2009-11-19 / Business News

Hueys: Fascinating flying machines

Owner did his research before launching business devoted to Huey helicopters
BY GEORGE RAAB Special to Florida Weekly

This U.S. Army Reserve medevac Huey flew out of Orlando in the 1980s and early 1990s for the 348th Medical Detachment. It was deactivated in 1994 after serving in Desert Storm. This U.S. Army Reserve medevac Huey flew out of Orlando in the 1980s and early 1990s for the 348th Medical Detachment. It was deactivated in 1994 after serving in Desert Storm. Before embarking on a career, Mike Turner conducted thorough research. Hoping that his life’s work would tie into a love for travel, he thought he might delve into something export-related. In particular, he found helicopters to be fascinating flying machines, and wondered if that could be his area of expertise.

With those ideas in mind, he went to Europe in the 1970s and spent months driving around the countryside, visiting small airports and speaking with helicopter mechanics and pilots. After learning about their problems and needs, he decided to go into the parts business for Bell 205 and UH-1H series helicopters, commonly known as Hueys, and comparable helicopters.

His company, Air Technologies Inc., operated out of Hackensack, N.J., for nearly 15 years before moving to Naples in 1991.

TURNER TURNER Working overtime in Vietnam

Bell Helicopter built more than 10,000 Hueys from 1957 to 1975, and most were sold to the United States Army. The powerful machine is beloved for pulling soldiers out of rough spots, especially during the Vietnam War.

According to information supplied by the Pentagon and published through the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, 7,013 Hueys worked overtime in the Vietnam War. Army UH-1s totaled more than 7.1 million flight hours between October 1966 and the end of 1975.

Including the Huey Cobra, which had more than 1 million flight hours, it’s estimated that Hueys racked up more combat flight time than any other aircraft in the history of warfare.

Carrying troops, medevac missions

Mike DeMas, a Naples resident and

president of Phase V, an in-bound call center, direct mail and order-fulfillment operation in Fort Myers, logged 2,000- plus flight hours on the craft during his military career. More than 1,800 of his hours were flown during

one year in Vietnam, near Saigon. On one flight the tail rudder of his Huey was shot off with a 50-caliber and he was still able to land it.

DEMAS DEMAS “The Hueys were virtually indestructible,” he says. “We did just about anything to those things, and they would limp back home.”

While its primary use was carrying troops and supplies, the helicopter multitasked.

“All helicopter pilots are medevac pilots,” says Punta Gorda resident Mike Goff. “When our ground forces got into trouble, no matter what kind of helicopter you were flying, you went in to get them out, especially if there were wounded.”

Mr. Goff flew in Vietnam and Desert Storm as a medevac pilot, mostly with Hueys.

The pilots of the U.S. Army Reserve 348th Medical Detachment who flew a Huey medevac unit out of Orlando are, left to right: Bob Cook, Gary Bortolus, Mike Goff, Mike Rudd, Peter Conley, Dirk Dorresteyn and Ken Mitchell. The pilots of the U.S. Army Reserve 348th Medical Detachment who flew a Huey medevac unit out of Orlando are, left to right: Bob Cook, Gary Bortolus, Mike Goff, Mike Rudd, Peter Conley, Dirk Dorresteyn and Ken Mitchell. “The Huey is the icon of the Vietnam War,” he notes, recounting an experience five years ago when he was involved with restoring a Huey at the Charlotte County Airport for the sheriff’s office. “It was amazing how many people would walk up, put their hands on that bird and then tell us a personal story.”

While the earlier planes could take a beating, their piston engines with crank shafts and cylinders left a lot to be desired. Within a few years, the manufacturer replaced the piston engine with a turbine model T53 that was developed and manufactured by Lycoming. This gave the Huey more power and a new life.

“With the D models, if you had a full load of troops, it was a very careful operation to get it off the ground,” Mr. Goff says. “The H model was better.”

Moving south for success

Although the UH-1 series has been retired from active duty and reserve military, there are still more than 4,000 in use. In the United States, the sturdy workhorse is popular in state and local governments for everything from law enforcement to spraying mosquitoes. Hueys are used in agriculture, by firefighters and in search and rescue missions.

Mr. Turner says his decision to relocate Air Technologies from New Jersey to Naples 18 years ago was made for business reasons. While he enjoys living in Naples and his clients love to visit, the company benefits greatly from a close proximity to South America, where it does considerable business, he explains. Not only that, but the move had a definite synergy because of Florida’s role as a major aerospace center. In addition to NASA’s presence at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, aviation and space industries have long been identified as a critical sector for economic development within the state because of numerous airline businesses and related repair and parts businesses.

Growing with diversification

Today, 25 employees work in Air Technology Group’s 40,000-square-foot facility on Horseshoe Drive in Naples.

Mr. Turner’s original company, Air Technology Inc., offers a repair management program and maintains an inventory of more than 20,000 replacement and refurbishment parts.

Opened in 1996 in the face of another need in the UH-1 realm, Air Technology Engines Inc. is the only FAA-certified repair center in Florida that overhauls, tests, modifies and repairs the T53 helicopter engine. Here, engineers carefully disassemble, inspect and repair highperformance turbine engines, including Rolls-Royce 250 engines.

An icon lives on

The Huey has been given a new lease on life as part of a worldwide upgrade that’s been in the works for a decade. Its gas turbine engines are much more powerful than the original piston-driven engines. After an overhaul, a Huey might have a $500,000 transmission.

The transmissions that drive the power and modulate the blade speed are stronger and much more accurate. The blades — 23 feet in each direction — are longer, and the yoke that holds them is stronger.

The new and improved Hueys are made of more durable materials, cost less to operate, can take off and clear mountains with greater ease and fly faster.

Cash for Clunkers would never fly here. Not even a Washington bureaucrat would junk a ’70s-era Huey, because a retrofit creates a state-of-the-art flying machine. Brand new, a comparable helicopter would cost $8 million.

Helicopters require constant refurbishment. Engines that come to Air Technology Engines are literally taken down to nuts and bolts and precision-tested for dimensions on parts that are tighter than the thickness of a strand of hair.

Pride in American manufacturing

Mr. Turner went to engineering school for a year and a half. He speaks some Spanish. He had his pilot’s license for a while. It’s other things — a fascination with the helicopter, the machine-shop smell of cut metal and oil, the challenge of growing a business —that motivate him.

“America is moving away from manufacturing, but this is our backbone — making and building things,” he says. His father was a mechanical engineer and sold cutting tools, drills and mills.

The business of complex precision machining involves some huge hunks of machinery. Mr. Turner’s operation uses a Pratt & Whitney Precision Jig Borer, for instance, which weighs more than 10 tons and is just as accurate today as when it was built decades ago.

While questioning the logic of bailing out banks that did not reciprocate with loans to the small businesses that fuel our economy, Mr. Turner marvels over opportunities presented by an economic downturn. Over the past two years, Air Technology Engines has been able to purchase manufacturing equipment at whopping discounts.

“Five years ago, it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain this equipment,” he says. “Each of these machines is top of the line, and we’ve been able to get fantastic pricing because nobody else wants them in the recession.”

As the need for refurbishment of engines and repair of piece parts grows, Air Technology Group is hiring machinists and will probably go to a second shift soon. Some of its technicians have been trained in the military. The company works with Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology in training and certifying mechanics, and has provided a turbine engine to the vocational school for training.

More than 80 percent of Air Technology Group’s revenue comes from overseas, and more than 70 percent of its contracts are government-related. While the recession has impacted government spending, business at this privately owned company is picking up. Mr. Turner says revenues over the past two quarters of 2009 were strong, and with new repair orders kicking in, “2010 is going to be a very good year.” 

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