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Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey speaks at the launch of the 107-III program in Coatesville on Tuesday. Looking on are PiAC CEO John Piasecki and Columbia CEO David Balevic. PiAC Photo

Columbia and Piasecki partner on upgrade for 107-II and CH-46E helicopters

By Elan Head | July 3, 2024

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 52 seconds.

Columbia Helicopters and Piasecki Aircraft Corporation (PiAC) have announced a strategic collaboration to update the type certificate for the Model 107-II tandem rotor helicopter to create a new, more capable variant: the 107-III.

The partners officially launched the upgrade program July 2 at PiAC’s Heliplex facility in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. As the holder of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) type certificate for the 107-II, Columbia will pursue a phased series of supplemental type certificates (STCs) to update the model with more powerful engines, modern avionics and other improvements.

PiAC will perform modifications and testing of 107-III aircraft at its 219,000-square-foot Heliplex facility, which was previously the site of Lockheed Martin Sikorsky’s S-76 and S-92 production lines. Sikorsky closed the plant in 2022 and PiAC acquired it in 2023.

In addition to upgrading existing commercial 107-II helicopters, Columbia and PiAC plan to remanufacture surplus CH-46E Sea Knights — a military variant of the Model 107 — into the “Dash 3” configuration. The result in either case will be a standard category aircraft that can transport persons or property for hire and operate internationally without the limitations that typically apply to restricted-category, surplus military aircraft.

Columbia has held the 107-II type certificate since 2006. It has operated the model extensively for missions including firefighting, construction, and logistics support in Afghanistan. Skip Robinson Photo
Columbia has held the 107-II type certificate since 2006. It has operated the model extensively for missions including firefighting, construction, and logistics support in Afghanistan. Skip Robinson Photo

“We want to go with the standard category from the get-go — that’s exactly what our customers are asking for,” Columbia CEO David Balevic told Vertical. “They’ve made it clear to me that they need [the 107-III] and they need it sooner rather than later.”

PiAC and Columbia have a history that stretches back decades. The original Piasecki Helicopter Corporation, later renamed Vertol, was a pioneering manufacturer of tandem rotor helicopters. The company developed the Model 107 as well as a larger variant, the Model 114, that evolved into the military CH-47 Chinook and commercial Model 234 after Vertol was sold to Boeing in 1960.

In 1957, the same year Vertol commenced construction of its first 107 prototype, Wes Lematta founded Columbia Helicopters in Oregon. Columbia went on to establish an international reputation as the premier civil utility operator of Model 107 and 234 helicopters, ultimately acquiring the type certificates for both models from Boeing in 2006.

“The founder of Piasecki Aircraft, my father Frank Piasecki, and Wes Lematta, the founder of Columbia, were good friends,” said PiAC CEO John Piasecki in an interview with Vertical. “We have been in discussions with Columbia I would say for the past decade, looking for opportunities to collaborate . . . because of our shared legacy with tandem helicopters.”

A catalyst arrived as a result of the war in Ukraine. For decades, many international helicopter operators have relied on rugged, cost-effective Mil Mi-8/17 helicopters to support clients such as the United Nations in remote and austere operating environments around the world. However, as Western sanctions have made these Russian-built helicopters more difficult to maintain, many of these operators have started looking for alternatives.

“I would say perhaps half of the conversations I’ve had with serious customers, they currently are flying Russian aircraft, and they’re acknowledging that due to the sanctions and the unavailability of parts . . . they seriously need to consider [replacing] that fleet,” said Balevic. “I think that’s what’s really sparked the interest right now, where our customers are saying how soon and how many can Columbia and Piasecki produce?”

With respect to how soon, the partners aim to deliver the first 107-III by the end of this year. This will incorporate upgraded CT58-GE-16 engines, the commercial designation for the T58-GE-16 engines on the CH-46E, which boast about 20 percent more horsepower than the CT58-140 engines on the 107-II. Columbia will pursue additional STCs for other improvements, including modernized avionics and eventually a full glass cockpit, throughout 2025.

The CH-46E is an upgraded version of the military Sea Knight or “Phrog” helicopter, featuring improved avionics, hydraulics, drive train and engines compared to its predecessors. Skip Robinson Photo

“A phased upgrade approach is being taken to enable rapid delivery of aircraft meeting customer requirements,” a spokesperson for the companies told Vertical via email. “These other systems are in final development. As details are finalized with customers and suppliers, they will be released.”

As for how many helicopters they can produce, Balevic said that Columbia has identified approximately 90 airframes that could be remanufactured into 107-III models. Piasecki has already inducted four CH-46E airframes at its Heliplex facility and plans to deliver six upgraded helicopters next year, working up to full rate production of 12 helicopters per year by the end of 2025. The company said it will ramp up hiring at the Heliplex to match production levels.

Columbia is not yet disclosing pricing for the 107-III — Balevic said that the company will likely be ready to do so by the time of VAI Verticon 2025 in March. He noted, however, that the model will be less expensive than new helicopters in its weight class, including the Airbus H225 (formerly EC225) Super Puma.

The CH-46E can carry a useful load of more than 8,700 pounds (3,945 kilograms) at a maximum gross weight of 24,300 lb. (11,020 kg), and the 107-III will have the same weight limitations. Balevic noted that Columbia is seeing significant interest in the model from potential customers in Europe and Asia for powerline construction and other external load missions.

“With the Dash 3, the 107 can take more weight on the hook than the Super Puma, and I think for some customers that’s going to be attractive,” he said. “The fact is that if you wanted to get a new EC225, the price point is going to be significantly higher, but I think more importantly is Airbus is having great success with them, and the delivery times right now I understand are being pushed out. So, customers are looking for other options.”

For Columbia, the 107-III represents an opportunity to breathe new life into a model it has been successfully operating and supporting for decades. The company provides full original equipment manufacturer (OEM) support for Model 107-II and CH-46 helicopters, in addition to being a Total Logistics Support center for GE T58 and CT58 engines. Its partnership with Piasecki covers the development of comprehensive product support plans for the 107-III, including establishing an FAA Part 145 repair station at the Coatesville Heliplex.

For Piasecki, meanwhile, the program is an ideal way to leverage its Heliplex facility and support its ambitious slate of research and development (R&D) programs, including the hydrogen-powered PA-890 helicopter.

“We are known as a research and development company, and we have a lot of things going on that are very exciting, but the ups and downs of research and development just purely from a business point of view is very stressful on the company,” Piasecki said. “This was sort of a natural progression with Columbia, because it really establishes not an R&D capability, but a production remanufacturing capability that provides the organizational infrastructure for the transition of our R&D programs into deployable products.”

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1 Comment

  1. The Marine CH-46E helicopter fleet was in exceptionally good condition when it was retired – and the logistic and supply chain trail is still largely in place with tremendous stocks of spares in preservation/storage. These helicopters are simple and the aircraft lends itself to transformation – as the State Department Aviation Division discovered when the CH-46E was chosen for their use. I suspect that this will be a highly successful program and that the initially quoted market potential of 90 aircraft is low by a factor of 2-3X.
    It is surprising that a similar program for the UH-60A has not surfaced – likely because of the lack of preceding Standard Category certificate paperwork that gives the BV-107 an advantage.

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