Montana’s firefighting Chinooks, new AStars in Nova Scotia, and the Robinson R66’s latest upgrades. Plus, find out what to expect during underwater egress training!
If you fly an aircraft powered by a Honeywell LTS101 or HTS900, you’ll be well aware of Intermountain Turbine Services (ITS) — and there’s a good chance you’re one of the Lindon, Utah-based company’s customers. Now celebrating its 25th year in service, the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company may have a laser-focused business niche, but within that it has built an outstanding reputation for the quality of its work, and above all else, the level of its customer support.
“I’m here for the customers; my goal is to keep these people flying,” ITS president and CEO Darryl Christensen told Vertical during a recent visit to the company’s headquarters. “I started out in the helicopter EMS [emergency medical services] business. If [those] helicopters are sitting on the ground, they aren’t saving any lives. My philosophy is ‘Do whatever you can to get these guys back up in the air.’ ”
This unswerving focus on customer support has not only helped build the company into the market-leading presence it is today; it was, in essence, the ethos that inspired Christensen to join the industry in the first place.
“My older brother was a pilot,” recalled Christensen. “He convinced me that if I learned how to fix them, then he’d fly them.” After gaining his airframe and powerplant license in 1986, Christensen secured a job at Rocky Mountain Helicopters — the largest EMS operator at the time. After three years working in the completion center, he moved to the helicopter engine shop — and instantly fell in love with the work.
The Lycoming (now Honeywell) LTS101 engine became his specialty after focusing on it for four years; in one year alone, he repaired 100 of the engines. “I liked the 101 the best,” he said. “I knew it the best, [and] I could tear it apart in my sleep — still can.”
In September 1993, within a month of being made redundant as Rocky Mountain Helicopters fell into bankruptcy, Christensen accepted a loan from his parents to start up his own helicopter engine shop in the mountainous region of Lindon. It was then and there that Intermountain Turbine Services was created.
The LTS101 did not have a great reputation for reliability at the time, but Christensen believed he could help customers fly longer, farther, and better with the 732- to 780-shaft-horsepower engine.
However, building the business around this philosophy required patience. “I didn’t start taking a real paycheck until 1999,” said Christensen. “I paid myself 12 dollars per hour, 40 hours per week — no matter how many hours I worked.” Buying and selling engine-repair tools — and later, engine parts — was how he began making a profit. ITS landed more and more customers, with its first significant customer being Air Methods.
Today, ITS is the world’s largest service center for the LTS101, with its employees working on over 80 engines per year (the engine powers several Airbus AS350 types, Avic AC311, Bell 222, and Airbus BK117s). In the company’s 25 years of operating, Christensen has built a team of experts who know the LTS101 inside and out — just as he does. And his passion for helicopters appears to run in the family, as among the company’s 29 employees are his four children, his sister, and his son-in-law.
“We’re the experts,” said Jaclyn Hawke, ITS’s customer support director. “[Our technicians] know exactly where they need to go [and] exactly how they’re supposed to do it; if they don’t know, there’s an expert sitting next to them who they can ask.”
ITS became a Honeywell authorized customer support center in 1998, and then became the only service center for Honeywell’s HTS900 engine in 2010. The 1,021-shaft-horsepower engine powers the Eagle 407HP and the Marenco Swisshelicopter (now Kopter) SKYe SH09, and has been chosen as the engine for the upcoming XTI TriFan 600. ITS’s commitment to the engine represents a long-term investment, with the HTS900 test cell alone costing $1.5 million. With only 13 of these engines currently operating in the world, Christensen said it will be at least two years until ITS performs an overhaul on the 900. “This is a long-term investment that we’re hoping pays off,” he said.
When an engine arrives with ITS for maintenance, it is first closely examined to see if any repairs are required. This information is put into a preliminary technical report sent to the customer, along with photos of the parts that need to be replaced. “Our customers are always getting emails and constant updates as to what is happening,” explained Hawke. “We try to work very closely with them to make sure they get the personal touch.”
That personal touch extends to rejecting work if it’s found to be unnecessary; it’s not unknown for operators to send engines in for maintenance based on incorrect calculations. “We analyze the engine first, and we look at it to make sure we need to do the maintenance,” said Hawke. “If not, we aren’t going to waste their money or time.”
In order to efficiently serve customers, ITS keeps over US$5 million worth of inventory on its shelves — this includes 16 LTS101 rental engines, available to customers who need to be in the air while their engine is being overhauled.
“We have more inventory than anybody else. . . . We could put together an engine tomorrow if we wanted to,” said Christensen, highlighting the importance of not having to rely on the OEM to supply a part. “[We want] to make sure our customers are going to have the hardware [they need] to put on their engines.”
The wide variety of inventory is a key factor in allowing ITS to record quick turnaround times. Engines can be expected to go through full service in the shop in 45 days, but the company will strive to return engines even faster, if needed.
When a Chilean engine came into the ITS shop and the customer needed it back as soon as possible, Christensen and his team accepted the challenge. Hawke said the strategy was to analyze the engine before it arrived to figure out what it needed, as well as strong communication among team members. The result was a 30-day turnaround time for a very happy customer.
Another customer, Mercy Flight, will be switching its BK117 fleet to the Bell 429 later this year, so it will no longer be able to rely on ITS for engine maintenance.
“One thing I’m going to miss about [ITS] is their professional customer service,” said Rick Parsons, Mercy Flight’s director of maintenance. “If I have a problem and I need something overnight,
I have it overnight. . . . I really hope I get as good service from
Pratt & Whitney as I do from Intermountain Turbine.”
In order to deliver this timely service, ITS ensures there is always someone answering the phone when a call comes in, and has a technician available 24/7. Mark Steen, president of Heliproducts Industries, was thrilled to receive help from ITS over Christmas.
“You can call them day or night,” said Steen. “I had Jaclyn on the phone over Christmas, which wasn’t planned, but she was shipping out parts over her Christmas holiday. We’ve always had great AOG service from them. You can get things from them whenever you need them.”
Training for results
ITS currently offers four-day training courses on LTS101 line maintenance and HTS900 line maintenance, allowing operators the chance to learn how to take care of their engines the same way the experts do. “The better they maintain their engine, the cheaper their repairs can be coming back,” said Jennilee Warren, ITS’s chief financial officer and general manager.
Not only does better ongoing maintenance keep its customers’ operating costs low, it ensures the longevity of their engines —
preserving the pool of LTS101s as long as possible. “We’re here to help the customer, ultimately,” said Christensen. “But I understand what the customers have to do if the cost of operating [the LTS101] goes too high . . . they’re going to go over to another engine model.”
In this vein, ITS has developed a field service kit for operators to allow them to independently perform 600-hour inspections to keep their engines in top form. The kit includes accessory gearbox module seal pushers, a fuel filter bypass check kit, an inspection mirror, a compressor wash kit, and all consumables (such as filters, packings, and seals).
Christensen said a “proper” compressor wash is crucial in order to prevent pitting corrosion and poor engine performance. “If your compressor is not clean, the engine is not going to run as it’s supposed to,” he said. “We put together our compressor wash kit, and we developed it to make sure it’s going to deliver that gallon-and-a-half of water per minute that is required [to clean the compressor properly].”
And, while ITS concentrates on servicing the HTS900 and LTS101, it also manufactures tooling for both engines, and sells components to operators who choose to do their own maintenance on them.
It’s just another way ITS finds to help reach its goal of keeping its customers in the air — and the company has helped changed the reputation of the LTS101 through these practices.
“An eye-opener for the industry is . . . the 101 engine has made us more money than any other engine, without a doubt,” said Heliproducts’ Steen.
This hasn’t just happened by chance; it’s the result of what Christensen estimates to be hundreds of years of expertise across the company’s employees in their subject matter — and a dedication to ensuring the customer benefits from that expertise as fully as possible.
“One thing we’ve really done well is we’ve concentrated on the LTS101, so we’re not guessing on other engine models,” said Christensen. “This is our bread and butter. This is what we do.”