Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 27 seconds.
Born just 36 minutes apart, the paths fraternal twins Danny and David Brigham have taken through life have never been far from each other. The two served in the U.S. Army together and were the first in their family to enter the aviation industry, albeit in slightly different forms. Upon leaving the Army, David entered the civilian world as a mechanic in the rotary-wing industry, while Danny became a mechanic for American Airlines. When David established his completion and modification company United Rotorcraft Solutions in 2005, Danny helped out on a part-time basis, but it was only after the pair decided to cash in their retirement savings and trade in semi-retirement that they’ve realized a long-held
ambition to work together full-time.
AeroBrigham, the company they created and co-own, opened its doors in Decatur, Texas, in April 2015. Specializing in aircraft modifications, completions, refurbishment, maintenance and service, AeroBrigham has quickly grown to become one of the leading players in its sector.
David’s background in the rotary-wing industry stretches back 36 years to his time as a maintenance crew chief on the Boeing CH-47 Chinook in the Army. After leaving the military, he joined Century Helicopters in Fort Collins, Colorado, and then Columbia Helicopters, working as a crew chief on the Columbia 234 Chinook. In his five years at Columbia, he travelled the world servicing the heavy-lift juggernauts.
But it was as general manager at Texas Aviation Services, a position he held for five years, that he was introduced to the world of modifications and completions.
“I always wanted to expand my knowledge base and learn more — be able to work on more aspects of the aircraft,” said David. “So I started looking at avionics, component overhaul, and eventually paint, and then I really started getting into the completions aspect.”
The transition to running his own company was something he describes as “almost one of those accidental things,” resulting from a chance encounter with a small aviation business owner in Decatur. “I just happened to casually mention to him that one of these days I’d like to start my own company,” said David. “But I had no real plans to start a company.”
After that business owner sold his company, one thing led to another, and David was offered the opportunity to lease the business owner’s old hangar, with the first six months offered for free. After making some phone calls to ask if he could bid on some work, David won a couple of contracts. He quit his job, and moved to Decatur to start United Rotorcraft.
“It was exciting, but scary at the time,” he said. “I had, literally, about $300 extra in my checking account when I quit my job at Texas Aviation and came up here. But I had two contracts and had deposits in the bank, and that’s how I started the company. I just built it from there, and strictly built it off the profits from jobs.”
Those first two contracts were night vision goggle cockpit modifications, but the breadth of the work quickly grew thanks to David’s well-established relationships in the completions world.
Within four years, David was fielding calls from various companies asking if he’d be interested in selling United Rotorcraft, and he ultimately agreed to do so to Air Methods in 2011. By that point, it had grown to 32 employees, and had about $13 million in gross annual revenue.
David remained with the company for another three years to help it transition into part of the Air Methods group, and then retired.
Except… he didn’t.
Soon after his no-compete clause with Air Methods expired, he got back into the industry. “I really wanted something to do,” he said. “And I didn’t want to just go to work for anybody.”
Danny, who had been working as an emergency room nurse following his own retirement from American Airlines, was also ready for a change of pace.
“I was getting kind of burned out,” said Danny. “I said to Dave, ‘Hey, why don’t we start another company?’ I felt if I was going to have my own business, he’d be the perfect partner. He’d been in business so long and had a lot of great contacts and a good reputation.”
Pooling their retirement savings together, the Brigham brothers went into business together as partners, establishing AeroBrigham in the same 15,000-square-foot Decatur hangar in which United Rotorcraft had started 10 years earlier.
“We wanted to do the same thing we did with United Rotorcraft, but we just wanted to grow it a lot faster, and we wanted to be more diversified,” said David. The diversification has taken the form of an increased amount of fixed-wing work, providing completions for aircraft such as Cessna Caravans or Beechcraft King Airs. However, AeroBrigham’s primary focus is still the rotary-wing industry, with a specialty for aircraft produced by Airbus, Bell, MD Helicopters, Leonardo and Boeing.
Projects large and small
Today, AeroBrigham has 18 employees with a broad range of skillsets, allowing it to take on an enormous variety of work. This includes VIP, emergency medical services (EMS), search-and-rescue, utility, and law enforcement completions; aircraft refurbishments; systems integration; avionics installations; paint; and service and maintenance support.
“It’s a really good mix of both small and large projects,” said David. “Right now, we’ve got some VIP completions in here, we’ve got some large utility aircraft we’re working on, we’ve got two law enforcement aircraft in here, we’ve got private individuals that bring the aircraft in, and we still do a lot of EMS aircraft completions and maintenance.”
To help it provide this variety of service, AeroBrigham has a huge range of specialist tooling and machinery, including a CNC machine that allows it to manufacture parts and instrument panels; a huge roomful of test equipment that allows it to “test any avionics for any aircraft;” a very capable sheet metal shop; and a dedicated paint shop.
Among the company’s more notable recent projects was the completion of a Bell 407 for Marion County Sheriff. AeroBrigham sourced the aircraft, which had been used for aerial tourism in New York, and fully customized it to meet the Sheriff’s needs and requirements.
This included the creation of a custom-made carbon-fiber instrument panel, incorporating 12- and 15-inch monitors, a Garmin G500 EFIS system, and a tactical flight officer (TFO) station in the cabin. The TFO station included a 15-inch monitor with a Churchill Navigation augmented reality mapping system. The aircraft also had a FLIR Star Safire 380 HD system with a thermal imager and high definition color camera.
“We got them a really functional, great aircraft, with literally every bell and whistle they asked for, for way less than they would have spent if they’d bought a new helicopter,” said Danny. “They’re flying it a ton.”
AeroBrigham’s work arrives with the company from a variety of sources, but an increasing amount is driven by the airframe original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
“Some of the OEMs are guiding people to us and just telling them that this is where you need to go for the VIP or whatever completion, or avionics in general,” said David. “They’re comfortable with us, they know our work quality, and they’re already working with us.”
VIP completions are becoming increasingly common, with David predicting at least another six aircraft coming in later this year for the polished executive finish AeroBrigham can provide.
The time it takes to perform such a completion varies according to the finish requested, but averages about 120 days, he said. The work begins with discussions with the client to discuss their options and desires for the project. AeroBrigham will provide a rendering of the proposed design, incorporate any requested changes, and then move forward with the proposed configuration in the aircraft itself.
For some items, like leather, AeroBrigham has a preferred vendor (Aero Comfort), while for others, such as medical equipment suppliers, the selection will depend entirely on the customer.
Another major component of AeroBrigham’s business is its maintenance work. It can perform anything from small repairs to heavy maintenance and annual inspections. “We do a lot of component overhauls for dynamic components and engines, we’ll do module changes and inspections, but the engines we send out,” said David. “Same thing with hydraulic components — we send those out for overhaul.”
The company’s reach is broad. It can help domestic customers source aircraft overseas and complete the required inspections to get a U.S. aircraft registration for them. Conversely, it has international customers that request U.S.-registered aircraft, and AeroBrigham will help them source it, complete the export paperwork, and containerize and ship the aircraft. It will shortly be shipping another aircraft to a repeat customer in Perth, Australia.
In terms of general industry trends, David said he was seeing a lot of customers moving to newer glass cockpits, and there is also an increasing amount of ADS-B installation work to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) 2020 requirement for aircraft to be equipped with the technology.
“We’re starting to get pretty backlogged with ADS-B work,” said David. “If somebody wanted to bring an aircraft in for ADS-B right now, I wouldn’t be able to fit it in for a couple of weeks.”
A nimble company
According to David, it’s the company’s breadth of experience that sets it apart from its competitors. “We’re also a relatively small company, so we’re every nimble,” he said. “It’s relatively easy for us to react to customers’ needs.”
Another major string to its bow is the relationship AeroBrigham — and David in particular — has developed with the FAA. “We can get field approvals done here that most of our competitors can’t do around the country,” he said. “That’s not just because of our abilities, but our relationship with the FAA and our past experience with them. We’ve done some extremely complex field approvals that other businesses or FSDOs [Flight Standards District Offices] in the country aren’t willing to do.”
For Danny, the company’s success is due in no small part to David’s influence. “The level of expertise we have as a company is a huge strength, and that’s chiefly through Dave,” he said. “His knowledge is just off the chart and he’s got an incredible memory.”
But he said this capability is well reflected by a strong group of people at the core of the company, which means that AeroBrigham is able to keep any outsourcing to a minimum. “We outsource as little as possible,” said Danny. “We buy things as we need them and we pay for them. If we need manuals for a job, that’s when we get our manuals; if we need special tools, that’s the time we get special tools — and then we have them for the next similar job.”
Despite the success already recorded by AeroBrigham, the Brigham brothers are looking ahead to further growth for the company, both physically and in terms of the scope of work it completes.
The company’s existing hangar is already at maximum capacity. Plans for a new, 50,000-square-foot hangar are in the works, with AeroBrigham in discussions with several municipalities as to where that might be. David hopes to break ground on the new facility later this year.
“Once we get that new facility up, or as we progress to getting that new facility up, I think we’ll probably triple the size of the company,” he said.
One of the drivers behind that growth will be an expansion into new areas, such as certification and product development. The company is already working on securing its first supplemental type certificates, which it hopes to be able to announce later this year.
Another potential development is an expansion into aircraft leasing. “We’ve got a couple different customers that we’re working for to try to find the right aircraft,” said David. “We want to get those purchased, complete, and out on lease.”
While the success enjoyed by AeroBrigham in just four years might seem surprising for some, for Danny, it’s a continuation of the pattern of success his brother established 10 years ago with his first company. “To me, it seems like we’ve done even better, and we will continue to grow and hire people with Dave as the driving force,” he said.
David stressed that Danny manages much of the behind-the-scenes work. “We wouldn’t be this far along without him,” he said.
Danny said the experience of working with his twin brother has been worth the wait. “We grew up together, served in the Army together and then I went into heavies and he went into helicopters. And now we finally came full circle and we’re back together again. It’s pretty awesome.”