Africa is hungry for helicopters. Because of poor roads, rotorcraft are often the ideal way to get around - and, thanks to growing prosperity, there are plenty of governments, companies and individuals keen to get their hands on the latest equipment. However, a lack of maintenance facilities and experienced pilots mean the market is about more than simply meeting that demand with metal.
For Midrand-based Eurocopter Southern Africa - which represents the Franco-German brand in the southern and eastern half of the continent - aftercare and supplying customers with training for pilots and technicians is as important as selling the actual aircraft. Many clients will buy packages that ensure each helicopter is well-flown and well-maintained throughout its life. "We have two instructor pilots who travel all over and we offer technician training here or at the customer's base," says chief executive Fabrice Cagnat.
Eurocopter expanded steadily in South Africa after buying a local maintenance and sales company at Lanseria airport near Johannesburg in 1994, just as the country was opening again to outside investment. By 2007, the workforce had grown from 23 employees to 95, and last year Eurocopter Southern Africa - which changed its name from Eurocopter South Africa to reflect its wider regional focus - had moved to a new home at Midrand airport, near Johannesburg, which the owner was keen to develop as a helicopter centre of excellence. With two hangars at the new location, Eurocopter's workshop capacity doubled to 4,300m2 (46,300ft2).
The slowdown in the South African economy after 2009 took staff levels back to 80, but Cagnat says prospects are improving again. Although the lucrative and growing EC225 Super Puma-favouring offshore oil and gas market is served from Eurocopter's head office in Marseilles, Eurocopter Southern Africa customers include governments from Kenya to Angola, which are beginning to invest in single-engined EC130s, AS350s and twin-engined EC145s. The business also supports South African operators that charter helicopters all over the continent.
The company has begun offering simulator training near Johannesburg's OR Tambo international airport, using a former Swiss-owned Super Puma machine, with training provided by a third party. The South African Air Force - which operates the Aerospatiale Puma-based Oryx - has bought half the available hours, but Cagnat is keen to market the simulator elsewhere in Africa and beyond.
More sales announcements for Eurocopter Southern Africa are expected at the Africa Aerospace & Defence show.