In the small town of Aurora, Oregon, change is in the air. For more than 60 years, it has been home to one of the helicopter industry’s most enduring heavyweights — the heavy-lift specialist Columbia Helicopters. Founded in 1957 by industry pioneer Wes Lematta, Columbia has seen global success with its instantly-recognizable fleet of tandem-rotor aircraft. Throughout that time, ownership of the company remained in the hands of the Lematta family. But on July 18, 2019, the company announced the start of a new phase in its storied history, with AE Industrial Partners agreeing terms with Columbia to acquire the company.
While the change in ownership may be the most dramatic shift at the company, it’s just one of a range of recent evolutions taking place at Columbia, as it strengthens its market position and adapts to take advantage of new opportunities in the increasingly-packed heavy-lift sector.
Today, Columbia has a staff of over 800, and a giant tandem-rotor fleet that includes 11 Model 234 UT/LR Chinooks (capable of lifting 28,000 pounds/12,700 kilograms on the hook), 14 Model 107-II Vertols (11,500 lb./5,220 kg on the hook), and three Boeing CH-47D Chinooks (26,000 lb./11,800 kg on the hook). Its operations take it across the United States, Canada, Papua New Guinea, and Afghanistan.
For the last two years, the company has been led by Steve Bandy, who joined Columbia in 1989 as a co-pilot. He has worked in a series of increasingly senior leadership roles at the company over the years, ultimately being promoted to president in June 2017.
“I was always given the opportunity to grow my capabilities and advance within the organization, which is a really great thing with this company — the trust it puts in its people,” said Bandy. “My story is not uncommon. Columbia truly provides tremendous opportunity for people who are interested in achieving excellence and mastering whatever challenge is put in front of them.”
In return, Columbia enjoys long tenure and loyalty from its employees, with Bandy highlighting that several people have been at the company for more than 40 years.
“Our tagline is: “dedicated people, inspired solutions,” said Bandy. “We don’t underestimate how dedicated our employees are, and the inspiring things they do every day are pretty impressive.”
While Columbia has always done some firefighting, logging work provided the bulk of its revenue as recently as the early 2000s. But today, the company does very little logging, and with 12 aircraft supporting military operations in Afghanistan, government and military support contracts have become a crucial part of its business.
This government charter work is one of the core segments for the company’s aviation services division, along with onshore oil-and-gas support, construction, forestry and stream restoration, and firefighting. Despite a general industry downturn in the oil-and-gas market, Columbia has maintained a strong presence in Southeast Asia (primarily Papua New Guinea) working in the sector.
And in its firefighting operations, the longer and more severe fire seasons of the last few years have provided some stable work with the U.S. Forest Service, and Columbia is also exploring new opportunities to fight fires outside the U.S.
Of course, Columbia isn’t just an operator — it also functions as a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider and, following its acquisition of the 107 and 234 type certificates from Boeing in 2006, an original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
According to Santiago Crespo, vice president of business development and marketing, it’s this vertical integration that allows the company to maintain an extraordinarily high fleet availability percentage that’s in the “mid 90s.” He said this was one of the things that set Columbia apart from its competition — alongside its use of the 234.
“We differentiate ourselves because we have the standard transport category 234, and we’re still the only company that operates the standard transport category Chinook,” said Santiago Crespo. “That has some significant benefits, especially when you’re operating in international markets or operating for certain customers. The 47D is a great platform, but still it’s a restricted category aircraft — you can’t transport passengers.”
Kurt Koehnke, vice president of maintenance, is the longest-tenured vice president at the company, having been at Columbia for 32 years. He said MRO growth has been one of major areas of change at the company over the years. All told, the MRO team now totals 275 technicians.
Typically, Columbia’s aircraft deploy in the U.S. with a service van and an equipment trailer that stocks a large number of parts. Larger items such as transmissions and engines will either be driven out or flown by Columbia’s own Beechcraft King Air, which is equipped with a cargo door.
The general change in operation type over the years has impacted the MRO department as well as the flight crews.
“This transition to what we call charter — which is this government work in Afghanistan — that’s a big change,” said Koehnke. “That’s 200 hours a month consistently on the airframes there, so it’s a big transition in the maintenance. We’ve got nice facilities in Bagram, in Jalalabad. We’ve transitioned technical experts from avionics and sheet metal and embedded them in the field crews over there.”
Columbia has been in Afghanistan for eight years, during which time it has brought new capabilities to its government customer, such as delivering supplies to remote operating bases with a 200-foot long line to avoid damaging them with the aircraft’s downwash when using a shorter line. The company originally went with four 107s, and has grown that presence to nine 107s and three 234s.
A team of 84 people takes care of the MRO requirements of the 12 aircraft in Afghanistan. Each of the 107s requires a team of six mechanics (three on-shift), with the three 234s each staffed by 10 mechanics (five on-shift). They work a shift pattern of 28 days on, then 28 days off.
As the aircraft only fly day visual flight rules, maintenance is performed overnight, and the size of the team allows Columbia to keep up with scheduled maintenance and perform unscheduled work as required – ensuring the availability rate stays extremely high.
The capabilities of the team are extensive, and they are supported by an enormous inventory that includes thousands of line items, from major dynamic parts down to circuit breakers and nuts and bolts. This allows them to perform almost every type of maintenance, from complete skin repairs to major structural repairs.
“If we do a mod or a service bulletin, obviously we do it right there in-country — it’s too expensive to send the aircraft home,” said Koehnke.
With the CH-47D, Koehnke said the transition to supporting that aircraft has been relatively straightforward due to the similarities to the 234, and the fact that many employees are former military personnel who have worked on the type before.
“We’d already been working on Ds for external customers before they came through, so we really had a jump on tooling and technical experience and so on,” he said.
When the aircraft arrived, they were completely stripped and the components were individually checked, repaired/overhauled as necessary, and then put in Columbia’s inventory. Parts are then taken from the inventory as the aircraft are rebuilt. With 11 aircraft, the company has a significant supply of spares to keep the flying aircraft serviceable.