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Monday, October 1, 2012

Operator Profile: Metro Aviation   

Shreveport, La.-based company operates 93 helicopters and eight fixed-wing aircraft supporting 27 medical facilities from 68 bases around the United States

By Pat Gray

Helicopter undergoing work at Metro’s completions facility in Shreveport, La.

I met Todd Stanberry early in the morning a few hours before an impending hurricane was due to arrive in Central Louisiana. Todd explained that he was Metro Aviation owner Mike Stanberry’s son and that he would be conducting a tour of the facility. During the tour, Todd related the story of how his father started Metro Aviation 30 years ago.

The year was 1982. The economy was still in recession, unemployment was at a 42-year high at 9 percent, Air Florida lost a Boeing 737 in the Potomac River in Washington, Pan American lost a Boeing 727 in New Orleans, and Britain went to war with Argentina about ownership of the Falkland Islands. With the economy in the dumps and aviation with a black eye, this does not sound like the most opportune time to do a start-up helicopter business, but success sometimes has a knack for timing that defies logic. Enter Mike Stanberry, president and CEO of Metro, which is celebrating its 30th year of existence in 2012.

President & CEO Mike (left) and his son Todd Stanberry at Metro Aviation headquarters in Shreveport.
Stanberry’s roots were attached to a successful contracting business that provided soil erosion control along highways and in subdivision developments in a four-state area centered in Baton Rouge, La. Being a fixed-wing pilot, he used an airplane for trips to widely scattered work sites, often ending a flight close to his business but not close enough to avoid being delayed by a lack of ground transport. The solution was learning to fly a helicopter, then purchasing one for his exclusive use. The first helicopter was an Enstrom but after soloing and getting his rotorcraft endorsement, Stanberry began to think about expanding.

On a deer-hunting trip, he met a banker who was having a lot of trouble getting his correspondent bank’s checks and notes to the Federal Reserve Bank in New Orleans. With knowledge of a helicopter pickup service operating in Florida, Mike drew up a plan for his friend, who was so impressed he helped Mike purchase two Hughes 500Ds and one Hughes 300. The pickup service contract, being a hand shake deal, went south almost immediately due to the bank being sold and the new owners not being interested in the service. He sold one 500D and moved the remaining 500D and 300 to Shreveport, where he had access to a family hangar at the downtown airport.

Stanberry came up with a plan to combine EMS and ENG services into a single flight. He approached the Schumpert Medical Center (a trauma center) and Channel 12 Eyewitness News, both in Shreveport, for a joint helicopter use. When a newsworthy accident happened, the helicopter pilot would pick up a cameraman, then, almost next door, an EMT or nurse from the hospital, load them up and proceed to the accident scene, shooting film from the air and the ground. After landing, the film canister was put on the helicopter along with the patient, the cameraman would remain at the scene and the film, the EMT and the patient were flown back to Shreveport. To make this possible, Stanberry found a California company that made a litter kit that would fit into a Hughes 500. That early kit may have been the motor that has generated Metro Aviation’s leading role in EMS completions and flight operations.

Expansion

One of several areas for completions work at Metro’s facility in Shreveport.

The next move was adding a BO105 to the company for use on the Schumpert Medical Center EMS contract. This aircraft came with a Keystone-MBB-Helidyne EMS kit that was in need of some modification. Mike Stanberry had hired a mechanic, Milton Geltz, while still in Baton Rouge. Geltz designed an EMS completion for the BO105 that included a stainless steel floor that soon proved superior to anything on the market. Since those small beginnings, Metro, with Milton’s guidance, has amassed 30 supplemental type certificates (STCs) for full EMS completion packages including single-pilot IFR and avionics for the Eurocopter AS350, BK117, BO105, EC130, EC135, EC145 and EC155. With the early days behind them, the company has grown to encompass operating 93 helicopters and eight fixed-wing aircraft supporting 27 medical facilities operating from 68 bases throughout the country.

The completion business at Metro Aviation revolves around the fabrication and installation of helicopter interiors, almost exclusively for Eurocopter helicopters. The major thrust of that business is for EMS completions, but they also do law enforcement, executive and offshore completions as well.

Having identified two business venues, I then asked what other industries they were involved in and the answer was “nothing.” Mike is adamant that those are his core businesses and they will remain with them and not venture out of their area of expertise.

Geltz, who has been with Metro Aviation since 1982, is the lynchpin for the company’s operations, serving as managing director. For many years he was also director of maintenance and completions manager. If you ask anyone, they all say he does everything. He is a FAA Designated Airways Representative (DAR) for maintenance with F and T ratings that allow him to function in behalf of the FAA and issue airworthiness certificates and experimental certificates for maintenance. On the manufacturing side Geltz can issue and approve conformity inspections for STCs. His real job is the day-to-day management of the company. In a nutshell, he said Metro’s business is to fly helicopters, maintain helicopters and modify helicopters. Those three requirements have surface simplicity but they carry loads of responsibility to customers and employees.

The current “hot button” for Metro is its safety management system (SMS) program. Identifying, evaluating and reviewing risks in every part of the company’s business but with intense focus on helicopter flight operations. SMS gives the framework to evaluate and work through gap analysis to locate omissions. The old way of launching a helicopter on a flight and if it returns in one piece, you considered it a successful flight, no longer applies. Every single aspect of a flight mission is laid out and inspected, analyzed and given approval or cancellation if risk factors are exceeded. When the flight is approved, additional oversight is brought to bear through Metro’s Operational Control Center (OCC).

The OCC could be considered the heartbeat of the SMS program as it applies to flight operations. At first glance it appears to be a flight tracking station but it goes far beyond tracking. Metro has written soft ware that integrates pilot currency, aircraft serviceability, satellite communication and tacking with Google Earth overlays, weather overlays and soon to come a TAWS overlay that will provide a five-mile buffer around each helicopter as they proceed on their routes regardless of their location. The dispatcher will be able to warn the pilot of any hazard within that buffer. Among the people who work at the OCC, all have attended a dispatcher’s school and the manager, Mike Walsted, is a licensed dispatcher. The plan is to make this unit comparable to a Part 121 dispatch center.

Through some purchases from North Flight Data Systems, Metro has acquired some black box avionics from OuterLink that, combined with the STCs, positions Metro with full blown flight data recorders that will be installed in all of its aircraft. These units are capable of voice and video on 10 pre-programmed events with each of those having 10 sub-events. The company continues to increase their oversight capabilities.

Mike Stanberry and Kenneth Morrow, Metro’s head of finance and business development, pointed out the two different concepts for EMS operations. They referred to them as traditional and non-traditional. Morrow emphasized that Metro Aviation is a private company while most of the big EMS operators are owned by public and/or equity capital companies. As a privately held company Metro Aviation has more freedom to guide its destiny and has opted for the traditional concept by remaining solely a helicopter operator and only bid their services specifying a monthly fee that covers operating costs and an additional fee for flight hours. The non-traditional concept involves offering the customer a complete package of services such as billing and staffing. As a result, they end up with more medical personnel (doctors, EMTs, flight nurses) on the payroll than pilots and mechanics with the attendant overhead and problems like added accounting, scheduling and basing of personnel.

WPAHS’s Eurocopter EC145s are equipped with top-of-the-line medical equipment. (See story on page 40.)
There is an approved heliport next to the headquarters building, but I have a hard time referring to 160,000 plus square feet as a helicopter hangar. Todd Stanberry, who’s current title is director of business integration, led a tour through the facility. A very large part of the area is used for completions and has the aura of an assembly line with multiple helicopters in various stages of assembly. Todd explained that the hangar has undergone three separate expansions in the past five years. There were the usual engine shops, a blade shop, component overhaul, paint area, avionics, and a machine shop with computer-driven drill presses, lathes and various finishing tools—all very impressive.

As we entered the parts room, Todd explained that Metro’s fleet is 100 percent Eurocopter and that Eurocopter has 80 percent of the EMS market worldwide mainly because the airframes are better suited for that market. Pointing out the many bins of parts, he stated that Metro has over 14 million dollars of inventory and probably the highest ratio of inventory to operational helicopters in the industry. Is this good? The CFO would argue against it, but Mike Stanberry’s feeling is that because of the long lag time in ordering engine and airframe parts, this is more of a safety issue rather than financial. To him, safety is paramount in every phase of his business.

Outlook

Mike Stanberry is almost obsessed with improving safety. He is the chairman of the Air Medical Operators Association (AMOA) a group that claims to have 92 percent of all U.S. EMS operators as members. He is convinced that all helicopter FAR Part 135 operations can be as safe as airline operations who fly under Part 121. There are a lot of other helicopter operators out there who share this same belief. He does not doubt that it will take a lot of work to get there. One of his projects within AMOA is a proposal to share information and data, similar to OCC sites, with smaller companies that cannot afford to install and staff their own centers, for a small charge, and if that’s not affordable, then give them free access. Metro’s own study has shown that 90 percent of all EMS accidents were caused by the pilot in command (PIC) failing to abide by the FARs or company policy. Oversight by an OCC would certainly eat into this statistic.

Metro’s move toward greater safety follows a well-defined program. Key steps include:

• Continue to refine the operational control center;

• Increasingly tighten oversight on operations;

• Give pilots quarterly Instrument Proficiency Training flights. Every pilot is required to fly with another line pilot and complete a checklist that is almost a duplicate of an IFR check ride;

• 100 percent of Metro’s fleet, including backup aircraft, is night vision equipped;

• Metro is in the process of completely equipping their fleet with HTAWS. (50 percent done);

• Offer a training program using full motion simulation for every pilot; and

• Tying it all together with the SMS program.

During the interview, Todd Stanberry, who is being groomed to eventually take over the company, explained that six years ago Metro partnered with Flight Safety International to produce the world’s first Level D full motion EC135 simulator. Situations like inadvertent instrument meteorological (IIMC) conditions, which cannot necessarily be duplicated in actual flight, can easily be programmed into the simulator and reproduced. The result is higher proficiency and confidence for pilots when and if situations arise during actual flight leading to a safer overall program.

The Stanberrys said the greatest compliment they ever get is to do work for their competitors and the helicopter manufacturers. The business is now international in scope and value. An example is when a foreign or domestic operator buys a helicopter for EMS work, they want it delivered from Eurocopter completed and ready to go. Eurocopter will ship the green, stripped unit to Metro Aviation, which will perform an A-to-Z completion with the latest EMS kits including avionics, Metro’s own STC’d air conditioner, even the paint job. The aircraft will then be shipped back to Eurocopter ready for delivery to the operator.

Metro Aviation and Life Flight

One of Metro Aviation’s contracts is with West Penn Allegheny Health Systems (WPAHS), a network of six hospitals and several outpatient facilities in the greater Pittsburgh area that also provides helicopter EMS. Five green and gold Eurocopter EC145s with the words “Life Flight” in bold letters (see photo on page 39) are based—one apiece—at Butler County (BTP), Greensburg-Jeannette Regional (5G8), Indiana County (IDI) and Rostraver Airports, as well as Canonsburg Hospital Heliport (PA67). One MD900 serves as a backup aircraft when one of the EC145s goes out of service for maintenance. Each duty aircraft, while owned by the hospital system, is staffed by a pilot employed by Metro Aviation, plus two “critical care, pre-hospital” registered nurses provided by WPAHS. The crews work a 12-hour shift, six days in a row (half daytime, half nighttime), followed by six days off. Start times are staggered across the bases, so that no more than one crew is conducting a changeover at the same time. Licensed airframe and powerplant technicians, who also wear Metro Aviation uniforms, are stationed at each location, with a maintenance manager and two additional A&Ps available as floaters and heavy maintenance providers at the Butler County hangar. The entire Life Flight program is run by Jim Palafoutas, a 17-year employee of WPAHS and a 30-plus year veteran first responder. “We fly approximately 2,100-2,200 missions per year,” said Palafoutas, who steps away from his management chores often enough to fly crew aboard an aircraft—a requirement for maintaining his currency as a paramedic. The oldest aircraft, the MD900, has 6,500 hours of flight time, while the 2009 Eurocopter EC145 has the least with 120 hours on its Hobbs meter. Metro Aviation did the completion work on WPAHS’s aircraft, and ensured that all five EC145s were as identically equipped as possible. They were delivered with Technisonic TDFM-680 and TFM-550 UHF transceivers for air-to-hospital communications, and Garmin 330, 530, and 430 GPS/radio units for navigation and ATC contact. An EMS Sky Connect satellite telephone is also aboard. Flight safety is aided by the GMX-200 moving map system, a Honeywell M-21 early warning ground proximity warning system, SX-5 Night Sun searchlight, and ITT AN/AVS-9 series F4949 night vision goggles. “Some landing zones are at 3,000 feet, so we’re all trained to fly with goggles,” said one of the crewmembers. “Even a nurse riding up front will wear them for safety.” Currently, “the majority of our missions are VFR, with 35 percent of them being flown at night,” explained Palafoutas. A feasibility study is currently underway to see if instrument approach technology can be installed at all of the airports and medical center landing pads in the system—an important feature for a mountainous region that is often plagued by obscuration.

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