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Columbia Helicopters celebrates 66 years of its long and storied history in 2023 with a transformative evolution to filling the medium- to heavy-lift helicopter void. The heavy-lift tandem helicopter operator has expanded beyond the title of aircraft operator to full-service original equipment manufacturer (OEM) with complete maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) capabilities.
Helicopter long-line pioneer Wes Lematta started Columbia Helicopters in 1957, and soon after, essentially created the heavy-lift helicopter industry. He developed and perfected long-line lift operations and techniques, serving sectors from logging and construction to firefighting and military.
As the company grew, Columbia became the premiere commercial operator of Boeing’s tandem rotor helicopters. In 2006, Columbia secured the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) type and production certificates for two of Boeing’s standard transport helicopters — the 234 Chinook (the commercial variant of the military CH-47) and the 107-II Vertol (the commercial variant of the military CH-46).
With these certificates in hand, Columbia became the aircrafts’ OEM, with the ability to design modifications and updates to make them true multi-mission aircraft.
As standard category aircraft with Columbia modifications, the Columbia Model 234 Chinook and Columbia Model 107-II Vertol can quickly be reconfigured for multiple missions, including internal and external cargo lifts and passenger transportation.
In 2014, Columbia received restricted category type certification for the Boeing CH-47D, again allowing the company to modify this workhorse for a variety of external load missions.
For a number of years, Columbia modified and maintained its aircraft in-house for its global contract operations, building a strong MRO capability for the aircraft and their powerplants along the way. The company is a factory-authorized service center for the Honeywell T55-714, and GE-approved total logistics support center for the GE T58 and CT58 engines.
In addition to regular firefighting, construction, and logging missions, Columbia also held a contract with the Department of Defense’s U.S. Transportation Command to support operations during the last 10 years of conflict in Afghanistan with heavy-lift and passenger transportation support, while maintaining a 97 percent operational readiness rate. When the contract ended, Columbia began preparing for the next step.
With an infusion of capital from its acquisition by AE Industrial Partners in 2019, Columbia Helicopters began shifting focus outward.
“We have been very successful in developing the Columbia Model 234 Chinook and Columbia Model 107 aircraft into standard category, multi-mission platforms, and successfully operating them around the world,” said Mike Tremlett, president and CEO of Columbia Helicopters. “It’s the same with the restricted category CH-47D model military platform. We decided it was time to redirect our focus toward supporting domestic operators of divested 47D Chinooks and take all of our aircraft to market, which has never been done before at Columbia. We are evolving into a full production OEM.”
In 2022, Columbia entered the market with sales of its Columbia Model 47Ds to a domestic operator. That sale soon springboarded the company’s OEM business into new sales of the Columbia Model 107 aircraft to both Korea and Switzerland, as well as a new contract with the Korean Forest Service to manufacture a brand-new 234 helicopter.
The MRO side has also increased with Columbia’s expansion to outside MRO support for its aircraft and Columbia’s designation as a prime contractor with the U.S. Army, supporting both the CH-47F and the special operations version of the aircraft, the MH-47G.
Columbia is not moving away from its roots, however. The heavy-lift operator continues to land long-term, sustainable operations contracts in addition to supporting vital seasonal missions, such as firefighting. Currently, the company is conducting humanitarian assistance operations in Africa for the United Nations World Food Program.
“We’ve been very successful with firefighting, but that is seasonal and demand changes from location to location between years,” Tremlett said. “We’ve started looking at markets that are more stable and offer more benefit to the company and stability for our employees. The U.N. work has been very significant due to recent conflicts in Ukraine. ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] has issued a red flag on former Russian military aircraft that traditionally supported U.N. operations, and EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] has removed the type certificates for these platforms. That left a significant void we are focusing on filling — not only with our aircraft, but also by helping other operators of Columbia aircraft secure those contracts.”
With sales growing faster than anticipated, strong MRO contracts in place, and an increase in stable long-term global missions, Columbia is investing in research and development on modernizing the aircraft and developing modifications that further increase their utility. Key projects at the top of the list include glass cockpits, night vision compatibility, powertrain upgrades, degraded visual environment capability, and health monitoring systems.
“We are aggressively working on bringing our platforms into the 21st century and making them more effective and more efficient,” Tremlett added. “All of this will help streamline operating costs, which will be extremely appealing to operators, and further build our OEM growth.”