PJ Helicopters upgrades human external cargo program with light-twin Bell 429

PJ Helicopters has added the first Bell 429 to its fleet of more than 40 aircraft, providing customers the option to contract a light twin-engine aircraft with a cargo hook, and expanding its human external cargo (HEC) lift options.

PJ Helicopters has now received all certifications and approvals required to begin Class D HEC operations with its new Bell 429. Seth Gunsauls Photo
PJ Helicopters has now received all certifications and approvals required to begin Class D HEC operations with its new Bell 429. Seth Gunsauls Photo

The aircraft is believed to be the first private, non-utility company-owned 429 with a dual hook in the U.S. According to Seth Gunsauls, PJ Helicopters’ general manager, the aircraft was chosen following an extensive search for the right light twin that would offer “true flyaway capability” during Class D HEC operations. Following recent approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration, the company is now authorized to begin offering these missions with the type.

The company, based in Red Bluff, California, is a precision lift specialist, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020. Primarily servicing the utility, forestry and construction industries, PJ Helicopters has seen great success with a fleet that includes Bell 407s, MD 500s, Airbus AS350s and Bell 206L-3 LongRangers on the light end, and Bell UH-1s, 214Bs, and Sikorsky UH-60As Utility Hawks on the medium- to heavy-lift side.

It has been a long track record of performing HEC work, beginning with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1986, and then winning HEC/short-haul contracts with other government agencies and utility companies. Today, it performs HEC flights on a daily basis with the majority of the types in its fleet.

But for the last few years, the company had been looking at options to expand its light helicopter fleet to include a Category A twin-engine aircraft to support its HEC operations.

The 429 performs HEC training at PJ Helicopters' Utility Training Facility. Seth Gunsauls Photo
The 429 performs HEC training at PJ Helicopters’ Utility Training Facility. Seth Gunsauls Photo

“We have a diverse fleet ranging from MD 530s to our Utility Hawks, but one constant over the last few decades has been the incredible efficiency that HEC can add to a job, project, or operation,” said director of operations/CFO Mark Gunsauls. “For many years, we’ve been trying to continually improve the safety, quality, and engineering of our HEC configurations across the fleet, and selecting the Bell 429 as the next generation platform to perform this work method is a step we’re very proud to have taken.”

PJ Helicopters’ new 429 is a former VIP ship. It has been customized with a dual cargo hook kit from Bell, but aside from a few minor moderations to the radios, is essentially unchanged. It retains the VIP interior with three forward- and three aft-facing seats in the cabin, and a single pilot up front with optional dual controls.

“We’re going to leave that internal configuration VIP, but even with the dual hook on, we still estimate we’re going to get about 2,300 pounds of performance on the hook,” said Seth Gunsauls. “What we’re most excited about with it is we can go do pole setting missions one day, but the very next day fly the vice president of a utility [company] around in a comfortable climate controlled cabin.”

The aircraft hasn’t been bought with a contract for work in hand, but Seth Gunsauls said he believed once customers see the aircraft’s capability, it’ll quickly win work.

“We believe that it’s going to be a great workhorse in the light-twin medium category,” he said.

To begin with, the aircraft will be used for utility powerline work – both construction and maintenance – but PJ Helicopters hopes to broaden the customer base quickly.

“We’re going to try to get it carded for federal fire agencies, as well as a few state agencies this year,” said Seth Gunsauls. “If they elect to hire it to try out HelCo [helicopter coordinator] or aerial attack application, then we’d love that feedback, but the initial target is the utility customers.”


PJ Helicopters' staff stand in front of some of the company's fleet outside of its headquarters in Red Bluff, California. Seth Gunsauls Photo
PJ Helicopters’ staff stand in front of some of the company’s fleet outside of its headquarters in Red Bluff, California. Seth Gunsauls Photo

The company currently has plans to add another three 429s to its fleet, but the pace of acquisition will likely depend on market reception to the type. It has six pilots trained on the 429, but if it does ramp up to a fleet of four, it would need 10 to 15 pilots capable of flying the type.

The 429 will originally be used to supplement the existing types in the PJ Helicopters fleet, but, depending on its success in the market with customers, it could ultimately replace some of the legacy airframes as they become uneconomical to maintain.

‘The 429 is an obvious choice from a maintenance perspective,” said part 135 director of maintenance Dave McCammon. “We are very familiar with the Bell family of aircraft, the supply chain, training, etc. This was a natural progression when you have a 50-year history of doing business with an OEM, so we are excited about the next step.”

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