The nation’s first pair of civilian-owned Chinook helicopters landed south of Billings on Thursday afternoon — and, since they’re now owned by Billings Flying Service, it’s here they’ll stay until they’re refurbished and put back to work.
Gary Blain, who co-owns the company with his brother, Al, said he plans to refurbish one of the two Boeing CH-47D Chinooks within the next four months and put it to use fighting fires and lifting heavy objects for a construction business.
The second, identical aircraft will be refurbished next winter and be put to the same uses — all over the world, wherever they’re needed, he said.
The company paid $6.5 million for the two aircraft, which Blain and another pilot flew to Billings over two days from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. The crews spent Wednesday night in Norfolk, Neb., the boyhood home of Johnny Carson.
Neighbors and friends turned out Thursday as the helicopters did a fly-over before landing at the business, at 6309 Jellison Road. “They’re very easy to fly, very straightforward,” Blain said of the Chinooks, which travel at 150 knots — about 170 miles per hour — and weigh about 24,000 pounds empty and about 50,000 pounds when they’re fully loaded.
“They flew right over our house, and it was vibrating,” said Falon Nicholls, who lives near the business south of Billings and is a friend of the company's owners. “It was as loud as the biggest thunderstorm I have ever heard.”
Blain said the company will begin dismantling the helicopters Friday — beginning with removing the rotors — and will be hiring 15-20 people to help complete the work. The renovation will include installing new avionics — the aircraft’s electronics system — as well as improving the crews’ view and reconfiguring the helicopters for civilian use.
The Chinook is capable of ferrying a 2,500-gallon bucket full of water for fighting fires, although Blain said he’s also considering installing a tank in the cargo compartment.
The company also will need to construct a new hangar to house the new aircraft — either at the business or on the grounds of Billings Logan International Airport.
Blain’s wife, Vickie, said the project represents “a big step” for Billings Flying Service. The most difficult step, her husband added, might be the paperwork required by the Federal Aviation Administration to get the aircraft certified.
He said the Chinooks were constructed around 1970 and refurbished by Boeing in 1990. Each aircraft has about 5,000 hours of flight time; Blain said with care and careful maintenance, both ought to last at least 10,000 hours more.
The U.S. Army still uses CH-47F models, but has been selling D models to other countries — but never, until Billings Flying Service made its recent purchase — for civilian use.
How did the company qualify as the first civilian purchaser?
“We just stood up and raised our hand,” Blain said with a laugh.
Blain was seated in the left chair during an interview, with Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund seated in the co-pilot’s chair. Ostlund was on hand to welcome the aircraft and their crews to the Chinooks’ new home.
“Gary is moving into some heavy-lifting helicopters,” Ostlund said. “This is going to be great for our (local) economy.”
Outside the Chinooks, Evan Stanton, 9 — whose father, Ebert Stanton, is Billings Flying Service’s director of maintenance — said he could envision at least one good use for the new aircraft.
“It would be really fun,” he said, “to parachute out of.”