Thanks to the world's thirst for oil, the few kilometres separating Abu Dhabi from some 600 oil rigs pumping the black stuff from the rock below the shallow waters of the Gulf have become one of the busiest airways in the world. Helicopter operator Falcon Aviation Services is the most prominent of a number of operators that ferry oil workers between the city's Al Bateen airport and the rigs, sometimes carrying up to 11 passengers, and at other times equipment or supplies.
It is not a job for the faint-hearted. Unlike the huge fixed platforms of the North Sea, the Gulf's drilling rigs are tiny, with only a handful of crew. Although weather conditions are considerably more benign than they are off the coast of Scotland and Norway, landing platforms are just 7m across. Workers - and the rigs themselves - are constantly shifted in search of new deposits. FAS pilots can make up to 80 landings and take-offs a day, between the rigs themselves and to and from their Abu Dhabi base.
Adding to the pressure is the "massive amount of radio traffic" as helicopters manoeuvre around the oil fields, says the company's vice-president commercial AJ Baker. "That and the constant landings are the stumbling blocks for a lot of pilots. Anyone can fly from A to B, but the landings and take-offs are the hard bit." As a result, FAS says it has "a very high entry standard" for its flightcrews, with a minimum 2,000h experience.
Around 80% of recruits are sourced from the "pilot network", with former colleagues tapped or recommended by a current employee, says Baker. Many are ex-military. "They tend to have the right temperament," he says. Although FAS also operates fixed-wing and rotary aircraft on VIP charter flights, the oil market represents 60% of its revenues and that percentage is getting bigger. "The oil industry is growing exponentially," says Baker, one of several Australians prominent in the world of business aviation in Abu Dhabi.
The company, founded in 2006, operates a fleet of 31 aircraft, including 26 helicopters. Eleven of the latter are Bell 412s, used primarily for the oil work; a 12th arrives in May. It also operates a selection of managed and owned helicopters on VIP, corporate, private, tourist and utility services, including six Agusta 109s and six Eurocopter EC130s. In addition, it operates two Embraer Legacy 600s, one Lineage 1000 and a Gulfstream G450 on VIP charter, as well as a Bombardier Learjet 45 air ambulance.
After a dip in business in the years following the Dubai financial crisis in 2009, the charter business has recovered strongly for FAS. "We've seen an incredible swing since October when we set a new record for revenue," says Baker. "Since then, every month but one we've set a new record. There's a good strong confidence about the business." The company is also moving into maintenance with a new hangar at Al Bateen which "will be in full swing by the end of the year", he says.
It is a further departure for a highly diversified business aviation company. On a given day, FAS clients might include racing drivers or Hollywood stars being picked up by VIP helicopter from the manicured lawns of Abu Dhabi's grandest hotel, the Emirates Palace. As they settle into their leather seats, those celebrities might glance out to the waters of the Gulf where, chances are, another Falcon aircraft will be on a very different mission: picking up 10 exhausted and dirty crewmen from an oil platform, fresh from helping to fuel Abu Dhabi's surging economy.