Summit Helicopter, a subsidiary of Welk Aviation, is a well known Los Angeles-based company providing helicopters for energy, construction, and maintenance projects. The company operates MD500D, MD500E and MD530F aircraft, but also has a relatively unique Sikorsky S-58T able to provide additional lift up to 4,500 pounds. Through ACA (ENG Division), also a Welk Aviation subsidiary, Summit has access to Airbus AS350 B2 Astars for jobs requiring the abilities of that airframe, as well as access to a variety of airborne imaging systems and data capture capabilities.
Summit Helicopter was founded in 1996 and in 2014 merged with Whiteman Airport-based Welk Aviation, an operator of news gathering and film production helicopters. Summit is an FAA-approved Part 135 air carrier and is also approved for Part 133 helicopter external load operations. Summit employs 20 personnel, including pilots, mechanics, and ground operators. The company's pilots are all experienced utility pilots with many hours on jobs of every sort. Summit’s founder, Jim Woodaman, said, “We look for guys that have excellent judgment and fly smart; there is no room for hotdoggers or guys who move too quickly. We need mature pilots that always make the right decision. That’s our priority.” Summit also provides its customers large-capacity fuel tanker trucks, mobile field shops, and Heiltender support trucks and trailers that follow the helicopters while they do field operations anywhere in the country.
Summit provides helicopter services to public and private power companies, construction companies, and private construction projects. Power company’s missions typically include inspections of towers, including post wildfire or disaster inspections, patrol of power lines, construction projects, and energized and de-energized circuit maintenance. They also provide pole setting by both an MD500 or larger S-58T, adding marker balls to wires between towers, and small- or large-scale retrofits throughout the power grid.
During power-line operations, Summit pilots are required to work very close to large power-line tower structures and miles and miles of wires. They do close inspections, skid transfer workers, shorthaul workers, pull line (wires) from tower to tower and perform many other precise and specialized functions for the jobs required by the customer. Probably the most routine jobs are powerline patrols where Summit flies inspectors down the powerline system looking for wear and tear or damage that needs repair. Summit has access to high definition, gyro-stabilized camera systems, infrared cameras, and standard still cameras for use by inspectors.
One job that is taken very seriously are human external load operations with the MD500 series aircraft. This involves longlining workers under the helicopter and delivering them to the top of power-line tower structures. This method is efficient and flexible as it allows the aircraft to put workers exactly where they need to go quickly without having to drive to a remote tower and climb the tower from below. It also lowers the environmental impact of driving into the area. The MD 500 has a “belly band” installed and uses a hook-and-rope system that attaches to a harness the worker wears. Obviously safely is paramount so everything is checked and double-checked before any human lift occurs.
The MD500 also have another piece of equipment they use on jobs: a platform that attaches to the aircraft allowing the worker to sit outside the aircraft and perform maintenance on energized or de-energized conductors or shield wires. This method gives the pilot the ability to watch what is happening and gives more clearance for the main rotor. It also makes the worker less fatigued than standing on the skid or using a long line.
The MD500/530 series are Summit’s bread and butter aircraft. Woodaman said, “They go out every day and work. They don't break often and put in full days pulling line, moving people, lifting equipment, and doing what our customers need them to do. Summit operates three MD530Fs and one MD500E, plus a leased MD500D. The MD530Fs are specialized for hot and high conditions and use the 650hp Rolls Royce 250 C30 engine while the MD500E uses the 420hp Rolls Royce 250 C20 engine. The MD 500 series needs no introduction in the utility and construction industry.They are known for their compact size, excellent visibility, good power lift, and superb maneuverability. Woodaman said, “We’ve been operating these machines for decades and they’re everything we need; they are economical, reliable, and able to fit into and get out of tight places. It would take a very specialized design to replace the 500 for this type of work.
Summit bought the Sikorsky S-58T in 2005 because it had the lift capability to go out and make money. It’s also a standard category aircraft, which enables it to be utilized in congested, downtown areas. This particular airframe is famous for being a TV star from the ‘80s show Riptide. In the show, the S-58 was portrayed as a troublesome wreck of an aircraft with the nickname “Screaming Mimi.” In reality, it was a well maintained S-58T that looked terrible on the outside......including its pink paint and shark mouth on the nose. After the show, the helicopter was stored by its owner and then sold to Texas-based 5 State Helicopters where it was overhauled and repainted with its current burnt-orange paint scheme.
After Summit acquired the aircraft, it has worked continuously as a heavy lift and construction aircraft. Woodaman said, “We’ve had great luck with the S-58T. Even though its an older aircraft, Sikorsky over-engineered the airframe and drive train.” In the early 1970s, when the S-58T was re-engined from a large single piston round motor to the current PT-6-3 twinpac turbine engines. This brought the aircraft up to date. Even today, the engines are well known for their reliability and power. The S-58T routinely outlifts a Bell 212 or 205 Huey. “It’s a great machine,” Woodaman said. “We can still get parts and support for it and we have great maintenance folks who maintain it, including an incredible mechanic who has been working on the S-58 for nearly 50 years. We fly it with two pilots and the bird generally burns about 100 gallons an hour. I don't see a need to replace it, and honestly there isn’t anything that can lift this much at nearly the right price point.”
Safety is Summit’s grounding culture. There are too many moving parts in construction and power-line jobs to not keep safety as the top priority. “There are many things happening at one time: men being placed by helicopters on the top of towers, the helicopter hanging equipment and wire near the men. There has to be a lot of trust between the pilot and lineman,” said Woodaman. The helicopter pilot very quickly learns about the construction process, what needs to be done when, when to back away and let the workers do what they need to do and then have the helicopter approach to continue the job. Summit takes a proactive approach to safety through continued initial and recurrent training for its pilots, supervisors, and ground personnel. Safety has become an important driver for the helicopter industry and customers and end users are increasingly looking for helicopter operators with a strong safety culture. Summit embraced and implemented a Safety Management System (SMS) early on that aids in documentation and decision-making awareness for daily operations. Still, nothing replaces the need for pilots and crews on the jobsite to make sound and safe choices. Making sure equipment is inspected and maintained to a high standard is paramount to Summit’s daily operations. Risk is inherent to this industry, but the operator does not let external influences affect their decisions nor will it cut corners to save time or money. Over many years of operation, some in challenging conditions, Summit’s safety culture has proven itself.
Business has been good over the last few years. The numerous California fires, although tragic, has made replacement and upgrading of power-line equipment a priority. Summit’s long-term experience and reputation in the industry has kept the company busy and flying.