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Thursday, February 1, 2007

General Aviation: Keystone and Sikorsky: A Dutch Treat

On December 15, 2005, helicopter giant Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. acquired Keystone Ranger Holdings, a privately owned U.S. company specializing in rotorcraft completions and MRO. Calling it "a great strategic fit," Sikorsky allowed its new acquisition to operate under the name Keystone Helicopter Services, the name familiar to most of its customers. This acquisition came as no surprise to many of Keystone’s customers and employees, whom during the years had noticed a growing number of green Sikorsky S-76s showing up at Keystone’s modest West Chester, Penn. facility for completions.

Since its purchase, not only has Keystone kept its name, but also kept its CEO and the majority of its workforce. What were added were more personnel, more output capacity, and new services — all in a remarkably short period of time. In the blink of an eye, Keystone was effectively super-sized into a mega-MRO and assembly plant that quickly outgrew its West Chester home, and laid down new roots in the rolling hills of Coatesville, Penn.

AM was granted a tour of Keystone’s new Coatesville campus, and took a look at the latest technology used by their craftsmen to design, assemble and service components for the helicopter community. AM was also given a peek at what is now the primary assembly point for Sikorsky’s massive ship of the line, the 17,000 pound S-92.

New Location/Old Values

Located 18 miles from its former home, Keystone’s new Coatesville plant sits partially hidden in an industrial park amidst the green fields of southeastern Pennsylvania, and approximately 40 miles southwest of downtown Philadelphia. Chester County G.O. Carlson Airport (40N) lies adjacent to the facility, which is a plus compared to the West Chester location, where noise complaints from the residents across the street were a common problem.

The façade of Keystone’s new 130,000 sq. ft. home is deceiving, somehow masking a cavernous, warehouse-style building that houses a major engine repair facility and a completions and assembly area exclusively for Sikorsky’s venerable twin-engine S-76 and new S-92 helicopters. The building, however, was not selected solely for its floor space. "We got a map, and inserted pins where all of our employees lived," said David Ford, Keystone’s CEO. "We then concentrated on places that would be convenient for them to get to." Locations were then narrowed down further based on room for expansion, infrastructure and political support from local jurisdictions.

Ford holds an MBA from Purdue and spent 12 years with Bell Helicopter before arriving at Keystone in 1995 as an airframe and maintenance manager. He was appointed as the CEO in 2000, then survived the customary reorganization axe that visits most corner offices when a new parent company — in this case, Sikorsky — buys in.

"Right now, we have about 592 employees at this facility," said Ford. "We still have a few people working at the paint facility in West Chester, but they’ll be moving here as soon our new paint booths are open."

Down the hall from Ford’s administrative offices, Keystone handles the daily business of repairing, completing, customizing, and now, assembling helicopter components. Connecting the various areas of the facility is a walkway affectionately referred to as the yellow brick road, for its bright, lemony color.

An Inside View

The first stop on the yellow brick road is the engine services division, which covers a few thousand square feet of brightly lit, almost surgically clean floor space. Here, engines from customers’ aircraft rest on wheeled stands waiting their turn to be diagnosed, tweaked, repaired and overhauled by a small army of skilled technicians, including 211 mechanics (163 or whom are A&Ps) and growing. At their disposal is a library with manuals for nearly every turbine engine and accessory currently turning rotor systems in helicopters, and the latest diagnostic gear to keep them running at peak efficiency. The company also has a row of engine test cells, which utilize Test Logic Corp. software to check every performance parameter of a power plant.

"We get about 35 engine inputs per month," said Rick Hinkle, VP of program development and customer support. Hinkle served a 10-year stint as an Army helicopter pilot and maintenance officer, then worked in the electronics industry before coming to Keystone in 1975. After his arrival, he sold contracts, worked in product development, then became one of the company’s VPs. He was also instrumental in establishing the powerful alliance between Sikorsky and Keystone. "We have 65 regular customers," declared Hinkle. "But we handle over 460 transactions per month."

Farther along the yellow path, and just beyond the doors on the other side of the engine shop, is the ultimate in helicopter maintenance convenience: The Aviall Store. Here, Keystone technicians can get parts directly from Aviall, which leases a 2500 sq. ft. parts depot staffed by two of their own people and two Keystone representatives. With a wide variety of the fasteners, hoses, chemicals and other supplies needed by Keystone’s craftsmen, requisitions can be filed, filled and billed on-site within minutes, saving time and shipping costs.

"This was a wonderful opportunity," said Hinkle, who helped broker the Aviall/Keystone deal. "We don’t buy the parts until they come across that window. It’s a win-win situation." Hinkle places Keystone’s total parts orders from all of its suppliers at approximately $10 million per year.

The yellow brick road continues past Aviall’s window, and arrives in the huge, open area where Sikorsky helicopters are being built. This is where 130,000 sq. ft. seems more like 130,000 sq. mi. At the old West Chester facility, it was not unusual to see a half dozen S-76s towering over two or three relatively smaller Bell Jet Rangers and MD-500s belonging to Keystone’s MRO customers, but the tables are turned in the Coatesville building. Here, the stars of the show are Sikorsky’s new S-92s, which, standing 15’5" from floor to rotor hub beanie, tower well above the handful of the S-76s in for repairs or completions.

During our visit, Keystone was heavily engaged in "joining" S-92 components just in from Sikorsky and its subcontractors. Technicians place green hull sections on large jigs and join them together until they have one complete helicopter body. Once that process is done, the frame is trucked to Sikorsky’s Stratford, Conn. plant where a pair of G.E. CT7-8A engines are installed, along with transmissions, rotor blades and everything else needed in order to obtain a type certificate. It is then sent back to Coatesville, where Keystone employees will do completion work to the customer’s specifications.

As of this writing, Keystone is moving toward FAA certification to conduct all phases of S-92 assembly at the Coatesville campus and has successfully built one ship from start to finish as proof of their capabilities. If full certification is received, Keystone would likely become the sole assembly point for the S-92, freeing up Sikorsky’s Stratford plant to concentrate on the S-76, as well as the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and its many variants.

Keystone artisans also design and apply paint schemes to aircraft, as well as any helicopter or component a customer may want finished. Currently, the company’s paint shop is the only operation left at the West Chester facility, but that will no longer be the case once August of 2007 arrives. "We’re pouring the foundation for the paint and composite building now," said Ford, referring to the construction site adjacent to the Coatesville structure. "The first [paint booth] we build here will be big enough for the S-92, and will be extra safe [chemically]. As we open one booth here, we’ll close one down in West Chester until we have four at this site."

Surrounding the S-92s being joined were several that had returned from Stratford, and were now ready for completions. Some seemed destined for off-shore platform work, while others were being readied for executive transport. There were some, however, that were being completed behind view-blocking, lattice-covered chain link fences. Keystone personnel would not comment on those aircraft, their owners, or why completion activities could not be observed, except to say their client’s special needs required it.

S-92s on the assembly floor are intermingled with smaller S-76s, Sikorsky’s medium-lift twin, which has been a popular business and emergency medical transport ship for decades. Although the S-76 is manufactured in Connecticut, Keystone has been a primary completion and MRO center for that airframe for several years, outfitting them with everything from oxygen systems for patient care to beverage bars for thirsty executives. In one particular corner of the plant, some of the company’s senior technicians were busy crawling in and around the stripped-down hulls of S-76s in for overhauls, upgrades or repairs.

Specialists who assemble wire harnesses nearby have a handy new tool. It’s a computerized laser stamping machine, which can label the length of almost any gage wire with specific information about its function. No longer does a technician have to waste valuable time trying to find the origin, terminus or function of a particular conductor by tracing its route. Its information can be found on its shielding every few inches throughout its length.

In a portion of the building immediately adjacent to the assembly area are offices of varying size. These spaces are occupied by some of the customer’s own representatives who are there to watch the construction and outfitting of their aircraft. Referred to as "monitors," some are focused on the progress of their build. Others want to ensure that special instructions are carried out during the assembly or completion of their ships. A few are presumably associated with the aircraft that are kept hidden behind the security fences. "We don’t disclose who those monitors represent, or their reasons for being here," said a spokesperson. Keystone keeps them in the loop where their specific aircraft are concerned, and limits their access to non-related aspects of the plant’s operation.

Design and Service

At one spot near the assembly and repair floor was a set of stairs leading to glass-enclosed offices. This section housed Keystone’s design engineers — 60 of them, according to Hinkle — who calculate the logistics on how to transform the hollow insides of their customers’ aircraft into whatever the order requires. All around, computer monitors glow with interior design drafts, weight and balance information and airframe modifications for Keystone’s in-house design department, KeyTech Engineering.

KeyTech markets more than a dozen after-market kits for aircraft, including a retractable passenger-boarding step for the S-76 and a searchlight mounting kit for the Eurocopter EC-135. Their engineers, however, will design solutions for almost any issue a customer might have. "We’ve hired a lot of design engineers, and we’re still looking for more," said Hinkle. "The only thing that keeps us from busting out the walls [in order to expand their area] is the lack of engineers," he added half jokingly.

When it comes to servicing aircraft other than Sikorsky products, Keystone’s FAA and EASA-certified helicopter services division is the largest maintenance provider in the eastern U.S., serving as an authorized MRO facility for nearly every major manufacturer of turbine helicopters. With this aspect of Keystone’s business in mind, Sikorsky’s OEM competitors became nervous when they heard about the buy-out of Keystone. Would Sikorsky use the relationship between Keystone, their newest wholly owned subsidiary, to access their proprietary design information, and determine their aircraft’s strengths and weaknesses for later exploitation? After all, members of the Sikorsky family would now be crawling all over every inch of Agusta, Bell, Eurocopter and MD’s products and reading their manuals all in the name of maintenance. David Ford made it clear that the exchange of proprietary information between Sikorsky and any other OEM’s aircraft coming in for service would not be tolerated.

"We try very hard to protect our OEMs interest," he declared. "And it’s not a one time thing."

To support their commitment to keeping OEM proprietary issues separate, Keystone converted their 20,000 sq. ft. storage building on nearby Chester County G.O. Carlson Airport into a hangar used exclusively for MRO activities on non-Sikorsky aircraft. Customer aircraft report to that facility, where they are taken care of by a cadre of mechanics armed with all of the appropriate tools and diagnostic gear available.

The parts depot that once occupied the storage space at the airport was moved to a larger, 35,000 sq. ft. facility across the road from both the airport and the main facility. Vans painted in Keystone livery shuttle parts back and forth between facilities on demand throughout the day. Keystone also occupies a 17,000 sq. ft. building near the parts department, which it uses for shipping and receiving.

Considering the size and volume of aircraft coming to Keystone, special care had to be given to arrival and departure procedures. For that reason, the company reached out to the Chester County Airport and local FAA representatives to establish user-friendly air traffic protocols that would avoid conflict with nearby fixed-wing traffic, and the ten-position helicopter ramp to be built behind Keystone’s main building. "We hand-out printed flight procedures to all pilots," said Ford. "We don’t want any accidents."

When it comes to plant safety, Keystone’s CEO is quick to brag. "We have one of the most outstanding safety records in the industry," he proclaimed. "We have thousands of hours of wrench-turning without an accident." (Safety awards from the National Business Aircraft Association, the Helicopter Association International, and insurance provider AIG seem to support his assertion.)

In an effort to maintain the company’s excellent safety record, Keystone’s senior managers take turns working a modified evening shift. Their goal is to ensure that the company’s strict health and safety regulations are adhered to, even after hours. "We also want to be available to our people who work late," said Ford.

With one acquisition causing so much growth over such a short span of time, what’s next for Keystone Helicopter Services? "Our capacity is sold through June [2007]," Ford reports. "We’re happy about that, but it means we have to expand. We’re going to add a shift soon, so we can operate around the clock." When asked about the MRO side of the company’s business, Ford was just as optimistic, saying, "We’re going to focus more on the upper end, such as complex twin engine aircraft, refurbishing and modifications. They fit better with our skill set."

Ernie Stephens is a freelance writer and contributing editor with our sister publication, Rotor & Wing.

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