Luviair helicopter operations


ONBOARD talks to Nigel Watson about his experience over the past 35 years of working with VVIPs, superyachts and the world of helicopter operations.

I have been in command roles in the luxury yachting and aviation industries for over 35 years — initially as part of the Golden Fleet, then for the last 22 years founding and managing HeliRiviera and Luviair. We provide a range of services in VVIP helicopter operations, specialising in those embarked on superyachts.

This overseeing of VVIP operations with seaplanes and helicopters has led to my famed Expressions. Anyone who has worked with me will have heard at least one of these before. I have chosen to share with you a few of them below.

“Yachts last longer than helicopters, so build it for the helicopter of tomorrow”
When owners begin to look for a new vessel — whether purchasing an existing one, or beginning a new build — I urge them not to choose a yacht that meets their needs today, but rather to anticipate what they may want in the future. The lifecycle of yacht ownership is longer than that of helicopter ownership, so one vessel may see multiple aircraft landing on its deck over the course of its lifespan. Helicopters become bigger, more capable, and heavier.

Owners must anticipate the helideck dimensions, storage, equipment and safety facilities for normal and emergency operations. The helideck should be big enough, strong enough and optimally placed on the vessel to be able to safely accommodate the largest model of helicopter that the owner may wish to operate — keeping in mind that the helicopter in question may not have been designed yet! There are published standards for a reason. Follow them.

“There is no such thing as a bad helicopter, but it may not be the right one for you.”
The key with helicopter choice is understanding the mission profile now and considering what it may become in the future. A good starting point is looking at what models are currently popular, but peer group pressure may lead to a misinformed choice. It is crucial to seek the opinion of a professional to confirm that the aircraft fits the owner’s mission profile. ‘Try before you buy’ applies to helicopters as well. Although VIP helicopters are not easy to lease for short periods of time, building relationships with reliable charter operators will help owners determine whether the perceived need matches actual utilisation.

“The day of delivery should be for flying and sipping champagne, not unrealised expectations.”
The purchase of an aircraft can be complex, especially with factory deliveries. Helicopters come with a broad range of operational equipment beyond the basic airframe and engines — mission-specific equipment, airframe modifications, interior and exterior design schemes, to name a few. One should also keep in mind that one day it may be sold; some decisions, though not of immediate use to the owner may be crucial in optimising resale value. For best results engage with an industry professional that is not the manufacturer. Continuously following the build, understand the stages of production, and preparing for the day of delivery will help avoid any surprises on the day; and ensure it is a smooth and enjoyable process for all involved.

“We are only as good as our last flight.”
This is for us as operators and aircrew. We are experienced professionals with CV’s that make impressive reading, but in most instances we do not fly enough by solely on heli-yacht time. The average superyacht helicopter flies around 100 hours a year. In a rostered and/or multi-crew operation, individual hours are significantly less. Regardless of experience, currency is not necessarily there. Aircrew are encouraged to fly outside their duty times in other roles, but additional approved training time is crucial. “Helicopter operations are expensive. The cost of an accident is far greater.”

Heli-yacht operations are expensive. With currency training, specialist equipment, regular maintenance, proper hangarage and facilities, operations and administrative teams, deck training for yacht crew, and much more, the costs can quickly get into high numbers. Some may be tempted to cut corners to save some money. However, the costs — financial and emotional — associated with an accident are far greater, and can be catastrophic.

“No matter what I tell you, I never have to be anywhere.”
This is a client quote; it has stayed with me for years. Client pressure is one of the most challenging elements of heli-yacht operations. Getting to a place of trust in the relationship is vital, and the quicker we get there the better. As heli-yacht aviators, we are all service orientated professionals wanting the best for our principal, their loved ones, and our fellow crew members. However, there are reasons by which we cannot fly. They may relate to airworthiness of the helicopter, weather, regional rules, or time of day. An enlightened owner understands these aspects and does not put the crew in an untenable position with unreasonable demands.


For helicopter crew, an expression of old was “I am looking for a pilot who is a cross between Tom Cruise and Father Christmas”; this was accompanied by comments relating to being unattached with the freedom to travel. This is now a dated concept. Pilots with the required experience often have young families they want to be around, and far from being a hindrance, I consider this a healthy attribute to support the statement ‘We all want to come home tonight’. Flying helicopters to superyachts for some of the wealthiest people on the planet is a stressful job. With the proper emphasis on the needs of their crew, an owner will not only have one of the safest operations possible, but also some of the most fiercely dedicated and loyal individuals on the market.

The single most important element of a safe and high quality heli-yacht operation is the relationship of trust between the principal, the yacht and the helicopter. It is also one of the most challenging. We must remember that we are all part of a team, with every member embarked dedicated to providing the best quality of service and care to our principal’s operation.

For more details talk to Nigel Watson
Tel: +44(0)1624 811365
or visit