WORLAND – An old helicopter that was sitting useless in Tucson, Arizona, made its way to Worland, Wyoming, last October, and finally found its new resting place in Maryland earlier this month at Joint Base Andrews thanks to a multi-business partnership spearheaded by Sky Aviation.
Last fall, with a small firefighting season, Sky Aviation owner Tom Woodward decided to look for additional work for the shop, and he found it in a renovation job for the military, hauling, painting and preparing a twin engine UH-1N helicopter (Huey) to be on display at the Heritage Airpark at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the 1st Helicopter Squadron, that runs a Distinguished Visitor Airlift mission in Washington, D.C., and it was also the 50th anniversary of many of their UH-1N Hueys that were manufactured in 1969. To celebrate this momentous occasion the squadron was connected with Mr. Woodward at Sky Aviation to help restore a helicopter that had been sitting in “the boneyard” at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Tucson, Arizona.
With an initial short timeline, the goal was to complete the restoration, bring the helicopter to Joint Base Andrews, and mount it on a pedestal outside the Helicopter Operations Facility that houses the 1st Helicopter Squadron before a Change of Command Ceremony in January 2020.
The military delayed the trip until this month.
For the transportation part, Sky Aviation enlisted the help of Kirby Leary, who with his wife Angie, is the owner and driver of K Bar L Trucking Inc. Before starting his own trucking company in 2000, Kirby Leary hauled for LK Trucking and R&M Trucking.
Leary said he was contacted by Sky Aviation employee Ed Keller about hauling the helicopter up from Tucson. At first it was “just another job.” But last week, with the job completed, he said that since the project was all local, “It was a real privilege to be a part of all that.”
He said he took a chance when he went to pick up the helicopter in Tucson that his trailer would work and the helicopter would fit. “It was all kind of a gamble,” … ” but it all worked out.”
He arrived in Worland and delivered the helicopter to Sky Aviation’s overhaul shop, the former Mel’s Big O’ Tire shop on Third Street.
Months later, as the original deadline of January got moved by the military, Leary moved the helicopter from the overhaul shop to the Sky Aviation hangar at Worland Municipal Airport and then finally he left Worland Municipal Airport on March 5 with the brightly painted helicopter securely fastened.
He took Friday, March 6 off from driving, per the hour rules, and then arrived at the base in time for the Sky Aviation crew to assemble the display on March 9. The installation crew included Keller, Woodward, George Felix, Alex Garcia and TJ Wilkinson.
He said he had no issues driving to Maryland and the helicopter arrived at its final destination with nary a chip or scratch. Keller noted that no touch up was needed.
He added that Leary treated the helicopter “like a chunk of gold.”
How he drove thousands of miles without a scratch, Leary said, “just luck would have it” but added that he has standards on his drives so he didn’t flick any rocks up.
He did note that at each truck stop he stopped at along the way he had several people wanting to take selfies with the helicopter.
While this was Leary’s first time hauling a helicopter it was not the largest haul. He said he hauls all over the country including Canada but has not been to the Northeast of the United States yet.
He has hauled large haul trucks, 740 and 745 rock trucks and 627 and 631 scrapers, among other things.
Leary said he followed in the footsteps of his father, who was also a truck driver.
Sky Aviation prepared the helicopter for a static display. It has a 48-foot diameter and is 57 feet from blade to blade, Woodward said.
Woodward and Keller said they had to remove the engines, fuel bladders, about 200 pounds of wiring and all the avionics. They left the seats and the instrument panel for the display.
The project calls for specific positioning of the helicopter on the skids as well. Woodward said the nose will be pointed 5 degrees down with an 8-degree left bank and rotors will be at 90 degrees.
They also had the stand for the helicopter transported separately and then placed in Maryland before the helicopter was positioned on the stand.
The rotors were also transported, assembled and positioned in Maryland, Woodward and Keller said.
Keller said that they had three main crew members working the past month and half on the project, but in total they have had about 12 to 15 of the employees on different shifts who have worked on the project. Sky Aviation employs between 25 to 35 employees depending on the season.
In addition to Felix and Garcia, Keller said Adam Powell and Alyssa Gaulke were also key Sky employees that helped make the project a success.
The paint scheme for the helicopter display is Air Force One colors of military blue and gold with the words “United States of America” stenciled across the tail. There are other required decals that have been added to the helicopter.
For the bulk of the painting, Sky Aviation hired Steve Hamblin of Hamblin Paint and Body of Worland.
Hamblin said when he was first approached by Keller he wasn’t sure how he could do the project knowing the helicopter would not fit in his paint booth. After discussions with Keller and Woodward, and learning that all the work would be done at the overhaul shop, Hamblin said it was a go.
Hamblin started painting in the mid 1990s while working for Ralph Wortham Construction. He has been painting full-time the last five years specializing in custom paint jobs including Full restorations and media blasting – including stripping old cars that have been painted several times down to bare metal before repainting.
He also sprays bed liners in pickups.
A helicopter, however, was the first for Hamblin, but was on his bucket list of projects to do.
The paint was a special type of paint ordered by NAPA.
“They provided the paint materials I just basically just showed up with my respirator, paint suit and paint guns,” Hamblin said.
The paint was something he had worked with before, including on a few of Leary’s trucks.
“I wasn’t out of the loop when it came to shooting that type of material,” he said.
Where to start? Hamblin said he started at the top with the white so he would not be dragging air hoses over fresh paint to get to the top.
Then came the black windows and then the gold stripe. The blue was the last color.
As for challenges, Hamblin said, “The only one I sweated on was that amount of blue being shot and keeping it wet to where when I tied back into it I didn’t have a huge dry spot. Luckily the paint stayed wet enough for me to get all the way around the helicopter and back to where I started to tie it all in. It worked out pretty good.”
The belly was the last of what he had to shoot and that was done on a creeper lying on his back shooting upside down.
The whole paint job took two to three weeks, he said.
Why take on the challenge, “I didn’t want to rule this job out. I’ve got Hamblin Paint and Body website with a lot of custom jobs on it and I thought it would be cool to have a helicopter on it,” he said. “If someone has the right size hangar I’m not opposed to doing it again.”
Hamblin added, “That was one of kind. It was a fun, long little project. It all turned out good, and I was glad it got shipped without rock chips or have some accident along the way.”
Keller said the installation of the helicopter “went perfect.” He said the crane they hired there worked well with three individual picks, the base, the stand and the helicopter.
“Everyone was happy with the way it looked. No touchup was needed,” Keller said.
Keller said the project has not just been a boost to Sky Aviation but also for many other businesses in Worland for parts, transportation, paint, machinery and more.
He said they tried to keep all the work local to benefit the community.
Sky Aviation had a number of people outside of Sky Aviation employees, who helped on the project, including Wilkinson with overall delivery help, Chris Pierce, Randall Homan and Jeff McClure for sheet metal work and Ron Denniston for sanding and prep work.
Woodward added, “It’s good for Worland, to bring that type of business to the community. This is a rare project that we hope leads to more of its kind.”