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Podcast: Revolutions in Vertical Flight S2 E5 - Providing Disaster Relief

7th September 2021 - 12:00 GMT | by Studio

Helicopters provide vital assistance during disaster relief operations such as firefighting and earthquake response. But how do pilots prepare for these toughest of missions?

Welcome to Shephard Studio’s podcast series on Revolutions in Vertical Flight, sponsored by our partner Bell.

Listen on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify and more.

In our first series, we learnt about the history of vertical flight and discovered the key pioneers and revolutionary moments that created the rotorcraft industry we know today. 

In this second series, we learn more about the helicopter’s role in society, and how it helps overcome obstacles, protect the public and ultimately save lives. 

We'll hear from a range of operators about how they use helicopters to carry out those tasks that are too expensive or dangerous to conduct by other means. We consider the future, discovering how greater autonomy is poised to reshape the role of rotorcraft even further.

In this episode, we'll hear about the many advantages that helicopters offer during disaster response and hear from pilots from around the world about this most stressful of missions.

Episode 6 of the second series: The Role of Autonomy is here.


A transcript of this episode is below:

Simon Duncan 00:00 To have to fly into your own city to start a process, a risky process that just is completely foreign to you. That's a real shock to your system and quite surreal. It's the sort of thing you see in the news is not something you think you'd ever go to in your career. 

Narrator 00:17 A magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand in February 2011, killing 185 people and destroying much of the city. The aftermath of the tragedy, brought many lessons for officials and emergency responders, not least the effective role that helicopters can play in disaster relief operations. GCH aviation has provided New Zealand with private aviation services for more than 30 years. The company's experience throughout the earthquake response gives us an insight into the role that helicopters can play when such disasters occur. Here's Simon Duncan, the company's General Manager to describe the initial response. 

Simon Duncan 01:02 We got quite heavily involved. Obviously, I was on the fist rescue helicopter into town after the earthquake on 21 February. We basically deployed into the city to do some assessments to provide the emergency services with a set rate basically, because they had no idea what was going on. A lot of roads were blocked, and obviously building collapse and things like that. We deployed to the city to start with in straightaway, I observed the Christchurch Cathedral spire down. That was a sort of shock to us. It's really quite amazing. In the rescue world. You'd never ever think about having to go into a city to do rescues, because a lot of our stuff is out in the country and the ocean and the mountains, but have to fly into your own city to start a process, a risky process that just is completely foreign to you and seeing people on tops of buildings, and also seeing people crushed between floors and buildings, and obviously quite fatal injuries.  

That's a real shock to your system and quite surreal. It's the sort of thing you see in the news it's not something you think you're ever going to go to in your career. I do remember on that day that we were deployed out to Sumner school first of all to check that the hill behind Sumner school hadn't collapsed, well it had collapsed, but not on the school, it had collapsed on two houses next to the school. When we arrived and we landed at the school with the headmaster, Lady headmaster said to me can you help people in those buildings. I said, unfortunately, there's nothing we can do for them because we can tell that the whole cliff face had collapsed on those houses. There's nothing that as a rescue crew we could do for them. There are other problems in the city as well, so long as your school and your children are okay, that's what we come to check. 

We have other jobs to go back into the city to have to do. One of those jobs we then flew from there into Sydenham where the spotlight centre had collapsed and some people had been extracted from the earthquake rubble. Some people obviously had fatal injuries. There was a policeman there, and he had to come and have a look in this building. I said, well, I'm not that keen on going into a building this stage but I can have a look at it for you. He said, do you think the person there is dead? I said, well, it would appear to be the case. But I suppose on the paramedics outside, because we had three other people with very serious injuries, and that we had to assist them. We knew we can fly two people to hospital in the back of the helicopter. We were working with some John's paramedics at the scene. We had to decide which two people were going to come to the helicopter with us, and which other person was either going to possibly pass away, or they're going to have to make other arrangements to get to the hospital because the road was jammed.  

As we were learning our two patients into the back of the helicopter, I noticed some local Samoan guys from a local car repair shop. They actually rip the door off a building and let this other person onto the door. They said to run the person back off to hospital. This is sort of things that were going on with city at the time. We actually took our patients and we actually landed outside the hospital so the police close the road off right outside the hospital because normally we'd land on Hagley Park and go by ambulance. But of course the ambulance were all tied up going all around the city. We actually close the road off and unloaded our patients between the street lights basically. 

Narrator 04:31 Welcome to Shepherd Studio's revolutions in vertical flight, brought to you in partnership with Bell. In our first series, we learnt about the history of vertical flight and discovered the key pioneers and revolutionary moments that created the rotorcraft industry we know today. In this second series, we learn more about the helicopters role in society and how it helps overcome obstacles protect the public and ultimately save lives. We'll hear from a range of operators about how they use helicopters to carry out those tasks that are too expensive or dangerous to conduct by other means. We consider the future, discovering how greater autonomy is poised to reshape the role of rotorcraft even further. In this episode, we'll hear about the many advantages that helicopters offer during disaster response. One obvious example, is the helicopters ability to provide immediate surveillance and observation. This was the case in Christchurch when GCH aviation pilots and crew were among the first people to realise the significance of the disaster. 

Simon Duncan 05:49 As we're flying around, and you're seeing the damage and you're thinking, How on earth can people survive that and of course, the CTV board and we noticed straight away was was collapsed with the steel the only thing standing. In fact, I could see people waiting for the lift. Of course, there was any part of the building still standing was the lift well area, and there's no way that it could get down. The fire service had arrived and was starting to extract the people from here. However, they also noticed there was a fire coming from below the building. I actually called up Mark Reed from our company. I said put your bucket on and fly into town. He goes how am I going to fly into town with a bucket on? He said there's a built up area. No Mark there is no longer a built up area. Put your bucket on get your backside into town.

Where do I get my water from? The Avon. He said, too shallow. I said I know that. It's the only source of water available. The very first bucket Mark picked up he pulled onto fire on the street, which was a gas fire, and put it out. Then they went back into the Avon in the mud and place it onto the CTV site because as I said, there are people trapped under that building and still alive. He said, well, you can help me write the paperwork up. If I drown people, it'll be on your on your shoulders. I said Mark, nothing is going to be a problem. You know, you imagine if you were trapped in a building the last thing you want do is die in a fire. I think I'd rather be wet than dead. Let's go with that. That's what he did. Both mark and the company earned awards out of that from the council for deeds during the earthquake response. 

Narrator 07:32 GCH aviation was also called into action some five years later, when an earthquake struck the South Island settlement of Kaikoura. Regan Graham, a pilot and business development manager at GCH Aviation, found himself at the centre of the response to this latest earthquake, which left the town of Kaikoura cut off from the rest of the country. 

Regan Graham 07:54 Yeah, so when the earthquake hit, I was in a capital city Wellington, which did actually hit quite hard by the earthquake. Day one started off with flying genius personnel around which is our, I guess, earthquake chases. We went throughout the south, and set up remote sensing sites. Then we moved on to a stage of supporting the town of Cape Coral, which was really badly hit by the earthquake and cut off for a number of weeks. My role then moved to transporting fire personnel between cross shooting a quarter and doing pretty much three runs a day up to the flying firemen also flying food and medical supplies and predominantly in our twin engine, BK-107 helicopter which could take about a ton of cargo in the back. Then when that sort of petered off after maybe three weeks, there was a wee bit of a pause, and then around Christmas time we moved into like a sustainable sluicing down the slopes. They were down onto the main state highway, because there was a lot of rubble that was inaccessible any other way. 

It couldn't be brought down by any means other than a helicopter with the water because we had to, I guess stabilise the whole face so personnel can move underneath the slip and work on the slip. We had nine helicopters up there, or should I say they were nine helicopters up there, for which route and we flew about seven hours a day, seven days a week for five months, and we delivered. Most helicopters will bring about 1000 litres of water up onto the hillside and you're just washing away the loose rubble and they're trying to bring down all the unstable material. 

Narrator 09:48 The helicopter manufacturers developing helicopters that are tailored for disaster relief operations is a crucial focus. In late 2020, Bell developed a series of testimonials which provided insights into why operators began flying helicopters. The consistent answer was that helicopters provide capabilities that no other platform can offer, with the ability to travel to places that are out of reach for any other means of transportation. This is a clear advantage for disaster relief operations, from firefighting to humanitarian efforts. This is Matt Jayne, the marketing manager for the Bell 505. 

Matt Jayne 10:29 We're working on these testimonial series, where we talk to operators and we start hearing about, why they started flying helicopters and what they like about helicopters, and why didn't they fly planes, or why doesn't their business use buses for tourism or whatever it may be. The consistent answer is always, a helicopter can do something that note that no other vehicle on the planet can do. It can get to places that no other asset can really get to. I think that goes perfect with disaster relief in that a helicopter, you think about even a Huey size helicopter only needs a cut out in the forest of 75, 80, maybe 100 feet max. You don't need all that much room to land one, you can get in and out of places very quickly. It's not like an airplane where you got to go airport to airport or find an airstrip or find a huge stretch of land. 

You can put a helicopter down on the side of the road, if you need to dump a bunch of supplies, and head back. Then you combine that with not only the internal cargo capability, but the external capability. You can sling load, as much under a helicopter as the helicopter weighs itself. Just from the ability to actually go in there and take a 2000 pound helicopter and bring 2000 pounds of equipment or 5000 pound helicopter and bring 10,000 pounds of equipment or whatever it may be that ability to get stuff in quickly, to anywhere you need it. Really, precision is just unique amongst any other asset in the world. I've kind of asked the same question around firefighting, like why not use a whole host of 747s and just go dump a tonne of firefighting liquid everywhere you need it.  

But it comes back to that precision thing where you can get much lower with the helicopter, you can do it much quicker, getting back and forth from the water source, you can go in there. If you really need to, they use it as kind of first leg of attack or even like a preventative leg of the attack, where you can go in there and just sap water from somebody's swimming pool. If you need to, you can go park a 747 in someone's backyard and start sucking water out of a swimming pool to get that done. They'll set up literally what looks like a swimming pool on the side of the road. They'll just fill it with a fire hydrant and a helicopter come there and pick it up. Whereas a plane is having to fly to a body of water or back to an airport to fill up whatever it may be.  

The helicopter just has that versatile and quick response capability that you're really not going to get with any other type of asset. It's going to go back to a lot of people talk about drones replacing helicopters, and they're just not there yet. You know, with the ability to go from carrying a tonne of cargo to tossing a seed on the ground and throwing an injured person in the back and extoling them from a site. There's no other asset like that in the world that you can have that kind of versatility and that kind of response in a disaster of fire, public safety, whatever it may be. It's just it's so versatile. That's what really is amazing about helicopters as compared to anything else. 

Narrator 13:33 Fire response is a key area where helicopters can provide assistance. In California, authorities in 2020 has to confront what has been described as the most destructive wildfire season in California's recorded history. Wildfires burned over 4 million acres across California and 2020 more than 2017 and 2018 fire seasons combined.  

Dennis Brown 13:58 Well, certainly the operational tempo of this year was severe, it was very fast paced. the other thing it was long duration. It started early, and it continued on for quite some time this year. 

Narrator 14:13 This is Dennis Brown, Senior Chief of aviation for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection known as Cal Fire. 

Dennis Brown 14:22 It was by many measuring sticks, whether it's acres burned, or homes destroyed, or those types of things, the worst fire season that we've ever experienced, certainly the worst that I've experienced in my 50 years of fire season. But I could have said that at the end of last year, and I could have said that at the end of the year before. The last three years lumped on top of each other have been extremely difficult for everyone involved in the fire suppression world, to manage their lives and to deal with, as well as the public losing their homes and losing family members and things like that. It's been very difficult for everyone. 

Narrator 15:05 With an increasing operational tempo, Cal Fire's helicopter fleet carries out a range of essential tasks.  

Dennis Brown 15:11 We try to operate with a mix of aircraft. Certainly every aspect brings something to the table. You can't go out and fight a fire with just helicopters or just go out and fight a fire with just air tankers. People tend to think that we put fires out and for the most part, aircraft don't put fires out, we slow the spread, we use retardant which is named retardant because it retards the spread of the fire. It doesn't necessarily put a fire out. The helicopters are dropping water typically, which is a suppressant and they can put a fire out but is any of us that have been camping or done anything with fires. If you just pour water on a fire, it doesn't just put it out typically. 

Usually you have to get in there and stirred up and dig a line around it to make sure it doesn't spread. That's where the ground crews come into play. As far as our helicopter and our helicopter programme, the nice thing about it is, we respond to fires with a crew of firefighters onboard the aircraft, that get out of the aircraft and get the aircraft hooked up either lowering the snorkel or hooking up the bucket depending on how they're equipped. Then the helicopter goes to work delivering water to where those firefighters needed. The firefighters are there on the ground, building a fire line around the fire, protecting structures stirring up the fire putting the fire out.  

It's a combined effort. That's where the real quality of that programme fits in. The other advantage with helicopters, in a lot of cases over fixed wing is lots of times we have a water source it's close by. They can make multiple trips back and forth. In the same amount of time, it would take an air tanker to go back 60 miles to the closest airport that has an air tanker base and such too. We can lots of times very effective with the helicopter and then use the air tankers in a different mode as far as to reducing the spread of the fire out near the head. They work very typically in tandem with each other in coordinated attack that the air attack officer flying overhead is coordinating and working with the ground forces as far as what the priorities and the strategy of how they want to go about putting that fire out. The Hueys or the UH-1Hs that we have been flying, about half of our fleet is tanked aircraft where they have a tank attached to the belly of the aircraft and they have a snorkel hose that's about 15, 18 feet long that hangs down below it. 

They can go into a dip site, whether it's a tank or a lake or a pond, and they can suck water up into that tank and then fly to the fire and open the doors or release that water. The other half of our fleet is equipped with external buckets and they attach to an external hook on the bottom of the aircraft and are hooked up by the hill attack crew. They go back and forth to the same water sources and they lower the bucket into the water and then deliver it out to the fires and release the water out the bucket. The reason we have a mix is having an external load. Having that bucket hanging underneath. It carries a little bit higher risk with it is if something were to inadvertently to get hit or malfunction in the aircraft, that bucket would be released and would fall to the ground and so trying to abide by FAA regulations we try not to fly over heavily congested areas with an external load.  

Those aircrafts in Southern California is why we've gone to tank ship down there and use the bucket ships up in the northern part of the state. With the new fleet we have coming, all of them will be tanked because there's more and more areas in the state that have that population density that would necessitate that plus the aircraft are moving around quite a bit more. An aircraft up in eastern Mohawk County today could be in Southern California fighting fire tomorrow. 

Narrator 19:22 Faced with the more severe wildfire activity funding has been approved to expand Cal Fire's aviation fleet. Some $127 million is being spent on new aircraft including C-130 air tankers and 12 Blackhawk helicopters capable of nighttime firefighting operations. 

Dennis Brown 19:43 We got authority through the legislature and a number of years ago actually that it was started during Governor Schwarzenegger time as a governor, and Governor Brown was finalised as far as the official approval to procure new airframes. Then Governor Newsom is continuing on as far as support of that programme. But we were given authority to replace the 12 existing Huey aircraft that we have, with new aircraft and through a contract exercise that we had to go through for competitive bidding and stuff. We finally were able to award a contract to a company called the United rotorcraft, which is out of Englewood, Colorado, and they are providing S70Is Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters to us that have been outfitted for the firefighting mission. That's all part of the contract. These are brand new aircraft that go to Colorado and are outfitted with the tanks and the radios and the equipment in the whole process. The aircraft are made by an American company Sikorsky, but they're actually put together manufactured in Poland so, long process of getting built over there, then getting them shipped over here painted and all of the modifications done in Colorado. 

Narrator 21:01 There is no uniform helicopter mission and tackling fires with the experience evolving along with the disaster. However, there are a number of common approaches that responders take. Here's Regan Graham at GCH Aviation again. 

Regan Graham 21:16 If we look at the challenges that we face when we go into fire, and when we first get to a fire as pretty much establishing what the fire is doing, where it's going, what we need to do to try and get it under control as quick as we can. Because quite often, when you're out at a fire, you may be the first one there, you may be one of only two or three helicopters. The pilots pretty much need to be against firefighters and think strategically on how they're going to attack the fire. Yeah, I guess the first hour or two, when you arrive really can dictate how the fire will go long-term. I guess initial challenges trying to establish what you need to do first to get that under control as quick as you can and then as the fire evolves, I guess then you have additional helicopters arriving, and the challenge is more move towards an operational point of view just trying to figure out how to manage the fire over over a longer period of time.  

Then when we get to a fire you need to worry about there may be hazard, what sort of fuel the fire you're going to run into. What does the fire become if there are hazards involved? Then also for hazard moving on the aircraft and the circuit with you. Then a lot of air fires now are sort of more of an urban interface pushing into popular series. Also the hazards involved with a fire in and around the properties and people on the ground vehicles are the firefighters in the line. 

Narrator 22:55 Much firefighting work involves buckets, which are filled from a water source before being directed onto the fire. Unlike a fixed wing aircraft, helicopters don't have to land at an airport or a large body of water to refill their tanks. They can simply hover above whatever water sources happen to be close to the fire, like a swimming pool or stream or a mobile tank. This allows for faster turnaround times. The ability to hover also means that water can be more accurately placed onto the target. 

Regan Graham 23:27 Pretty much all firefighting in New Zealand is done with a bucket under the helicopter generally on a 50 to 80 foot long line. The buckets can vary from 500 litres up to about 1200 litres and using at the moment. Most helicopters are. We have a few larger helicopters, we have one Blackhawk here that does 3.6 tonne and also a few older metal freestyle, which can do about 1500 litres. 

 Narrator 23:55 Columbia helicopters figures prominently in the early years of aerial firefighting, using water buckets since the mid 1960s. Tackling fires has been a major focus for the US company for decades, beginning not long after the company was founded by Wes Lematta in Oregon more than 60 years ago. Wes' younger brother Jim played a key role in Columbia's development over the years. Here he outlined the history behind that first use of a water bucket. 

Jim Lematta 24:27 The way it came about, one morning Wes comes to work. Just one morning, in Portland here. He comes to me and he says Jim, he says there's helicopters on a fire down in Paisley, Oregon. They have what they call a bedpan. It's a tank they got underneath there. He says that they are landing. They have to land and they have to have a water truck fill them up. Wes said, I think there's a better way we should have been thinking about this to fill up container faster, would be to make a bucket where you could just dip the water and go. That morning Wes and I talked about that. We got a couple of mechanics. We got together with them said, we've got to talk into what do we do and so what they came up with was, a construction's concrete bucket that you probably see the cranes have, they have this steel bucket, it has a gate on the bottom.  

We went about one. It was that a half a yard, steel concrete bucket used for hauling concrete. We did this all in one day. We added on extended that higher with some metal. Then we sealed the bucket on the bottom there, the gate, and then we hook that up with a compressor on the Sikorsky S-58. We made a compressor so that we could open the gate, open it by air. We did this all in one day, within just four or five hours. Then I was to go to Paisley to the fire with it, we naturally tested it on the river here in Portland, and it worked. We wanted to put it inside the helicopter. But the two doors that we use for to carry in Chicago, the doors weren't wide enough, so I had to sling the thing all the way to Eastern Oregon. Then when I arrived at the fire in Paisley there, the guy, they knew I was coming. 

They said, well, we got a water truck for you to fill your bucket up. I said, well, no, the idea here is to dip water with it. I explained to them how it worked. They said well, okay, go find some water. I flew around there and I found this snow runoff by like a two acre snow runoff pond or whatever we want to call it. It was about five or six feet deep the water. I was able to use that. But I was telling them that this is in August so there's no water feed net. I'm going to run out of water. I told him, I said meantime, you have bulldozers here on the fire and you have a stream running through the dam up that stream. So get about five feet of water depth. It took me about two days to convince them to do that. By the time I got through, I drained that pond I had, I actually turned that bucket over on its side and I pushed it down with the wheel the helicopter to get just the last load out of there. Then by that time they had the dam made and everything. But we were able to I recall the other two helicopters that had to land and fill water, put water in the tank, I was making two trips through their one so that's how that came about. 

Narrator 28:21 Captain Juan Cumplido is a senior pilot for Babcock Mission Critical Services Spain. During the fire season, he flies missions in the company's super Puma fleet and has seen operations evolved dramatically over the years. There are a range of challenges faced by pilots in firefighting operations today. Let's turn to Captain Cumplido for a flavour of day to day operations during the fire season and his thoughts on future challenges and opportunities. 

Juan Cumplido 28:53 The main point is that most of the times you are in an environment where the helicopter is at its maximum either when you're picking up the water, either when you're landing in real tight spots and with many little obstacles like branches and bushes and stones and so on, that you will never land there in any other job. Of course, it's also a nice challenging team work with your crew. After the season, you end up being a family because the people that is relying on you, they get very close to the place because they know that you're going to drop the water, so that they can approach up to the drop and put the fire out. I would say that all of that is a compound. Other than that, of course challenging stories, always about trying to save the private properties. Small towns are surrounded by fires. Trying to save a fire truck from the plains that is stationed in a narrow road. 

Of course, protecting your own people, they run crews when the flames change direction because of the wing or something. All of that are real stories that every once in a while happen, and it's very good to feel comfortable about having a helicopter to solve that type of situations. I would say the future is, of course, trying to get every day, better types of helicopters flying. But the real challenge in the operation right now, I would say is to set up safe night firefighting operations. That's the next step that is being done already in some parts of the world. Of course Babcock is not getting behind on that and we are already settling our programme to start doing firefighting for some of our customers that are demanding the service because it's actually hard for the people to understand that when the sun goes down, the helicopters have to leave. That's something that the public does not really understand nowadays anymore. I think that Babcock is doing the job of that. We are already setting the first operation to fight fires at night with a super Pumas. I think that's the main challenge for the industry now. 

Narrator 31:44 What does the future hold for aerial firefighting? Like other parts of the helicopter sector, the rise of autonomous or optionally piloted platforms could well be a disruptive force. Autonomous technologies are the focus of episode six in this podcast series. But for now, let's finish with Juan Cumplido and Dennis Brown, who provide operators views on the possible impact of such technologies in firefighting. 

 Juan Cumplido 32:12 I would say that not in a short period of time, of course, I understand that it will, right, some time or another, but not a 10, 15 year period. No, because there is a lot of study to do, a lot of statistics to do, a lot of different variables to set into the equation, so that the helicopters fly autonomously, and be efficient. Also, I understand that K-MAX has been doing already some job for the marines in the United States. When it's done work by we have to keep in mind that that's the worst scenario. You don't have to see much to do that type of things. But if you want to fly autonomously, helicopters without nobody inside, just by looking from the outside world, that's going to take some time, I would say, because if you feel that many of the fires, moving Europe, I would say, in the interface area, where you have houses, you have some type of some kind of influx searchers and so on. I don't see anytime soon, that type of operation is going on. Of course, it will arrive and I think it would be good, but I will give it at least 10, 15 years. 

Dennis Brown 33:42 Well, there's a lot that goes into fighting fire, whether it's from an air tanker, or helicopter or from a fire engine, or the end of the shovel. You know, there's a lot of individual decision making and risk assessment and that kind of stuff. I think the old fashioned me finds it difficult to believe that would be able to be done autonomously. But I'm not opposed to seeing what they can do, because I know that they're making strides in that. If I were to be asked 50 years ago, if I thought we'd be using the type of equipment we're using now out in the field, like 747 air tankers and 78 helicopters, I'd have thought somebody was crazy. I'm not opposed to the idea. But I am a little bit reluctant to dive in 100% until somebody can show that they're able to really make those kinds of decisions and do it safely, because we still will have firefighters on the ground underneath those aircraft that we can't just drop stuff on or not have regard for their safety as well.  

That's another big part of piloted aircraft they're flying the aircraft and they're making the drops but they're also keeping an eye out on their heli attack crews and on those other crews that are on the ground, making sure that they're safe and providing that extra set of eyes. If that fire spots over the line behind them or something like that. Those are the things that right now a human is doing that I'm not certain on the advancement of the autonomous aircraft that are there yet. 

Narrator 35:16 Next time on revolutions in vertical flight, we learn how autonomy is set to be the defining trend in the future of aviation, and we hear about the efforts underway to develop fully autonomous aircraft that one day could supplement or even replace traditional helicopters. 

Revolutions in vertical flight podcast is produced in partnership with Bell, a huge thanks for their support. A big thanks to everyone who gave their time to support the project. Revolutions in Vertical Flight was produced by Tony Skinner, with interviews conducted by Scott Gourley, script writing by Gerrard Cowen and audio edits by Carmac Media. I'm your narrator to Gennifer Becouarn. Until next time.  




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