Business aviation can and does play an important role in supporting certain key industries in parts of the world that are underserviced by scheduled commercial airline operations. In Africa, the best example of this is the mining sector.
“The role of this type of aviation in supporting mining in Africa is huge,” points out investment company E Oppenheimer & Sons chairperson Nicky Oppenheimer. One of the companies owned by the family business is executive air services enterprise Fireblade Aviation. “Getting your people – managers, engineers – to mines in, for example, the [Democratic Republic of] Congo. In Africa, commercial aviation networks are not as developed as in Europe.”
Worldwide, however, the executive aviation sector has been under pressure in recent years. “Private noncommercial aircraft are a luxury,” he observes. “When times are tough, business is tough. But, worldwide and particularly in the US, where the economy seems to be picking up, I think you’ll see a pick-up in the sector. But there has been a squeeze.
“Another area where I see confidence in the future is that there are more and more wealthy individuals, who want privacy and security,” he notes. “And then there is the convenience of being able to go somewhere you want to, when you want to, provided you go through customs and, at major airports, you get [landing and take-off] slots.”
Currently best known for its fixed-based operation (FBO – effectively, a private air terminal, although any international flights would be controlled by the authorities) at OR Tambo International Airport (see Engineering News March 3, 2017), Fireblade has its own small fleet of aircraft available for charter. This comprises two jets, two turboprops and two helicopters, all fitted out for executive transport.
The jets are a Bombardier Global 6000, which can carry 14 people (passengers and crew) for a distance of 6 000 nautical miles (nm – 11 112 km) at a maximum true air speed of 510 knots (kts – 944 km/h); and a Bombardier Challenger 350, which can carry ten people (again, both passengers and crew) for 3 200 nm (5 926 km) at a maximum true air speed of 477 kts (882 km/h). The two turboprops are both single-engined Pilatus PC-12NGs. Each of these can carry between four and eight passengers over a range of 1 560 nm (2 889 km) at a typical cruise true air speed of 280 kts (519 km/h). The PC-12NGs are mainly employed within South Africa.
The two helicopters are both products of Leonardo Helicopters, previously known as Agusta. They are an AW139 and an AW119. The AW139 is a twin-engined machine, capable of carrying between six and 12 passengers over a range of 573 nm (1 061 km) at a typical cruising speed of 165 kts (306 km/h). The AW119 is a single-engined helicopter which can accommodate six passengers (but Fireblade recommends no more than four, for maximum comfort) over a distance of 450 nm (840 km) at a typical cruising speed of 130 kts (240 km/h).
“The PC-12s fly a huge amount,” Oppenheimer told a recent media briefing. “The Challenger 350 is our newest aircraft and it is extremely popular.”
Currently, Fireblade is making a loss because it has not yet received final authorisation for its FBO to function as an international terminal (a court case against the Minister of Home Affairs is under way). “We’re losing a substantial amount of money, perhaps around R3-million a month,” he reported at the briefing. The main source of income for FBOs around the world is the sale of fuel. Business aircraft flying internationally use a lot more fuel than those flying domestically. “With [international] movements of three to five a day. . . [t]hat would certainly be a profitable business. We planned [to sell] a million litres [of fuel] a month and we’re currently doing much less than that.”
The Oppenheimer family has been connected with aviation since 1935 and both Nicky and his son, Jonathan, are pilots, with Nicky often flying Fireblade’s AW139. “When our family sold our stake in [diamond group] De Beers, we needed to invest the proceeds,” explained Nicky. “We decided to set up a business, a business that would showcase South Africa and benefit the area, region and country. We believe Fireblade does this.”