Posted on November 3, 2009 by Vertical Mag
Helicopter Express’s strategy of always investing in new equipment has helped set it apart from its competitors, and helped ensure its continued growth and success, as Dan Megna reports in this article from Vertical.
Every successful business has its individual formula for what it believes will set it apart from the competition. The goal here, obviously, is to make one’s company appear more attractive to prospective clients than its competitors’ companies. When this same formula also improves a company’s internal efficiency, productivity, and employee morale, there is a good reason to stand up and take notice.
Such is the case with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Ga., which has adopted a “formula” of investing in brand-new equipment. Some might view this as excessive or unnecessary, but company founder and president Scott Runyan believes this has been largely responsible for the success and growth of his business.
Good Enough for Government Work
When Runyan first arrived in Atlanta in the 1990s, it was not necessarily his intention to launch a new helicopter company. He had only recently sold a small, successful rotorcraft business he’d started in West Virginia in 1978, and had come to Atlanta to focus on a different venture: as the owner of a new car dealership. He just happened to bring with him a Bell LongRanger that had been a part of his old fleet.
It was not long before Runyan, the consummate entrepreneur, began crafting plans to put his helicopter to work. In the mid-1990s, he developed the Helicopter Express corporation, which had aircraft, personnel, and equipment ready to go, but no Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 air carrier certificate.
Unfazed by the lack of the 135 certificate, Runyan entered into an agreement with a local helicopter firm to operate Helicopter Express under that company’s certificate. This arrangement helped put Helicopter Express to work, flying on two seasonal call-when-needed contracts with the United States Forest Service (USFS).
Looking back, said Runyan, “We went out west that summer and did pretty well, and I decided I liked it.” The experience inspired Runyan to pursue the idea of working helicopters primarily on government contracts. “I sold my car business and started buying [Bell] 407s, which it turns out was our big break in the forest business.”
In 1997, the first Bell 407 was delivered to Helicopter Express. Because the aircraft was new in the marketplace, the folks at the USFS were largely unfamiliar with it. “I believe I was the first one to introduce the 407 to the Forest Service,” said Runyan. A second factory-new 407 soon followed. And, it didn’t take long for the 407, with its increased performance and safety, and improved seating capabilities, to be welcomed by the USFS. Bell’s new, high-performance, light, single-engine helicopter became an instant success.
A Change in Direction
In 1999, Helicopter Express received its own air carrier certificate and became eligible to pursue business. In considering an attractive contract in California on the Inyo National Forest, the company found that the USFS contract requirements for high-altitude/hot-temperature environments favored the Eurocopter AS 350B3. Up to this point, the company had been strictly a Bell operator and had little experience with Eurocopter products. But, said Runyan, “Whatever the Forest Service wants, we buy.”
The company was awarded the Inyo contract, which required the purchase of its first B3. Jon Bourke, Helicopter Express’s chief pilot, recalled, “The contract was, at the time, the highest-altitude USFS contract in the continental U.S., flying out of Independence [California] up in the Sierras, between Sequoia National Park and the area of Mount Whitney [at 14,505 feet].”
Bringing the B3 on line wasn’t without its challenges, however, and the company quickly realized it would have to alter a few procedures. Said Bourke, “The Eurocopter forced a total shift as far as how we operate.” The shift, though, was not due entirely to unfamiliarity with the aircraft. “The B3 had a more frequent inspection schedule and required a mechanic’s sign off,” explained Bourke. “Plus, at the time, the aircraft had a lot of ADs [airworthiness directives] so you couldn’t send a B3 into the field without a mechanic.”
By contrast, said Bourke, the 407 was made to go fairly long periods without major inspections. And, while they are harder to work on than the B3, operationally Bourke was comfortable sending a 407 into the field without a mechanic, as long as one was available to respond to a call-out within a three-hour window.
Expanding the Scope
As Helicopter Express continued to expand its government contracting throughout the U.S., it needed to grow and diversify its fleet. Said Runyan, “My plan when I started was to grow about two helicopters per year and grow at a pace where we could keep up, keep good people and put out a good product.”
Today, Helicopter Express boasts a fleet of 22 helicopters: six Bell 407s, four Eurocopter AS 350B3s (with two more on order), four Bell 205A-1++s, two Bell JetRangers, three Bell 206L-4 LongRangers, and the most recent additions: three mighty Bell 214B-1s. The 205s were acquired as basically zero-time aircraft after being painstakingly overhauled and rebuilt by Eagle Copters of Calgary, Alta. The three 214s, meanwhile, were Helicopter Express’s first foray into the heavy category, and were chosen because of the model’s similarities to the 205.
Of the 214s acquired, two were purchased, while the third was leased from McDermott Aviation, a large fire fighting contractor in Australia. A co-operative plan was created between Helicopter Express and McDermott, where two machines will be moved between the U.S. and Australia during each country’s respective fire seasons. The plan will mark Helicopter Express’s first experience working internationally.
“I’ll lease his  from him [McDermott] in my summer season and he’ll lease mine from me in my winter season,” said Runyan. “But we send our own people, too. Like now, I have Australians working on his ship up here and I’ll send my guys down there to work my ship this winter.” As part of the agreement, the pilots and crews work under the local operator when away from home.
Making the Investment
Supporting the company’s ever-growing fleet of aircraft in the field is where Helicopter Express takes a slightly unconventional approach. Said Runyan, “My philosophy has been: buy the new stuff; it helps your image, it helps your morale and saves you headaches.”
He added: “It seemed a lot of guys were buying old equipment, and every time I’d see old equipment it would be breaking down and causing a lot of work. The few older things we would end up running seemed to be causing all the headaches, as compared to the new stuff. If you break, you become unavailable.” As Runyan pointed out, something as simple as a broken fuel truck can put a helicopter out of service – an expensive problem if that aircraft is earning $3,000 to $10,000 US per day on contract.
Today, Helicopter Express purchases all current-production aircraft new from the factory. Similarly, its fleet of field support vehicles – including Peterbilt fuel trucks, Ford F-350 HD pickups, Ford F-550 trucks and custom-configured, 25-foot-long Gooseneck trailers – were all purchased new. Said Runyan: “I can sell my trucks with less than 100,000 miles on them, they still have good value to them, and buy new equipment every two or three years. I think it helps your image and it helps the personnel that work for you. They like to work for a company with new equipment.”
Fully appreciating this sentiment is pilot Eric Gibson, who, along with his wife, joined Helicopter Express in February of 2009. Prior to that, he flew for a while in the Gulf of Mexico and then tried flying tours in Hawaii. It was on the islands where he saw what he believed was a pattern of poor decision-making related to maintenance, which grossly compromised flight safety. It led Gibson and his wife to leave that company and seek work on the mainland.
In comparison, just after Gibson had joined the Helicopter Express team and was out on his first contract in South Carolina, he was given a brand new 206L-4 with less than 250 hours on it. His wife, who happens to be his tender driver, was given a new Ford F-550 tanker truck. Further, he said that when either of them have any sort of equipment issues, the company makes them a priority: “They basically said, ‘If there is anything you need, tell us and we’ll provide it.’ And that was such a new scene for us. Safety and morale is obviously important to this company and they really spare no expense.”
With 95 percent of Helicopter Express’s business connected to USFS contracting, it’s a little like a giant game of checkers, shuttling aircraft, personnel and equipment around the country. In the winter, burning and survey contracts in the southeast account for a majority of the company’s work. In the summer, the number of contracts nearly doubles in the west on call-when-needed and exclusive-use fire-fighting contracts.
A somewhat unique operation for Helicopter Express exists in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where two B3s are assigned on a single U.S. Department of the Interior contract. These aircraft support both the National Park Service in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) and the USFS in the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF).
For the USFS, the aircraft are responsible for fire suppression, and helitack crews staff both helicopters daily. Throughout the 3.4 million acres of BTNF, summer lightning strikes are responsible for a high Screenshot 2017 03 27 13.22.06 - Our History: An Image of Successfrequency of the area’s fires. During periods of low fire activity, though, one aircraft may be assigned out of the area. And, pilots train during the early summer season to fine tune the external load and rappel techniques they heavily rely on to access difficult terrain and tall timber. Lifesaving missions are a priority, however, regardless of the season, so when the GTNP calls, a helicopter is promptly re-assigned. Said Bourke, “We have to be able to go from one mission to another rather quickly. Say, for example, we’re out on a USFS fire with both helicopters and get a rescue call. So, we fly back, put our Park Service hat on, and now we’re working with the rescue rangers.”
To say GTNP is a challenging environment would be putting it mildly. The park’s 310,000 acres include 50 miles of the wild and treacherous Snake River and the magnificent Teton mountain range: 12 jagged peaks, each rising to over 12,000 feet. Above it all is Grand Teton at 13,770 feet in elevation. Pilots work closely with an elite group of rangers to perform critical lifesaving missions, including short-haul rescues (live human external loads) high in these mountains.
While on contract in Jackson, the helicopters operate out of the USFS helibase at the Jackson Hole Airport. However, Helicopter Express does own a very unique facility adjacent to the airport. This property has a beautiful two-storey home surrounded by a manicured lawn, a large hangar/workshop, 2,500-gallon US fuel storage and a renovated historic cabin to provide additional living accommodations. Typically two contract pilots, a maintenance person and a fuel truck driver live very comfortably in this beautiful setting.
Several years ago, another operator was granted permission to land helicopters at the five-acre property, and since that time a grandfather clause of sorts has allowed this use to continue, in spite of the single family homes that have sprung up nearby. To be a good neighbor, though, Helicopter Express does not base regular flight operations from the property. Instead, it serves as living accommodations for crews, and a maintenance facility and place where aircraft can be hangared during periods of bad weather.Screenshot 2017 03 27 13.26.08 - Our History: An Image of Success
In winter, one pilot remains at the Jackson facility, providing a helicopter to High Mountain Heli-Skiing, one of Helicopter
Express’s few private contracts. Flying a 407, the contract calls for shuttling passengers into the BTNF. During the height of the season, pilots can make up to 120 takeoffs and landings in a single day.
From an operator’s perspective, Helicopter Express’s formula for success might seem to put an ache in one’s wallet, and Runyan admitted, “We probably spend more money on image than a lot of companies, so it may cost me a little more to have that equipment. I think the image, the fact that you have less odds of breaking, and the morale of your people is worth the extra money. But, I’m not convinced it even costs more. I think in the long run it’s just as cheap as running the older stuff.”
About the Author, Dan Megna: Dan recently retired after nearly 30 years with one of Southern California’s sheriff’s departments. His last 18 years were spent serving in the department’s aviation unit, where he logged over 8,000 hours in helicopters as a tactical officer, pilot and flight instructor.