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Former British Airways Chinook helicopters could make UK comeback

Civil-registered Chinook helicopters formerly owned by British Airways could make a surprise return to UK operations after Bristow Group announced a $560 million merger with tandem-rotor stalwart Columbia Helicopters.

Although British Airways Helicopters previously had a six-strong fleet of Boeing-Vertol BV-234s – the commercial variant of the heavy-lift rotorcraft – these were phased out during the late 1980s by successor British International Helicopters.

In fact, the majority of the former BIH fleet were acquired by Columbia in 1989, with four airframes still operated by the Aurora, Oregon-based company, Flight Fleets Analyzer records.

Discussing the acquisition on a 9 November results call, outgoing Bristow chief executive Jonathan Baliff said he sees opportunities to deploy Columbia's assets wherever Bristow has a presence.

"We expect to use the civilian Chinook and Vertol [107] fleet in our AOCs. There are operations in which we have air [operator] certificates in Europe and around the world, in the United Kingdom, that the Chinooks can come in and operate for us in firefighting and other [non-US] government work," he says.

Columbia has an active fleet of 21 Chinooks – both the BV-234 and CH-47D variants – alongside 11 Boeing-Vertol 107s, known as the CH-46 Sea Knight in US Marine Corps service, as well as dozens of parked airframes, according to Bristow data.

The helicopters are used around the world for heavy-lift operations, including onshore oil and gas, forestry work and logistics transport for the US military.

While Bristow will be able to redeploy Columbia's fleet, Baliff also sees potential for its idle aircraft to go the other way.

The oil and gas specialist has a 22-strong fleet of Airbus Helicopters H225s that have been parked since a fatal 2016 crash of another operator's Super Puma in Norway.

Those aircraft, on which Bristow booked an $87.5 million impairment charge for the quarter ended 30 September, are unlikely ever to make a return in the offshore industry, the company concedes.

Although it had been "actively marketing" the H225 fleet to potential customers, "market conditions" and "alternative opportunities" for the helicopters "indicate a substantial return to oil and gas service within our operations is not likely", says Bristow in a quarterly accounts filing.

Baliff says the parked airframes, which also include Sikorsky S-76s, could find use on US military contracts, via Columbia's Commercial Airlift Review Board certification.

While, it will "take some period of time" – potentially "a year or so" - to include the H225s on the CARB documentation, Baliff thinks that the "demand is there".

"That's exciting because we have idle H225s that can go to work within this CARB certificate and they’re already being requested today," he says.

Bristow's intention to change the use of its Super Pumas mirrors recent H225 sales, which have seen former oil and gas-roled examples reconfigured for utility transport missions.

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