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The familiar new face in MRO: PHI Aviation

By Oliver Johnson

Published on: July 4, 2023
Estimated reading time 18 minutes, 40 seconds.

PHI has a legacy that stretches back to the origins of the civil rotorcraft industry in the U.S. All the experience it gained along the way in maintenance, repair and overhaul is now on offer to third-party customers through the launch of PHI MRO services.
Two maintenance workers stand next to a Bell 407 helicopter.
The PHI Aviation fleet includes the Bell 407 (pictured), Sikorsky S-92, Airbus H145, and Leonardo AW139. PHI Photo

In March 2022, a new face appeared in the world of helicopter maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO). But it was also a very familiar one — and it entered the market with decades of experience and some of the most advanced capabilities in the industry. PHI MRO Services became a major new player in the MRO market the moment PHI Aviation decided to turn its in-house MRO unit outward facing, offering third-party MRO and completion services to the industry.

Its arrival in the market has generated a lot of interest — with staff performing three to five tours a week of the company’s hangar in Lafayette, Louisiana, for prospective customers. They’ve even had to buy a “VIP” golf cart to ferry customers in style from the heliport to the facility.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive reception from all of the segments we’ve been in contact with,” Tom Neumann, president of PHI MRO Services told Vertical. “We’re excited to be able to contribute and help the entire MRO market as well, because we have that capacity.”

Despite being a new arrival, PHI MRO can trace its heritage back to PHI’s founding in 1949. The company was a pioneer in the offshore helicopter support sector, and over the following decades, it became one of the world’s largest operators, with a particular focus on servicing the oil-and-gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it established an air medical transport business, with bases located throughout the U.S.

A maintenance worker inspects an aircraft engine.
PHI MRO’s staff have experience working on a huge range of aircraft and engine types, gained from their years of servicing PHI Aviation’s diverse fleet. PHI Photo

As offshore work boomed and oil prices climbed to new heights in the early 2010s, PHI’s fleet expanded to beyond 400 aircraft.

And then the market crashed.

PHI was one of the three major offshore helicopter transport providers that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy over the following years, as oil price reductions limited offshore activity, leaving many aircraft idle and operators with unmanageable debt burdens. PHI entered its bankruptcy process in March 2019, emerging six months later having reduced its debt burden by $500 million and securing a $225 million five-year loan.

While PHI Aviation is now well-placed to reap the benefit of a rebounding oil-and-gas market, it is mindful of making itself more robust and prepared for sustainable growth in the future. Diversification is a key element in this — both in terms of the geographic markets it serves and the type of services it offers (wind energy support, for example, appears a natural extension of its current offshore work).

The establishment of PHI MRO Services is perhaps the most dramatic example of the company’s diversification strategy. In 2022, PHI MRO became the third division within the PHI umbrella, joining PHI Aviation (the company’s energy support arm), and PHI Air Medical (its air medical business).

PHI MRO Services staff stand outside the company’s facility in Lafayette.
PHI MRO Services staff stand outside the company’s facility in Lafayette. PHI Photo

The division operates out of the 200,000-square-foot (18,600-square-meter) MRO facility adjoining PHI Aviation’s headquarters in Lafayette. PHI has had its own MRO capability for most of its history, and its expertise in this area has grown and evolved hand-in-hand with its development as an operator.

“Over the past two years, the determination has been made that that we can now start facing this company outward and start offering third-party [MRO] support to the world,” said Josh Perkins, PHI MRO’s director of maintenance. “We have the knowledge, the experience, [and] the capabilities to be able to do so much, that we really feel like we can help the industry — especially right now in this time of supply chain issues.”

Extensive capabilities

PHI MRO’s facility was created to be able to accommodate the peak PHI fleet of over 400 aircraft, with more than 20 individual aircraft bays and 12 shops. The latter include avionics, accessory, blade, component, engine, machining, structural repair, upholstery and non-destructive testing shops.

Its capabilities are extensive, from routine maintenance and inspections to complex modifications and completions.

A yellow helicopter sits in a PHI maintenance facility.
In addition to MRO, PHI will be offering completion services. PHI Photo

“I think it really differentiates us from a lot of other helicopter MROs that you’ll find is we have the hangars, of course — the light ship and heavy ship hangars where we do break/fix work, we do mods, we do inspections, all of that type of work — but you don’t see a lot of MROs in the helicopter industry out there that that also have the back shop and component support that we have internally,” said Perkins.

The staff have experience working on a huge range of aircraft and engine types and manufacturers, gained from their years of servicing PHI Aviation’s diverse fleet. Today, that fleet includes the Sikorsky S-92, Sikorsky S-76, Bell 407, Airbus H145, and Leonardo AW139. The company’s engine shop is equipped with test cells that allow PHI to perform up to complete overhauls for certain models.

The division is a Federal Aviation Administration certified repair station with designated airworthiness/engineering representative authorization and is a certified service facility for major manufacturers.

Thanks to its background supporting the operating branch’s work around the globe, PHI MRO has an extensive inventory of parts, long-established relationships with engine and airframe OEMs, and a worldwide network of resources it can call upon.

Two men inspect a helicopter blade in the blade shop at PHI.
A blade shop is one of 12 shops within the PHI facility. PHI Photo

Its services include long-term storage and return to service functions; hourly, calendar, and conditional inspections; airworthiness directives; safety bulletins; and pre-buy and lease return inspections.

The company also has an impressive paint capability, with six paint booths (all with state-of-the-art downdraft systems). Its paint shop can produce complete custom designs or minor repairs, with air brush painting, chemical paint stripping, color matching, and corrosion blasting and sanding.

PHI has had extensive experience performing aircraft modifications over the years, having developed numerous supplemental type certificates (STCs). It has the capability to handle the entire design and build process in-house, whether for minor modifications or customized mission-specific completions.

“My goal is to be as much of a turnkey MRO as possible,” said Perkins. “There’s business decisions and strategic decisions as to why you may have to outsource some work, but for the most part [I want to] be able to do anybody’s work in-house without sending it out of the facility.”

Neumann said the breadth of the MRO’s capabilities in Lafayette meant that a customer’s aircraft wouldn’t have to move anywhere for full inspections, component repairs, engine or avionics upgrades, or paint — reducing downtime.

Two maintenance workers inspect an aircraft engine, standing on either side of the engine.
The company’s engine shop is equipped with test cells that allow PHI to perform up to complete overhauls for certain models. PHI Photo

“We’re also willing to lease you an aircraft if you needed an aircraft while yours is in the shop,” he added. “If you knew your aircraft was going to be down for eight months for major repairs or major upgrades, we would have the ability — if you needed it and given enough notice — to lease you an aircraft while it was down.”

Industry Support

The target customer base is understandably diverse — given the range of services PHI MRO is offering. However, the company sees good growth opportunities in providing more maintenance support for government work — such as for upcoming U.S. Army and Navy programs; completion work (especially on the law enforcement side); and in providing OEM support.

“The OEMs in this industry have struggled a little bit with the supply chain issues,” said Perkins. “In our history as an operator, we worked with all those OEMs because we fly all those helicopters. We have good relationships with them, and we feel like we can provide them with the assistance and help that they need, that can also help the industry as well.”

Neumann said the supply chain is recovering “very slowly,” but he is starting to see improvement from OEMs.

A man stands on a platform, working on a four-bladed helicopter rotor.
The range of MRO services available should mean customers don’t need to move their aircraft for different types of repair work or upgrades, said Neumann. PHI Photo

“The real challenge that I think is facing us is the unmanaged obsolescence for legacy aircraft,” he said. “There’s such a demand for rotorcraft right now that these legacy aircraft need to be maintained . . . because there’s not enough new helicopter production to meet the demand. So we’re working with OEMs and suppliers to find innovative ways to keep those aircraft flying.”

Neumann said that in addition to acting as a traditional service center for customers, PHI’s OEM support could be more direct for manufacturers of avionics or new products who are working on an STC.

“They know that technology better than anyone because they designed it, but they’re not always going to be experts in how they should mount it in a helicopter, or how it interacts with other systems,” he said. “We have aircraft, we have engineering resources from an integration perspective. Think of PHI as the helicopter guys. ‘We know helicopters, you know your box, let us go help you.’ ”

In June, PHI is launching a new maintenance support line, dubbed “Call PHI.” The idea is that any helicopter operator has one number (+1 844 4ASKPHI) they can always call for assistance if their helicopter is grounded. A PHI expert at the other end of the line will diagnose the issue over the phone or using video solutions to help return the aircraft to operation “at an affordable rate.” PHI can also send a field service team if further support is needed on-site.

“For the first time, if you’re a more remote maintainer or you’re in a smaller facility, and you don’t know [what’s causing a problem with your aircraft], and the OEMs may or may not be able to help you, but you now have a number at least that you could call and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this issue. Have you guys ever seen it?’ ” said Neumann. “Because we’ve operated on hundreds and hundreds of helicopters, odds are somebody in our facility has knowledge on how to go do that.”

He said a customer recently called with a rotor track and balance problem that they had been working on for four days. “We solved it in 20 minutes,” said Neumann. “Those are the types of things we’re trying to go get.”

PHI mechanics work alongside one of the company’s Sikorsky S-92s.
PHI mechanics work alongside one of the company’s Sikorsky S-92s. PHI Photo

The line will be manned during normal working hours, with voicemail taking any overnight enquiries to be responded to “within 24 hours,” said Neumann.

Despite PHI having a legacy that stretches back to the very beginning of the civil rotorcraft industry in the U.S., it feels like being part of a startup with the launch of third party service at PHI MRO, he said.

“Things like how do we get all of our websites up? Our ads going? All of the quoting, sales … with all of those things it’s like a startup,” said Neumann. “But there’s not that pressure of ‘I have to go build the service center, or a test cell, or find a paint booth.’ All of that’s here already. We have a bit of capacity, and we have the staff to go do it — they’re excited to be able to do work on other projects.”

A tail-end view of a large helicopter sitting in an aircraft hangar, with the hangar door open.
The Lafayette facility has enormous capacity, with more than 20 individual bays. PHI Photo

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