Commercial, Public Service

Columbia Helicopters Eyes 3-D Printing, Firefighting, Logistics Among Growth Strategy

By Marsha Barancik | May 1, 2018
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Columbia Model CH-47D Chinook dropping retardant at the Rice Ridge Fire, Seeley Lake, in Montana, in 2017.

Columbia Helicopters’ new total logistics support contract for all operators and maintainers of GE Aviation’s T58 and CT58 engines, excluding the T58-400B model, reinforces its 2018 emphasis on efficiency, continuity and scalability, the owner and operator of the world’s largest fleet of heavy-lift helicopters said in a recent interview.

At the crux of Columbia's growth strategy is adding new support contracts and operator partners, but vetting which new efficient technologies to adapt — in part by exploring U.S. military use of new technology. Specifically understanding how unmanned systems will transform the industry is a priority.


“We don’t want to be a victim of that inevitable change, we want to be participants,” said Santiago Crespo, VP of business development and marketing at Columbia. “We know for sure that automation will have a significant impact on our business.”

Becoming a part manufacturer in recent years gave Columbia exposure to new clients, plus a fresh lens on innovation.

“We see more opportunities from this platform, such as with the use of 3-D printing technology, which we are already using,” Crespo said. “We are looking at how to make it more affordable and how to use it in remote locations.”

Innovation is also about improving processes organically in-house with, for example, paperless processes. Columbia developed a weight and balance app on the Apple platform, he added. “Our people in the field and our office are very collaborative innovators.”

Columbia Helicopters is a factory-authorized service center for the Honeywell T55-714 series engine.

Redefining A Partnership’s Value

As Columbia scales its partnership network, smaller OEMs will have the opportunity to produce parts for Columbia aircraft, enabling it to provide consistent service and coordination across operators.

Under the new GE agreement, Columbia will produce all procurable GE parts as well as purchase inventory from both Sikorsky and GE that it will sell to other engine owners and maintainers.

“We will qualify all of those vendors operating under the new engineering support. And we are selling parts to all operators and service centers that maintain these engines and provide engineering services,” said Jim King, Columbia’s VP of business management. Columbia has already invested more than 1 million hours on the T58 series and “was the most qualified to take on that project,” he said.

With its legacy maintenance role with all industry OEMs, Columbia is in a position to extend aftermarket maintenance support.

More broadly, “the new acquisition will open new market opportunities,” King said.

“The GE partnership is exciting and could expand over time,” said Mike Brunner, VP of supply chain and manufacturing. “It could speak to where OEMs are looking for partners.”

Columbia Helicopters has the capability to overhaul rotor heads, as pictured here.

Firefighting Demand Grows

Columbia’s aviation services side grew last year, primarily with firefighting work. In the U.S., 2017 was one of the most volatile wildfire seasons on record, heightening demand for more intensive response.

In the Sonoma-Napa area of California last year, three Columbia aircraft were contracted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and 30 Columbia support staff accompanied the helicopters. Each aircraft flew about six hours per day each, and maintenance averaged four to six hours per night.

Columbia Model CH-47D Chinook dropping water with a 2,800 gallons capacity.

Increased demand for firefighting capabilities is not limited to U.S. shores.

“We just completed our first international firefighting contract (in Chile),” Crespo said. “We anticipate returning for Chile’s next summer season.”

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