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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Adding to Your Fleet: When to Buy and When to Upgrade?

Rotor & Wing 2010 Safety and Training Summit focuses on helicopter acquisitions and modifications.

By Andrew Parker, managing editor

A trio of magazine contributors led a panel discussion, “Adding to Your Fleet,” during the 2010 Safety & Training Summit in Denver. Editor-at-Large Ernie Stephens and columnist Lee Benson spoke along with HeliValue$ President Sharon Desfor. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Todd Vorenkamp—also a contributor—moderated the panel. “As it’s time to acquire new aircraft, you have to re-think everything, including your attitude about some of the things that you poo-poo’ed 10 years ago,” Stephens said, relating his initial reluctance to early night vision goggles (NVGs) in the 1980s before eventually “becoming a convert” when introduced to newer-generation NVG technology during a more recent helicopter training course.

From left to right, Sharon Desfor, Lee Benson, Ernie Stephens and Todd Vorenkamp. Photo by Andrew D. Parker
“Until about a year ago, I was absolutely 100 percent against night vision goggles for single-pilot operation. I thought it was crazy, I thought it was suicidal and I would never do it,” he explained. “It was based on my experience when I was a young tactical police officer back in the ‘80s, when we used some of the old night vision equipment… You’d put that night vision optic up to your eye, take it away and you’re blind. You couldn’t see anything.”

Stephens was exposed to the new generation goggles years later when taking an NVG course. “The new stuff—you could put those night vision goggles on, take them off, and still see perfectly well. I’d only been under those NVGs maybe 20 minutes, and I was flying around, shooting autorotations to little concrete platforms not much bigger than the size of this riser here. We were flying along [in the Everglades] and the instructor said, ‘OK there’s a spot that’s about a half-mile ahead, concrete pad, I want you to land on it.’ What pad? ‘Out there.’ Out there where? He said ‘OK, put the goggles on,’ and there it was. So I’ve become a convert.”

Benson, a retired LA County Fire Department senior pilot, explained why it’s important for any unit or operation to have a file that says: What are my aircraft needs? “For Miami-Dade [Police Dept], a hurricane came through about 10 or 12 years ago, ripped the top of their hangar off, and boom—they’ve got no aircraft. … They were insured, they had the money, but were they up to speed about what do we really need, what’s available, what’s out there, and what should we put in our new aircraft?” The chief pilot or person in charge of the acquisition, Benson added, “should have some idea, if something happens—well, what am I going to do?”

Desfor said that operators should ask two questions when purchasing a helicopter: What is it worth today, and what will it be worth when selling the helicopter, or renewing the lease? She handed out a memory drive with the current values of the most popular options for each of 100 different helicopter models.

“Some options will become so popular that they not only stop adding to the value of the helicopter, instead you’re going to have a deduction if that helicopter doesn’t have it,” Desfor said. “If you’re flying a Bell 212, and it doesn’t have a cargo hook, then you have a problem at resale time—you’re going to need to put one on, or have an allowance for the buyer,” she continued. “If you have a Sikorsky S-76, and it doesn’t have a cockpit voice recorder, you’re in trouble. In today’s market with the amount of supply out there, nobody wants to buy a used helicopter and have to keep it out of service to do a lot of installations on equipment that is not included. There’s simply too much available out there with a wide variety of equipment on it.”

Benson talked about using organizational designation authorization (ODA) facilities for completions work. “If you’re a major program and you’re doing a lot of mods on the aircraft, you really need to think about going to an ODA to have it done,” he recommended, noting that the FAA’s engineering staff is not able to guarantee expeditions processing of supplemental type certificates (STCs). An ODA is a third-party organization that can issue STCs on behalf of FAA. “Air Methods, Keystone, Edwards—there’s three or four more, but in the long run, it’s a safe bet from your position as project manager,” Benson said. He added that there’s a lot of pressure on private organizations. “If I go out as a public operator, and make a bad decision about aircraft acquisition, I might get my hand slapped, but that will be about the end of it. If you’re on the private side, and you make a bad decision about buying an aircraft, you’re probably going to get fired.”

Stephens advised to “frequently check your operation for safety-compromising issues that may have developed over time. Frequently—you know, frequently for a 24-hour fruit fly is every nanosecond, and frequently for a dinosaur is every 15 million years. You’re going to have to look at your own operation to figure out what frequently is, but there are a whole lot of things that may go into what has changed your situation the last time you looked.” He followed with a series of questions: Are you handling a large number of clients? Are you taking care of a larger jurisdiction? What about your pilots, are they getting old?

“That’s not necessarily a change in your operation, but it’s a change in a part of your operation,” Stephens noted. “If you’re going to have newer pilots coming in, you might want to design around the skills and talents of newer pilots.” Operators “should make that new investment an investment in safety,” he said. “Don’t just look at the Hobbs meters and the things like that, think about the next time you do an acquisition to start acquiring the instruments and the brand new technology that you’re going to need for your aircraft.” According to Stephens, helicopter units need to think about how technology will impact operations. “How much of the old stuff was great when you bought your helicopter, or when you came to work for that organization? Maybe it’s time to upgrade your aircraft, or to update the avionics in it.”

For videos from the Summit, go to the Rotor & Wing Safety and Training Channel.

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