Rims residents got to hear for themselves Friday just how disruptive a Chinook helicopter might be in their neighborhood.
Most residents were either absent or listened from inside their homes, but roughly half a dozen gathered along a gravel road near the airport to test the decibel levels of the massive helicopter as it landed.
Gary Blain, part-owner of Billings Flying Service, flew the Chinook north to the Rims from the helicopter contracting and repair business’ Blue Creek area facilities in hopes of assuaging the concerns of residents opposed to the business opening up shop along the back third of a 60-acre piece of land along Highway 3 west of the airport's boundaries.
Blain communicated via walkie-talkie with his brother and the president of BFS, Al Blain, as he touched down, circled the area and flew over a neighborhood before departing southward in a display that lasted less than 30 minutes.
Al Blain said that the direct operating cost is $6,000 for every hour a Chinook is in operation. He estimated that between getting the helicopter prepared, taking off and departing, BFS had incurred 45 minutes worth of direct operating cost Friday — about $4,500.
The demonstration was suggested by Dave Kinnard, a resident of the Sky Ranch neighborhood on the Rims. On Wednesday, BFS' attorney Ken Tolliver told Kinnard the demonstration was set.
Testing the impact
While some residents observed from much nearer to the land than their homes, Al Blain and Tolliver watched from 3382 Skyranch, a home adjacent to the highway that sits closest to the land, believing that site would offer the most accurate representation of the effect the facility might have on a home.
As the Chinook approached, circled and departed, Blain recorded the decibel readings using a sound measuring device. Jim Beley, a Sky Ranch resident for three and a half years, stood next to him, doing the same with his iPhone.
Blain’s decibel readings reached 62 for the Chinook — 20 decibels below the 82 a passing truck registered.
Kinnard and neighbor Jim Grubbs both noted that the westbound winds could have played a role in muting the aircraft’s noise. While Blain acknowledged wind could have affected the sound, he maintained it was “a good average day" and “fairly representative of what you’re going to see.”
"It's about what I expected," Kinnard said. "The biggest problem I have with them flying in this vicinity is that they won't always fly in that line they did today. Oftentimes the airport, as they do with private planes, will divert them for traffic reasons."
BFS' purchase of the land is contingent on the Yellowstone County Commission approving rezoning of the land as controlled industrial. The land is currently owned by members of the Longan and Crippen families.
A commission meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday at the Billings Public Library, where the county zoning committee’s planning division will decide what it will recommend to the county commissioners.
The atmosphere near Beley’s home was easygoing, even friendly, but disagreements over the future of the land clearly persist. Beley and other residents, some a part of the Rimrock Neighborhood Task Force, fear more than loud noises will come with re-zoning of the land. In BFS’ hands, Beley fears the dusty horse pasture will disappear altogether, giving way to gravel lots, steel buildings and cyclone fences.
“This is the last beautiful corridor going into Billings,” Beley said. “We’d rather see something more suitable.”
Another fear is dust kicked up by whirling helicopter blades, but Gary Blain echoed previous comments from his brother, saying that it’s in BFS’ interests to avoid dust as much as possible because it causes problems with their machines.
Al Blain said that they have agreed to leave the front third of the property zoned agricultural in order to help ease the transition, but he said he could not guarantee it permanently.
Bruce Crippen watched the display along the gravel road from the seat of his truck, having arrived in part to make sure the horses on his land had been corralled. Crippen said he was skeptical when the Blains first approached him wanting to buy the land, which has been in his family for decades.
After some research, Crippen concluded the Blains were trustworthy and that their business would be preferable to something else. The land had been farmed for wheat in the past, but Crippen said it was “a disaster.”
“There’s a point in time where it can’t just lay fallow,” Crippen said. “I can’t see some rancher that wants 60 acres to come and want this. It’s gonna get developed sooner or later. It might as well be done right.”
Billings Flying Service began in essence the 1950s when Al and Gary’s father, Gerhart Blain, started a one-man crop-dusting business. His children have since taken over the business, expanding to their current size of 35 full-time employees, of which Gary Blain estimates more than half are veterans.
The first two Chinooks ever available for civilian purchase sit in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse with 21-foot ceilings south of Billings. The business is nestled among the rolling hills and winding roads of the Blue Creek area. Drivers entering the property are advised to stop at a point where a paved runway crosses the road.
“Guys show up from the U.K., and they expect to go to the airport,” Gary Blain said. “They don’t expect to go to your horse pasture south of town.”
It’s hard to find civilians with the engineering expertise to maintain and repair repurposed military aircraft like the seven Chinooks BFS owns. The Blains said the opportunity to work on their machines has drawn employees from across the country to the Billings business, where salaries start at $65,000 and range into six figures.
“These are highly skilled individuals,” Gary Blain said. “You can’t just grab any Joe off the street.”
Gary Blain said they are only one of two civilian businesses in the world overhauling Chinook helicopter transmissions. “It’s a big deal to be overhauling transmissions in Montana,” Blain said, adding that the amount of work needed to create tooling and parts spreads hundreds of thousands of dollars in business throughout Billings and requires the work of just about every machine shop in town.
The Blains own 13 helicopters total, including Vietnam-era UH-1 Hueys and a Cold War-era Sikorsky, and their business is only growing, Gary Blain said. He estimated its value at $50 million.
"There's a shortage of heavy-lifting helicopters in the universe," Al Blain said. "People are looking for (businesses) that are easier to work with. We've got a really great crew put together, and it's going to get better and better."
Employees want to live close to where they work, Al Blain said, and he argued any new jobs the expanding business will bring will increase interest and value in Rims real estate rather than decrease it as residents fear. But Kinnard is still concerned.
"I don't see at all that it can help our (property) values," Kinnard said. "I think it's a question of how much it will hurt them."
Kinnard's concerns, like those of Beley, revolve around the visual impact of controlled industrial development. Kinnard, who has lived on the Rims for 15 years, described the Highway 3 corridor as one of the few picturesque gateways to the city and said he fears BFS will open the door for more development.
Moving the business to the Rims would put BFS closer to Billings Logan International Airport, where it already has two hangars. Currently, if parts need to be moved from the airport to Blue Creek or vice versa, employees have to make the nearly half-hour drive. In a business where cost is calculated in $6,000-an-hour increments, half an hour is expensive.
Another issue with BFS’ current facility is a lack of space. Their main hangar fits only two Chinooks inside at one time. Cramped quarters can create choke points when equipment is set up near parallel spots on side-by-side helicopters. BFS stores extra helicopters outside on the grass.
If their location change is approved, the Blains seek a facility that could house five Chinooks inside at once, with two machines' rotating blades still attached.
“That’s what I envision,” Al Blain said. “Something with a really nice sign, an A-1 facility, a really cool building. It’ll be a point of pride in Billings.”
On average, the Blains said their Chinooks make 6 departures a month, with fewer during the winter. BFS has sent vehicles to a variety of continents and countries including Australia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Africa, Europe and Antarctica. Recently their helicopters helped install 20 light poles weighing 17,000 pounds and standing 165 feet tall along an Alaskan highway between Anchorage and Wasilla. On Friday morning Gary said he’d already fielded calls that day from parties in Israel and Ireland interested in BFS services.
Locally, Gary Blain said they work with the Crow Tribe, NorthWestern Energy and various fire services in Montana.
Al Blain flew a Chinook in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, rescuing people off hospital rooftops and other flights have gone to tsunami ravaged regions. The Chinooks weigh 50,000 pounds and can tow up to 26,000 pounds, topping out at speeds of 170 knots.
“We’re just talking about location right now,” Gary Blain said, referring to airport land for lease. “The bottom line is we want to build one really nice facility, and we want to make the community comfortable with it to the best of our abilities.”
"But you know, somebody's always going to be unhappy," he said.