Up until now, only the U.S. military has had access to the behemoth Chinook CH-47D helicopter.
That changed when the armed forces moved to an upgraded model of the Boeing-made helicopter. Soon after, Billings Flying Service took advantage of the opportunity that opened to buy three of what co-owner Al Blain calls “absolute beasts.”
After jumping through some rigorous hoops, the Billings company hopes soon to put the newest additions to its fleet to use.
The firm had sold several of its own helicopters and had the cash on hand last December to bid on the helicopters. They came up for sale through the federal General Services Administration.
Billings Flying Service was the first of three civilian operators to buy the helicopters, allowing them to join an exclusive club.
“For all practical purposes, this is the largest lift-capacity helicopter in the world,” said Blain, who owns the company with his brother, Gary Blain.
The CH-47D has a 26,000-pound payload capacity and can fit two Humvees inside.
“They just haven’t built any heavy lift helicopters in the U.S. since the Sky Crane’s last large helicopter,” Blain said. “These things are bigger, better engineered, better designed, they perform real well in high altitude locations and can lift twice as much as a Sky Crane.”
He figures Billings Flying Service will use the helicopters to haul extremely heavy loads or to fight fires.
“If you need something heavy put in a weird place, we’re your folks,” Blain said.
A plan is also in place to modify the helicopters, adding large, detachable 2,500-gallon tanks with snorkels that will allow a quick turnaround when filling them with retardant or water for firefighting.
But buying the CH-47Ds was only one of several steps the Blains went through to use them in their business. They had to buy new equipment, including new stands that would fit up against the big birds and bigger fuel trucks and specialized tools.
“It takes special fixtures and pieces to take things apart and put them back together,” Blain said.
Even more important, the company had to get the proper certification to operate these now-civilian helicopters. Blain compared it to the process Boeing goes through when it builds a new aircraft.
“The big problem is, these helicopters came down a military-approved assembly line, with no FAA approval,” Blain said, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration. “You have to prove to the FAA you can operate these in an air-worthy manner.”
A rigorous process ensued. Billings Air Service had to compile a flight manual — 500 pages in this case — describing how they would maintain and operate the helicopter. The Blains hired engineers to work with Ebert Stanton, their chief of maintenance, to formulate the manual.
The process took six months, but the work paid off when, in August, the Blains earned the first, and so far only, FAA CH-47D type certificate in the U.S. Two of their helicopters have been added to the type certificate, and a third, which hasn’t yet been moved to Billings, will be added soon.
That will enable the firm to add the helicopters to its fleet, as soon as its pilots are certified to fly the new helicopters.
Blain said he thinks Billings Flying Service has a six-month lead on other companies that have purchased the helicopters and must compile their own flight manuals.
The only exception is CHI Aviation, longtime business associates of Billings Aviation Service, which has permission to use Billings Flying Service’s type certificate. The Blains have the option to sell the type certificate to other companies that buy the same helicopters.
The CH-47Ds already have been booked for their first job, setting power poles, and the company is getting inquiries from foreign operatives. When the company gets the green light to fly the helicopters, Blain estimates the demand for services could double the Billings’ business.