2Excel Aviation, an aerospace services company, has clocked up its busiest ever year despite much of the industry being grounded during the global coronavirus pandemic.
The Doncaster-based firm has reported a four-fold increase in operations at Doncaster-Sheffield Airport, operating 2,373 individual flights during 2020 in spite of the wider aviation sector gloom.
Much of the surge is down to the company’s distinctive red-and-white aircraft being flown in support of HM Coastguard, via a contract with the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency which marked its first anniversary in November.
2Excel’s Special Missions division, which besides the Coastguard missions also flies two giant Boeing 727s on behalf of Oil Spill Response, flew almost 2,500 hours last year.
2Excel’s co-founder, Chris Norton, said: “Doncaster-Sheffield Airport is 2Excel’s operational hub and it is integral to our business. Nearly all our contract-air services are delivered from our hangar at the airport and we’ve had a record year for flying, even during the pandemic.
“That’s because most of our work is for special missions and we’re an important part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. Most of our people are key and essential workers. We provide Search and Rescue for the UK, we fly vaccines into the country from abroad and we support the transport system, the oil and gas industry and the Ministry of Defence.
“Our engineers develop and maintain these essential services to help keep the country functioning. In the early days of the pandemic, we even flew repatriation flights on behalf of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – again all planned in Doncaster by our operations team.”
The company was previously best known for its aerobatic display and passenger experience team The Blades, which is based near Northampton.
Mr Norton said that the company has grown from its foundation as The Blades, the world’s only aerobatic airline which flies passengers on experience sorties, when it was just five people and four aeroplanes to a fleet today includes Boeing 727 and 737 aircraft, King Air turboprops and smaller PA-31 Navajos.
He added: “We have 28 aircraft of which 18 are based at Doncaster.
“South Yorkshire is an ideal place for us to be based because it is right in the middle of the UK. That’s particularly important for our Maritime and Coastguard Agency work, from where our aircraft launch, fitted with complex radars and other sensors to help locate people who need assistance, to go anywhere within the UK and its waters and get there within an hour or so.
“We also designed and built the equipment inside those aircraft, and trained the crews, here at Doncaster. Today, all day, and every day of the year, our crews are at very high readiness to launch whenever we’re called out. And we’re called out every day.”
Within the industry, 2Excel is best known for its highly-skilled team of design engineers, who created the unique, complex system that fits inside the 727s to spray dispersant over oil slicks on the sea in the event of a spill.
The team also designed, built and certified the new aircraft for HM Coastguard in just eight months, along with training the pilots and onboard sensor operators, with the first missions flown in November 2019.
2Excel’s Charter division flies two VIP Boeing 737s used mainly for taking Premiership football clubs to away matches around Europe.
The company is also using a 757 to build a test aircraft that will be used for the RAF’s Team Tempest programme to create a sixth-generation jet fight.
2Excel Aviation was founded in 2005 by Mr Norton and Andy Offer, two former Royal Air Force Harrier jump jet pilots and squadron commanders.
Mr Offer is a former boss of the RAF’s famous Red Arrows and around a third of the company’s employees are ex-military.
Having launched as The Blades aerobatic team, the idea was to replicate for civilians the experience of flying with the Red Arrows, but the market for their adrenaline-fuelled passenger flights dried up following the 2008/09 financial crash.
So, the pair pitched to use their Extra 300 aircraft to use by training soldiers whose job is to call in bombers or drones on the battlefield. This led to 2Excel training the last six Army brigades to go to Afghanistan.
As the savings to the taxpayer impressed the Ministry of Defence, 2Excel was soon asked what else it could do and the business has grown from there.