Finding the Nearly Unfindable Part

By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | March 3, 2015
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One of the cardinal rules of engineering says that anything made by man can be broken. And one of the cardinal rules of man is that when something is broken, you should try to fix it. But if it can’t be fixed, you’ll just have to get a brand new one.

In the aviation world, virtually everything that makes a machine fly can break, so there must be ways to replace those items once they fail, or before they reach the point in their life cycles where they will likely fail.

Replacement parts are easy to find with new aircraft. The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) - the builder of the aircraft itself - keeps plenty of spare parts on hand and ready to ship to a customer at a moment’s notice. The only decision to be made by the purchaser is whether to pay extra for next-day delivery, or save money by waiting a few days for it to arrive. But that’s for new parts for a new aircraft. There are, however, many helicopters out there that the OEM no longer stocks parts for. It just isn’t practical to keep every part for every airframe on the shelves forever, nor is it cost-effective for the original manufacturers of the part - the company that actually stamped them out for the OEM - to keep making them after an aircraft worldwide fleet size drops off because it’s 20, 30 and 40 years old.


Older helicopters, commonly referred to as “legacy” helicopters, include models such as the Bell 47, the fishbowl-looking helicopter featured in the in the 1970’s television show M*A*S*H; and the Brantly B2A, a cone-shaped, piston-powered helicopter first introduced in the 1950s. But technically, the term can also apply to much newer aircraft, the only caveat being that the model is no longer being built new off the assembly line by the OEM. So, in essence, the day after the A model of a particular helicopter design is officially discontinued, it becomes a legacy aircraft.

Left: This privately-owned MD500 is a former 20,000-hour police aircraft that Phoenix Heliparts refurbished to resemble the helicopter in the Magnum, P.I. TV series. Right: A Phoenix Heliparts employee at work. Photos courtesy of Phoenix Heliparts

But where does an operator turn to find the “unfindable” part for the legacy helicopter they’re are still flying?

Phoenix Heliparts (PH) is one of several companies that sells parts for just about any helicopter. But this Mesa, Ariz.-based company is especially proud of its ability to find hard-to-get parts for legacy helicopters.

“PH is a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operation, but over the years we have definitely come to recognize that there is some void in the marketplace for legacy aircraft,” said Tina Cannon, the president of PH.

PH fills the need for legacy aircraft parts through a variety of methods, depending on the item the customer needs, and even the way that customer will use the aircraft part they are searching for.

The first thing PH does is attempt to find the part in whatever specific form the customer wants it in. Some only want a brand new item, others prefer a refurbished part, and still others will request an airworthy component salvaged from a retired or wrecked helicopter. Whichever the choice, PH will launch a search for the appropriate item.

“We’re pretty good at being a detective and going out there and trying to find stuff,” explained Cannon, whose company consists of 43 employees, including mechanics, engineers and fabricators.

Cannon’s “detectives” begin most searches by checking PH’s own inventory for legacy helicopter parts, which often arrive at its 42,000-sq. ft. facility as purchased inventory from companies that were flying older fleets, but had to liquidate their assets pursuant to bankruptcy, fleet changes, or some other operational need. The acquired parts - and sometimes entire aircraft - will be carefully inspected for airworthiness, refurbished where necessary, and kept in inventory for later sale.

Once in awhile, though, customers don’t care if a part for an old helicopter is airworthy. Those customers are the curators and restoration experts, who often acquire aircraft that are missing a door handle, pitch link, or other item. For them, the component they’re looking for only needs to be intact and cosmetically attractive enough to be put on a display aircraft that’s flying days are over.

In 2003, MD Helicopters (MD), also based in Mesa, Ariz., fell into financial trouble under then-owners RDM Holdings. The result was the company’s inability to buy parts from its subcontracts, leaving many operators of MD aircraft grounded. As the problem dragged on into 2004, the many owners of MD’s then-current product line switched to stronger OEMs for their fleets.

MD was eventually acquired by New York-based Patriarch Partners, and worked hard to restore the flow of parts to both its current and legacy family of helicopters. Unfortunately, by the time MD’s new management had begun turning the company around, some operators of their products had sold off their own inventories of parts to various salvage companies and resellers. In many cases, aircraft were sold off as ready-to-fly platforms, or to be cannibalized as parts for other MD operators who were desperate for the individual parts.

PH opened its doors around the same time that MD’s financial troubles began, and almost immediately began specializing in replacement components, modifications and repairs to MD products, especially the legacy models. And in one case, PH even developed an out-of-production part for MD helicopters.

“The MD500D [also designated the 369D] has been out of production almost 30 years now,” Cannon explained. “The auto-relight system is not readily available, so we have a new system that replaces the old system.”

PH also holds a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for an MD500-series compressor inspection panel, a conversion that replaces the D model’s round nose with the more pointed nose of the E model, and a new STC for the installation of a full glass cockpit made by Albuquerque, N.M.-based Aspen Avionics aboard the MD530.

Although PH prides itself on its support of MD products, it also supports a wide variety of other aircraft with parts and services, including the UH-1 Huey, AH-1 Cobra, Bell 212, and AH-64 Apache. PH has even been Boeing’s supplier award for multiple years.

PH’s customers come from several areas of the aviation community that operate current and legacy helicopters, including law enforcement, utility companies, tour operators and private owners. Cannon also says that PH has a robust volume of government clients that fly older aircraft.

“The economy has gotten worse, so the federal government is looking more towards integration, modification, and using their current assets, rather than new acquisitions, so it has older aircraft,” said Cannon. “[Since] we can support them or upgrade them with integration programs, it’s a win-win, because governments don’t spend as much money.”

Phoenix Heliparts shop floor. Photo courtesy Phoenix Heliparts

Occasionally, someone will come to PH with something slightly more than the shell of a legacy aircraft that they want refurbished and made airworthy. Such a task will, by its very nature, require an enormous gathering of components. Some of those parts may still be available in brand new condition. Others might be used with varying amounts of life left in them before required retirement. Still others may have to be turned out as custom orders by specialty fabricators. Deciding which kinds of parts to cobble together into a safe, working helicopter takes special consideration prior to and during the search for them.

“You really look at what your customer’s needs are,” explained Cannon. “If I have a utility operator that flies 1,200-1,500 hours a year, then it makes sense for them to make the investment up front, and to go with everything new... [but] the likelihood that a private owner would ever fly off the lifetime of a time-life component is very, very slim. It really goes to sitting down with your customer and really seeing what’s best for them, and putting them into the best aircraft that suits their needs.”

One of Cannon’s favorite top-to-bottom refurbish jobs - other than the two she and her husband did out of their garage when they first started PH 12 years ago - began in 2012, and required many parts that were no longer available new. It was a former Honolulu Police Department Hughes 500 with more than 20,000 hours that a private owner wanted restored to resemble the same model helicopter used in the 1980 television series Magnum, P.I.

PH’s team of craftsmen and technicians completed the television show’s helicopter twin using a mix of brand new and old parts to deliver a spot-on duplicate of the orange, yellow and brown T-tail ship that, according to Cannon, can be seen flying around the Hawaiian islands again.

“We have a lot of private, wealthy individuals that we’ve done lots of aircraft for,” said Cannon.

Tina Cannon and her staff from Phoenix Heliparts will be in booth 2059 at Heli-Expo 2015 in Orlando, March 3-5, with an Aspen glass cockpit-equipped MD530F on static display.

Related: Equipment News


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