Have an ice day…: an African company targets Antarctica as a tourist destination

Have you heard the one about a business jet operator in Africa flying tourists to Antarctica in a Gulfstream G550? Don’t blow hot and cold, it’s true. Angola’s BestFly is working with the South African arm of ExecuJet to fly the exclusive trips for adventure travel company White Desert.

“We are scheduled to fly 22 flights to Antarctica for ExecuJet this year; we have already flown four,” said Nuno Pereira, chief executive and founder of BestFly.

“We go from Cape Town, flying south to Wolf’s Fang runway in Antarctica, slightly south of the Russian runway station. It’s a 5 hour 10 minute flight.

“We went through a very thorough certification process before operating the first flight into Antarctica last year.”

ExecuJet chose BestFly for the task because it knew the Angolan operator was experienced in running special operations safely and had passed several leading audits, including the international standard for business aircraft handlers (IS-BAH) stage 1. Pereira led the certification process making the first flight.

“We land on an ice runway. It’s 3,000 metres and made of blue ice – that’s aged ice – compacted and grooved so it has almost the same grip as a wet runway,” he explained.

“I’ve landed there myself three or four times. I did the first flight of last season and this season, and I couldn’t tell the difference [from a wet runway]. The only challenge is taxiing – you need to taxi slowly or it’ll skid; otherwise take-off and landing is exactly the same.”

Despite the pressures of running the business, Pereira is still very much the active pilot. “Oh yes, yes, I wouldn’t do it any other way,” he said. “My wife would throw me out of the house if I stopped flying! I think that’s one of the keys of the success of the business because I have a managerial point of view as well as a pilot’s point of view.”

And success it has been for BestFly, now entering its 10th year of operations.

Right now, the hard work is all coming good, with a booming oil industry in Angola bringing new revenue streams and helping the country bounce back from the ravages of 27 years of civil war, which only came to an end in 2002. But the oil industry has only just begun to pay dividends. BestFly had to grow the hard way.

“We [Nuno and Alcinda, his wife] built BestFly without any support of the oil industry. We built BestFly based on everything else. Of course, oil is going to be a big boost for us now, with helicopters and other stuff we are planning, but there’s more life in Angola than oil alone – there’s agriculture, mining, construction; they are the major sources of revenue for BestFly.

“We also have a couple of dedicated medevac aircraft, fixed-wing, that we fly for the insurance companies and medical clinics in the country. We support a lot of the finance industry, and we manage aircraft owned by banks.

“The key to success for BestFly is that we have not become aligned with one source of revenue. We have had to be imaginative to continue to grow.”

Helicopter operations are the next big thing for BestFly, expanding a fleet which has been purely fixed-wing until now – a mix of jet and propeller aircraft.

“We’re the first privately owned rotary-wing operation in Angola flying offshore,” said Pereira. “We are completely independent and now have a contract with a major energy company. We are providing services in partnership with Héli-Union of France but under our umbrella. Héli-Union has extensive experience in the rotary-wing market and they were also in Angola for quite a while.

“For both of us it was a win-win deal. They understand very well our market and we understand very well the Angolan needs. With that, we were able to start immediately. However, we are in a transition process where the helicopters will be operated under the Angolan air operator’s certificate (AOC) of BestFly with the support of Héli-Union in the background.”

So far, the venture has acquired two AgustaWestland AW139s, well-proven helicopters in the oil and gas arena.

“I’m not a rotary-wing man myself. I’m more fixed-wing,” admitted Pereira. “But I was amazed with the equipment and the ability of the helicopters. The contract is mainly for medevac but we can, in as little as 45 minutes, go from medevac configuration to a 12-passenger shuttle.

“The pilots will initially come from Héli-Union but our strategy is believing in Angola, employing staff who are Angolan. It is our plan that, in a short period of time, we will, with the support of Héli-Union, hire and train Angolan pilots on the machines and get Angolan pilots on the operations. The foreign pilots will support the growth and the experience of the Angolan pilots on the equipment.

“This is the safe way to do it. We want to keep the reputation of BestFly, as always, to the highest standards. »

Standards matter to the Pereiras, who haven’t shied away from international scrutiny.

The Luanda-based company achieved stage 1 ISBAH back in 2016, successfully renewed it in 2017, and last year went through the challenge of the stage 2 audit.

“We had some improvements to make raised by the auditor. We did them, complied, and had them accepted by the auditor. Now everything is being reviewed by the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) so, hopefully, we are just days away from being stage 2,” said Pereira.

“BestFly is probably the most audited company in Angola! We’ve been audited by all the major oil companies because, to fly for them, we had to go through their due process. We are audited by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), by the Aruba Civil Aviation Authority, because we have an Aruba AOC and by the Angola Civil Aviation Authority because we have an Angolan AOC.

“But ISBAH stage 2 was the most thorough audit and I say it in a positive way – we need help to find out where we can improve because there’s always room for improvement. That took us a little time to make the changes.

“My team was awesome! It was the team at mid-management level that did all the work. They really upped the game so I have to be really pleased with my director of operations and my director of quality – they were the guys who made us proud.”

Among the things BestFly has put in place to set its high standards is a relationship with FlightSafety International for all the company’s pilot training needs. With 15 aircraft on the fleet and another Gulfstream 550 on the way, the company needs a lot of well-trained pilots. The fleet includes two other Gulfstreams – a G450 and G3 – two Dassault Falcon 900s, a Bombardier Challenger 605, three Lear 45s, a Dornier 328 Jet, four King Air turboprops and a Twin Otter… plus the new helicopters.

“BestFly is already a recognised brand in the industry but we want to create more awareness in the region to demonstrate that Africans can do it as well as everyone else,” said Pereira.

“We believe in Africa. I’m very passionate about my country. One of the greatest things we achieved with BestFly was not just the business success but the help we gave to improve the perception of Angola. That’s more important than any money we make.

“We have the Aruban AOC; we have aircraft based elsewhere other than Angola so we are catching other markets as well. But we want always to remember where we are coming from. We are an Angolan company open to the world.” (africanaerospace)

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