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Friday, August 1, 2008

Life Lessons for Completions and Refurbs

Ron Bower

Well thought-out requirements and good planning are essential to getting an end product that is a pleasing, perfect helicopter, whether the aircraft is new or used.

Primer Definitions: Completions and Refurbishments or Refurbs:

While not defined in Webster’s dictionary, typically a helicopter completion involves making a factory-new helicopter meet a customer’s prescribed specifications. A refurb is typically associated with changing or updating a used helicopter to the owner’s desires. In most completion centers, you will find both new and used helicopters undergoing custom modifications.

In this article, we will be looking at some of the strategies, approaches and options for private, emergency medical services and law enforcement helicopter buyers and owners to get their aircraft configured and outfitted exactly the way they want it and to best meet their mission or operational objectives and their unique needs or desires.

Our industry is currently dominated by bulk, multi-year military procurement contracts under which major manufacturers are focused on stamping out hundreds of look-alike, new, olive-drab aircraft. These large procurement commitments and their mass-production requirements soak up plant capacities and company resources and are the manufacturers’ dominant bread and butter for higher-profit yield. This market situation, for which there is presently no end in sight, leaves the new civil or private-sector helicopter buyer at the back of a long line to get delivery of single or small multi-aircraft fleet purchase.

Delays in military procurements are renowned — the time between when contracts are issued and when the first helicopters go out the door to the troops is usually measured in years; in some cases, it has been decades. A rare, recent exception has been American Eurocopter winning the competitive bid for 322 aircraft and providing the U.S. Army with light utility helicopters on a successful commercial-off-the-shelf program that has been running on schedule.

Long before a military competitive bid ever hits the streets, there is considerable unseen effort in defining what the ultimate aircraft should be able to do, what its specific configuration should be and what optional equipment can be added if needed. The military knows well that if you do not set and aim at a target, you will never get what you intend. This is one transferable lesson for all civil completions and refurbs.

These drawn-out military procurements in many ways are very different from most private and civil buying decisions, which are usually much shorter-fused and based on present, urgent opportunity, need or desire that buyers want to fulfill either now or very quickly. In today’s super-tight market, where many new aircraft may be scheduled for delivery in 2011, some buyers will have to do a "Texas two-step" — buy and refurb an interim used aircraft while they wait on their preferred new helicopter delivery.

Getting What You Want

It seems only reasonable that if you are paying the big bucks for something you want, it should turn out to be just the way you want it. Who would want to go out to their helicopter and each time wish it were equipped, painted or upholstered differently? To prevent this unnecessary stomach acid, like in a military procurement, there needs to be considerable investment in upfront thought, definition and decision-making on the "perfect" helicopter for the aircraft owner.

Often, it is the little things that matter.: The devil is in the details. This upfront decision process is essential for either new or used helicopters to get the details right and have an end product that is the pleasing, perfect helicopter.

Here is a seemingly trivial example: If you don’t specify otherwise in advance, most avionics technicians installing a radio package will connect all of the avionics equipment to the avionics master switch. This means that once you have started the engines and brought the generator(s) on line, you can turn all the avionics on by merely flipping the master switch and avoid voltage surges to the avionics that can occur during engine start.

But what about the intercom system? You can increase both crew and passenger interaction and safety, even during starting, if you specify that the intercom system be hot-wired to the battery switch rather than to the avionics master switch. Then all aboard can more safely communicate with each other through their headsets both before and during the often 2-3 min of the engine starting and shutdown processes when rotors are turning. While well-meaning, the avionics shop is relying on old-technology tradition, not operational and safety benefits. The incidence of modern-technology intercom unit failure is infinitesimal — even while on during engine starts. There are many such examples that cost no more to implement if specified up front.

Often private individual helicopter owners do not have the technical experience base to make the myriad decisions needed — especially if it is their first helicopter or first upgrade to a different model or manufacturer. Some novice buyers may not know more than their favorite color or have enough flying experience to know the essential practical value of the various accessories and gadgetry available and their operational benefits. Some experienced, outside initial guidance and brainstorming can help the owner in crystallizing his/her wish list for a completion or refurb so the end product will meet the mission objectives and be pleasing to the owner.

A project management approach is worth considering long before the aircraft arrives at the completion center. An experienced project manager, whose primary role is understanding and representing the owner’s desires, can be a valuable resource to the owner’s team. The project manager aids in developing detailed specifications and then monitors the entire completion or refurb process with frequent on-site visits to and direct communication with the completion center.

To Refurb or Start Fresh

As Bell Helicopter has found out in their now-discontinued foray of remanufacturing older Hueys into Bell 210s, and even their U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Huey upgrade program, it is much easier to finish out a new helicopter than to remanufacture an old one. New helicopters are a clean-slate starting point for adding options. Often in a refurb, you have to remove something before you can install the option. Also, it is common to perform some upcoming or discovered maintenance during a refurb.

A refurb of a used helicopter, especially one involving any airframe enhancements, will likely take more time and money than adding the same options to a new aircraft in a completion. But make no mistake. You can indeed make a silk purse from a sow’s ear in a refurb process. A used helicopter can be taken down to its basic airframe by a completion shop and then refurbed with new carpets, upholstery, glass, avionics, wiring, paint and an upgraded engine, resulting in what appears to be an aesthetically "new" aircraft. Such a process also allows optimum inspection access and may help to determine any needed maintenance.

The annual flight time of most private or executive aircraft is less than 250 hr a year. So it may be beneficial to eliminate much of the close-in scheduled replacement of life-limited components during the refurb process. Then, you will have less maintenance management. More importantly, maintenance downtime can be reduced.

For new helicopters, a manufacturing plant is usually equipped and focused on cranking out certified airframes. It is often not the ideal spot for ongoing customer interaction during a completion process, and manufacturing plants usually have no interest in doing a refurb on a used helicopter. The manufacturing plant usually prefers to deliver green (primered but unpainted) helicopters with little optional equipment to shorten their measured delivery cycle time, leaving the time-consuming custom painting detail and customization to someone else. However, some time needs to be devoted to the selection of optional airframe features that are easier to install while the helicopter is coming down the assembly line. Examples might be a rotor brake, dual controls and provisions for cargo hooks, litters and auxiliary fuel tanks. Post-delivery installation of these options will cost you more to buy and retrofit and often requires other structural modifications. So getting your initial factory specs for a new ship is important. The advantage is that post-delivery green completions are usually less expensive than factory completions due to completion center competition. More importantly, it allows owners or their project managers to have direct personal interaction with the knowledgeable, hands-on specialists at a completion center.

Helicopter painting is an art form, usually not something many mechanics can or want to do (it is not mechanical), so suitable paint booth facilities and artists are needed at major completion centers. Likewise, avionics installations require special skill sets of technicians, again not a crossover skill of most mechanics (avionics are not mechanical).

Interiors and upholstery are another specialized skill set. However, most completion centers farm out upholstery to aviation-proven, specialized companies rather than offer that capability in house, leaving only final fitting and installation to the completion center. But colors and materials decisions will need to be made in advance by the owner.

Clearly written decisions (usually transferred to work or build orders) are absolutely essential, and frequent reviews and updates can minimize the dread of manufacturing plants and completion centers: rework or having to undo what you did and re-do it to get the desired outcome. The difference between desire and outcome is usually interpretation. This schedule-busting, wasted rework effort is usually due to communication misunderstandings between the customer and the completion center or internally within the completion center. Studies have proven that a flight crew with good standardized procedures and interaction will consistently shoot more accurate and safer ILS approaches. The same concept applies to completion or refurb projects; interaction is essential.

One word of caution: A large aircraft maintenance and completion center is handy and may be known to you, but that doesn’t mean they can handle a helicopter job.

Unless they have considerable familiarity and experience with helicopters (particularly your model of helicopter), you should likely avoid them.

Selecting a completion center that is an authorized manufacturer’s service facility is usually an advantage for manufacturer support and usually requires the facility to be an FAA-approved repair station.

Most completion and refurb efforts don’t take into consideration the reality that at some point the owner will have to resell the aircraft. Resale marketability is worth considering, particularly on an interim refurb project while you are awaiting a new aircraft delivery.

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