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Editor’s Notebook

By James T. McKenna | June 1, 2004

Innovating Still

Aviation remains all about innovation. Amidst the enterprise's centennial, we are prone to lose sight of that. Its first innovations were so big, so dramatic that it is easy to look around and conclude there are no great challenges left that compare in scope, breadth or importance.

True, it was a monumental achievement to decipher the means of getting a heavier-than-air machine off the ground in stable, controlled flight under its own power. No less daunting a task was to devise a machine that could achieve that controlled flight while launching and landing vertically. But many challenges remain before us. Their scope and breadth may be minor compared to those conquered by the Wright Brothers and Igor Sikorskys of the world. But I'd argue they are of no less importance, for they lie largely in finding new ways to use in more effective and safe manners the gifts those creators spawned. Yes, aviation is all about innovation—and this month's issue holds many examples of that.

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Take Steve Townes, for instance. The CEO of Ranger Aerospace has kicked around aviation for many years. Flush with cash from the 2001 sale, under his leadership, of Aircraft Services International Group, he began scouring the industry landscape for opportunities. One he fixed on was the fragmented nature of the helicopter industry, particularly the segment of it focused on repairing and modifying aircraft. There were many efficiencies to be gained by consolidating the many smaller firms providing operators with repair services and parts sales (and their respective customer bases). He decided he was the man to do that and Keystone Helicopter Corp. was a good place to start. That company and his efforts are featured on page 16.

In January 2002, just four months after the September 11th terror attacks laid the financial world flat on its back, Townes' Ranger Aerospace shepherded a small group of investors through the buyout of Keystone Helicopter. In that West Chester, Pa.-based company, Townes saw more than a maintenance, repair and overhaul shop with a worldwide customer base loyal to it for decades. He saw more than the platform from which he might launch a consolidation of the rotorcraft MRO industry. He saw employees of a family-owned business whose loyalty, he will tell you, is key to the success of his efforts.

It is innovative enough to strive for consolidation of a market segment as fragmented as helicopter MRO. What is truly remarkable is the mere statement by a takeover guy like Townes that the acquired company's workers are as important as the facilities and equipment in which he is investing. Typically, takeovers are followed by talk of "efficiencies" and "synergy" and "team-building," each of which too often is a euphemism for skilled, loyal, experienced workers getting the boot. Townes' talk is made all the more remarkable because he appears to be backing it up with action.

Perhaps that is mere pragmatism, with Townes recognizing that the helicopter world is a small community. Townes has painful experience to draw on, however. In the mid-1990s, he headed Sabretech, an MRO firm whose transgressions were implicated in the 1996 crash of a ValuJet DC-9 that killed 110 people. Ensuring the loyalty of employees through training, pay and benefits was not a focus of Sabretech. As the probe into the ValuJet crash proceeded, mechanics and supervisors at a Sabretech site not implicated in the crash were found to have committed separate safety violations serious enough for the FAA to shut that facility down. Eventually, Townes left the company, which also shut down, losing much of what it had invested in facilities and equipment.

I was among the first, in a previous job, to report the violations that led to that shut down. That gives me a unique perspective from which to observe Townes' efforts now. Whatever the motivation, his approach today is an innovative one that can't but help advance his drive to be the consolidator of rotorcraft MRO.

This, our first annual new technology issue, also features a number of tools and products that my fellow editors and I found to be particularly intriguing applications of technology. Among the items featured in our "Editor's Picks" feature on page 46 are refinements of infrared sensors to help fliers in foul weather, use of low-powered radar to avert wire strikes, and a combination of a smart, powerful radio and GPS satellites to help downed pilots alert rescuers of their position, condition and plans with little risk of tipping off their pursuers.

We look, in the second installment of our bimonthly Helicopter Training special report, at companies bringing advanced training capabilities to general aviation pilots. Pilots at high-end operations have long benefitted from training in full-motion simulators and advanced training devices. Now these firms are tapping progress in computing and simulation capabilities, and their concurrent reductions in equipment costs, to make such training available to more and more pilots. Such innovation can only benefit the safety of helicopter operations throughout the industry.

These and other featured technological applications are baby steps compared to the first flights we only began celebrating on December 17, 2003. But they are true to that heritage in that they are the result of smart, dedicated individuals applying money, time and sweat to make this enterprise of flying better and safer than it was yesterday. They also demonstrate that those in aviation today are up to the challenges before them.

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