Acquiring new aircraft and a new CEO, Proflight Nordic is gearing up for change in everything but its core mission.
Sweden suits helicopters. The country is about the size of California, but away from major cities, the terrain appears to be almost entirely forested, with exceptions only where the landscape accommodates one of the country’s 95,700 lakes. The appeal of being able to travel in a straight line and land in a small area is easy to understand, and helicopters have been popular in Sweden since light civilian models began to proliferate in the mid-20th century.
Aside from simply moving people and things from place to place, Sweden’s helicopters were soon being pressed into service in more niche applications such as surveying ice floes in the Arctic north and keeping track of wildlife populations.
By 1974, father and son team Göran and Christer Öhlund had founded Roslagens Helikopter to train pilots for the growing number of tasks that were finding a use for the utility and capability of helicopters. Since then, stewardship of the company has passed to the current CEO Carl Meyer, and it now operates under the name of Proflight Nordic to better reflect the nature of the training it aims to deliver.
Meyer’s journey into helicopter aviation began as a fixed-wing pilot. He was persuaded to take a trial helicopter flight by Göran Öhlund at the company’s Norrtälje base and was hooked, receiving his helicopter pilot’s license in 1980.
“We started chatting and he said: ‘You shouldn’t fly fixed-wing, you should fly helicopters,’ and he invited me to a free trial lesson,” explained Meyer. “Göran wanted to retire, so I got into the company and that’s how my helicopter career started.”
At the time, the company was operating two Enstrom F28 helicopters for both private and commercial training. Meyer says the limited power margins offered by the Enstrom piston-engine machine were good for training, but ultimately the market demanded a move to turbine aircraft.
“We thought that to start flying with less horsepower was a better way to train and the Enstrom was a very good trainer,” he said. “But we had to look at the market. If you have more turbine time then you have a better chance of getting employed.”
The company’s first Bell 206 JetRanger followed soon thereafter, with a move into a new hangar. By 1990, it had also acquired an Agusta (Now Leonardo) A109, which it initially used for instrument rating (IR) training. However, a change in regulation permitting instrument flight rules (IFR) operations in single-engine helicopters allowed for a less expensive route to this highly desirable qualification.
“To get a lower price for the students, we bought the first IR-certified LongRanger in the beginning of the year 2000,” said Meyer. “From then on, we have started IR training on single-engine helicopters, and students go on from there to different models.”
That approach is proving popular with the students. At the time of writing, the waiting list for an IFR course was in excess of three months, as chief pilot Jim Funck explained.
“At the moment we have a tremendous amount of instrument students,” he said. “We are a little bit specialized in doing CPL (commercial pilot license) and instrument training.”
Funck puts this down to the aircraft that they operate.
“We offer PPL [private pilot license] training for students that want to come here, but because we don’t have piston-engine aircraft it is a little bit more expensive,” he said.
Even without a lot of “grass roots” students coming through, Proflight Nordic can rely on its reputation to attract many of those private students back, once they are ready for commercial training.
“Almost all of the students that go to other schools to do the PPL training and later want to do CPL or instrument training end up in our school,” he said.
Training at its core
The leadership at Proflight Nordic keeps a close eye on the market, but while the company does a considerable amount of utility work, training is still its focus.
“There remains a high demand for ATO (Approved Training Organization) activity,” explained Meyer. “This is because it is older pilots now that are working in the oil-and-gas industry or ambulance and rescue, so we see a big demand for younger pilots.”
This focus on training, and in particular the desire to provide that training domestically, is one of the reasons that Proflight Nordic’s newly-acquired pair of Bell 505 Jet Ranger X helicopters have been adopted enthusiastically into the training fleet, but are yet to make it onto the company’s Air Operations Certificate (AOC).
“We don’t have the 505 in our AOC permit yet. As of now, we have JetRanger and LongRanger that do personal transportation flights,” said Meyer. “But I think that within a couple of years we will fly most of the sightseeing flights with the 505.”
However, by the time Meyer’s prediction comes to pass, he will no longer be at the reins of Proflight Nordic. He is in the process of handing over custody to Anders Lindberg, a pilot and accountable manager who also comes with business experience. He described how the allure of aviation had first seduced him.
“I was out sailing with my friends and realized it was quite nice to be free in the summertime,” explained Lindberg. Summers were high season for his family’s company. “Flying has always been a part of my life and I just felt I needed to give it a go, otherwise I would probably regret it for the rest of my life. I just decided to sell everything and fly helicopters instead.”
Flight training in the United States was followed by a return to Sweden and a job flying for a friend’s aviation company, before moving to Proflight Nordic in 2014. He has since seen the variety of the work expand.
“Training is still the foundation of the company, but we also perform a lot of commercial air transport and aerial work.”
One of the reasons for such reliable business is the influence of the local geography. The company’s main base is just north of Stockholm on Sweden’s east coast, around which are scattered thousands of islands in countless archipelagos.
“It’s tricky to get around by boat, and it takes a lot of time,” explained Lindberg. “So flying by helicopter is a really efficient way to get around the terrain.”
For this reason, all of the Proflight Nordic aircraft are fitted with emergency flotation devices, and while aerial work generally takes them further up north on tasks such as wildlife inventory, water is still a defining feature of the job.
“We do water samplings where we land on the lakes using aircraft with fixed floats,” Lindberg said. “We use them to take the water samples while we are on the water, and we can do maybe 170 or so lakes in a week.”
Specific aircraft are selected depending on the task, with the JetRanger favoured for aerial work because of its efficiency, while the increased cabin space and comfort of the LongRanger is generally reserved for flying passengers.
However, like Meyer, Lindberg sees a lot of potential in the company’s newly acquired Bell 505s.
“The 505 feels like a natural step forward from the 206, which is already a good aircraft, and versatile,” he said. “And there are a lot of parts common from the 206 series.”
Proflight Nordic received one of the first demonstration models of the aircraft, and Lindberg explained that it didn’t take long for the aircraft to win their hearts and minds.
“It’s almost like having a LongRanger in a JetRanger body on steroids,” he said. “It doesn’t leave much to wish for. The JetRanger gets up to maximum payload quite quickly, but by comparison, the performance of the 505 is off the charts.”
The 505 also comes with other benefits in comparison to its older sibling that go beyond available power, but nevertheless benefit both the people at the controls and those along for the ride.
“The [glass] cockpit and FADEC [full authority digital engine control] unload a lot of workload from the pilot,” explained Lindberg. “And the view means a better experience in the back. It’s better for the pilots and for the customers.”
He shares Meyer’s view that the aircraft has a strong future at Proflight Nordic.
“My vision is to gradually phase out the JetRanger and LongRanger so that we are flying aircraft like the 505 in all our operations,” he said.
An eye to the future
As chief pilot, Funck also has a fleet update on his mind, albeit with a slightly different focus. IFR training is currently limited to the LongRanger, and although the company also uses an FNPT II (flight navigation and procedures trainer, Level 2) device to facilitate that training, it comes with the same limitations in terms of cockpit layout and technology. Having worked in search-and-rescue (SAR) and helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) roles previously, he understands the appeal of modern avionics that are more relevant to current operational types.
“The [Bell] 407 is now IFR certified in the United States, so we are hoping for EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] certification as well,” he said. “When that happens, I think it would be the next step for us to change the LongRangers for the 407, to get a glass cockpit and four-axis autopilot.”
Niclas Mandéus agrees. He is the technical manager at Proflight Nordic but also a pilot with over 10 years’ experience. “To learn glass cockpit and FADEC at an early stage is becoming a must-have for pilots entering the market,” he explained. “If you’re going for an ATPL (airline transport pilot license) then you should start training and be familiar with those modern systems.”
It’s not just the pilots that Mandéus has to consider, though. Proflight Nordic has its own part 145 maintenance facility that also conducts technician training. The company can then cherry pick their own new recruits. With three full-time technicians on staff and two people working within their Continuing Airworthiness Management Organization (CAMO), those trainees are not short of expertise to draw from.
“Every technician has their own take on something,” said Mandéus. “So, it can be beneficial for the trainees to have different instructors.”
If more modern aircraft are to arrive in the company fleet, they will come alongside more modern engineering requirements, but Mandéus explained that the company has sufficient experience to handle likely future acquisitions thanks to its third-party service work.
“We do most Bell light products,” he said. “Typically JetRanger, LongRanger, 407 and 505. We have a long history with Bell, and they have a good product and good support.”
However, Mandéus’s core role is scheduling and conducting maintenance to support Proflight Nordic’s own operations.
“It’s a real strength to have your own in-house maintenance,” he said. “You can schedule your own servicing, and if we have different priorities in the operating field or in training, we can switch activity in the maintenance side to compensate for that.”
Activities might change day-to-day in the maintenance bay, but for the wider company Mandéus is in no doubt about the priority. “We are staying focused on training,” he said. “Particularly on IFR and MCC (multi-crew cooperation). So, I think that’s our niche.”
That sense of a company stepping forward while remaining true to its roots permeates Proflight Nordic. Despite the change in leadership and modern new aircraft, everybody seems clear in their purpose. It continues to retain training at the front and center of its operation, and still has an all-turbine fleet — albeit one capable of delivering Sweden’s next generation of professional helicopter pilots.
Lindberg’s vision, centered around customer experience and a modernized fleet, will undoubtedly bring its challenges as he leads the company into its next phase. But what about his own journey since taking the bold decision to pour everything into the dream of flying helicopters? “It’s been a blast,” he said.