The Little Guy Stands Tall

Helicopter Specialties in Janesville, WI, may be one of the smaller repair stations, “But we operate on the same level as the big ones,” says President Jim Freeman. “We help some of the big ones by doing some of their work for them.”

Having “little guys” like Helicopter Specialties strategically located helps bigger operators manage their nationwide fleets. “We help save them the cost of having to send work across the country,” says Freeman. “For Air Methods, for example, if they have to send work from Denver to Wisconsin, it’s much cheaper than them sending it all the way to the East Coast.”

Helicopter Specialties is an FAA repair station that performs maintenance and onsite support to helicopter customers. Freeman himself is an aviation technician by trade and a pilot. He inspects work done and does some test flying as insurance and customers allow.

Helicopter Specialties provides custom avionics, helicopter paint, structural repairs, composite repairs, and custom interiors for helicopters. Its staff has worked on light piston helicopters to medium twin-turbine helicopters. 

Work in the shop ranges from “nose-to-tail” work on new aircraft, to refurbishments, to partials. In the avionics shop, most of the work is helmet and headset repair. It doesn’t do work on components themselves, nor does it do overhauls. Helicopter Specialties received more than 150 work orders in 2008, mostly from four airframe manufacturers’ service centers.

Helicopter Specialties’ chief inspector has been with the company since day one. Shop manager Jason Shrier, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate, has been with Helicopter Specialties for seven years. There are 18 people on staff total, 12 of whom are A&Ps.

Medical equipment
Interfacing medical equipment is the bulk of Helicopter Specialties’ work as well as its headlining customization. Much of its clientele requires products for medical interiors. EMS customers tend to look for autopilot, varying avionics, medical interfacing, and certification.

Private owners generally look to get their aircraft some “VIP” treatment. Their installations usually include exterior lighting, leather interior, sound systems, and cockpit upgrades.

“Building products is easy,” says Freeman. “Getting them approved for use in aircrafts is a much longer process. We have to build a mounting and the FAA has to approve its install.”

“The weight’s usually the biggest consideration,” says Shrier. “Sometimes we have to remake parts to make them a little bit lighter, and sometimes we have to limit the amount of equipment that they put on there.”

Many of the medical interiors that Helicopter Specialties’ staff creates include customized mounts for medical equipment. On prominent display in the entry to its main office is the platform designed to mount an Isolette and related life support systems to a Stryker stretcher.

“It’s something we built from scratch,” says Shrier. “We designed all the mounts and locks, and we do all the plumbing. We start out with a pile of parts and flat aluminum and wind up with the end product.”

It has also developed a quick-release latching mechanism to lock a Stryker stretcher securely to the aircraft floor.

Another innovation is a compact medical wall that combines provisions for an IV warmer, oxygen, air, vacuum, medical air conditioning, drawer storage, a ProPac monitor, and radio and CD compatibilities in a Bell 222. “We had to make it usable within the aircraft so that everything is accessible when they’re utilizing it, not just accessible when it’s outside the aircraft,” says Shrier.

Helicopter Specialties goes through its local FSDO for approvals. The FAA and the operators closely scrutinize new products. “There are lots of checks and balances,” says Freeman.

Communication and customers
From the initial consultation, through continuous calls and emails for approvals as needed, communication with customers is vital. According to Freeman, there are generally always two customers per order: the owner and the operator. At times the owner and operator can be one and the same. Other times, the user is a third player.

“First we get the aircraft down as far as we can as far as removing all the existing interiors and extra electrical components,” says Shrier. “Then we get with the customer and have them tell us what they need in the aircraft. Then, depending on which aircraft it is, we will either build them a medical interior or find a vendor that can supply us that medical interior. Then along with the medical interior comes the lighting, seating, and stuff like that outside the basic medical stuff. Then we either completely fabricate and build it or we install a vendor-supplied kit.”

Helicopter Specialties’ biggest customer is Denver-based Air Methods. Other customers range from private owners to government agencies like the DDA, FBI, and the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Customers with a new aircraft go to the operator to tell them what they want done to their aircraft. At this point considerations are given to the brand, the design, and the paint scheme.
When determining safety requirements for a project, FAA and operator concerns are the first consideration. Helicopter Specialties then offers optional equipment as a proactive measure.
Communication again plays a critical role to ensure that there are no unapproved installs and that nothing is done to put anyone’s certificate in jeopardy.

Many recent installs include satellite-based products for tracking aircraft, for weather, and for communication. Satellite phone capabilities ensure compliance with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations in medical helicopters. Given that conversations on regular cell phones could interfere with other cell phone signals and be overheard, satellite phone calls lack the potential for similar bleed.

While satellite technologies are not required at this point, Helicopter Specialties encourages the incorporation of such technologies because of their safety possibilities.

Other recent installs include new terrain awareness warning systems (TAWS) offerings that are part of enhanced ground products like infrared technologies.

Helicopter Specialties has not developed any STCs because it has no engineer on staff. It has to rely on larger companies for engineering services, as the small size of the designated engineering representative (DER) pool makes it hard to hire the right person.

“We can do the work, but as far as the engineering and the approval process on the newer aircraft, that’s our next goal — to have someone like that in house,” says Shrier.

Freeman stresses the importance of lead time for securing parts and equipment, as frontloading items for preorder makes life easier. “A lot of things get dropped in our lap, so we have no lead time,” he says.

With enough notice, scheduling projects is easier and so is making sure parts and equipment are on hand. “We’re currently ordering parts for next year,” says Freeman. “Many of our customers are 24/7, need it yesterday kind of people. It’s always nicer to have a more scheduled approach to business.”

“If we don’t have much lead time, then I don’t get the time I like to research things as extensively,” says Shrier. “It pushes delivery dates out, but safety is always the No. 1 thing.”

Freeman attends industry events looking for new product information and for the chance to visit with customers. In 2008 Helicopter Specialties had its first booth at the Air Medical Transportation Conference (AMTC), an event which Freeman calls overwhelmingly successful for him. “I went from having to chase people down at shows to tell them about us to having people come to me,” he says.

“Having a booth and showing presence at a show like that … they know you’re serious,” says Freeman. “That show in 2008 validated us.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that helicopter giant Eurocopter had an aircraft that Helicopter Specialties did custom EMS work on at its booth at AMTC.

Helicopter Specialties is not only expanding its industry presence; it’s also in the process of expanding its facilities to 24,500 square feet. Plans include an upgrade of painting capabilities from a small booth in the main hangar to a larger paint booth, and potentially a new hangar.

"We've moved from a small shop to a very professional facility, " says Shrier.

Coming off the heels of being named 2008 Aviation Business of the Year by the Wisconsin Trade Association, and by intensifying its tradeshow involvement, revamping its marketing strategies, and increasing its capabilities, Helicopter Specialties is poised for a successful 2009.