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For the Love of the Business: Transwest’s Progressive Formula

With a warm-hearted smile, Alison Maas called out above the noise as we walked in her direction. “So how was it?” she asked. If the ear-to-ear grin I was wearing wasn't enough of an answer, the giddy laughing of my fellow passengers was a dead giveaway.


August 5, 2008
By Matt Lang

Topics
july-august-september-2008
Transwest provides
most of its services in heli-logging, remote construction projects,
power-line work, drill-head moving in the Alberta oilpatch, and
seasonal fire suppression missions. (Photo by Leighton Matthews)

With a warm-hearted smile, Alison Maas called out above the noise as we walked in her direction. “So how was it?” she asked. If the ear-to-ear grin I was wearing wasn't enough of an answer, the giddy laughing of my fellow passengers was a dead giveaway.

Behind us, the Bell 214B’s engine was still winding down, its massive main rotor slowly carving out a gigantic circle several feet over our heads. As we joined Alison and her husband Ernst Maas, and a group of others sitting at a sunny picnic table outside the hangar of Transwest Helicopters, we shared our experiences and did what all good fishermen do; we regaled one another and embellished on things which, in fact, didn’t really need embellishing.

It was an impromptu Friday end-of-day come-one-come-all kind of atmosphere that we in the world of aviation know all too well, and we cherish them for all they’re worth! Ernst and Alison Maas, the owners of Transwest Helicopters, were our hosts. They were clearly happy to share in the stories of our first flight in the Bell 214B. Ernst, who has over 12,000 hours in various kinds of helicopters, and over 6,000 hours on the 212/412/214B, doesn’t need to hear the stories which he has surely heard countless times before, yet he still feels and shares the joy of our all-too-brief encounter with his helicopter.

Our photographer Leighton Matthews and I had just returned from our flight. Along with us were several crew members from Transwest, including our primary guide for the flight, the company’s chief pilot Jeff Brown who has 24,500 hours of experience flying helicopters. As we neared the picnic table, complete with a beverage brigade there to meet our thirst needs, I saw Ernst was also smiling back at me. He knew the answer to his wife's question all too well. “Now do you see why I bought this company?” he said with a good-natured, drawn-out intonation clearly intended to chide me for the question I had asked him earlier.

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I figured it was an easy enough question. I mean, this is kind of what I do … I ask questions, and people talk to me. I write it all down and then hopefully share it with others. Simple enough! But to the question “so, why did you buy this company?” I was not ready for the reply; at least not the simplicity of it. In October of 2004, Ernst and Alison Purchased Transwest Helicopters – complete with three Bell 214B helicopters worth a few million dollars each, a fourth one on a repair jig inside their multimillion-dollar hangar, an airframe maintenance repair and overhaul division including an engine overhaul shop, plus an engine-parts manufacturing licence, in a deal which is obviously worth many millions of dollars, although he won’t say how many – all for one reason: The Bell 214B.

Transwest’s Fleet and Operations

  • 4 Bell 214B helicopters
  • airframe maintenance repair and overhaul division including an engine overhaul shop
  • engine-parts manufacturing licence


Services:

  • Heli-logging
  • Remote construction projects
  • Power-line work
  • Drill-head moving in the Alberta oil patch
  • Seasonal fire suppression missions

As Ernst answered my question, I waited on him to elaborate, but nothing followed. I stammered to come up with another question to try and dig deeper. “That’s the only reason?” I asked with a noticeable hint of disbelief in my voice. “That’s it,” he said, “the one and only reason!”

I must confess, his answer seemed – let’s just call it “thin.” But now, having just flown in the 214B, and having watched it perform, I did in fact truly understand why Ernst and Alison Maas purchased Transwest Helicopters. The 214B is an amazing machine, and those who have flown it want more!

The 214B cruises at 140 knots and is capable of lifting up to 8,000 lbs externally, but 6,000 lbs is the norm, and 4,000 lbs internally. Its use is generally limited to operations that require the immense 3,000-shp engine which is de-rated to 2,250 shp. And as Ernst describes it, they tend not to get used for people transport very much due to the 600 litres of jet fuel it drinks each hour!

Transwest provides most of its services in heli-logging, remote construction projects, power-line work, drill-head moving in the Alberta oilpatch, and the seasonal fire suppression missions for which the 214B is very well suited. Capable of lifting 600 gallons of water for a one-hour cycle at altitudes up to 6,000 feet makes it an ideal firefighting platform.

Ernst says there are only 29 of the powerfully overbuilt 214Bs still in existence worldwide. Built from 1976 to 1981, the 214B never had a large fleet. A larger twin-engine variant is numbered at 30. As one of the only engine overhaul companies in the world to work on the 214B's engines, Transwest has seen a majority of them come through its shop, some more often than others. But at $350,000 to overhaul the engine alone, it’s a good idea to take care of them as best as possible.

transwest4
Cory Pollard prepares
a jet engine for testing in the test chamber at Transwest. There is a
special water cooling tower attached outside the building to help
dissipate the energy from the turbines which spin up to 18,000 rpm.
(Photo by Leighton Matthews)

The maintenance side of the company is perhaps the quiet secret of Transwest’s success. Ernst says that fixing minor problems well before they become major problems allows Transwest to save money as well as reduce down time. His philosophy is that operating an aircraft this large really does require an in-house maintenance program to effectively manage the cost of doing business.

And if there is any doubt
about who stands where on the “who’s who” list in order of importance,
one need only look at job-related duties for projects that take them
away from their hangar in Chilliwack, B.C. When taking the aircraft on
long flights to deploy on assignment, each helicopter has a support
truck that is also sent to the job site. The copilot’s primary job
during such long flights is to sit in the left seat and drive the
truck, while the maintenance engineers fly with the helicopter to
service it along the way to the job site if there are any problems.
This may not be listed as one of the perks of being a copilot at
Transwest, but the policy is to hire low-time pilots and provide them a
solid mentoring program, which does in fact get noticed in the industry
as a model.


Transwest's operations
manager, John Burns, was pleased when the company was held out at a
recent HAC convention for its mentoring program. By design, Transwest
brings in newly-minted commercial pilots and introduces them to
multi-crew operations with highly skilled pilots. Ernst feels this is
something that has been lacking in the industry, and his own goal is to
lead by example, in hopes that other operators will see the long-term
advantages of having better training in a pilot's new career.

transwest2
The 214B cruises at 140 knots and is capable of lifting up to 8,000 lbs externally. (Photo by Leighton Matthews)


The engine manufacturing operation at Transwest doesn’t give Ernst the same warm feeling as flying helicopters. It was an included part of a package deal to purchase the operational side, and, somewhat quietly, Ernst wouldn’t mind if someone came up and offered to buy it from him.

The ever-deepening layers of paperwork and regulation in an already heavily regulated industry are taking the fun out of things, he says. Long gone are the days when he first began work as a commercial helicopter pilot flying for Highland Helicopters, when setting up operations at new bases was easily done. Today, with added regulations, Ernst says the industry is losing its appeal. In particular, he sees the requirement for a company to have an “accountable executive” as a serious threat to the industry. He is unaware of any other industry which holds a company owner legally responsible for the actions of its employees through a statutory regulation.

It’s difficult to imagine
a more complicated industry for trying to make a living than aviation,
and perhaps the helicopter industry in particular. But this has been
Ernst’s life. “Its the only thing I ever wanted to do,” he says as we
stand next to the picnic table enjoying a cold drink and admiring the
214B just a few meters away. At 60 years of age, his passion for flying
is strong, and his philosophy sincere. “If you don’t love aviation, you
shouldn’t be in it. There are more ways to make a living that are
probably more rewarding and profitable. I have been in aviation all my
life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”


transwestsideThe Big Blue Jig
More accurately, its called a 214B Main
Frame Fixture and it, along with its cousin the Tail Boom Fixture, are
a pair of highly specialized tools, as if anything in the helicopter
maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) business isn’t, that are used to
align the airframe of the Bell 214B.

Sounds simple enough, but to be used correctly, these jigs at Transwest
Helicopters must be certified by the folks at Bell Helicopters.

Transwest is an authorized Bell Service Centre, and, as Transwest
President Ernst Maas says, they are privileged to be able to have the
two fixtures. Ernst says Bell is careful about authorizing companies to
be Bell Repair Centres, and very selective about who can install the
certified fixtures. There is a need to have good service and to
maintain profitability in a highly competitive and specialized
industry. Hand out too many repair stations licenses, and the market
would be flooded with companies racing to the bottom of the economic
ladder, while not enough would leave operators at the mercy of the too
few MROs.

In using the big blue jig, Transwest must have the accuracy of the
fixture tested every five years to ensure that it meets factory
standards. To do this, Bell sends a small team of technicians to
Transwest. They attach a series of reflectors all around the jig and
then shoot it with a laser.

Carefully the entire jig is looked at and
measured, front to back, top to bottom, and back again, ensuring that
what will come off the jig will, in fact, be as perfectly true to the
manufacturer’s original specifications as possible. So critical are the
measurements that the fixtures sit in a room with a heated floor that
prevents them from deforming due to the daily heating and cooling were
it not controlled so carefully.

But according to Ernst, the problem comes when things don’t line up
perfectly. The technicians turn to you and say one thing or another in
an attempt to tell you it didn’t pass. The tricky part however, is that
they don’t tell you what to do to make it pass. They don’t tell you how
to fix it!! That part is up to you. Describing one recent such
inspection, which can take a couple days to complete if there are
corrections, Ernst quietly purses his lips and nods with a look of
contentment, explaining that the Bell technicians were there for only a
couple of hours and that everything was just right.
 


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