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High-Country Flyers

By Vertical Mag

Robin Elledge | June 24, 2011

Published on: June 24, 2011
Estimated reading time 22 minutes, 29 seconds.

With an understanding of and a tie to aviation that goes back to the 1920s, four generations of the Mamuzich family have made their mark flying utility ops in the Western U.S.

High-Country Flyers

By Vertical Mag | June 24, 2011

Estimated reading time 22 minutes, 29 seconds.

Minuteman founder Jerry Mamuzich, seen here flying a tour over Montana's Glacier National Park in early spring, began working in aviation at the age of 12, performing ground-support functions for his father's fixed-wing operation. Robin Elledge Photo
Minuteman founder Jerry Mamuzich, seen here flying a tour over Montana’s Glacier National Park in early spring, began working in aviation at the age of 12, performing ground-support functions for his father’s fixed-wing operation. Robin Elledge Photo

Minuteman Aviation of Missoula, Mont., has a unique position in the landscape of helicopter operators: few can trace their lineage back to barnstorming and claim three (soon to be four) generations of uninterrupted flight. With roots beginning in 1927, Minuteman’s diverse operations encompass helicopters, Cessna flight training, authorized Bell and Cessna service (from Minuteman’s fixed-base operation in Missoula), seven Avfuel service trucks, seven hangar facilities, crop dusting in Conrad, Mont., and a car rental agency right next to its flight operations in West Glacier, Mont.

Early Roots
It all started with John Mamuzich flying a biplane over 80 years ago. Crisscrossing the state of Montana, he took any job that included his plane. As the Second World War approached, Hemet, Calif., called to Mamuzich. There he secured a flight instructor position from Ryan Aircraft, which desperately needed skilled pilots to teach United States Army Air Corps recruits how to fly the now famous Ryan PT-22 trainer.

As the Second World War closed, Mamuzich returned home to Conrad to begin a crop-dusting service called Pondera Flying Service. It didn’t take long for his son Jerry to catch the flying bug. Jerry helped his dad with a variety of ground support functions from the time he was 12 years old, until he was old enough to fly at age 17.

The operations that would become Minuteman were born in 1960 with a chance call from the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) in Glacier National Park (GNP). For years, the NPS had asked U.S. Air Force jets to do low flyovers at supersonic speeds to shear off snow accumulations in the GNP. (Triggering an avalanche cleared off the high cliffs and bowls of snow, which was a safety hazard to the crews and equipment that were tasked with clearing the only road into the park.) In 1960, the Air Force decided it could no longer conduct these flyovers, so the NPS instead looked to helicopters to bomb the snow berms.

The Mamuziches did not have any helicopters when the NPS called, so Jerry contacted the closest helicopter dealer, who flew a Brantly B-2 up to the GNP for a weeklong demonstration. “We had no idea what we were in for,” recalled Jerry. Through experimentation, Jerry and the pilot determined that a 50-pound case of dynamite with an old-fashioned fuse coiled on top of the box was needed. “Trying to light a fuse with no door, then wrestle the case out the door and clear the area in a timely manner was a concern.” Fortunately, the weeklong operation proceeded without a mishap and the experience was enough to get Jerry hooked on helicopters.

He went through flight training at Brantly in 1961 and took delivery of his first B-2 the day he completed the course. Ironically, Jerry didn’t fly for the NPS again for more than 25 years. Fortunately, another branch of the U.S. government had plenty of work to keep him flying.

A Cold Start
As the Cold War was heating up, Jerry found himself in Great Falls, Mont., working for the government contractors who built the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) sites for the Minuteman ICBMs. These launch sites were in the shape of a wagon wheel with a central command bunker located in the middle of a group of silos that were as much as 10 miles apart. Moving job supervisors and small parts around the wagon wheel to different silos was Jerry’s main task. Over the years, his work with ICBM sites expanded to include several others in Minot, N.D.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Grand Forks, N.D.; and finally to the last site just outside of Conrad. He used Brantlys initially and later Bell helicopters.

As demand grew for rotary-wing aircraft, the first sites built were in need of retrofits, which were carried out by Jerry’s next employer, Boeing. These contracts generated the capital for Jerry to incorporate his own company, Minuteman Aviation, in 1963, and gave him its name, too.

Moving West
After years of service in Conrad doing crop dusting, government contract work for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and geologic and private charters, Jerry and his two sons Mike and Mark, who had joined him in the business, saw an opportunity to move west to Missoula in 1978 and expand the business. With the de-regulation of the airline industry, Evergreen International was looking to sell off assets in Missoula. The Mamuzich family decided the time was right to purchase the Evergreen operations located across the runway from the USFS Region 1 headquarters and aerial fire depot, which was a source of many fire contracts throughout the region. Minuteman purchased the buildings, ground logistics, maintenance and fuel services, moving its operations from Conrad to the Missoula International Airport.

With the additional overhead it needed to cover, Minuteman began expanding operations and service offerings, including becoming a Bell customer service facility (CSF) in 1990. Minuteman was already servicing its own aircraft and those of many other operators and customers in the area, so the move was a natural choice. And, this maintenance offering became a pivotal part of the company’s revenue model, sustaining it through the traditionally slow winter season.

As a Bell CSF, Minuteman currently holds certificates for Bell 206, 212, 407 and H-1 series helicopters. And, Minuteman has added additional on-site capabilities to better accommodate customer needs and create faster service. On the premises is a complete machine shop, paint booth, clean room, component overhaul room, non-destructive test room, indoor service bays to accommodate over 11 aircraft and Magnaflux testing equipment.

In addition to that extensive array of equipment, Minuteman is dedicated to having the best-trained personnel, too. In fact, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration aviation maintenance technician (AMT) awards program selected Minuteman as a recipient of its Diamond Certificate of Excellence for having at least 90 percent of its eligible AMTs receive one of the program’s training award levels during the year.

Back at the Park
In 1988, Jerry Mamuzich returned to Glacier National Park, flying scenic tours on the U.S. side of the Canada- U.S. border. Initially, the National Park Service was not happy about the operation, but within a year the NPS changed its mind. In addition to its tour operations, Minuteman was under a U.S. Department of the Interior call-when-needed contract, which meant for the first time in history the NPS no longer needed to rely on Canadian aircraft for search and rescue in the GNP.

In 1994, Minuteman created a year-round facility at the GNP, with three landing pads, a visitor center, a parking lot, two fuel trucks and a flight hangar just outside the park entrance. From this facility, 50 to 80 people a day are flown around the park using two LongRangers and one JetRanger during the high season, which can start as early as March and close in late October. One of the three helicopters then remains during the winter months, allowing Minuteman to provide the NPS with a year-round search and rescue resource that is ready at a moment’s notice, even if it means having to cut short or completely cancel tours.

Not long after opening the facility, Jerry observed that tourists didn’t have easy access to ground transportation. Seeing an opportunity, Minuteman opened a car rental agency to fulfil the needs of the two million visitors that were primarily arriving by train. With rental cars available at the same facility as heli-tours, a lot of cars were rented on impulse. According to Jerry, the inverse was also true: tourists were calling ahead to rent cars and then booked heli-tours on impulse.

New Inspirations
As seems to be a Minuteman hallmark, new contracts inspire new ideas and new business opportunities. In 1996, a three-year contract with the NPS to ferry construction materials and equipment to Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park led to the creation of a very successful supplemental type certificate (STC) for an upgraded Bell UH-1H.

Originally built in 1913, Sperry Chalet is located at 6,500 feet elevation, some five miles from any usable road. To service the contract, Jerry’s son Mike purchased Minuteman’s first surplus UH-1H. Over the course of three summers, he used that Huey to deliver more than three million pounds of materials, including a skid steer/skid loader and a small excavator.

To maximize these efforts, Mike developed an STC for replacing the Lycoming T53-L-13 with the T53-L-703 in surplus UH-1Hs. The change delivers 400 more shaft horsepower and has made the modified medium a very economical option under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations for restricted category civil aircraft. While the conversion made the aircraft more suitable for forestry, firefighting and seismic government contract work, at the time Mike had been more interested in creating an aircraft that had increased lift capacity at high altitude on warm days.

Creating this STC was no simple task, it took four years to complete the process. And, this STC only involved swapping out the original Lycoming engine. Additional modifications and STCs were later used to replace all the wiring and upgrade to the 212 42-degree gearbox from the original 204 42-degree version.

In addition to increased horsepower and greater lift capacity at altitude, the Minuteman 703 Engine STC allows for significantly reduced maintenance, standardized consumables and tooling, and no significant change in fuel consumption – benefits that did not go unnoticed by the USFS… and Bell itself.

In fact, in 2004 Bell asked Minuteman to review a new aircraft it was developing: the 210. To be created from refurbished, military-surplus UH-1H airframes, combined with Bell 212 dynamic components and a Honeywell T-53-517B engine, this $4 million US, single-engine, medium helicopter was to be considered a new aircraft for FAA approval, removing the restricted-use limitations (most notably, passengers are allowed) and allowing customers worldwide to access Bell service and support.

To start the 210 program, Bell bought four surplus UH-1Hs from Minuteman. These would become the first – and only – Bell 210s ever produced (Bell discontinued the model in 2008, along with the 206B-3, 427 and 430, citing overwhelming demand for other models and the need to streamline production to meet sales through 2010). Of the four, Serial Number 1, used by Bell for testing and to gain FAA approval, is still owned by Bell. Minuteman owns Serial No. 2. WorldWind Helicopters (see p.38, Vertical, June-July 2009) of Renton, Wash., owns serial numbers 3 and 4.

With the Bell 210 discontinued, Minuteman’s 703 STC continues to be sold as a popular alternative, with over 60 aircraft having now been converted to the UH-1H++ configuration. With an upgrade price tag of only about $1 million (depending on options), it provides operators with an economical choice for a civil medium aircraft.

Building on a Strong Foundation
As Minuteman’s reputation has grown, so has its contracts with long-term clients, especially those with government agencies. With so much experience under its belt, Minuteman only has to make minor adjustments year after year to accommodate new contractual requirements and changes.

Among its government work, those missions with the USFS (now known as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service or USDA FS) stand out most, covering territory from Montana to Arizona and requiring the company to maintain aircraft, fuel trucks, pilots and site mechanics (for basic field maintenance and repairs). Minuteman also maintains a twin-engine Piper Cheyenne for this work, allowing it to deliver parts or people to anywhere in the Western U.S. in just a few hours.

Many of its firefighting contracts require crews on board to be able to rappel and Minuteman’s pilots to know how to handle this specialized activity. While it was always a task its people were well trained for, a 2009 rappel accident in California has put special emphasis all USDA FS rappel training. After the accident, Forest Service rappelling was put on hold and in the spring of 2010 the agency adopted a new standardized training program (see p.29, this issue). Mike and Jerry both believe this new standardized training will improve operational and safety standards, and highlighted the U.S. Coast Guard’s success during Hurricane Katrina: “They mixed crews from all over the U.S. who had standardized training for pilots and rescue personnel.”

Working for the USDA FS is like “having the Good Housekeeping seal of approval” according to Mike. It is instant credibility with new clients. “They know we meet or exceed [USDA FS] standards for equipment, maintenance, personnel, training and support services, making it easier to give work to a known operator. Our pilots have training they can count on for seismic work, geologic surveys, snow surveys, wildlife surveys, powerline patrol, on-demand charters and a host of other needs.”

Government agencies also tend to prefer operators who have experience or existing contracts with other government agencies. And with many of those other contracts, Minuteman gets to build on existing strengths and the work its does for the USDA FS. For instance, during the winter months, until 2010, Minuteman had one of its helicopters under contract for search and rescue with the Teton County Sheriff’s Office in Wyoming (see p.100, Vertical, Feb-Mar 2010).

Whatever the utility contract it is assigned to, Minuteman always seems to have the aircraft and capability to get the job done. Operating three mediums (one Bell 210 and two UH-1H++s), three JetRangers, three LongRangers and one 407, all with a variety of external and internal load configurations, Minuteman can offer a wide range of services. Plus, it has added many options to its mediums to increase their versatility, including left-hand controls, external tanks, composite tail and main rotor blades, FastFins and tailboom strakes.

The Future
Minuteman has always been a family business, and with a fourth generation now joining the fold the plan is to keep it that way, and to keep the company strong. “Minuteman Aviation comes first, and everyone has specific job functions,” the family told Vertical, but major decisions still require a group discussion between Jerry, Mike and Mark. For the day-to-day considerations, Jerry handles the Glacier operations, while the Missoula operations see Mike heading up maintenance and Mark acting as chief pilot.

Like most operators, the recent economic woes have been an issue, but business diversification has been the key to surviving, as the company can count on government contracts to float through the tough times. A case in point has been the new four-year contract it recently received from the USDA FS for its Bell 210, not to mention the call-when-needed contracts its UH-1Hs are still on with the Forest Service.

When asked what has been the secret to the company’s many decades of success, Mike replied: “It’s a family business, and we are all active in the business and very hands-on. Keeping clients happy, word-of-mouth referrals and maintaining long-term customers have kept us flying.” That family values reputation and goodwill have been the conduit for new contracts from all over the Western U.S.

With a combined flight time of over 60,000 hours, Jerry, Mike and Mark practice what they preach. That – along with a diversification of revenue sources in government contracts, industry services and tourist trade – has allowed Minuteman to survive and succeed for nearly 50 years and Pondera and its predecessors for 30+ years before that. Add in smart business decisions and a meticulous focus on servicing their customers and furthering their extensive reputation, and the Mamuzich family is positioned to take its aviation legacy into another 80+ years of success.

Robin Elledge has been a professional photographer and writer for over 25 years and attended Brooks Institute of Photography. He has done work for Anheuser-Busch, 20th Century Fox, Graphic Design Magazine, and the states of California and Wyoming.

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