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Finding the right tool for a job can sometimes be a challenge. But when Ken and Connie Pyatt picked a Robinson R22 to begin operations with the helicopter company they were establishing in Garland, Texas, in 1992, it was quickly clear they had found a perfect vehicle for their ambitions. Over the following years, as SKY Helicopters’ grew its fleet, it stayed true to the manufacturer that was fueling that growth. And today, the full range of Robinson types — from the R22, to the R44, R66, and even the new R44 Cadet — can be seen flying out of and into SKY’s facility at the Garland/DFW public heliport, performing flight training, electronic newsgathering, and general light utility operations in the North Texas skies.
SKY Helicopters and Robinson are so well matched that in addition to SKY operating a fleet of 23 of the manufacturer’s aircraft (seven R22s, two R44s, 10 R44 Newscopters, two R44 Cadets, and two specially-equipped R66s), it serves as a Robinson Helicopter Dealer and Robinson Factory Authorized Service Center for the R22, R44, and R66.
“I don’t know how we could have done all of this without the Robinson product line,” Connie said. “They are everything that Frank Robinson designed them to be: reliable, economical, and able to do as advertised.”
The couple’s ties to aviation stretch back to Ken’s time in college, where he started flying small airplanes while working on his electrical engineering degree. After college, he moved to Dallas to work for Texas Instruments (TI) and spent 13 satisfying years there. “TI tought me how to plan, strategize, [and] how to get stuff done,” he said.
During a work trip to Europe, Ken stopped in at Sloane Helicopters, near London, U.K., for a flight in an R22. “That was pretty much it for me,” he said. “That flight began the end of my corporate career. You have to have a reason to bound out of bed every morning and go to work, and flying helicopters did this for me,” he said. He now sits at 9,000 rotorcraft hours.
Connie’s background is in the graphic arts. “Neither of us were young when we started SKY helicopters,” she said. “We were willing to sacrifice to make this business work. Through years of hard work and good management, we expanded to where we are today with a large fleet, good contracts and paid-off helicopters. In the end, both Ken and I were passionate about SKY becoming a successful business.”
A long relationship
Today, SKY’s business is composed of about 30 percent flight training, 30 percent aerial electronic newsgathering (ENG), and 30 percent light commercial (including energy surveys, aerial photography and videography, and flightseeing tours). The remainder is composed of its maintenance, sales and fixed-base operations (FBO) work.
After establishing itself in its first few years with the R22, a pivotal moment for the company was the delivery of its first R44 in 1995 — one of the first of the type ever produced. “We knew it would change our business for the better,” said Connie. “With its four seats and additional power, the R44 gave us the ability to carry more, fly farther, and do things the R22 simply couldn`t do.”
SKY also bought the second R44 Newscopter Robinson produced, which started the operator’s ENG business. More recently, it bought the first-ever R66 Newscopter and a couple of the first few R44 Cadet trainers, which Ken said have proved popular with the company’s students.
“Over the years, we’ve leased a Bell 407 and then owned an [Airbus] EC130, and we just couldn’t make any money with them,” said Ken. “For what we do, the Robinsons are a proven moneymaker. Robinson has a strong engineering staff, and product support has always been great. All the Robinson product lines are reliable, but when we have an issue, it doesn’t cost much to fix it and we get parts quickly.”
SKY Helicopters recently invested in a police version of the R66 with plans to get an independent air support unit established using an all-inclusive business model — similar to the model it offers ENG customers. The idea is that small communities will be able to use SKY’s police R66 when required, offering them the benefit of an airborne law enforcement asset at a fraction of the cost of a full-time unit. To date, SKY has trained 26 local officers as tactical flight officers (TFO), and is ready to begin providing the service.
As a Robinson Factory Authorized Service Center, SKY performs Robinson overhauls and other routine maintenance work at its Garland location. “We have an outstanding maintenance team, one of the finest directors of maintenance and best A&Ps I’ve ever come across,” said Ken. SKY’s maintenance team also offers maintenance for third-party helicopters. “We can do simple annuals all the way through to the heaviest of maintenance jobs,” he said.
An evolution in training
As part of its training program, SKY conducts around 50 check rides per year. “Obviously it depends on the economy, but flight training has been very steady for us since we started the company,” said Ken. “We have a nice blend of full-time part-141 students, and part-time private/commercial/instrument students. Some of our students just want to fly recreationally, and we keep those folks [as customers] for years as renters or eventually helicopter owners.”
SKY hires its instructors only after they complete the Robinson safety course, as Ken considers the course very important in maintaining safety and a good understanding of the manufacturer’s helicopters. “We try to hire from within, but occasionally hire from outside the company,” said Ken. “We know if they trained here they will be experienced with the DFW area’s complex airspace, and by the time they move over to flying our ENG contracts, they know the area very well.”
Although SKY has used the R22 for flight training because of its lower hourly cost, Ken has become a big fan of the new R44 Cadet. “I love them,” he said. “This [Cadet] will prove to be a home run for Robinson.”
Among the Cadet’s benefits are an air-conditioned environment (particularly helpful in Texas and other warm states), a wider weight-CG envelope, and better performance at altitude. “I think Robinson got it right with the Cadet and it will become the standard for flight training,” said Ken. “Now that Robinson added a float package for the Cadet, it gives the aircraft additional flexibility.”
Connie said SKY tries to pay its CFIs better than most flight schools to make sure it keeps good people. The company also offers them diverse flying opportunities, including tours, photo flights and survey/charter opportunities.
“We think we help them go out into this industry with better tools in their toolbox,” said Connie. “The learned skills of conducting a real commercial flight give our pilots an advantage in the real world.”
Covering the news
SKY first proposed using the R44 NewsCopter to TV stations in the late 1990s, and picked up a number of part-time jobs, backing up existing operators around the country when they went down for extended maintenance, overhaul, or in-between contracts. “Back then, TV traffic watch was still done in helicopters, and there was a need for a reliable, inexpensive solution — and the R44 worked out perfectly,” said Ken. “We would fly 1,200 hours per year just on one contract. Nowadays, TV traffic is pretty much all DOT [Department of Transportation] cameras or interactive graphics.”
When the U.S. switched from analog standard definition TV to digital high definition TV in 2008-2009, SKY was ready with the latest R44 HD cameras and transmitters. “Three of our four TV stations in DFW were network-owned, so there was a tremendous amount of technical and organizational scrutiny,” said Ken. “Our big-market news customers had to be sure the airframe and its ENG equipment were capable of near-24-hour per day operation.”
In 2017, SKY added the R66 Newscopter to its fleet. The R66 has the ability to seat four people because its news equipment is placed in the helicopter rear storage bay. “The R66 is a real performer,” Pyatt said. “Robinson produced a reliable low maintenance machine with excellent power on hot days and an air conditioner fully up to the task of keeping the pilot and equipment operator cool.”
Today, Sky flies full-time for all four networks in the Dallas-Fort Worth region (FOX, CBS, NBC, & ABC) as well as for other TV stations around the country. For DFW TV stations, SKY supplies the R44 or R66 Newscopters, as well as the pilots and camera operators. “We’re able to microwave real-time HD video from over 100 miles away, serving the 7+ million TV viewers in North Texas,” Ken said.
SKY’s news flight crews base out of a newsroom at the Garland Heliport building, providing coverage Monday through Friday from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The company also has crews available for after-hours or weekend news events. “To get called out during the weekend usually takes a pretty big story but we are always available to go,” said Ken.
The company has always made an effort to keep up with the changing TV technology in its fleet. “We can beam down two separate video streams simultaneously, embed picture-in-picture video from the cockpit, or add street-mapping overlays to the video,” said Ken. “[The aircraft is] more of a flying command center than a helicopter with some TV equipment.”
He said the next evolution in TV will be broadcasting 4K. “It’s already being demo’d in several markets and we’re gearing up with 8K cameras just to make our equipment future-proof,” said Ken. “These big camera sensors present a whole new set of technical challenges — the data rates coming off the cameras are immense. We are looking at installing 100 Terabyte servers on the helicopter just to hold the video.”
A broad base
The Garland/DFW public heliport, located about 10 miles northeast of downtown Dallas, is one of three public heliports that serve the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area. Sitting on the Dallas-Garland border, facing a major six-lane artery, and moments away from interstate highway I-635, the heliport has a very urban feel. It opened in 1988, but SKY took over the responsibility of managing it in 1992.
“The Heliport had some humble beginnings,” said Ken. “We say we worked out of a ‘modular terminal building’ because it sounded better than ‘doublewide trailer.’ One of the first things we did was build a 4,000-square-foot [370-square-meter] hangar to house our only R22. I thought ‘Oh, we’ve overbuilt,’ because the R22 just looked so lonely in that hangar.”
But as the company’s fleet grew, it filled that hangar beyond capacity. In 2005, SKY constructed a new facility that includes a 6,000-square-foot (560-square-meter) terminal, a 10,000-square-foot (930-square-meter) hangar, and a 4,000-square-foot covered canopy. This was then followed by the construction of more ramp space and more hangars. “That last hangar project consumed all the available land at Garland, and we started considering a second location,” said Ken.
The Garland heliport contains offices, conference rooms, training areas, and bathrooms with showers and changing areas. There is also a dedicated newsroom/office where the news crews can watch for breaking news, work on video already gathered, or just rest while waiting for the next flight. There is even a kitchen area where there’s always something for lunch, since news crews are on standby and can’t leave the building. A nice additional touch at the heliport is an “after hours conference room” where the team can get together and socialize after work.
Because Garland Heliport was reaching its build limits in the mid-2000s, Ken and Connie began looking to expand with a second location. “We looked around the area and decided we did not want to be at an airport,” Ken said. Instead, the couple decided to open a new public heliport in DeSoto, about 20 miles south of Garland. The move was supported by DeSoto’s mayor at the time, Colonel Bobby Waddle.
Built on 19 acres in an industrial setting, the heliport comes with a long-term lease. It includes a 10,000-square-foot hangar, a combined 25,000-square-foot [2,320-square-meter] hangar and office space, a self-serve fuel farm, a 32-space parking lot, and easy road and highway access. A large multipurpose room can be reconfigured to accommodate classes or conferences for up to 60 people. Texas air medical operators CareFlite and PHI Air Medical routinely conduct training for their pilots and medical crews at the heliport.
Ken and Connie designed the heliport to be neutral and not strongly associated with SKY Helicopters. “We wanted DeSoto to be an independent heliport and not be known as SKY Helicopters South, ” Ken said. It took about five years to plan the project, with construction taking a further year. The heliport opened for business in August 2014.
During the design stage, the Pyatts decided to put extra effort on the architecture. “It mattered to us how it would look from the outside,” said Connie. The same applied to the interior. “I like nice artwork, I like tasteful decorating where we work everyday,” said Connie. “An attractive and tasteful work environment helps retain good people and influences operators or clients who decide to locate here.”
PHI Air Medical moved its maintenance personnel to DeSoto to perform work on all the operator’s North Texas-based air medical aircraft. PHI also conducts pilot training out of DeSoto, including initial airframe, recurrent, and night vision goggle training, keeping an EC135, Bell 407, and Bell 412 in DeSoto for the purpose.
The Pyatts have a lot to be proud of over the last 26 years in business with SKY Helicopters. And with their recent establishment of another heliport, it’s a fair bet that they’re not done changing the rotary-wing landscape with their golden touch in North Texas just yet.