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I first became acquainted with Air Center Helicopters in the summer of 2004, when I had a chance meeting with Rod Tinney, the company’s owner, at an airport in San Diego, California. Air Center was in town with a couple of Bell 412s and 407s — each painted in a distinctive shade of blue — and was supporting a military contract during sea trials of new Aegis class destroyers.
At the time, Air Center had just been awarded its third long-term contract for helicopter support to the U.S. Navy. Its machines were specially configured to meet the Navy’s strict requirements for offshore flying, tactical navigation, and communications. They were used for personnel and cargo transfers between ships, took part in radar tracking exercises, and recovered aerial gunnery targets.
The success of the Navy contracts put Air Center in high demand among other U.S. military operators, NASA, NATO and foreign navies. By the end of 2007, Air Center had flown over 13,000 hours on these various government contracts, completing over 12,000 landings aboard naval vessels and training platforms, and moving over 30,000 passengers and 152 tons of cargo.
The evolution of Air Center to that point from its humble beginnings is worth reflection.
At the start of his career in the early 1980s, Tinney flew for a small helicopter and seaplane operator in Alaska. After flights with directors from cruise ships aboard the company Hiller 12E, Tinney recognized a lucrative untapped revenue opportunity: shuttling tourists to nearby glaciers. He and his boss joined forces, each purchasing one Bell 206 and together they leased a third aircraft. In the two seasons that followed, the operation proved quite successful, turning nearly 4,000 hours.
Following the success of the Alaska operation, Tinney and his partner launched Air Center, and turned their attention to the warm Caribbean and the island of Saint Thomas. While the opportunity to fly in a tropical climate was a lure in itself, the pair believed the higher volume of cruise ships in the Caribbean waters would translate into big profits. Those plans, however, were derailed after a series of setbacks, culminating with the ending of the partnership on acrimonious terms.
Beat down but not broken, Tinney returned two of the 206s to their respective bank/leasing companies, keeping one for himself. He scratched together $3,600 to rebuild the company, flying tours from a remote portion of an island golf course.
After a thorough pummeling by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, Tinney recognized that reliance on the tourism industry was not a recipe for long-term success. When he saw a civilian Bell 212 flying out of Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station in Puerto Rico, he began investigating a somewhat obscure U.S. Navy program — Commercial Air Services (CAS). This program, which had just begun, saw the Navy outsource some specialized support functions to commercial operators. Tinney saw an opportunity for more predictable year-round work that wasn’t as affected by swings in the economy or natural disasters and by the end of the year, won his first Navy contract supporting the Caribbean region.
As CAS contract requirements became increasingly stringent and complex over the following years, other operators responsible for CAS contracts in different regions failed their Commercial Airlift Review Board (CARB) inspection by the Air Force. Tinney, however, adapted, and by the mid-1990s had become the sole helicopter operator participating in the program.
In 1997, Tinney moved his operation to Fort Worth, Texas. Over the next decade and a half, Air Center expanded and matured with a growing fleet of Bell 412s, 407s and 206s, eventually becoming the largest helicopter operator in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. While it offers many of the traditional part 135 operations, such as air charter, external lift, and aerial filming, it has remained laser focused on the unique specialty it developed in CAS and Department of Defense contracting.
Moving to a larger type
In 2014, Air Center bid on – and was awarded — contracts to provide helicopter support for military personnel in conflict zones in Afghanistan. These contracts, however, required more capabilities than the company’s existing fleet of light and medium Bell machines could provide.
As such, Air Center leased six relatively high-time Airbus Puma and Super Puma helicopters (AS330J and AS332L models). These aircraft were well-suited for missions in austere environments — they were rugged, versatile, and able to carry relatively large loads of passengers and cargo. But as older aircraft, they had high component times, and Air Center found that spare parts were scarce.
The company decided to cannibalize two of the aircraft to make the remaining four mission-ready. By December 2016, the aircraft were operational in Afghanistan, where they flew personnel and cargo for the U.S. Army LOGCAP IV contract, operated by Fluor International Corporation. Despite limited spare parts, each of the four Air Center aircraft flew an average of 100 hours each month. The company later acquired an AS332 C1E, which it put on a contract in the west African nation of Niger, flying personnel recovery (PR) and casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) missions for the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM).
Leading up to this, Air Center had begun to feel the effects of a U.S. government sequestration that was squeezing off some of the CAS contracting work. “We needed to restructure the business,” said John Bean, who joined Air Center in 2015 as COO. “[Tinney] had already begun working with these larger aircraft, but it was clear, as I analyzed things, that it was going to be dog-eat-dog as long as we stayed in the small and medium helicopter world. There’s just a lot of competition and a lot of hungry operators and not a lot of government spending in that market. We wanted to stabilize the business for long-term security and we needed to move into the heavier aircraft.”
Tinney and Bean understood the older Puma and Super Puma were likely not long for the overseas contracts. Besides the aircraft’s age and the limited availability of spare parts, they lacked the endurance for some of the extended legs required in remote locations. So the pair began quietly assessing the availability of other aircraft that would help them to stand out from the competition. They identified the Airbus H225 as the ideal candidate. It was a larger, modern, all-weather aircraft with the latest avionics and technology, and provided greater speed, payload and range.
But, at the time, the type was enduring a challenging period in its history. First entering service in 2004, it became the subject of much scrutiny after several high-profile incidents and accidents in the offshore oil-and-gas sector — particularly in the North Sea. In two instances, investigators focused their attention on failures of systems associated within the aircraft’s main gear box.
“There was nothing inherently wrong with the design and capability of [the H225],” said Bean, who spent most of his career in aviation engineering (30 years with Lockheed Martin and five years at Bell). “There was a manufacturing flaw and a couple design elements that combined to allow these accidents to occur. But once they were corrected, it was probably the safest, most modern heavy-lift helicopter out there.”
Despite Airbus focusing a great deal of time and energy on engineering and implementing fixes, the H225 has subsequently struggled to find widespread work among offshore operators, with many choosing to park the type.
“We saw the [H225] market was terribly depreciated because they had been grounded [by many operators] for two years,” said Bean. “And oil-and-gas said they were not going to have anything to do with them. So we started doing our research to determine if this was going to be a good gamble. If we could change the equation with these new modern aircraft, and if we could buy enough of them fast enough before anyone else realized what we know, we could establish a new paradigm for the military.”
Air Center seized the opportunity. It approached U.S.-based Era Helicopters, the largest domestic operator of the H225, and made an offer to acquire its fleet. All of the aircraft were less than 10 years old and most had less than 5,000 hours total time on the airframe.
“I did an exhaustive study on the history of 225 operations, as well what were the most consumed parts and unforecast maintenance issues,” said Tinney. “I compared the list of most purchased parts from the operator I studied to the currently available offered Power by the Hour programs, and determined none were sufficient. So I negotiated a customized support program covering the parts the study found were needed.” By the spring of 2018, Air Center had acquired eight of Era’s H225s, as well as its parts inventory. “Era was instrumental in making it possible for me to do this,” said Tinney. “They really worked with me. In the deal, we got the spares, we got the tooling… we got everything we needed to start the program and stand up my MRO shops. I don’t think there’s any way I could have got cranked up with the 225s if I hadn’t done the deal with Era.”
Creating a new market
With the aircraft in hand, Air Center faced the daunting chore of converting them from an offshore people-mover into a utility aircraft. Due to the novelty of the task, there were no applicable service bulletins or documentation to help it. But in the many months leading up to the acquisition, Air Center engineers and MRO teams conducted extensive research to develop plans for making the conversions.
Like most offshore H225s, the Era machines were set up with airline-style seating and large flotation systems and life rafts for extended overwater operations. As such, there was a lot of equipment and weight that needed to be removed. Then, the interiors needed to be adapted for the PR and CASEVAC mission with troop seating, medical litters and equipment, rescue hoist and ballistic flooring.
The conversion of the first four H225s was not without challenges. For instance, all the gearboxes had to be sent back for overhaul, which wasn’t expected or in the budget. And, after the conversions had been finished, Air Center discovered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had no personnel qualified in the H225, so the Air Center pilots had to be sent to France to get their type ratings in the factory simulator. But, despite the hurdles, the four aircraft were completed, certified and pressed into service in Afghanistan by the end of August that year.
In addition to the PR/CASEVAC missions overseas, Air Center has two H225s dedicated to shipboard vertical replenishment (VERTREP) missions with the U.S. Navy. A new requirement for the mission involves lifting the 9,600-pound (4,355-kilogram) spare engine package for the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II, the Navy’s newest stealth strike fighter. The H225 has a 10,470-pound (4,750-kilogram) external load limit, and is also configured with a folding main rotor blade package, allowing for the H225 to be hangared aboard ships.
Beyond the military contracting, Air Center sees great potential for the H225 in domestic firefighting. Tinney believes the aircraft, configured with a Simplex Model 316 belly-mounted fire attack system and EO/IR sensor, would become a formidable day/night multi-mission workhorse.
To meet the growing need for qualified H225 pilots, Air Center developed its own pilot training academy. Candidates are sourced via word of mouth from an elite cadre of former special operations and combat search-and-rescue pilots that Tinney assembled at the outset. They must personally vouch for the character and integrity of any candidate.
Once into the program, Tinney estimates it takes $70,000 to $100,000 to develop a capable H225 pilot. To support the training program, Air Center is awaiting delivery of its own level D full-flight training simulator. Tinney believes the hardest thing for his pilots to get used to is having to fly with him as the H225 check airman. “Most never met the boss in their previous jobs, but here they have to fly with him to qualify,” he said.
Today, Air Center is headquartered in Burleson, Texas, just outside Fort Worth. It currently has 17 H225s in its fleet — owned and leased — with seven of those in various stages of the conversion process. The balance of the company’s helicopter fleet include two AS332 L1 Super Pumas, and seven light and medium Bell and Airbus helicopters.
The company’s MRO facility is an FAA part 145 maintenance facility and an approved Bell service center, providing full component repair and overhaul services, non-destructive testing and aircraft paint services.
Since the beginning, Tinney has earned his success by taking the road less traveled. Skeptics and setbacks have served only to inspire him to accomplish what others viewed as too hard or unattainable. “If you look at when I started with the Navy stuff, no one thought any civilian would ever fly for the Navy and land on ships,” he said. “And now, with the 225s, no one thought these could ever be resurrected and successfully operated after being converted to a utility configuration. I tell my people, when you do what everyone else says is impossible, it takes a long time before you have any competition.”