Setting high standards

Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU) is synonymous with night vision solutions for the helicopter and fixed-wing industries, revered and renowned for making military technology the new standard for civil operators.

But ASU’s place as an industry leader is guided by the fact it is also an aircraft owner/operator, with its own Bell 206 helicopter and Cessna 206 airplane, used for flight training and charter work.

This is a company that understands its customers’ needs because it walks in their shoes every day.

“If the aircraft is not available it doesn’t generate revenue, it doesn’t save lives, it doesn’t fight fires,” said Jim Winkel, president of ASU. “We painfully understand that.”

Reducing aircraft on ground (AOG) time is critical, and that principle guides ASU as it designs and installs night vision imaging system (NVIS) aircraft modifications or supplemental lighting systems for more than 60 aircraft makes and models.

“If you can’t fix it in the field …  then the greater the length of time it takes to get the product repaired and/or returned to service,” said Winkel.

“So the approach is pretty simple: Come up with a design that fully meets the performance requirements, that meets the customer’s requirements … but at the same time is fully maintainable by the operator, supported by ASU.”

ASU is a Part 135 certified air charter provider and a Part 141 certified flight school operator, and both of those aspects of the company are critical to its success.

“We decided we wanted to make sure our customers were treated the same way we’d want to be treated,” said Kip McDermott, vice president of engineering for ASU.

“So all of our focus in build-up was keeping that in mind … and a lot of that drives the design.”

ASU is able to customize its lighting systems to a customer’s specific needs, but it also provides training to ensure customers are able to complete ongoing required maintenance in-house.

“We support them after the fact as well–if the operator doesn’t have the in-house resources to complete the required maintenance we certainly can back them up here,” said McDermott. But he noted the long, onerous and expensive process of shipping parts back and forth for a maintenance job.

“You are adding cost and losing days and days and days just on shipping,” he said. “With our system, basically the moment they get the new component or a repair or rental component they can place the modification on it and go right back into business immediately.

“Just looking at it from that standpoint, it’s vastly more efficient.”

ASU estimates its modifications cost between one tenth and one quarter the price of its competition.

While night vision technology is widely used in the United States and Canada, parts of the European market are believed to be significantly behind.

“With the dramatic rise of terrorism in Europe they are rethinking their approach to flying at night, and then in particular with NVG [night vision goggles],” said Winkel.

“This market, which is kind of where the North American market was 10 to 12 years ago, is kind of on the cusp of really entering across-the-board NVG operations.”

With that in mind, ASU is expanding into the European market by recruiting like-minded partners like HeliAir, a helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) provider in Austria that also has operations in Hungary and the Czech Republic.

ASU took a “crawl, walk, run” approach to the partnership, implementing a step-by-step process that began with evaluating the aircraft HeliAir uses, modifying its aircraft with NVIS technology, and having the modifications certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

ASU also trained HeliAir technicians to complete their own installations, maintain the lighting system, and ultimately set up HeliAir as a repair and service center for NVGs.

“Through that process we now have a partner that has been fully trained by ASU, that still leverages our experience, but a partner who really understands the market and has access to the market in a way that we don’t have,” said Winkel.

“The idea is to replicate the model that we just described through HeliAir across many parts of Europe.”

ASU is also involved in training initiatives around the world, passing on a formidable store of knowledge that continues to grow each day.

“Every time we strap into a helicopter and go fly, we learn something new,” said Winkel. “And that then gets embedded in a very evolving curricula that ultimately is shared with our partners and our customers.”

ASU also tailors its training solutions to the customer’s needs, either sending instructors to train in the customer’s aircraft and specific operating environment, or hosting sessions at the ASU facility in Boise, Idaho.

The company’s expertise is so robust that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sends its experts to ASU for helicopter and fixed-wing night vision training.

“We are the industry expert in all things related to NVG flight,” said McDermott.

“We have a quiet confidence because of our experience and we are more than loyal to our customers. We want to help them be successful, because when they’re successful, ultimately people’s lives are saved.”

ASU’s belief in the life-saving power of night vision is also driving its ever-increasing number of supplemental type certificates (STCs). The technology has applications in many different markets, including agricultural spray, firefighting, oil-and-gas, and many more.

“Our core values are taking care of our customers, our employees, and our community, and making sure that every day when we come into the office we are thinking about them,” said Winkel.

“How do we improve our relationships within our communities, with our employees and with our customers, at the end of the day?

“We continually strive to improve.”

Ben Forrest: