By Ernie Stephens | August 1, 2008
As you see from this month’s report, there is a great deal going on in the completions and refurbishments business. Just as evident is the fact that there is a great deal to consider and decide, if you are an owner or operator and want to be assured of getting the most out of your revamped aircraft.
As you begin the process of nailing down just what it is that you want done to your aircraft to make it your own, and figuring out who it is that can make your dreams come true, we’ll offer some additional information to help you in those efforts.
As Ron Bower indicated in his article introducing this report, completions shops offer a wide variety of services and specialties. These range from full aircraft mods to avionics installation and upholstery tailoring and from work on nearly every aircraft type to shops that focuses on one manufacturer’s models. Where you and your aircraft are located are considerations, too, though some operators bring their aircraft halfway around the world in search of the right completions and mods outfit.
The decision of where to have your completion or refurbishment done and by whom is complicated by the advent of Organization Designation Authorizations. That new level of FAA approval introduces a new element to the shop-vs-shop fight for your business: schedule as a competitive advantage. That promises to become a more complicated matter until a majority of shops come to hold ODAs and can bring the same schedule options to the competition. It likely will take years for that to shake out. In the meantime, possessors of ODAs will be plumbing just how much aircraft owners are willing to pay for faster approval of modifications and repairs.
Airtech Canada, located in Peterborough, Ontario, primarily customizes helicopters for air ambulance and public utility roles. But company president James Mewett feels his technicians have a particularly unique talent: They equip helicopters with sensors that detect unexploded military ordinance (UXO).
“There are only a couple of companies in the world that specialize in the detection of unexploded ordinance from the air,” said Mewett. “We build and get approved the structures that hold the sensors.”
Airtech installs UXO sensors inside of massive booms, and mounts them to the belly of the helicopter. The system’s 22 sensors, which extend well beyond the nose and sides of the fuselage, use proprietary technology to sweep old artillery fields for live munitions.
“We were approached by a company that specializes in surveys,” said Mewett about how Airtech got its start doing UXO installations. “They asked if we could do this, we said yes, and it kind of went from there,” he chuckled.
Airtechs has been in business for 31 years. Its list of non-UXO customers includes Canadian Helicopters in Edmonton, Alberta, Toronto-based utility giant, Hydro One, and Battelle Memorial Institute, a nationwide research organization with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.
“[Our customers] are typically air ambulance, survey, or other special purpose operations,” said Mewett. “We’ve done about 150 air ambulances and probably more than 50 survey aircraft in total.”
Airtech UXO Helicopter – What Is It?
What is this helicopter carrying? Is it some kind of weather detection system? Perhaps it’s a crop sprayer? If you guessed a bracket for hauling cargo, you weren’t even close.
This 1980 Bell Long Ranger II is carrying UXO sensors.
“UXO” is the military acronym for “unexploded ordinance,” the undetonated missiles, bombs, and rockets that clutter Dept. of Defense artillery ranges. Officials need to recover these munitions for after-action examination and disposal, and hire private companies to search for them.
The guts of a UXO system are the magnetic and electromagnetic sensors – a total of 22 in this example – mounted inside booms constructed of Kevlar, glass and pre-impregnated carbon fiber composites that extend several feet forward and laterally from the helicopter. Counterweights are placed in the baggage compartment to keep the aircraft within longitudinal CG limits.
“The total system weighs less than 500 lbs,” said James Mewett, president of JCM Aerodesign in Petersborough, Ontario, who assemble and install the systems for UXO detection operators. “[The sensor arms] will not interfere with normal takeoffs and landings,” he added.
With sensors activated, the pilot flies a profile that Mewett described as a “crop dusting” pattern, making passes over the artillery range at less than 10 feet AGL. Indicated airspeed is kept below 85 knots to keep parasitic drag imposed by the forward booms from pitching the aircraft’s nose down. At that altitude and airspeed, the sensor array is capable of detecting and mapping the location of a UXO weighing as little as 5 pounds to within 3 feet of its location, even if it has buried itself into the ground.
Apple International (AI), with facilities in Bristol, Tenn. and Southend-On-Sea in the UK, specializes in refurbishing and upgrading Bell Helicopter products for a market that prefers used verses new aircraft.
“The used helicopter industry is really sought after,” said Billy Fuller, chief marketing officer for AI. “We’ll purchase aircraft from all over the world, we’ll rebuild them from the ground up… we’ll put thousands of hours into it to make sure it flies, looks and performs better than new.”
Fuller added that AI gets newer helicopters in, too, and “makes them nicer.” “Something that’s maybe a 2000 model we’ll get in, repaint, reupholster, and maybe put DVD players or something like that in it,” he explained.
AI is currently working with a customer in Santa Domingo, and has sent some of its technicians there to dismantle and ship a helicopter back to the Bristol facility for refurbishment. Work will include upgrading the elderly Bell 206L1 to an L3 model, which also calls for an engine conversion.
Fuller advised that a growing portion of AI’s business is in the sale of parts. The company sells brand new parts, but also keeps an inventory of used but serviceable items in stock. “Some people don’t want to buy new,” said Fuller. “They’d rather spend their money on serviceable stuff.”
Metro Aviation, based in Shreveport, La, is both a rotorcraft operations service and a helicopter completions center. Metro, which employs 300 people, has done completions work for over 200 customers’ aircraft since the company was formed 26 years ago. Some of those customers have even been competitors with their air medical transport business.
“We operate 60 aircraft nationwide on our air medical side,” reports Jim Kettles, Metro’s director of sales and customer support. “But we also do [completions] work for PHI, Omniflight [and] Air Logistics,” all of whom provide helicopter medical transport services as well.
“We do manufacturing, design, avionics, paint, production, and we’re an OEM supplier of air conditioners to Eurocopter Deutschland,” said Kettles. “We’ve done more EC135 and EC145 completions than anyone else in the world.”
Metro moved into its new 160,000 sq. ft. facility in late 2007, giving it more space to serve its customers. Two high-tech paint booths for assembled aircraft have already been installed, and a third one specifically for components is currently under construction.
Kettles listed only two types of constraints to Metro’s helicopter completion abilities: regulatory and structural. “Other than that, if you can imagine it, we can innovate it and implement it,” he said.
Specialist Aviation Systems
“There’s very little we don’t install,” said Malcolm Elwell, customer account manager for Specialist Aviation Services (SAS) in Cheltenham, England. “We are a design-approved organization, so we’re fully empowered to carry out designs and effect the modifications within the aircraft.”
SAS has two subsidiary companies headquartered at Gloucestershire Airport, Police Aviation Services and Medical Aviation Services. Each provides completion, upgrade, maintenance and pilot services to its customers.
“We do everything,” said Elwell of the company’s expertise, which includes the installation of digitally encrypted communications gear, mapping systems, digital downlinks, air medical suites and infrared video equipment. “We currently support something on the order of eight police air support units throughout the UK,” he added.
In addition to working on almost any model helicopter, SAS is a UK agent for MD Helicopters. As of this writing, its technicians are two weeks away from delivering a new MD902, that they fully outfitted for the Greater Manchester Police.
“We offer a complete turnkey solution and we offer helicopter maintenance, which can be done here at our base, or at any of our out-stations,” reports Elwell. “We have mobile engineers who work from home who cover specific areas, so that it’s not always necessary for a customer to come back to our base.”
United Rotorcraft Solutions
At a little over three years old, United Rotorcraft Solutions (URS) is a relatively young completions and refurbishing operation, but it is enjoying a growth spurt that owner David Brigham is very proud of. Part of that spurt includes a new 60,000 sq. ft. facility, which will quadruple the size of its current Decatur, Tex. home.
Brigham started his business by converting standard commercial helicopters into airborne electronic news gathering and night vision-capable platforms, using gear they often hold their own STCs on.
Blountville, Tenn.-based Wysong Enterprises is in its 35th year as a completions center, but Rodney Wysong, vice president and son of president and founder Steve Wysong, feels the word “completions” has a broader meaning, now.
“I think the word ‘completions’ has turned into a lot of different things these days,” said Wysong. He believes the term now includes refurbishing old aircraft, which, he added, to take more time because of the disassembly process.
Wysong’s 30,000 sq. ft. facility mainly works on the Bell 407 and 206 family of aircraft, as well as the Eurocopter AS350 line. According to Wysong, who has personally piloted all of them, those aircraft account for 85-90% of the company’s business. Television news gathering completions and refurbishments represent approximately 25% of the work they do, with the remaining customers asking for everything from law enforcement to VIP customizations.
“We just finished two [Eurocopter AS350] B3s for a fire contractor,” said Wysong. “We’re also doing some refurbs on three OH58s… we’re upgrading them to glass cockpits.”
What does Wysong say about the immediate future of the company? “We just want to keep on doing what we’re doing, and put out the quality work that we’re known for.”
“Off of those contracts we put all of our money back into building the company’s capability,” he said. “We do all our own sheet metal work in house, all our own paint, upholstery, all of our own avionics. Right now, we have probably as much or more capability as any other company that does this kind of work.”
When asked who his customers are, Brigham responded with a long list of helicopter disciplines.
“It’s a big mix,” he explained. “We do a lot of air medical, we do an awful lot of law enforcement, a couple of utility customers, and a some private owners. We also do a fair amount of work for the State Department.”
URS has refurbished or completed a wide variety of aircraft flown by its 35-40 past and present customers, including Bell, Eurocopter, MD and Sikorsky products.