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In North America, the majestic Rocky Mountains form a serpentine razorback of jagged peaks stretching from northern British Columbia to New Mexico. Near the southern end of this range, there is a particularly distinctive portion that snakes through Colorado and is comprised of some 800 mountain summits that reach to over 11,000 feet, with 55 peaks that tower more than 14,000 feet above sea level.
Over 130 years ago, in the valleys below these towering landforms, where clear mountain streams and rivers cascade through tree-lined meadows, tiny mining towns with names like Aspen, Breckenridge and Crested Butte sprang up. Originally founded by those seeking their fortune in silver, gold and coal, today these towns — along with neighboring, more-modern ones like Avon and Vail — have blossomed into iconic luxury destinations, catering to a diverse clientele, from outdoor recreational enthusiasts, to A-list celebrities and public figures.
While these destinations, and the Rocky Mountains in general, certainly have an alluring appeal, the steep and rugged terrain also presents unique challenges for those who work and play here. Where challenges exist, however, so too does opportunity, and in Colorado’s high country, oftentimes the best solution is the use of a helicopter.
Since 1991, DBS Helicopters has worked hard to become a reliable solution for a multitude of challenges, a proverbial jack-of-all-trades. Based at Garfield County Regional Airport in Rifle, Colo., DBS is the go-to operator for utility companies, movie productions, construction projects and backcountry adventuring throughout much of Colorado’s Western Slope.
Ironically enough, the world-class skiing of the Rocky Mountains was what first lured DBS co-owner Doug Sheffer to the area nearly 35 years ago. After a number of years teaching skiing back East, he made his way out West, initially to Sun Valley, Idaho, and then settled in Aspen in 1980. In 1985, he put down permanent roots in the area, marrying Barbi, a fellow ski instructor and long-time Aspenite.
Early in their marriage, the couple took advantage of an offer from a flight instructor friend to learn to fly airplanes. Sheffer, in particular, excelled at flying and quickly earned his private pilot’s license. Flying became so much of a passion that the couple purchased their own Cessna 206.
While flying the Cessna provided a wonderful escape into the mountains, it also awakened Sheffer’s childhood fascination with helicopters. Within a couple of years, he had decided to pursue that dream, and sourced an operator in Longmont, Colo., who offered helicopter instruction in turbocharged, piston-engined Enstroms. He and his fixed-wing flight instructor buddy then made the regular 230-mile commute, often flying the Cessna between Aspen and Longmont, as each worked toward their helicopter rating.
By 1991, at age 41, Sheffer had become a helicopter pilot. With this accomplishment secured, and a deep well of enthusiasm created, the wheels in Sheffer’s head began to turn. Reflecting on his 18 years of ski instruction and where the path he was on was leading, he soon realized that while skiing was a long-held passion, “It was time to get in from the cold.”
Within weeks of earning his helicopter rating, and with Barbi pregnant with their first child, Sheffer decided on a plan for their future, albeit an ambitious one: he would start a helicopter company! “When you’re over 40, you’ve got to fast-track stuff like this, because you don’t have many good years left,” said Sheffer with a smile.
The Sheffers took a second mortgage on their home, and after careful consideration of appropriate aircraft, purchased a Bell 206B-3 JetRanger. The turbine transition course included with the purchase would provide Sheffer with his first taste of flying a turbine machine.
While the plan was ambitious, Sheffer wasn’t foolish. He keenly understood his limitations, but held great faith in his concept and business sense. He knew he must bring on board responsible, experienced folks to handle the flying and maintenance if this enterprise was to be a success.
Fortunately, Sheffer met Jim Stewart, a former United States Marine Corps helicopter mechanic who lived in nearby Glenwood Springs. Stewart signed on with Sheffer’s new venture and also introduced him to a pilot friend, Johnny Campos.
Campos was a Vietnam-era pilot who was working in HEMS (helicopter emergency medical services) in Virginia when Sheffer came calling. Ready for a change, he agreed to move to Colorado and help get DBS off the ground — and not just from a flying perspective. Beyond piloting skills, Campos also brought a much-needed administrative component and secured the company’s Federal Aviation Regulation Part 135 certificate in only three months.
Growth and Change
The structure for DBS Helicopters was now set: Doug and Barbi Sheffer (DBS) would be the owners; Jim Stewart would be maintenance; and Johnny Campos would handle the flying chores in addition to providing administrative advice. The operation itself would be based from a small hangar at the Glenwood Springs airport.
Work-wise, DBS decided to focus on diversity: small jobs, mostly mountain-top work, pipeline patrol, a few tours, search and rescue… “We only might have flown three or four hours a week, but we were doing a little bit of everything,” said Sheffer.
By late 1993, the formula seemed to be working; DBS took on a second pilot and purchased a second machine, a Bell 206L-3 LongRanger, to meet the mounting workload. When able, Sheffer took advantage of the schedule to fly along with his pilots and continue to build his experience.
In the year that followed, DBS found itself growing again, and even landed its first-ever fire contract. That fall, others in the company began to have conversations with Sheffer about the need for a larger aircraft. They convinced him to purchase a Bell 212 and bring aboard two additional pilots.
In the end, this decision ended up being short-lived. In spite of the company’s positive growth and calendar of consistent work, Sheffer and his wife had the uneasy feeling the company had grown beyond what they had originally envisioned. “The days were getting really long and keeping track of everything became really difficult,” said Sheffer, adding, “We had come to a point where we faced a big decision.”
Frustrated and looking for answers, Sheffer sat down with his accountant, who penciled out several strategies. The one that rang most true was a dramatic scaling back. “My accountant showed that if we returned to our roots, at the end of the year we were [going to] end up with the same amount of profit.”
With confidence in his now more fully developed flying skills (he had already begun shouldering more of the flying chores) and in this bold new direction, Sheffer delivered the news and two-week notices to the DBS crew. To help soften the blow, bonuses and severance packages were offered to the employees. Sheffer then got to work selling aircraft and assets, keeping only the 206L-3.
A Leaner DBS
In October 1995, after some well-earned down time following the restructuring, a simplified single-pilot/single-ship DBS emerged with a new outlook, and in a new location, a 3,500-square-foot hangar-and-office facility in the small town of Rifle, some 30 miles west of Glenwood Springs.
With the new foundations in place, the next task Sheffer faced was a little more difficult: finding key personnel who could handle the unique demands of a small operation. “I needed people who knew how to work together as a team, and didn’t need me telling them what to do.”
Paul Rinker saw the ad Sheffer had placed for the position, and recognized the company as one he had sent a resume to months earlier (just before DBS’s restructuring). The opportunity was an ideal situation for both sides; each was what the other was looking for.
Rinker had an outstanding work history. In the 1980s, he was with Aris Helicopters in California. Then, after spending 15 years in Alaska maintaining helicopters for Louisiana-Pacific, he took a job with Papillon Helicopters in Arizona. But, while he loved working on helicopters, he had always hoped to one day move to a Colorado mountain town for the relaxed lifestyle.
In addition to his solid work in the field, Rinker had the distinction of having been, and continuing to be, the driving force behind one of the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI’s) popular offerings at the annual Heli-Expo conventions. The Manufacturers’ Technical Briefings, where airframe and powerplant manufacturers meet with users from the field, were developed in response to a recommendation from Rinker in the late-1980s when he was serving on HAI’s technical committee.
Rinker still proudly administers the annual briefings and remains actively involved on HAI’s technical committee, and appreciates the opportunity DBS has given him to do all this. “One of the neat things about working here is Doug [Sheffer] supports everything I’m doing with the technical committee and is willing to put out the bucks to send me to HAI every year. You don’t find that from a small company very often.”
Today, DBS Helicopters is still working lean, with just four people on the team: Sheffer handles all the flying, Rinker turns the wrenches, and area local Lisa Balcomb, who’s been with DBS for a dozen years, runs the office. Balcomb, like everyone at DBS, brings much more than one set of skills; in addition to administrative duties, Sheffer said she has a keen mind for risk assessment and problem solving, isn’t afraid to throw ground-handling wheels on the aircraft, and is quite skilled with a welding torch. The fourth team member, Sheffer’s wife, Barbi — who teasingly introduces herself as the BS in DBS — is company vice president, and is in charge of safety oversight. This includes logistical planning, weather assessment, and pilot health.
One of the things that hasn’t changed with the lean DBS is the helicopter work: it continues to be both varied and of the smaller variety — DBS doesn’t get involved with high-time contracts, but instead chooses to nurture long-term relationships. DBS teams up with local agencies, companies and individuals throughout the region, which keeps a consistent amount of smaller work on the table.
In the wintertime, DBS routinely conducts flights for communication companies and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, surveying and repairing the many mountaintop repeaters and antennas affected by storms. Backcountry outfitters, meanwhile, call on the company to fly in food and supplies to trekking and snowmobile groups stranded by heavy snows, and often Sheffer must rescue members of these groups from remote locations. The heavy snowfalls also create a demand for aerial filming by independent filmmakers and local ski resorts, who want to record the pristine, virgin snow.
In the warmer months, construction and maintenance projects keep Sheffer busy. Recently, DBS concluded a demanding 13-week job in Glenwood Canyon doing rock fall assessment and management for the Colorado Department of Transportation. The following week the company was up at 11,000 feet moving material for a backcountry hut construction project.
When asked what DBS’s primary source of work might be, Sheffer replied, “We have no primary client. We earn a living one or two hours at a time. That’s the thing about this company, it’s the sum of a lot of little pieces.”
The Little Pieces
As with most small towns, community involvement is a priority for the people and companies in Colorado’s high country, and DBS is no different, supporting many organizations throughout the region. The company also lends a great deal of assistance to the many public-safety agencies and mountain search-and-rescue resources here.
That same sense of being there for each other is seen within DBS, too. As Rinker explained: “Doug owns and manages the company and handles the operations. I do the maintenance and Lisa [Balcomb] does the admin duties, but I still work with Lisa to do scheduling and answering phones, and Lisa helps me if I need extra hands in the shop. Or, if Doug needs a fuel truck in the field, either one of us will go. We all just help one another out.”
Among the other behind-the-scenes elements that make DBS a success is the training Sheffer undertakes. One course in particular that he credits as foundational for his career and his abilities as a pilot was a two-week mountain flying course he took 10 years ago with Mel Schiller at Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training (now known as HNZ Topflight; see p.88, Vertical, April-May’09; and p.50, Dec’12-Jan’13). Sheffer gets visiby excited when he talks about his experience with Schiller, describing it as, “unbelievable” and “incredible.” (He also took an external load course with Canadian Helicopters and expresses similar enthusiasm and praise for that training.)
For recurrent training, Sheffer looks forward to his regular trips to the Bell Training Academy in Fort Worth, Texas. “That’s the important thing about operating for yourself,” said Sheffer, “You really have to make that commitment to education, and attending training is something I really believe in. It gives you contact with other experienced pilots.”
Fleet-wise, a single Bell 206L-3 LongRanger remains DBS’s lone workhorse, logging up to 500 hours a year. With a ramp weight of 2,600 pounds and a typical mission weight near 3,900 pounds, it’s set-up fairly lean for a LongRanger — with 90 percent of DBS’s missions occurring between 7,000 and 13,000 feet above sea level, being lean is a good thing. Sheffer even jokingly made note of his own leanness. At 140 pounds, he said it is quite an advantage when calculating performance, especially at altitude: “It’s like putting a jockey up on a thoroughbred.”
To fully improve the aircraft’s performance in the high country, DBS has installed three enhancements: an FDC barrier filter, BLR tailboom strakes and Van Horn Aviation’s composite 206/OH-58 tail rotor.
Sheffer feels the strakes and VHA tail rotor complement one another, especially at altitude: “When long-lining and slowing down through ETL [effective translational lift], there’s a tendency for the aircraft to want to turn and slide left. So, on approach with a load, you have to advance the cyclic forward and right and give the tail a little nudge to keep your load going straight, or else it [sort of] does a buttonhook. With the strakes, there’s none of that; it’s generally a smooth transition straight on track.”
The VHA tail rotor blades also shine during external load work, or when flying in turbulence, eliminating the high pedal workload he said he experienced when using the stock 206 tail rotor. “The difference was like the first time I ever drove a car with power steering.”
Service, Not Size
In an industry where bigger seems to be the direction of the day, Sheffer has carved out his own formula for success, and it’s not about volume, growing the business or acquiring more assets. No, DBS seems to have perfected the art of doing more with less. And, one bonus of carrying a more-manageable workload is that it allows Sheffer to enjoy the challenges, and maybe even the fun of each individual project. Perhaps more importantly, though, the lower volume also allows Sheffer to devote his own upbeat and enthusiastic brand of personalized attention to each individual customer.
Sheffer isn’t joking when he says DBS might better stand for “Defined by Success.” He knows that by exceeding each customer’s expectations, he is able to develop and strengthen the relationship. From this comes DBS’s respected reputation, as well as its repeat customers. “We are really committed to making people’s experiences working with helicopters beyond positive,” he remarked. “We try to do jobs faster and more efficient[ly], and come in under budget. That has [sort of] been the hallmark of this company. I want a customer to walk away saying, ‘Wow, that blew me away.’ ”
Dan Megna recently retired after nearly 30 years with one of Southern California’s sheriff’s departments. His last 18 years were spent serving in the department’s aviation unit, where he logged over 8,000 hours in helicopters as a tactical officer, pilot and flight instructor.