Oregon helicopters do the heavy lifting

Oregon helicopters do the heavy lifting

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Many Oregon copter firms assist with firefighting and would like to get more involved in disaster response.

Erickson’s fleet of 17 helicopters has also installed 8,000 miles worth of power transmission lines, delivered snow for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., and installed many of the ski lifts at major resorts around the U.S., including the newest lift at Mt. Hood Meadows in the fall.

Erickson is unique among the other members of the consortium in that it is also a manufacturer of helicopters, the Erickson S-64 Aircrane. The company’s manufacturing facility in Central Point, which employs 300 of Erickson’s 400 Oregon workers, can build four of the helicopters per year. It has manufactured 32 to date. In 2010, revenue from Erickson’s manufacturing, maintenance and services topped $118 million.

In November, the company announced it was laying off 119 employees, most of them in Central Point, in order to cut costs, and in December, it reaffirmed its plan for an initial public offering, through which it hopes to raise $75 million.

Several of Oregon’s helicopter companies have also turned to aircraft maintenance as a way to grow their revenue. Columbia, for example, recently invested about $4 million in an engine overhaul and testing facility at its location in Aurora that will expand its maintenance capabilities. The company already works on not only its own aircraft, but also those of foreign nations such as Thailand, Singapore and The Netherlands.

The seven companies came together under the heavy-lift consortium in 2006 in part as a response to missed opportunities during Hurricane Katrina. But the consortium is also helping to unify an industry whose major players all face similar issues, whether it be a lack of workforce training options or bureaucratic red tape from the likes of the Federal Aviation Administration that slows down operations.

“There’s been times when we’ve had ships grounded in Afghanistan for months because of governmental procedures,” says Elise Bair, director of business development for Evergreen Helicopters in McMinnville.

“It’s insane the way the FAA inhibits the growth of the aviation industry,” says state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who was a working helicopter pilot herself for 20 years. “These companies make Oregon proud, but the federal partners are a drag on the entire industry.”

Oregon helicopter companies would like to see FAA regulations loosened up a bit to help facilitate their businesses a little more. They’d also like to have more training opportunities for aircraft mechanics and pilots, and through the consortium, they’re also working on agreements with agencies like Oregon Emergency Management on possible contracts for emergency response operations.

“We really see excellent opportunities for growth for our helicopters and for the industry in general,” says Columbia’s Petersen.