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Pilots training with Leading Edge Aviation (LEA) at Bend Municipal Airport in Central Oregon have a good thing going. First, there’s the unique topography of the Cascade Mountain range, and then there’s the weather — more than 300 days of sunshine each year. This adds to the enjoyment of the high desert landscape, 10,000-foot (3,050-meter) mountains and changing seasons.
LEA trains pilots in a multitude of conditions across the region, and students utilize multiple airports every day. Within minutes of LEA’s home base at the Bend airport, students are introduced to real-world landing sites on pinnacles, ridgelines, helipads and in confined areas with log decks. Beyond the airport’s traffic pattern and practice areas, the surrounding landscape includes mountains, beaches, and plenty of challenging environments in which helicopters can operate and pilots can train. Not only does Bend have a great training environment, Central Oregon is well known for its great quality of life. Many pilots, mechanics, administrative staff and students who train there decide to make Bend their permanent home.
“Our staff members love what they do, and the Bend, Oregon, lifestyle makes for an unbeatable working, living and training environment,” Chris Jordan, director of operations and chief flight instructor at LEA, told Vertical. “The Cascade Mountains provide Central Oregon with a rain shadow effect, yielding plenty of sunny days throughout the year.”
LEA started operations in 2005 with an avionics shop and just four employees. The company entered the Robinson overhaul market and later became a Robinson-certified sales, service and overhaul facility, before advancing to Robinson component overhauls.
After purchasing high-time Robinson R22 and R44 aircraft on the open market, LEA used the airframes’ remaining flight hours for a flight school and, within a week of hiring its first flight instructor, had nine rotary-wing students. That quick success led to it hiring more instructors, purchasing additional aircraft, and expanding its maintenance division.
The synergy between avionics and maintenance departments, combined with the central Pacific Northwest location, provided opportunities to attract custom configuration work for specialized helicopter operations. In 2006, LEA acquired its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) part 133 and 135 operating certificates, completed the government carding process, and began flying call-when-needed firefighting contracts for state and federal agencies.
That same year, LEA partnered with Central Oregon Community College (COCC) to provide flight training for students in its aviation degree program. Enrollment climbed to a new high during the recession in 2008-2009 and then, when the post-9/11 GI bill came into effect in 2009, enrollment doubled.
Building a training program
Together, LEA’s management team has more than 25,000 hours of flight time and decades of experience in the aviation industry. The company employees 85 people, operates 38 aircraft and multiple facilities, and holds FAA part 133, 135, 137, 141 and 145 certificates. Its pilots fly more than 18,000 hours annually, and its operations include helicopter and fixed-wing flight schools, and a maintenance and paint shop.
LEA’s heliport currently offers 18 helipads for light helicopters and three for medium-to-heavy helicopters, and is used by transient and firefighting helicopters during the summer months. In addition, LEA plans to add a 15,600-square-foot (1,450-square-meter) helicopter-specific facility to the $10 million state-of-the-art heliport at Bend airport, which was funded by the FAA.
The flight school fleet is composed of R22s and R44s, with the R22 being the primary training airframe for private, commercial, and certified flight instructor courses. Students transition to the R44 for instrument and certified flight instructor – instrument courses, and specialized training such as night vision goggle ratings. In addition, Bell 206 B and L-3 aircraft are used for turbine transition, long line and mountain flying courses.
The long line course is popular with new and seasoned pilots wanting to expand their marketable skills in the utility and firefighting sectors. Long line students choose between the R44 and 206 series to complete their training, and most reach a level of proficiency to pass a forest service check ride for cargo and Bambi bucket operations.
Students trained at LEA have graduated to fly with operators around the globe, in all sectors of the industry. However, they are encouraged to stay with LEA after their training is complete to build up their experience as flight instructors.
“We strive to prepare our students and instructors for successful careers in the helicopter industry,” said Jordan. “We aren’t a pilot mill turning out cookie-cutter pilots. We train professional aviators; that’s our goal and that’s what we do. For some students, the goal is to become a Leading Edge instructor, and then be promoted through the company ranks to become tour, charter, and fire pilots for us. After reaching a 1,000 hours PIC [pilot in command], LEA has placement opportunities for our instructors with operators from Alaska to New York to the Grand Canyon.”
In addition to the busy training operation at Bend, LEA has been supplying aircraft to the aviation program at COCC for the past 12 years.
“The advantage of partnering with a college aviation degree program is evident in the individual performance and collective career success of our pilots,” said Karl Baldessari, program director at the college. COCC provides aviation degree programs for both helicopter and fixed-wing pilots.
More than a flight school
Bend airport sits at a 3,460-foot (1,055-meter) field elevation — optimal high density altitude and mountain training conditions. The Cascade mountain range, with local altitudes up to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters), is a short flight away and provides excellent training conditions in summer and winter. However, the company’s location also allows it to quickly react to call-when-needed contract and charter operations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and California.
In addition to these operations, it also offers aerial tours, charters, aerial photography and filming, lidar, wildlife survey and long line operations, working with private and government sectors. A balanced fleet mix allows LEA’s charter department to match customer needs with the appropriate aircraft, ensuring customers receive value for money.
For utility operations and light lift jobs (up to 800 pounds/360 kilograms), LEA uses the R44 and 206B. For operations requiring lifts of over 1,000-pounds (450-kilograms), it offers the 206L-3 and Bell 407GX.
The company acquired the 407GX in 2019, specifically to meet the need for high performance Type III helicopters in aerial firefighting. The 206L-3 and Bell 407GX exceed U.S. Forest Service requirements for fire operations at 86 F (30 C) at 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) density altitude. In addition to firefighting, LEA uses the 407GX for executive transport, lifts and jobs requiring the airframe’s level of performance.
In terms of aerial tourism, LEA also performs flights for Central Oregon tourism, a market that attracts about four million visitors annually. One of the company’s more unique offerings was a solar eclipse viewing package, which saw 60 passengers flown to catered base camps in the high desert during the 2017 eclipse.
LEA’s fixed-wing fleet consists of single-engine Cessna 172 Skyhawks, a Beechcraft Bonanza and a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. The fixed-wing training program rounds out the flight school and provides “add-ons” if pilots want to diversify their resume.
“We utilize the Bonanza and Baron to do crew swaps and provide maintenance support to any of our aircraft while on out on contract,” Jordan said.
As a part 145 repair station, LEA employs 11 mechanics and providing a range of services from simple engine oil changes to full overhauls of Robinson helicopters. The company also works on piston, twin-engine, and turboprop aircraft, and specializes in the Bell 206B, 206L and 407, overhauling and configuring helicopters for government contracts. LEA is constantly seeking qualified airframe and powerplant mechanics to meet the needs of its growing operation.
“We utilize an aviation software system that interconnects maintenance with dispatch and back office functions,” said Chad Eck, director of maintenance. “This ensures an efficient, reliable, and safe scheduling system for flight school internal maintenance, as well as external maintenance requirements.”
The extensive in-house maintenance team gives LEA the ability to keep its fleet flying as much as possible, and with the highest possible standards.
There are inherent risks to training helicopter pilots, and LEA has worked to build a culture that maintains its reputation and commitment to safety, through risk mitigation.
“Creating this culture has led to better understanding at all levels, increased student production and reduced aircraft mechanical downtime,” said Dan Bahlman, LEA’s director of safety.
“LEA instills safety in all employees and students, whether they are an instructor pilot, mechanic, line service or customer service representative,” he continued. “Everyone plays a role in reporting hazards around the aircraft and flight line and developing solutions to mitigate those hazards. This might be as simple as picking up foreign objects on the flight line to making sure anything tied down is untied before a flight.”
An annual “safety stand-down day” restarts the clock on safety at the beginning of each year. All employees attend this off-site event, which focuses on lessons learned during the previous year, and serves to prepare staff for safety challenges in the coming year. Sessions focus on helicopter and fixed-wing safety, with notable guest speakers. The famous helicopter aerobatics pilot Chuck Aaron was a guest at last year’s event.
Looking ahead, Brad Fraley, LEA’s president, said the company is focused on steady growth, with the new facility and heliport as its immediate focus. “At all times, hiring the very best talent in the industry is a strategic goal and [the] best for LEA,” he said. “[We aim] to align with strategic partners to advance our company, its employees, and our students for successful careers in all aspects of aviation.”