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An Export to Africa

By Art Berard

“Careful!  Easy now!”  The voice of the anxious shop foreman called out as he directed the crane operator loading a Bell 222B onto a flatbed trailer for the start of a long journey from Phoenix, Arizona to Johannesburg, South Africa.

The MR blades, the TR blades, the head, and the landing gear were removed and carefully crated.  The helicopter, drained of all fluids in compliance with HAZMAT shipping regulations, was protectively wrapped and ready to ship.  The plan indicated that the flatbed leave Phoenix at midnight for the long drive to LAX where the ship would be loaded onto a Cargolux Boeing 747 “big door” freighter for the flight to Luxembourg and transshipment on to JNB.

After strapping the helicopter and blade boxes down, the driver found the trip to LAX slow and uneventful.  Traffic was light, the wide load garnered no attention from police, and damage to the helicopter was avoided as the truck maneuvered under bridges and passed by low hanging tree limbs on side roads as it made its way to LAX.

The Bell 222B exportation referenced above had begun four months earlier when this writer received a call from an affiliate aviation company in Johannesburg who were retained by a buyer in Democratic Republic of Congo to source a good used twin engine helicopter for its mining operations.  After researching the entire Bell 222B market, one was found that fit all the buyer’s criteria.  Initial pre-buy activities included of travel to the 222B’s home base in Arizona to take dozens of pictures of the aircraft which were sent to the buyer.  The buyer liked the cosmetics, so a test flight was performed to confirm “hot and high” performance against factory numbers.  Since this proved successful, a final price was agreed upon and the purchase price was sent to escrow.   Logbook research spanning two weeks was accomplished and an annual inspection was complied with in preparation for presentation of the 222B to a DAR for issuance of an Export Certificate of Airworthiness.

The 222B had several STCs and modifications which complicated the export application.  Many discussions ensued with the DAR and with the importing civil aviation authority to assure that any special requirements and documentation required for the import were met.  Finally, all was ready for the closing of the transaction.  On the big day, the escrow agent confirmed receipt of funds, bills of sale, request for de-registration, and closing disbursement instructions from all parties, and then ownership transferred.

The buyer’s and seller’s agents had completed quotations for the delivery along with all required customs documentation and insurance. Funds were released to the shipping agent.  The buyer wanted the 222B immediately so he elected not to use a roll on, roll off ship with delivery taking 60 days but, rather, had it shipped via air freight for a cost of $70,000.  Four days after departing LAX the helicopter was in Johannesburg ready for reassembly.

The brokers continued support of the transaction by sending a USA licensed mechanic to Johannesburg to assist in getting the 222B back in the air, including reassembly, Chadwick blade balancing, and import paperwork.  In the words of the buyer’s agent, Vasile Bota of Bionic Aviation in Johannesburg, this transaction ended as “a jolly good job with a very happy customer.”

This is not always the case, although steps can be made to ensure a positive outcome.  Bota explains that “the problems experienced by customers importing a helicopter are not just the shipment; but also, and more importantly, the reassembly of the helicopter because many small countries north of South Africa have little to no maintenance support.  Consequently, most imports are routed through South Africa where there are service center hubs.  Following reassembly and import paperwork, the helicopters are then ferry-flown to the ultimate destination, such as DR of Congo or Tanzania.”
The helicopter market in sub-equatorial Africa has improved considerably since 2008 with demand for utility ships growing among the mining industry and the numerous enterprises that support mining operations.  The growth of utility helicopter operations is due primarily to the lack of good roads.  Bota explains that “even short 50-mile trips can take hours, and, during the six month wet season the roads become virtually impassable.  The highly profitable mining industry is supported by hundreds of technicians and administrators who must be on site, so the helicopter is the travel vehicle of choice.”

How does growth of aviation overall, and helicopters in particular, in the lower African continent impact the much larger USA market?  Research shows that 13 sales of Bell helicopters have occurred during the year to date to mid and sub-equatorial African countries, including South Africa, of which three were exported from the USA.  Only one of those was a new Bell helicopter.  Further research shows that 16 Eurocopters were transacted in the same countries this year to date, of which eight were new models and none were exported from USA.

Operators in South Africa such as Bionic Aviation view the business strategy within management of Eurocopter to include a strong support program which makes maintenance personnel and parts available following the sale of a new ship.  According to Bota, “support is critical to a decision to purchase and could bode well for Eurocopter sales during the forecasted growth of general aviation in these countries.”

Often aircraft sale projects that require export to a foreign buyer sound easy at inception but then the project takes on a life of its own as complexities intrude, and myriad challenges come to being in the middle phases of the sale.

The reality is that the export of a helicopter from the USA to another country is always difficult, costly, and complex.  But, such challenges met successfully is ultimately rewarding; and a good broker accepts those challenges as a routine part of providing quality service in a professional manner to his clients.


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