in Namibia and South Africa for companies such as PGS and Polarcus. Furthermore, we have provided drilling support to Sasol in Mozambique, Anadarko off the Ivory Coast, and Hyperdynamics in Guinea-Conakry. This is some of the more significant work we have done in the past few years. We have had the luck to do all of this work very safely, and have not had a single incident since we started in the offshore industry.
Much of the work is to be done where the exploration and production (E&P) developments are taking place, which is why I am so interested to support the seismic sector. We have now started drilling support for Senergy for Chariot Oil in Northern Namibia for instance. Since 2007, Starlite has been living off short-term contracts where the bigger players cannot fly. We cannot take on the big boys with 3 to 5 year contracts as we do not have the largest and most modern fleet in the industry. However, if we keep on doing the small work for these seismic players, we should be the first company to come in when the industry starts drilling.
On a personal note, I was brought into Starlite after 16 years with CHC Helicopter Corporation, particularly to develop our oil and gas offering in Africa. Over this period, I had acquired offshore experience in 21 coastal African countries.

The E&P developments and discoveries offshore Mozambique are very recent. Have you observed a shift in growth opportunities?
We have decided to stay out of the old major players like Angola and Nigeria. We now focus on the up and coming East Coast -particularly, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique- and new frontiers on the West Coast, being Namibia, Ivory Coast, Liberia and both Guineas. South Africans tend to work well under unstable African conditions with long supply lines. Our staff is more used to rougher conditions than some of the European and Western companies are.

What advice can you give about doing business under such harsh conditions?
In Africa, everything turns around respect. Africans are really perceptive around this principle. In essence, a contract is of lesser value than a handshake in Africa. This is the key difference to doing business anywhere else in the world. We can enter in multimillion dollar contracts on a handshake where the actual paperwork may only follow weeks later. We are now working for a Sudanese company in South Sudan, which is about the toughest political environment you can face in Africa. Yet, we still get paid and things do work. We have known these people for 10 years, have never let each other down and have always been open and honest with one another. It is all about trust and being good, rather than trying to look good.

With major players such as Sasol, you do not establish strong relationships over time. Considering that Starlite Aviation is not the market leader, how did you manage to establish this relationship?
We make sure we never promise something we cannot deliver. This was the same for when we started with Sasol in 2008. We have always delivered on promise or more. The Sasol partnership started with friendships being developed on the FA platform in 1990. We all grew up in the same industry and all know each other. I have known people like Nick De Block of Schlumberger since 1992! The same accounts for Sasol, where some of the higher level people today used to be the engineers in the field back in the 1990s. It all comes down to these long-term relationships.

Yet they all require one thing: very high safety standards. What policy do you have in place to offer any guarantees in this respect?
There are 2 major legs of safety in the helicopter industry. The first is that the pilot himself needs to be well-trained and know his job. And we need to be there to monitor and check this. The more important leg consists of the engineers or mechanics (Aircraft Maintenance Engineers, AMEs) that look after the aircrafts. Without them, we cannot operate. Our engineering skills have been considered by many of the manufacturers –both Eurocopter and Sikorsky- as some of the best available outside major regions such as Europe.
Furthermore, we also have a South-African developed Electronic Safety Management System (ESMS), where we use web-based instruments to report any potential hazards, incidents, and so on. This platform connects all the different entities within the company, as well as the client himself. While the number of reports of hazards has increased over the years, the actual number of incidents has decreased, which is exactly what we wanted to happen. www.litsonandassociates.com/

One particular case study worth highlighting is when an engine urgently needed to be replaced on an S92 during an assignment for CGGVeritas in Namibia. Starlite can be very proud of the way it dealt with this issue. While you have a well-equipped maintenance center in South Africa, how can you ensure flawless service in such remote locations?
In this particular case, I have to say that the level of commitment of the aircraft maintenance engineers really made the difference. While General Electric was sending a replacement engine, the engineers manufactured everything they would require (to do this engine change) in Walvis Bay. By the time the engine arrived in the Namibian dessert, everything was designed perfectly to put the new engine in place. About 4 or 5 days after the incident, the aircraft was back in the air again.
To ensure ongoing service to CGGVeritas, we also brought in a Puma helicopter to continue the work. As far as the client was concerned, there was no extra cost involved and everything was provided in back-up.

You mentioned before that your fleet is not the most modern one. What improvements can we expect to see taking place?
We are looking at obtaining either 2 or 4 Dauphin EC 365 N2 helicopters. These aircraft are about 20 years old in the North Sea and the Gulf, but in Africa they are still considered as “new”. The reason for going for these N2s is that we would like to move towards EC 175s, which are just coming onto the market now. This is the fleet progress we foresee based on our Eurocopter background.
We do also own an S92 which is the “latest and greatest”, but due to financial constraints this acquisition did not give us any back-up. The Canadian company Cougar Helicopters is currently operating it on a long term lease in Greenland. Yet, we will rather go with four 20-year old aircraft that we can afford, rather than 1 latest USD 24 million aircraft.
Going forward, we even see the opportunity to tap into anti-piracy surveillance and have got fixed-wing operation licenses. We expect the first aircraft to be flying fully equipped within 3 months from now. We think this will be very well received on the East Coast as well as in the Bay of Guinea.

Let’s try not to break this one then! You previously mentioned your pilots also have to be well-trained all the time. What can you tell our readers about the capabilities of your training center, and why has the center itself been changing locations over the years?
The training center was initially located in Durban with a branch in Johannesburg. The subsequent move from Durban to Mosselbay was forced upon us by the new airport King Shaka International on the Northern side of Durban, which restricted our space to physically do our training. We are very happy with the move to Mosselbay, as we have much less downtime days due to bad weather –either wind or rain- and it is as pleasant, or more pleasant, for the students to stay as Durban was.
At present, we are training the entire South African Airforce helicopter pilots, up to 200 hours. We have just started with the South African, Namibian and Botswana police. We are also training the Kenyan Airforce and police now. In addition to that, we have done some training for the Saudi and UAE Special Forces. 70 to 80% of our training work consists of big contracts with entities such as the Air Force, while the remainder is training for civilians. Training itself takes place on Robinson R22-R44s, but if the clients want to go onto turbines, Jet Rangers, R66 or EC 120s are available. We even do the training up to twin turbines on to the Pumas, and certainly feel this is one of the best training facilities in Africa. These facilities are a match for any of the training facilities you find across the globe. Our instructors are either ex-military or pilots that we have trained ourselves. The quality of the instructors is top-notch.

Today you are driving the company’s growth as its commercial director, yet we do see that you are a pilot yourself. What keeps you on the ground?
The challenge of putting up a world-class South African operator is my whole drive! The vision of Slade Thomas, the Group Chairman, that Starlite is to become the preferred offshore helicopter supplier in Africa, allows Barry Duff, CEO, and me to pursue this. The potential exploration in the near future in our neighboring countries as well as the interesting developments taking place within South Africa itself, are presenting us with big opportunities. We are well placed to tap into these.While we will never match the big internationals in size, we can certainly do so in quality. We cannot expand more rapidly than what we are doing at the moment, but our advantage is our presence in South Africa and that we are close to any job that will need to get done. We will thus be able to react much faster than any of the big players. Our expertise in Africa makes this happen.

Thank you Mr. de Milander! Would you have any additional message to send out to the international investors and key decision makers in the industry?
The drive from the oil companies to use local content is certainly very commendable. A company like Starlite that is homegrown South African has come through the entire development of the offshore fields in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and even Angola. Our people know the area and the particular challenges. We certainly are a good company to move forward with in the future!

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