By land, at sea, and in the air with Petra Popieul

It is Monday and the fire department is ready at quay 509. At ICO they are expecting a Super Puma helicopter, which left Austria the previous day. The aircraft will soon be shipped to Chile.

The life of a helicopter specialist at Herfurth Group

Today, the pilot does not have to fly far: he just has to take off from the Knokke-Heist heliport, hop over the windmills and then neatly land the helicopter on the designated painted 'H'.


Petra Popieul is ready to lead the operation. She specializes in helicopter transport, whether by ship, truck, or air cargo. For more than thirty years, Petra has worked for the Herfurth Group.


Once the helicopter is on the ground, together with specialized technicians, the dismantling begins Each propeller, each rotor blade ... in short, every part that is removed is noted and marked in a logbook. This enables mechanics on the other side of the ocean to reassemble the aircraft perfectly. Soon the PCTC (Pure Car and Truck Carrier) will sail in to take the helicopter to Chile.

Passion at the drop of a hat

So how does one become a specialist in helicopter refueling? "It all started very by chance", Petra explains. From my father, I inherited the passion for logistics and the port. After school, I immediately started at Zeemar. There I was fortunate enough to get to know the entire logistics package: container, RoRo, customs ... My interest in the entire port scene was, is, and will always be very great.


"When I was working at Zeemar/Herfurth Group, a New Zealand aviation customer asked me to monitor the shipment of helicopters in Belgium. This customer took me under his wing (what's in a name?) to teach me the tricks of the trade. I didn't expect that there was so much involved: checking dimensions, finding the desired type of shipment according to the customer's wishes, checking whether the aircraft could be shipped the way the customer wanted, and so on."


"But we also had to constantly take infrastructural matters into account. How do you accommodate the wheels of a helicopter on a cradle, for example? How does the loading, lashing, and securing go? These experiences were certainly very instructive, especially because every helicopter is different", says Petra.

Helikopterspecialiste Petra Popieul van Herfurth Groep op ICO in Zeebrugge

The road to expertise

One of Petras first helicopters was an Augusta Westland AW139, which came to Zeebrugge by truck from Italy. "That helicopter was then shipped through Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions. The aircraft was packed in a cover/wrap of three layers to protect it from corrosion by sea salt, even though the aircraft was inside the ship. The helicopter was then transferred on a Mafi forklift on the quay in seven Beaufort winds, so quite brisk. We then waited until the wind had died down."


Herfurth's potential customers are mainly business people from specialized companies with extensive helicopter fleets. "It's a capital-intensive sector where helicopter companies lease their aircraft to various customers. For example, a Canadian helicopter company may provide SAR (Search and Rescue) aircraft to the New Zealand government. The Super Puma we are currently handling is deployed to Chile every year to fight the summer forest fires there when it winters here."

Shipping instead of buying

"But then why doesn't Chile buy a helicopter? The cost of such a Super Puma quickly exceeds 30 million. Therefore, leasing a helicopter is still the most economical option" Petra explains. "Everything about helicopters is extremely expensive. For example, to ship a helicopter from Den Helder to Canada we needed extra metal plates with hooks to secure it properly. These had to be Airbus-certified, which cost a fortune to order there."


Yet it's not just about big companies. "Sometimes, we ship helicopters that belong to individuals or businessmen as well."

Thinking along with the customer is the key to trust.

Petra PopieulHelicopter specialist at Herfurth Group
Petra Popieul- Helikopterspecialiste bij Herfurth Groep

Customer-focused empathy

Thanks to word-of-mouth advertising, the helicopter companies know that they can count on optimal service from Petra. 'Thinking along with the customer is the key to trust,' says Petra.


"In fact, we work together on the entire process: from the commercial winning of an order to the customs formalities and the shipping, with all the aspects that go with it. The Super Puma had recently landed in Knokke-Heist. I made sure that hotel accommodation and food were provided for the pilot and his crew, transport was arranged for the crew that had to return, the necessary equipment was on site to prepare everything for departure, the necessary technicians were present, and so on. Giving the best service, that's what it's all about."


Sometimes Petra accompanies the pilot in the car to explore the terminal. "So many wind turbines have been built, there are masts and cables. A pilot who has never been here before likes to see what the area looks like beforehand. Such a recce (i.e. reconnaissance) can also be done with one of the technicians, who is in radio contact with the pilot the same day."

Caution is key

"Because helicopters are so expensive, it is important that they are handled with extreme care. The helicopter company is like a couple of parents handing over their child. We, like a good pater familias, have to do everything we can to ensure the safety of their baby."


Petra regards the helicopters as a porcelain figurine. "Really everything has to be in order before a helicopter boards. We check the disaster of the RoRo ship and make sure there are no potholes in the road on the route. Most helicopters have no suspension if the electronics are not working. We also take care of the necessary signage, the required packaging and so on."


"In addition, we always evaluate the weather forecast. If you are on a ro-ro, and a strong side wind suddenly comes up, a helicopter can quickly tip over despite its mass of three to six tons. A rotor of a helicopter that is lifted or elevated on board can undergo a torsion due to a gust of wind, which can have pernicious consequences. They are really expensive and delicate aircraft."

An eye for risks

"Each mode of transport has different requirements. For air freight, you can choose between a PGA pallet or a towable solution. For sea freight, there is a choice between container loading (i.e. flat(rack) container) or RoRo loading (via RoRo, a Mafi forklift, or a tow bar). In addition, everything depends on the type of helicopter. How high and how wide is it? Can and will the rotor be dismounted or not? How far does the customer want the helicopter to be disassembled before shipping? And so on. The destination, the type of ship, and/or the type of shipping are also decisive."


"Ultimately, the customer makes the decisions. Our task is purely to estimate and limit as many risks as possible. We must think about the what, where, and how - before, during, and after the journey. My job doesn't stop when the helicopter is on board."


"Currently, for example, I am fully arranging a shipment from Italy to the Philippines, with three transshipments. Someone must follow everything up carefully so that nothing can go wrong. Not having any visual control myself is the hardest thing to hand over. Our local agents are our eyes, but even that is not always a guarantee. Recently we had a situation where a helicopter was not allowed on board without supervision. And yet suddenly it was shining on our wharf even though we had expressly forbidden it in our communication."


Petra knows that dockworkers do not always realize how much more vulnerable a helicopter is compared to a truck or bulldozer. "For them, it's business as usual. Maybe it's just as well, otherwise, no one would dare touch it. Fortunately, at the terminals in Zeebrugge I can always count on people who do a great job."

Helikopterlading op ICO-terminal in Zeebrugge

Variety of dreams

The helicopter business never becomes monotonous. My checklist has become quite extensive, but there is always something that falls through the cracks, concludes Petra. "Before a helicopter comes to Zeebrugge, I always go through a few points. Does the helicopter need to be refueled or defueled? Do all the customs formalities apply? Which loading and unloading equipment is needed? Do we need to provide boxes, such as a blade box to store the rotor blades? Where and how should the boxes be picked up? And so on. And then there are all the administrative tasks for communicating with 'the other side'. Shipping to Chile, for example, will certainly involve a mountain of translation work."

Shipping instead of flying

Why does a helicopter have to be shipped? Can't it just fly? "A common question", Petra observes. "There are various aspects as to why consequences are not being made. Often it has to do with permits. It is not allowed to fly over some countries. In addition, long distances require a fortune in fuel. Flight hours, which often cost thousands of euros for a helicopter, also add up quickly."


Petra's ultimate dream is to once fly with the Super Puma from Zeebrugge to Austria. "Such a trip seems fantastic to me! But also shipping other helicopters - preferably of various types - worldwide is still on my bucket list", concludes an enthusiastic Petra.

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