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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Public Safety Notebook: Aircraft Life Lessons, Part 2

Lee Benson

Continuing the discussion we began with my last column on helicopter acquisitions, I focus this month on helicopter selection ("Aircraft Life Lessons," February 2008, page xx).

We all have favorite helicopter makers and models. Next to hot fudge sundaes with no calories, being allowed to pick my favorite helicopter without regards to cost or justification would be at the top of my Christmas list. But that’s not realistic, so here are my suggestions to help in this process.

If you are selecting a helicopter for a new program, the task is a bit easier. You haven’t invested in infrastructure yet, so regardless of what you pick those costs must be met. If you are replacing or adding to helicopters you operate now, the easiest decision is to stay with that model.

The money, time, and effort that you will save by acquiring more or newer versions of the same helicopter is huge. Special tools, support equipment, spares inventory, training — the list only gets longer. You also can use the effort, political capital, and money you’d spend in pulling off a change in helicopters for other needs of your operation.

But what if the helicopter you now fly isn’t up to your current mission. Then you need to start by documenting the instances in which it is insufficient to perform the mission that your agency has tasked you with. For example, you are tasked with search and rescue, but your helicopter can only transport one patient. In many instances, you need to transport two. This shortfall is easy to document and understand. Others will be harder to document and explain to your non-aviation bosses.

You need to start this process well in advance and involve your pilots and crews. They know the helicopter’s shortcomings. The trick is to devise a means that allows them to share that information with you. The simplest form possible will get the best results. Asking for a memo every time a problem occurs won’t work if it is a long-term problem with no short-term solution in sight. Your crews will probably see this as an attempt to blow off their legitimate concerns.

Meeting the challenge of gathering this information and distilling it to documentation your boss can understand readily will separate the leaders from managers that should just be called place-keepers. Your boss has a governing board that asks tough questions. He needs to be able to present your argument in terms the board will understand. So do your homework.

Also, remember the bean counters. When you approach these folks, you must remember they are not infected with helicopter-itis. They look at a helicopter as a tool, not the ultimate expression of everything cool. You need to show them that tool is needed.

So let’s assume you’ve done your homework and you have the nod from your chief and the bean counters to pursue a new helicopter. What’s next?

Ten years ago, I would have said you should define your mission into required categories of how far, how high, how much payload, etc. and build a matrix of assigned numerical values for each parameter. Then run the data for several models that appear to meet the specs and declare a winner based on the best numerical score. Today, I would say the same, but not recommend picking a winner yet. The nature of public-service operations, with their specific mission parameters and dedicated helicopters, means a new aircraft must be modified before it can be utilized fully. In many instances, the mods have more impact on the mission than the actual helicopter that carries them. I bring this up because aircraft manufacturers are not well positioned to do these mods in house. Their cost infrastructure is huge. This is why most of them have acquired completion companies over the last several years. They are attempting to retain the mod business and be competitive on price. If you need mods, consider a separate contract for them.

I realize the easy way out is to go with the original aircraft manufacturer and pay the higher price. But the public you work for deserves the best value for its money. Without competing these mods in an open contract, how do you know what the true cost should be? So you have one more hurdle before awarding your contracts.

Do not assume the original manufacturer will provide the engineering data needed for the mods for free. That data is intellectual property. The influx of non-aviation upper management into the helicopter industry brought with it the idea that intellectual properties could be a profit center. This makes sense when the manufacturer is selling its patents or engineering to another entity in a standalone transaction. But selling a helicopter, then charging the customer for the engineering he just bought is shortsighted. If you assume the manufacturer will give you that engineering, you could find yourself in a mess. In my next article, we’ll talk more about intellectual property and liability issues.

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