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Company History

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Columbia Helicopters Inc.


CHI was founded in 1957 by Mr. Wes Lematta. After serving in the US Army infantry in WWII, Wes developed an urge to learn to fly and using GI Bill funding took helicopter lessons in 1954. Three years later with the financial help of his brother Ed and sister-in-law Vivian, Wes purchased his first helicopter, a used Hiller 12B.

               The company was initially based at Troutdale Airport, east of Portland. Getting a fledging helicopter company up and running was no easy task and Wes struggled in the beginning. He gave rides at county fairs, took on the occasional construction project and drove a truck in his spare time to make ends meet. In the fall of 1957, Wes gained national recognition when he effected the dramatic rescue of 15 seamen from a sinking US Army Corp of Engineers dredge in Coos Bay, OR using his Hiller 12B. Wes plucked the 15 sailors off the dredge one by one, often clinging to the skids of the helicopter. The local notoriety Wes earned in that incident helped establish the business and it soon began to flourish.

               CHI acquired a second helicopter in 1959, a new Bell 47-G2 and then a third aircraft in 1960, a new Hiller 12E. During that year, CHI was contracted by Wilson Construction Company of Portland to transport and place wood poles for a power transmission line in the Columbia Gorge near Umatilla. This project afforded Wes the opportunity to try out a new method of external load placement. By leaning out the left side of the helicopter and using a longer attachment line for additional visibility under the aircraft, Wes was able to look directly at the load and the placement site. This technique, which proved successful, was dubbed the Direct Visual Operational Control or DVOC method and literally revolutionized the helicopter industry.  Every helicopter company worldwide, engaged in helicopter logging, construction, firefighting and onshore oil exploration support has adopted this technique for the safe, precision placement of external loads.

               In 1962, CHI moved from Troutdale to its new Swan Island location near downtown Portland. During the 1960’s, the company grew in size and scope. A flight training school was added to the basic charter and contract services already provided. Continued growth and success enabled the company to acquire a larger Sikorsky S-58 and also its first heavy lift aircraft, a Sikorsky S-61. In 1969, a new era in the growth of CHI occurred with the purchase of three tandem rotor Boeing Vertol 107-II helicopters from Pan American Airways. This acquisition was followed in the 1972 with the purchase of four additional Vertol 107’s from New York Airways. The company’s motto became “The Powerful Difference” and began the continuing era of tandem rotor helicopter operations for Columbia Helicopters. During this period, the company moved to its new facility in Aurora and continued its impressive growth.

               The CHI fleet of tandem rotor aircraft was expanded and greatly enhanced with the purchase of our first Boeing 234 Chinook in 1985. That aircraft was acquired from British International Airways and was first used in offshore oil exploration operations in the harsh Alaska environment. Additional 234’s were subsequently acquired from British International Airways, Helicopter Services of Norway, Trump Airways and the last one from Boeing. The present CHI fleet of 234’s is seven aircraft with six operational and over 115,000 flight hours. The 107 fleet consists of 14 aircraft, 12 presently operational and just over 710,000 flight hours.



In 1971, CHI participated with Erickson Aircrane in the first helicopter logging project. Later that year, the economic feasibility of heli-logging was proven by CHI using the newly acquired Sikorsky S-61. Starting in 1972 and throughout the 1970’s, the company experienced substantial growth by employing the Vertol 107’s in heli-logging. The DVOC method was ideally suited to enable the high level of productivity needed to make heli-logging economically viable. During the 1970’s and 1980’s CHI came to dominate the US and Canadian heli-logging industry, producing more timber volume than all other heli-logging companies combined.



               The huge growth CHI experienced in logging led to a very significant increase in the number of highly skilled long line pilots in the company. This allowed the company to greatly expand its’ precision placement capabilities throughout the construction industry. Today, CHI is a highly recognized provider of helicopter services to a wide variety of construction applications including power lines, ski lifts, roof-top air handling units, concrete footings and general aerial crane projects. The geographical dispersion of the CHI logging aircraft throughout the western US and Alaska also greatly contributed to the growth of our construction business by reducing mobilization/demobilization costs and making the company more price competitive.

               CHI first ventures into the oil exploration support industry included projects on the North Slope of Alaska in the late 1960’s and then participating in actual rig move operations in Papua New Guinea in 1971 and 1972. Additional major projects included two 107’s working in the Peruvian Amazon for various customers in 1975 and 1976. A lull in rig move operations ensued until CHI went to Sudan for a four year project for Chevron from 1981-1984.  The company also resumed operations in PNG in 1982. Since then oil support has grown to become one of the most significant contributors to overall CHI success. In addition to having been continuously engaged in PNG for  three decades now, the company has also provided oil support work in Indonesia, Myanmar, Ecuador, Peru, Canada and the US. Present oil support operations continue today in PNG and Peru. During this time CHI has not only become the most highly experienced heavy lift helicopter service provider but the premier provider of choice to the onshore oil exploration industry.


               In 1985, CHI won a competitive contract with the Department of States’ USAID. The project called for helicopters to provide famine relief operations in Sudan. CHI rapidly deployed three 107’s via USAF C-5 to Khartoum where the aircraft were re-assembled and flown to Nyala in Darfur Province. During 100 days of operations, the aircraft flew over 2600 hours and delivered over 8 million pounds of food and medical supplied to the people of that region. The entire company took justifiable pride in this massive effort to provide humanitarian relief to the famine stricken people of Sudan.   

During the first decade of this century, the logging industry began to experience severe downward economic pressures. The financial difficulties of 2008 and 2009 also led to negative effects on the housing industry and thus log prices. CHI senior management determined that a strategic re-assignment of the fleet was necessary. In 2009, a major decision was taken to remove one 234 and four 107’s from the logging fleet. Those aircraft would be re-configured to Part 135 passenger carrying standards and applied to a wholly new line of business, support of the US military operations in Afghanistan. At huge expense and significant risk, these five aircraft were removed from service, re-configured and re-conformed and then bid on US Transportation Command solicitations. A monumental effort by virtually every department here at Aurora was able to successfully produce aircraft on time and procure the contracts. Beginning in July 2011, CHI field managers and crews have distinguished themselves in providing safe, professional helicopter services to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan at an operating tempo that far exceeds the customers' expectations. Missions are non-tactical in nature and include personnel transport, mail and both internal and external cargo loads. The US military has become so pleased by CHI pilot expertise with DVOC that they have dubbed it L2P2, long line precision placement. CHI expects to support the U.S. Military, the United Nations, and other governments and for this to be an ongoing part of their business by distinguishing ourselves as the world leader in “nation building.”



               CHI began helicopter fire fighting operations in the late 1960’s after developing an improvised bucket for the S-61 aircraft. Firefighting continued to expand as a profit center with the purchase of the 107’s and 234’s in the 1980’s. Through the last two decades the United States Forest Service has changed the contracting model for heavy lift operators. Whereas previously, heavy lift aircraft were used only on CWN (call-when-needed) contracts, today they are utilized on both CWN and EU (exclusive use) contracts. CHI has been very successful in placing aircraft on both types of contracts. Currently, the company operates one 234 and three 107’s on an EU contract with a four year term. Firefighting has developed as a key contributor to the company’s revenue and profit base and CHI is recognized by both state and federal agencies as one of the premier providers of heavy lift fire fighting services.


               To support its growing fleet of aircraft in the 1970’s CHI began developing and expanding our internal maintenance support capabilities. It had become apparent to management that OEM support would not be sufficient to enable the company to maintain the levels of aircraft utilization required to be economically viable in its operations. Internal back shops had to be developed that would eventually make the company virtually independent of OEM support. Today these back shops include complete overhaul capability for engines, engine accessories, transmissions, avionics, rotor heads, electrical systems, hydraulic components and systems and virtually all 107 and 234 aircraft systems.

               This maintenance capability has allowed CHI great flexibility in supporting its operations throughout the US as well as in extremely remote areas of Alaska, Canada, Africa, SE Asia and South America. CHI has been able to achieve and sustain aircraft utilization levels that are much higher than ever matched or even anticipated by competitors. Achieving 300 flight hours in a calendar month has been achieved in a number of instances. This exceptional CHI operations effort would not be possible without the extraordinary maintenance capabilities that support our field operations.


               Using our internal maintenance capabilities to provide maintenance services to other companies or countries that operate large helicopters is a very significant and rapidly growing contributor to our success. In the past few years CHI’s MRO (Maintenance Repair Organization) has grown dramatically into a world class service. As the only civilian operator of the Columbia 234 Chinook, our maintenance back shops are uniquely positioned to support the Chinook military model CH-47. Several years ago, CHI went through multiple Product Verification Audits (PVA's) for CH-47 components. The PVA’s are the US Army qualification process to allow a vendor to perform overhauls on major dynamic components. This qualification on all CH-47D transmissions and rotor heads has allowed CHI to pursue both US Army overhaul work and similar work for several foreign military operators of the CH-47. Foreign customers include the Australian, Thai, Greek and Spanish Armies as well as the Singapore and Moroccan Air Forces.

               CHI’s engine shop is approved for repair and overhaul of the General Electric CT-58 and the Honeywell AL5512 turbo shaft engine and the T62 APU. The company has had its own test cell for these engines for many years. In 2012, construction was completed on a new state-of-the-art test cell, designed to handle the T55-712 and T55-GA-714A engines used on the CH-47 and the GE T700 engine used on the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawks. The company expects that it will become qualified to service such engines over the next few years causing this business line to expand dramatically and become a major contributor to revenue growth. The overall growth of outside maintenance is a strategic initiative for the company and the rapid expansion of this business experienced in the last few years is expected to increase and continue on a sustained basis. 



               In late 2006, CHI acquired the type certificates for the 107 and the 234 from the Boeing Company. This transaction has brought enormous potential to the company as well as a major source of corporate value. The subsequent development of the Production Certificate that allows for the production of all parts for both aircraft is also a major benefit to the company. In the near future, CHI expects to develop the Production Certificate for the actual manufacturing of the aircraft itself.

  • The acquisition of these certificates brings great value and benefit to the future of the company.It affords our engineering department the ability and authority to make major modifications and improvements to our aircraft to meet the current and future requirements of our customers. It also gives us the ability to reconfigure lower time airframes to the type design of the aircraft and thereby expand our fleet.
  • It will help reduce and minimize the enormous markups and overhead that the OEM’s apply to the cost of manufacturing parts. CHI will realize significant advantages and efficiencies in both parts acquisition costs and reduced parts lead times.The greatest value of the TC/PC acquisitions may lie in the potential for CHI to manufacture 234’s and 107’s at some time in the future. The Chinook has proven itself as the premier super heavy lift helicopter for the world. The civilian 234 has been in service for over 30 years and the military CH-47 derivatives are now in their fifth decade of service. The aircraft is poised to be the dominant heavy lifter for the next 30 years. The 107 is also an extremely efficient and versatile medium lift helicopter. Both types are cost effective, fuel efficient and the tandem rotor system provides unique capabilities in stabilityperformance speed and agility.
  • Enhancing the value of the TC/PC and CHI’s internal and outside maintenance capabilities is our quality control system. In October 2003, CHI’s repair station achieved AS9100 Certification. In 2010, CHI added even higher quality standards with the AS9110 Certification and in 2012 the AS9100/9110C Certification. These certificates form the backbone of our quality control system and signify the unwavering commitment of CHI to safety and quality.


From the beginning, Wes proclaimed “no substitute for safety” and held that at the forefront of every operation within his company. With the continued expansion of the CHI helicopter fleet to support new missions, the need to formalize our safety program resulted in the appointment of Wes’ brother, Jim Lematta, as the first Vice-President of Safety. As the company grew, so did our safety culture and the development of programs to support it. Within the past ten years, Safety’s involvement has grown rapidly with the introduction of event reporting and tracking systems, hazard reporting programs, and ultimately our first Safety Management System (SMS) in 2009.

Today, with the addition of an Air Operator Certificate in Papua New Guinea, DOD Air Carrier Certification, ISO certificates, expanded customer maintenance programs, and the myriad of other industry and customer regulatory requirements, our Safety Department has shifted to an expanded role  – Health, Safety, Environment, & Security. This broadened scope not only maintains our long-standing focus on flight safety, but is now ensuring compliance and continuous improvement through implementation of an HSE Management System that covers all CHI personnel and operations. As we look to the future, these programs will provide the necessary structure to enable continued development of new opportunities in our increasingly regulated operating environments worldwide.


Our founder and longtime president and Chairman, Mr. Wes Lematta, started with a dream and a vision. Throughout his career, Wes proved himself to be a true pioneer and visionary in the helicopter industry. His energy and enthusiasm affected all who had the pleasure of working for him or with him. His true character always showed through in the respect he never failed to show to others and in the highest standards of personal integrity with which he conducted himself at all times. Wes passed away in 2009 but his legacy lives on at CHI in the mission, vision and values statement that forms the foundation of Columbia past, present and future.

OUR MISSION: To be the provider of choice for heavy-lift helicopter operations and maintenance solutions worldwide.

OUR VISION: To be the dominant provider of heavy lift helicopter services, by providing the highest quality operation, and to use our excellent reputation and maintenance capabilities to become a major provider of quality maintenance services.


INTEGRITY: Be honest with ourselves and our customers in every facet of our service.

SAFETY: Hold safe practices at the forefront of every effort.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Utilize experience, innovation, and continuous improvements to convert customer problems into solutions.

PERFORMANCE: Meet or exceed expectations.

TEAMWORK: Work as a team in meeting our challenges.