ANALYSIS: Helicopter leasing takes off with oil and gas boom

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Waypoint Leasing founder Ed Washecka's route into the suddenly booming helicopter leasing business began in 2004. Era Helicopters is one of the world's largest helicopter operators, but back then it was a financially over-leveraged mess that was losing money. It was Washecka's job to turn the business around, and that meant finding a way to make money with surplus aircraft.

So Era launched a leasing business at the start of a boom era for an offshore oil and gas industry with an insatiable appetite for bigger, heavier helicopters. "We ended up doing reasonably well," Washecka says. "We gradually built our leasing business to be quite a sizeable cash generator."

It was not long before the financial community took notice. Helicopters are attractive assets that are slow to lose their value - even slower than fixed-wing aircraft.

One of those fixed-wing leasing pioneers, NetJets founder Richard Santulli, entered - actually re-entered - the helicopter leasing business in 2010 by launching Milestone Aviation.

Washecka decided to leave Era Helicopters at the end of 2011 to launch his own lessor, retaining an investment banker and quickly finding high-profile investors. "MSD was my first meeting," he says, referring to the private equity firm owned by billionaire Michael Dell. "[George] Soros was my third meeting. These guys put a lot of time into understanding the business."

A year later, MSD, Soros's Quantum Strategic Partners and Cartesian Capital invested a combined $375 million, helping Waypoint sign a "multi-aircraft" deal with AgustaWestland for its Grand New, AW169, AW139 and AW189 odels. It included an initial firm order covering four helicopters.

Waypoint targets small operators in fast-growing international markets for offshore lift with no room on their balance sheets to compete with industry giants like Bristow and CHC. Washecka may also look to markets like emergency medical services in future.

Helicopter lessors have been around for decades, but most - such as Eagle Copters, MSI and Capital Helicopters - have supplied small helicopters in niche areas.

That era is now over. Milestone stunned the entire industry at Heli-Expo this year by ordering 23 Sikorsky S-92s, seven S-76s, 14 Eurocopter EC225s and six EC175s. Meanwhile, Australian investment bank Macquarie has launched the US-based Macquarie Rotorcraft Leasing, selecting former Sikorsky chief executive Jeff Pino as chief executive.

"It's a much larger business," Washecka says. "There's a lot of people doing it."

And, Washecka believes, this influx is what customers have demanded since the arrival of Milestone, "which has done a tremendous job of showing the value.

"Most of the customers who use Milestone or want to use Milestone want to have alternatives to Milestone."