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By Dexter Hinkson - Helicopter Specialties Inc (HSI) is a Part 145 maintenance, repair, overhaul and custom completion company located at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville, Wisconsin. Their niche is helicopter medical conversions and custom completions. One of their more unique products are custom isolettes systems used for transporting infants.

Helicopter Specialties Inc.

HSI is an authorized service center for Bell, Eurocopter, Enstrom and Robinson. They also service Lycoming, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney and Turbomeca engines. A Turbomeca service center is slated for 2011. They also have many of the popular avionics dealerships. As a Certified FAA repair station, they cover 22 makes and models of helicopters. While a large portion of their business is air medical helicopters, they also work on fire & rescue, law enforcement, utility, corporate and private helicopters.

The atmosphere at HSI is one where every employee feels a great deal of pride and responsibility working on aircraft used on life saving missions. Leo Annaert, mechanic and machinist, remembers the pride he felt in knowing that an aircraft he previously worked on was used to airlift a friend of his involved in a vehicular accident 2 years ago.  Leo, like several of his co-workers graduated from the local Blackhawk Technical College’s A&P program.

The company operates out of two facilities. The original 14,000 sq ft facility houses the airframe repair, paint and machine shops. The new $1.6million 28,250sq ft building is a state of the art facility with several ‘green’ applications. Insulated skylights in the hangar walls and ceiling flood the work area with natural light. It also has efficient in-floor heat, a 5-ton bridge crane and larger workshops to accommodate staff and customers comfortably.  Both buildings are wireless and hardwired for ease of the repair station electronic documentation system, which interfaces with the shop floor, parts department, accounting department, inspection department and customers for efficiency. Wireless workstations allow the staff to set up projects in all areas of their facilities. There’s a sense that the layout and design of each room in the building was well planned to provide easy access and an efficient flow of services. This present setup, though, is a far cry from the company’s humble beginnings in a tiny Quonset hut hanger 10 years ago.
It’s very difficult to talk about HSI without mentioning the dedication, loyalty and success of its founder Jim Freeman. However, talking to Jim you get the impression that there are a lot more important things in life than himself and his achievements.

Jim grew up locally in the Beloit Township southwest of Janesville. He remembers visiting the airport as a child and seeing the helicopters come and go from Omniflight Helicopters. After high school he attended Blackhawk Technical College's Aviation program completing the 4 yr Avionics and A&P program. He was hired as an avionics technician in 1984 by Omniflight Helicopters, founded in Janesville in the early 1960s.

helicopter specialties inc.At age 19, while still at Blackhawk, with the help of a classmate who was a CFI, Jim received his fixed wing PPL. After completing his training at BH he continued to work on his pilot ratings in Chicago, completing his CPL, IR and CFI ratings. He eventually landed a CFI/Technician job in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Jim recalls, “We were in a recession, I had no experience and the operator was in bad shape financially. As the aircraft went away I was left working at the FBO sweeping the floors and fueling aircraft. There was not much fueling to be done because we were in a recession. I was real good at sweeping and mopping.” This is the first time Jim had thoughts of quitting the aviation industry and returning to college. Aviation was truly, “The school of hard knocks. I went home for a wedding one weekend and my mom said that some helicopter company keeps calling here. I moved home a week later and started my career at OHI.”

The job at Omniflight came at just the right time and helped Jim renew his passion for aviation. He recalls “There was so much work in building, operating and maintaining a large fleet, we learned by osmosis, we just had to stand next to the aircraft and we’d learn something new.” He added, “When I was finished with my avionics work, I would jump in and help change an engine, or do a repair, inspection, wash aircraft, whatever it took… I wanted to have a well-rounded experience. If someone asked me to strip paint…I’d strip paint! We spent many weekends leaving on a Friday afternoon for a fleet aircraft AOG, or delivering an aircraft and getting home for shop work on Monday morning. I also took days off to help receive and pickup new aircraft at the factory.”

“They started my career and a bunch of my friends remained loyal to them through all these years” Jim says. This loyalty would be tested in 1993 when Omniflght moved their operations from Janesville to Texas after the owner’s death. Jim was among the many Omniflight employees that chose to stay in the area instead of transferring. The move left over 100 local employees out of work. This event was integral in planting a seed in Jim’s mind to utilize the talented technicians and craftsmen that still lived in the area.

With no desire to move he made plans to quit and teach at Blackhawk Technical College. Jim calls what happened next a defining moment in his life.  “Some things you just never forget. I was going to give my notice on a Monday; the same day one of the VPs out of Omniflight’s corporate office called me and offered me the opportunity of a lifetime. They were going to give me a back-up aircraft to fly around the country in support of their fleet, kind of like a company tech rep.” Jim thought it was a joke and said candidly, “What are you going to give me, a 206?” The VP responded,  “No, we’re going to give you a BK117 and a B222!” “You’ll work out of your home, straight salary, with a $10,000 raise and we’ll give you ten days off per month.” Jim accepted the offer but later realized that they never told him ‘which’ month he would get his days off.

At age 32, he was flying spare helicopters coast to coast in support of a fleet of aircraft he helped build. He said he knew each aircraft in great detail, “ boy was I busy… and when you work so hard to help the base pilots and mechanics out you do make a lot of friends and build a good reputation.” It is these relationships that would later bear fruit when HSI became a reality. 

Jim was committed to his job and was almost never at home. He lived out of suitcases and hotel rooms but he enjoyed his job passionately. This passion however was not as strong as his desire to stay at home and provide opportunities for his community. He remembers being told by another VP, “Well you got a job…why worry about them?” His answer was “they are my friends and highly skilled co-workers.” There’s another reason that drove him to succeed, even though it ended up being 8 years later.

He worked with JoAnn Parker, OHI’s owner and the University of Wisconsin small business center, to develop a business plan and bought some equipment in the hope that Omniflight would see the need to reestablish a regional facility in Janesville. His efforts seemed to be ignored but his friend and fellow Omniflight worker, Terry Peed, (now the Chief Inspector at HSI) encouraged him to quit in 1999 in order to get his plan off the ground.

Burnt out from his nomad lifestyle and not sure of his next move, Jim quit Omniflight and returned to Janesville where he worked at Woodward Governor in the development lab for about 1.5 years. “It was good to be home every night and I was still supporting my friends in the field whenever they would call.” After quitting Woodward Governor in late 1999, the company that he started in his basement, Wire Specialties, was changed to Helicopter Specialties Inc. He started providing support for DJ Bates, the DOM of CJ Systems Aviation Group. In April 2000, while providing mechanic relief at the Milwaukee Flight For Life program things were about to change. He was offered an opportunity to bid for the completion of a Eurocopter BK117 that Flight For Life owned. He had several meetings with former employees and friendshelicopter specialties inc. with little commitment, due mainly to changes in their careers. Having to give Flight For Life an answer soon, his long-time friend and co-worker Terry Peed offered to quit his present job and return home to Janesville to help get the project started. Terry has been with Helicopter Specialties ever since. Several former OHI personnel worked long weekends or provided encouragement and advice to keep the project moving. So HSI got their start with a handful of workers and their personal tools, a tiny hanger and one promise Jim made to the customer, “I will work every day until the aircraft is completed”. After Flight For Life accepted the first aircraft, CJ Systems made HSI a vendor, Flight For Life gave HSI their second aircraft for completion and Helicopter Specialties Inc. was on its way.

The company has grown to become largest employer at the airport. They offer entry-level opportunities to graduates of Blackhawk Technical College’s Airframe & Powerplant program and jobs to skilled craftsmen and mechanics in an economy where layoffs are more and more common.

Terry Peed recalls those early years saying, “I’m still proud to be part of Jim’s original dream.  Since that first year, we have become an FAA Part 145 Repair Station on all major helicopter models including Bell, Eurocopter, Robinson, Enstrom, Agusta and MD Helicopters.” Their list of customers include; Flight For Life, Air Methods, PHI, Omniflight, OSF Aviation, Sanford Health Systems, Life Lion Penn State, St Vincent’s Life Flight of Toledo, West Michigan AirCare, Mayo Clinic, Rockford Memorial REACT, UW Medflight, Marshfield Clinic, University Of Chicago, DEA, the City of Chicago, many Corporate/Private, and even Bell and Eurocopter just to name a few. Terry says “We send our mechanics to all required helicopter factory schools so that we can maintain product proficiency for all of our customers.” Jim adds, “Our competitors spend money on marketing, Helicopter Specialties spends their money on facilities, tools and training for their staff and customers.”

Helicopter Specialties is heavily involved in the local community hosting education and training events at their facility such as FAAST Team Seminars. Jim also volunteers as a board member for their annual Airfest airshow. He works EAA events when possible and the yearly Oshkosh Air Venture where he flew the Bell47 for 8 straight years amassing over 8000 takeoffs and landings for rides, photos and VIPs. ”That was great fun seeing the excitement in peoples faces while giving rides, but a lot of 16 hour days back then. Now the EAA has more help, so I help when I can get there.”

As a company, their dedication and passion for aviation, safety and quality is recognized throughout the industry. This has earned them several awards in their 10 years of operation, the most recent being; (2) FAA Diamond awards, (1) FAA Gold Award, 2008 Wisconsin Aviation Business Of The Year, 2007 Wisconsin Small Business Of The Year. Jim recently received a Eurocopter Distinguished Technician award for 25 years of Excellence in Helicopter Maintenance.
Helicopter Specialties Inc., in the words of its Chief Inspector, “is a maintenance facility owned and operated by maintenance technicians.”

Posted in: Company Profiles

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