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TEMSCO is not only one of Alaskas premier utility and charter operators, its also one of the best-known operators in the entire helicopter industry in part because so many pilots got their start here.
On a clear day, the Juneau Icefield is the most beautiful place in the world.
Okay, so maybe there are one or two other locations on the planet that could give it a run for its money. But, its hard to imagine anything surpassing the grandeur of this 1,500-square-mile (3,900-square-kilometer) ice field, which is one of those spectacular features that make Alaska absolutely unique in the United States. The Last Frontiers jaw-dropping natural beauty is the main reason why its so popular with tourists, and a big reason why so many pilots want to fly there, too.
One southeast Alaska company is legendary among both tourists and pilots: TEMSCO Helicopters. As one of the states oldest and most-established helicopter operators, TEMSCO has carved out an enduring niche for itself doing tourism and utility work. Of course, while the companys operations are concentrated in Alaska, its influence extends far beyond the boundaries of the 49th state. As a premier hirer and trainer of low-time pilots, TEMSCO has seen a significant percentage of the U.S. helicopter industry walk through its doors. By giving those pilots outstanding training and experience, TEMSCO has done more than just benefit its own operations it has substantially contributed to the industry as a whole.
From Timber to Tours
TEMSCO is headquartered in Ketchikan, the scenic fishing village in Alaskas panhandle where industry pioneer Ken Eichner and others founded the company in 1958. In naming it, they were also advertising the companys capabilities: TEMSCO is an acronym for Timber, Exploration, Mining, Survey, Cargo Operations. Obviously focused on utility work, TEMSCO began its rotary-wing service with Hiller helicopters, which quickly proved invaluable in Alaskas rugged, road-less terrain. In the 1970s, the company transitioned out of Hillers and into Hughes/MD 500s (C and then D models), which were even better suited for its remote utility operations. In fact, at one point, TEMSCO was the largest operator of MD 500s in the world.
Today, TEMSCO remains heavily invested in traditional utility operations, and it still has 11 MD 500s in its fleet. However, the company has diversified its operations and fleet considerably over the past several decades. Government contracts with agencies such as the United States Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management have augmented the commercial utility work that gave the company its start. For fire contracts, TEMSCO added two Bell 212 mediums to its fleet in the mid-1980s, and five years ago the company added a Bell 214B-1 and started development on the TEMSCO 205A-1 (see sidebar on p.62).
It was in the 1980s that TEMSCO ventured into tourism, establishing tour operations at bases in Juneau, Petersburg and Skagway. Popular cruise-ship ports, these southeastern Alaskan cities are also just a short distance by air from stunning glaciers (such as the Mendenhall Glacier that flows out of the Juneau Icefield near Juneau). Funneling cruise-ship passengers onto sightseeing flights only made sense, and the business model has proven remarkably successful for TEMSCO: tourism now accounts for nearly half its revenue. Although TEMSCO began tour operations in MD 500s, it now conducts them almost exclusively in Eurocopter AS350 AStars, which offer superior visibility and comfort over the nimbler, but much-more-cramped MDs.
While utility, government contracts and tourism have proven to be the most reliable markets for TEMSCO, the company has dabbled in other sectors, too. In the 1980s, it actually operated a sizable floatplane business under the name TEMSCO Airlines, but divested itself of that in the 90s. We decided to go back to what we know best: helicopters, explained Joe Hicks, TEMSCOs senior vice-president of operations. In 1991, the company started a small helicopter emergency medical service (EMS) operation in Texas that it ran for about a decade. We were really going to start venturing into EMS, said Hicks. But we realized that if youre going to do it, you really have to jump in with both feet. Rather than detract from its thriving operations in Alaska, it decided to leave EMS to the specialists.
While TEMSCO is not averse to working in the Lower 48, its reputation and expertise in Alaska tend to keep its helicopters at higher latitudes. Indeed, over the past four years, 100 percent of its work has been within the state: from Ketchikan in the extreme southeast to Barrow on the North Slope.
Like most helicopter operations in Alaska, TEMSCOs are highly seasonal; as Hicks put it, Everybody needs to work in the middle of the summer at the same time. During the winter, the company keeps just a handful of helicopters up and running for general charter, search and rescue, and local EMS work (such as responding to logging and boating accidents). The remaining aircraft go into maintenance: TEMSCO flies its helicopters so much during the summer that it takes most of the winter to work through all the required inspections.
Training the Industry
The seasonal nature of TEMSCOs operations especially its tour operations creates seasonal hiring demands. While TEMSCO retains a sizable maintenance staff of around two-dozen mechanics throughout the winter months, pilots are a different story. The company employs just 14 core pilots year-round, but during the summer, that number balloons to 55 or more.
To meet its demand for pilots, TEMSCO has long since adopted a policy of hiring lower-time pilots for tour positions and then training them to meet the companys standards. For many new pilots coming out of flight instructor positions with 1,000 pilot-in-command (PIC) hours, working for TEMSCO is their first turbine helicopter job. We give these guys a considerable amount of training, and because of our training program we can take the lower-time guys, said Hicks. We think we get a really good pilot, and a good employee, as well.
Ken Eichners grandson, Eric Eichner, is now TEMSCOs chief pilot; he grew up playing in the hangar in Ketchikan and began flying for the company in 1994. Eichner begins accepting resumes in January and now receives 500 to 600 a year, primarily through word-of-mouth. Before, there was a lot of competition [among operators] for low-time pilots, he noted. Now, I cant even deal with all of the resumes I get. In addition to meeting the hiring minimums (which are 1,000 hours helicopter PIC time and a flight instructor certificate with an instrument rating), pilots who make the cut have solid references and a positive attitude. Theyre all willing to put in the extra mile to get the job, said Eichner.
New-hire training begins with a week of ground school at TEMSCOs pilot training facility in Ketchikan, followed by 10 to 12 hours of flight training. We really focus hard on emergency procedures in the aircraft, said Hicks. Its a good confidence-builder.
Flight training then concludes with a demanding checkride. Explained Eichner, We put these guys in $2 million helicopters with not very much time and expect them to perform safely in a [Federal Aviation Regulation Part] 135 world. . . . We like to put pressure on them as instructors and check airmen.
TEMSCO is usually dealing with a brand-new crop of pilots every year. Its tour positions simply dont pay enough to see pilots through the winter (especially those who are still saddled with student loans), and most gravitate to more permanent positions once theyre done flying glacier tours. Invariably, however, a handful will fall in love with Alaska and return to TEMSCO for a second season, or a third. Those who do are rewarded with additional training and opportunities for advancement, including training in the MD 500 and practice in flying external loads. Granted, a pilots first external loads are usually dog waste from the sled-dog camps on top of the glaciers but even such low-value cargo is still an external load, said Hicks. For pilots who dream of flying remote utility work, TEMSCO offers a rare, structured entry path into this ultra-competitive niche market. As Hicks explained, The guys that are really interested in being field pilots, well take them out and give them what they need.
That structured approach to pilot development is one cornerstone of TEMSCOs safety program. We dont cut corners, stated Eichner. The overall approach is to start slow and work your way up to the more difficult jobs. That includes not only the technical aspects of flying, but also customer management and knowing when to say no. Said Eichner, The tour customers are manageable, but experienced loggers and geologists can get surly. . . . Were known for being safe and sometimes we wont get work because of it.
TEMSCO has safety officers at each of its five bases (in Ketchikan, Juneau, Petersburg, Skagway and Wrangell) and one overseeing director of safety. A founding member of TOPS, the Tour Operators Program of Safety, TEMSCO has been active in pushing for high safety standards in the aerial tourism industry. Its such a visible market, said Hicks. One accident here impacts Hawaii to New York and throughout the entire tour industry.
Equipment-wise, TEMSCOs tour fleet features Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) systems developed through the U.S. Federal Aviation Administrations Capstone program; ADS-B enables TEMSCO pilots to have real-time awareness of the surrounding traffic and terrain. And, all of TEMSCOs operations have benefited from Alaskas expanding system of weather cameras, which offer a real-time picture of the states temperamental weather possibly the single biggest challenge to safe operations. The weather changes so rapidly here, explained Hicks. Weather is key. Weather is No. 1.
TEMSCO is now owned by Survey Point Holdings, which in the past decade has also acquired two of TEMSCOs competitors: Coastal Helicopters and NorthStar Trekking, both based in Juneau. In other words, TEMSCO is technically no longer a small, family-owned company. But youd never know it.
TEMSCOs core personnel have a long history with the company, which still does business very much the same way it has for decades. The Ketchikan crew hasnt changed in 10 years, observed director of maintenance Roy Hornbaker, who has been with the company since 1979 and whose father worked for TEMSCO before him. Its just a super, stable place.
Coastal and NorthStar have retained their distinct identities and operating certificates, too, but can now take advantage of their relationship with TEMSCO for parts and maintenance. As Hornbaker noted, TEMSCO has a huge parts inventory, which is an advantage in a remote state where receiving shipments always takes an extra day.
It was a good fit, Hicks said of the Coastal and North Star acquisitions. Were able to provide support for them and also work together on larger projects if needed.
Good fits are what TEMSCO is looking for as it contemplates further growth and diversification. If its the right contract, were going to consider it, said Hicks. Were looking all the time. We have our eyes open everywhere.
Part of this looking has been driven by the poor economy, which has impacted all of TEMSCOs key markets. The last two years have been slower than normal, remarked Hicks, noting that even TEMSCOs traditional government contracts have been shortened from 90 or 120 days to 45 or 60. You have to tie other things together to extend the season. . . . Weve seen an uptick in mining recently, but the projects are still smaller.
Yet, ups and downs are nothing new for a company that has been in business for 54 years, and its a safe bet that TEMSCO will continue feeding the industry with TEMSCO alumni for years to come. For a company tucked away in the farthest southeast corner of Alaska, TEMSCOs influence has been profound and something that much of the U.S. helicopter industry is grateful for.
Elan Head is an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. She holds commercial helicopter licenses in the U.S. and Australia, and is also an award-winning journalist who has written for a diverse array of magazines and newspapers since the late 1990s.