The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Helicopter Veteran Seeks Leading Role in Advanced Air Mobility Revolution

Global helicopter group Bristow has harbored ambitions to diversify its operations for some time, and now it is taking the first steps to become a leading player in the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector. Last year’s merger with rival Era bolstered the companies’ combined balance sheets to support the investments needed to implement Bristow's plans.

The August 26 announcement of the intention to add 50 of Electra’s new eSTOL aircraft to its fleet is the first visible sign of Bristow’s plan to reinvent itself. Ahead of deliveries starting in 2026, the Texas-based group will support Electra in areas including operations, design, and safety features.

According to David Stepanek, Bristow’s executive vice president for sales and chief transformation officer, the new aircraft will complement the helicopters, which have been the backbone of its 250-strong fleet for decades. The company also intends to stay in the oil and gas support market, despite tough conditions that in recent years have seen margins squeezed by over-capacity among helicopter lift providers and oil prices at times hitting new lows.

While acknowledging that the offshore energy industry support business has come under pressure, Stepanek told FutureFlight, “It’s going to be around for a long time.” He sees the industry being an ally of the AAM pioneers as companies seek new sources of sustainable energy.

More specifically, Bristow envisages eVTOL aircraft potentially replacing some helicopters on flights to offshore platforms, and especially as improved battery technology extends range. In the Gulf of Mexico, oil platforms can be up to around 100 miles offshore, while some in the North Sea can be farther away.

“We’ve taken time to look at how Bristow would fit into the [AAM] value chain and what the roadmap would be,” said Stepanek. “We have 70 years of experience of vertical operations in restricted airspace, and we operate on five continents with 12 AOCs [air operators certificates].”

Among the aviation agencies from which the group holds approvals are the FAA, EASA, CASA (Australia), and ANAC (Brazil). It also has operations in countries including Guyana, Nigeria, Suriname, Egypt, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkmenistan.

Bristow feels the international scope of its operations gives it a stronger platform for launching eVTOL operations around the globe than many traditional Part 121 aircraft operators. “We also have IP [intellectual property] in maintaining aircraft in the sort of high-tempo operations that are required for urban or regional air mobility, as well as experience of launching new aircraft into service,” Stepanek said.

For instance, Bristow is the launch customer for Leonardo’s AW609 tiltrotor. “We can help manufacturers getting aircraft not just certified, but into operation,” Stepanek said, explaining that in the company’s experience new aircraft commonly require some modifications in the first six months or so after starting commercial flights.

What Bristow mainly sees in the new wave of electric aircraft is the potential for a step-change in cost efficiency, in some cases as direct replacements for existing rotorcraft. “Helicopters are very expensive to manufacture, buy, operate and maintain, and we feel it will be a natural progression for our existing customer base to use these new vehicles for existing needs and maybe also in different ways,” said Stepanek.

One example he offered of new uses was the potential for oil and gas companies to fly employees to onshore bases rather than having individuals drive long distances. Other possible applications for eSTOLs being eyed by Bristow include middle-mile cargo deliveries, which Stepanek sees as “a very ripe market,” and also search-and-rescue services, such as those the company is already handling for the UK’s coast-guard services using Schiebel’s Camcopter drones.

While acknowledging the “aggressive timelines” many eVTOL start-ups are pursuing to get their aircraft to market, Stepanek said that in many cases he feels these pioneers are made of the right stuff. “Looking at their teams, their track records, and their plans for production, these are the type of people who could solve these problems,” he told FutureFlight.

Bristow’s fleet includes aircraft from leading manufacturers including Sikorsky, Leonardo, and Airbus. Stepanek said he sees the new AAM companies spurring legacy companies to offer competitive new technology in the sector, referencing acknowledged eVTOL plans at both Airbus and Bell.

There are also several scenarios in which Bristow could potentially support eVTOL manufacturers in achieving their ambitious plans to launch their own air taxi networks from scratch. This might entail the group acting as an operating partner or providing services such as maintenance and training.

However, Stepanek ended with a note of caution: “We’re in a revolution, but aviation safety and operations are evolutionary.” Through its Target Zero campaign, Bristow has long pursued an objective of eliminating all accidents and incidents resulting in harm to people, and the company was a founding member of HeliOffshore, the industry’s collaborative safety organization.