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Sunday Stories

Visions take flight at Bell Helicopter

October 27th, 2011 2:26 pm by Staff Report

From total utilitarian to the utmost luxury, Bell Helicopter Piney Flats provides customized helicopters to clients around the globe.


Those global clients range from NASCAR drivers like Rusty Wallace to mystery author Patricia Cornwell, to Russian entrepreneurs, to Nigerian military officials, to foreign prime ministers and commanders in chief. And it isn’t unusual for the global clients to fly into the Tri-Cities Airport for an inspection visit to the Piney Flats facility, explained Greg Williams, Customization, Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul, Bell Helicopter Piney Flats.


When Bell Helicopter customized Cornwell’s helicopter, the writer was a frequent visitor to Piney Flats. Bell designed and equipped Cornwell’s aircraft to immortalize her fictional heroine, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the intrepid Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Cornwell’s helicopter features the initials "K" and "S" in a swirl of brilliant colors on her personal chopper.


Formed in 1979 as Edwards & Associates, Bell Helicopter acquired the Piney Flats company in 1999. Bell Helicopter Piney Flats today includes five buildings for a total 78,000-square-foot compound with 500 employees. The operation is divided into three groups: customization, maintenance, and repair and overhaul.


When it comes to helicopter customization, maintenance, and repair and overhaul, the Piney Flats division can handle any customer request, said Steve Williams, Customization, Bell Helicopter. The facility has 175 employees dedicated solely to the expert customization of an aircraft. The technicians who customize the aircraft have an average 17 years’ experience in the customization arena and are considered by many as true craftsmen.


Once an order is placed with Bell Helicopter, a "green" helicopter leaves Bell Helicopter’s Canadian facility bound for Piney Flats for completion of the customer-specific order. The "green" aircraft arrives in Piney Flats in a "shell" stage or in industry terms as "motor and rotor." Depending on the order, customization can take anywhere from 11 to 24 weeks.


The mission of Bell Helicopter Piney Flats is to equip that "green" helicopter with the necessary equipment to make it perform its mission safely, whether that mission is humanitarian or transport of corporate executives.


"The helicopter does turn, vibrate and rotate. It’s a moving machine and it can do things that no other machine can do. It’s often asked to go places that you wouldn’t want to go otherwise. We have a lot of equipment that we put on an aircraft to help it perform a mission in a way that makes that mission safe," Greg Williams said.


Helicopters aren’t cheap. A standard, "motor and rotor" helicopter carries a price tag around $2.8 million depending on the model, and basic customization packages start in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars and run into the multi-millions. This year, Bell Helicopter Piney Flats will complete 80 customized aircraft.


Because the helicopter carries such a high price tag, periodic maintenance is advised to ensure quality operation. "If a helicopter is properly maintained, it can remain in service for 50 years or more," Greg Williams explained.


Along with the customization, Bell Helicopter Piney Flats performs regular maintenance and overhaul of equipment and does total refurbishments on older aircraft. The signature Bell Helicopter, The American Eagle, is an older model that has been refurbished and equipped with just about every accessory imaginable to showcase the customization possibilities available within the Piney Flats location.

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