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.