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Why a Columbia Helicopters Aircraft at Heli-Expo is Rare

By S.L. Fuller | February 28, 2018
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Photo from file

It is advised that Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo attendees stick around after the show ends to witness the aircraft fly-out. Operators and original equipment manufacturers (OEM) alike bring aircraft to display — real, functioning aircraft — that need to fly back to whence they came (be it to a Volga-Dnepr (booth N4920) aircraft or otherwise).

Attendees from 2017’s Heli-Expo in Dallas got to witness a fly-out like none other, as Columbia Helicopters had on display a Boeing CH-47D. Columbia doesn’t usually bring an aircraft to display; it has not brought one to this year’s show (booth C2553). All its aircraft are working or being prepared to head out on a contract. But the company showed off an aircraft equipped for firefighting last year, primarily to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary.


The aircraft taking off was a sight to behold — particularly for those who don’t often get to see a tandem-rotor aircraft takeoff and fly away. As the rotors created wind that tossed leaves around as a small storm might, people watching the fly-out in awe probably had no idea that the show-stealing aircraft was heading off to work.

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“That was the one and only time we had an aircraft at Heli-Expo,” Jim King, VP of business management, told R&WI. “We requested to be pulled out of the convention hall first because it was being sent on a fire contract.”

Although 2018’s fly-out will be lacking a Columbia aircraft, the fact that all the operator’s aircraft are occupied is a positive thing. Based in Aurora, Oregon, Columbia is looking to branch out all over the world.

Recently, Columbia won a task order modification to a U.S. Transportation Command contract in Afghanistan. The contract, according to the U.S. Defense Department, “provides rotary-wing airlift support within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, configured to simultaneously transport passengers and cargo.” Period of work for the task order is Feb. 1 to Aug. 31, and the contract’s value increases some $35.7 million. (The whole contract is now worth some $225.7 million.)

Santiago Crespo, Columbia’s VP of business development, told R&WI that the operator has been working in Afghanistan since 2011. The current indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract was re-competed in 2016, but deliverables have been the same since the first contract Columbia won in 2011.

“We're not involved in any military missions,” Crespo said. “We're just providing logistic support Class I through Class X supplies — that includes food, water, mail services, people and cargo — from the different bases to forward operating locations.”

There are several operators that carry out this kind of work for the Transportation Command: AAR Corp. and CHI Aviation (formerly Construction Helicopters), to name a few.

Why doesn’t the government use its own aircraft? According to the “Letter of Justification to Request Validation and Funding to Add Rotary Wing Capabilities to the Current Rotary Wing Flight Services Contract” from September 2017, “There are no viable alternatives that can be utilized in the Combined Joint Operations Area in Afghanistan (CJOA-A).”

If the Army was not allowed to procure this latest round of services, the letter stated, a lack of aircraft would cause “excessive delays for critical cargo movement.” Without more help, 184 passenger movement requests, three sling loads and 18,331 pounds of internal cargo would be unmoved and unsupported, daily, the Army said.

So, in Afghanistan Columbia remains. Although the company could not say how many aircraft it has in that country, the Army’s letter suggested procuring services from two heavy-lift aircraft and two super-heavy lift aircraft. For that, the army requested nearly double the amount Columbia was awarded for the most recent task order.

Crespo did say, however, that the company has the 234 Chinook and the Vertol 107 in Afghanistan. The latter is the smaller version of the Chinook. The Part 135 aircraft are outfitted with side-facing seats, Crespo said. They also have ballistic flooring, which was a contractual requirement. Columbia provides the means to service the aircraft, as well.

“We support the aircraft ‘A’ to ‘Z’ over there,” King said. “It's all Columbia people.”

Columbia supports a variety of third parties when it comes to maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO). That includes foreign militaries and the U.S. Army. The company has full MRO capability at its Aurora facility, as well.

The company is very active in the U.S., as a whole, fighting fires and doing other heavy-lift missions like stream restoration, logging and various lift jobs. Columbia is also active in Papua New Guinea, supporting oil and gas exploration and production.

Crespo said Columbia hopes to venture into Australia next. The operator currently has a bid in for a firefighting contract in that country that will be awarded in the second quarter of this year.

“We are aggressively looking at opportunities to place additional aircraft in international markets,” Crespo said. “Right now we have a Columbia Model 234 Chinook in Chile, which is the first time in the company to have a firefighting contract off season. So we are expanding this segment for sure.”

Aside from expanding into new territories, Columbia is focusing on keeping its presence in the oil and gas market, where Crespo thinks things are trending upward. The company is also is hoping to grow its work in government services. Columbia is looking at government contracts, specifically outside of Afghanistan. But the company is happy with the work it's doing in that country and knows it is the right company for the job.

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