Words by Hannah Tapping
In conversation with Ross Bunyard, Managing Director of Castle Air Ltd.
Could you introduce yourself and your journey with Castle Air?
My background is in accountancy, mergers and acquisitions. I became involved with Castle Air through my family and helped out on the financial aspects of the company. I quickly realised I had a real interest in the industry and so became more involved in the day to day running of the business. Over 20 plus years, I went from sales manager to managing director, and now I’m one of the shareholders in the business.
How did Castle Air come into existence and what was its initial focus?
The company was founded by Roy Flood in 1979 at a time when there were no helicopter charter businesses in the South West. Two ex-navy pilots had approached Roy, asking whether we would like to set up a charter to business. Initially operating from Roy’s home, the company then moved to a purpose-built hangar and private heliport in Liskeard. The first helicopters were small JetRangers, used not only for charters but also for aerial filming contracts for programmes such as Treasure Hunt, and we filmed regularly for the BBC, local TV and films.
We then got into the Italian helicopters such as the Leonardo (or the Agusta as it was called back then) which is a luxury twin-engine aircraft. These were a lot faster and more capable, and used for aerial filming and VIP charters. It was at this time that we started the shuttle service for Lundy Island, bringing clients on and off for the National Trust. The business slowly built over a period of time, moving into helicopter sales just before I got involved. There had always been a small team of engineers at Castle Air looking after our own machines, so as we started selling aircraft we were able to offer our clients maintenance packages as well.
We have always held a good stock of parts to support our own aircraft, and when I jumped on board in the early 2000s, we really began to push the business forwards, not only selling large amounts of aircraft but supplying parts as well, meaning we could offer our Cornish clients sales, maintenance, management and storage. In 2012, the company saw substantial growth. I could see that we were one of the biggest sellers of Leonardo helicopters in Europe, if not the world, but we were missing out on the management of some of these aircraft because not everybody wanted to come back to Cornwall for their maintenance. As a result, we purchased a second hangar at Biggin Hill airport giving us an additional sales, charter and maintenance base.
We then began to deal with the larger AW139; a very versatile, larger aircraft which is used in the oil and gas industry as well as for search and rescue. Our growth saw us become the largest VIP charter business in the UK for helicopters, and one of the biggest in Europe. We are also proud to be the largest on-shore maintenance organisation for helicopters in Europe and we buy helicopters from all over the world to sell all over the world!
In terms of sales, we predominantly deal with Leonardo products. However, as the company has grown, we’ve expanded into military contracts, with a big military base at Boscombe Down where we support military aircraft as well as supporting aircraft in other countries. This work has led us into other manufacturers, so we now deal with Airbus and Sikorsky and purchased a training academy in Staverton, Gloucester in 2015 to offer helicopter pilot training for off-shore pilots. We also offer engineering training there, so it’s grown into something of an aviation academy.
Can you talk me through the process of buying a helicopter?
We’ll buy a helicopter, which can be from anywhere in the world, which will then go through our maintenance facility in Liskeard to check that we’re comfortable and happy with the aircraft. We’ll then either add it to our charter fleet or our sales stock. Once purchased, a customer can have their helicopter stored or maintained at any of our bases across the UK. We have a large ground operations team that supports both the aircraft and the client.
What is the benefit of owning an aircraft?
At Biggin Hill, we can interline with clients arriving by private aircraft. We can have a helicopter waiting there to take them on to their final destination – I refer to them as time machines! If you’re a busy businessperson, you can get around the UK very quickly by air. A trip that might take you a week by car or train, you can do in a day. Helicopters help make companies grow, because they give you that valuable commodity of time. We are hugely busy in London, interlining into Battersea heliport, which is the only one of its kind at the heart of the city and can fly clients across Europe. From Biggin Hill it’s just a 50-minute flight to Paris. The large twin-engine aircraft we deal with offer an enclosed VIP cabin space, and the AW109 can comfortably seat six passengers. They are very stable, so you can work from the back or simply sip a glass of champagne and enjoy the aerial view!
If I own a helicopter, how does the process work?
Our clients will ring us, tell us their requirements and then my team will organise the whole trip for them. We can arrange for a car to pick them up or, if their garden or land is large enough, one of our pilots will fly the helicopter to them. At the end of their flight, we will have private cars waiting to take them to their final destination. If you don’t own a helicopter, you can benefit from Castle Air’s charter service, which we run to all the major sporting events in the UK – we even have our own VIP suites at the Formula One at Silverstone – or you can charter for business use.
How do you see the future of helicopter sales and charter?
Since COVID, people have realised how very precious time is and it’s changed people’s mindset. Both our sales and charter side of the business is very buoyant at the moment, and the industry as a whole is extremely busy. Sustainability is obviously always a big question mark that hangs over aviation and so we are currently looking at how we can progress to be carbon neutral over the next 12 months, as well as using sustainable fuel. There are even electric helicopters coming; they are still in their infancy but we see the future as being in the sky. With helicopters selling from anything between £500,000 to £20 million, and military aircraft topping out at £30 million, they are complex machines to look after. With this in mind we have made a conscious decision to try and keep everything in house; from sales and maintenance to pilots and parts which allows us to expand year on year, while offering our clients the highest level of service.
How does the company support the community in Cornwall?
We are the main aviation supporters to Cornwall Air Ambulance, from both an engineering and flying point of view. Their helicopter works under our approvals and we support them with a backup aircraft when theirs is grounded.