Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 13 seconds.
In 1969, Wes Lematta purchased three used Boeing Vertol 107-IIs from Pan American World Airways, which had been using them to transfer airline passengers between the Pan Am (now Met Life) Building in Manhattan, N.Y., and its terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, N.Y. The purchase was a major leap in capability for Lemattas Columbia Helicopters and created a requirement for an all-encompassing MRO facility to maintain the aircraft.
With Boeing having previously sold the manufacturing rights to Kawasaki in Japan, parts for the 107s had become harder to acquire, and turnaround times for major component repairs from Japan were taking up to six months. The cost of sending parts back to their original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for repair was also time-consuming, and expensive, as the OEMs would send the failed parts to their approved vendors to do the repairs, after which the parts would follow the reverse course back to Columbia. As a result, Columbia decided to greatly expand its own maintenance, repair and overhaul capabilities.
Starting Out Small
Originally located at Portland Municipal Airport on Swan Island, Ore., Columbias MRO department (along with the rest of the company) moved to its present location at the Aurora State Airport, some 20 miles south of Portland, in 1976. While the department started small and was internally focused (on Columbias own fleet), it gradually increased its capabilities over the years and in 1986 began offering its services to external customers.
Of course, even with offering third-party services, a large part of the departments continued growth has been spawned by the companys own increasing number of heavy-lift helicopters. By the 1980s, Columbia was operating 14 of the 107s, and in 1984 it decided to increase its heavy-lift capacity by taking delivery of its first two used Boeing 234 Chinooks it has seven today. Having that many large, unique, hard-working aircraft meant the company needed a matching level of maintenance capabilities to minimize hourly operating costs and provide a rapid response when faced with an unscheduled repair.
Over the years, these capabilities have been expanded to include the airframe, plus virtually every major component on the two aircraft types, including engines, instruments, avionics, dynamic components, and fuel and hydraulic systems. Working closely with the United States Federal Aviation Administration, Transport Canada and other government regulators around the world has ensured that Columbia has had its components and its repair programs accepted in many of the countries it flies in.
The Big Change
To take further control of its maintenance needs, Columbia acquired the 107 and 234 FAA type certificates (TCs) in December 2006, and the FAA production certificates in September 2009. This gave Columbia the right to improve certain aspects of the helicopters and systems, in order to provide greater safety and lower maintenance costs (and gave it the right to designate the ships as the Columbia 107 and Columbia 234, respectively). By owning the TCs, Columbia can engineer and certify a number of improved components or MRO programs. Plus, since Columbias maintenance staff have already carried out numerous airframe modifications, built replacement wiring harnesses, and fabricated and installed new hydraulic and fuel lines over the years, having all the original engineering data can help reduce the time required to design and engineer these same items in the future.
Quite possibly the biggest asset at Columbia is its dedicated, experienced staff: some originally from the U.S. military, where they worked on Chinooks or similar helicopters; others from the many technical schools across the country. The Columbia engineering teams in particular are kept busy developing new products for both helicopter types and developing more efficient repair schemes. Having experienced personnel has paid dividends for the company, as their expertise has been used to help develop new and more efficient processes and new tooling to repair, or test and re-certify, specific components. (This could entail repairing or overhauling critical parts like a fuel control with its 1,200 individual components, or a hydraulic line that has only a few parts, but must operate at pressures up to 3,000 pounds a square inch.)
A First-Hand Look
To get a better understanding of its capabilities, I dropped by Columbias MRO operation at Aurora last fall, just as a Columbia 107 was undergoing a major maintenance visit and a Columbia 234 was being prepped for a tour in Afghanistan. The legacy of 40-plus years of operation was evident at the facility, as some of the tooling on hand had been purpose-built years ago for a specific task and was still doing the same job now, decades later.
Interspaced with these custom-built tools were both new overhaul and testing equipment and older items such as a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) that had just had its 15-year-old software upgraded. A CMM is used to measure critical points on components to ensure they still meet their original specifications. The model used at Columbia is still a common device, but with its new software can be taught to recognize all the measurements on a specific master component and then compare those measurements to a unit under test to ensure it complies. Those test measurements then go into a historical record based on part number and serial number, to create a complete history of each individual part, thus greatly reducing the time needed to test a particular item against its database record or the master dimensions.
Some of Columbias machining equipment, which has also been with the company for years, had also been recently upgraded with new software, or controls, to increase the capability of this equipment and decrease the time required to carry out a specific task.
Plus, on top of adding newer equipment when deemed necessary, I noticed Columbia had even been adding, or working on adding, entire buildings including a completed blade overhaul facility and an under-construction engine test cell facility based on specific requirements. Columbias original engine test cell had been a truck with an engine mount and the appropriate instruments and controls; that was later replaced with a permanent test cell. Now, earlier this year it completed an entire engine test cell facility and stocked it with the latest in testing and analyzing equipment and software. Designed to run the 234s Lycoming/Honeywell T55-714 engine, as well as other current Columbia powerplants, this new test cell facility has the capacity to run engines up to 6,000 horsepower.
All these upgrades and improvements ensure Columbias MRO can continue to provide the time-sensitive, critical service that benefits both its own fleet of 17 107s and seven 234s, and those fleets of the host of other operators who rely on various common components (from engines, to hydraulic components, to items such as the fuel control for the widely used General Electric T/CT58 engine). That third-party work has been almost evenly split between commercial and military customers, but Columbia expects to increase the military portion to 70 percent in the near future.
Whether commercial or military, though, customers will always be able to rely on the skill, focus and dedication of Columbias MRO specialists a professionalism that is evidenced by the numerous maintenance-related safety awards the company has received from the FAA and Helicopter Association International. And, if awards dont make you believe, theres the extremely high operational availability of Columbias helicopters, many of which have been in service for well over 40 years and continue to operate reliably in some of the toughest locations and climates in the world. Its also thanks to the companys MRO personnel that these heavy-lift stalwarts will continue being able to provide their unmatched combination of power and reliability for many years to come.