Anyone who’s ever traveled in the western United States, has come face to face with the great Rocky Mountains. They’re formidable. They’re hard. They’re rugged. Such are the characteristics of the people it takes to run a helicopter business in and around those beautiful, yet unforgiving rocks.
Mark Taylor is chief pilot and co-owner of Rocky Mountain Rotors (RMR). After hearing his journey, I view him as a living testimony to what happens when the school of hard knocks crosses paths with perseverance and a little bit of luck.
Taylor began at Silver State Helicopters as a Robinson R22 pilot. He now owns and operates a full-service helicopter operation utilizing the R22, R44, Bell 206, 407, and 429. The gregarious and charismatic aviator is a horseman and a hunter. At the end of my first day with him, he asked, “Do you like beer?” I knew we were going to get along just fine. We enjoyed an amazing Salmon Fly ale from Madison River Brewery that concluded Day One on a high note.
Anyone who came up through the civil helicopter ranks in this century remembers the story surrounding the epic collapse of Silver State Helicopters. The company abruptly shut down on Super Bowl Sunday, leaving over 2,000 helicopter students stuck with training loans, and hundreds of helicopter instructors without jobs. Taylor was one of the lucky students who made it out of the training school with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) certificate in hand, but he was not inclined to go to work for anyone as a CFI. Besides, with so many jobless instructors flooding the market, Taylor decided to heed the Fleetwood Mac lyrics of Go Your Own Way and do his own thing.
So in 2006, with the help of a financial partner he decided to start a helicopter flight school in Bozeman, Montana, Treasure State Helicopters, operating an R22 and an R44. As it turns out, his partner ended up not being a good one, and after spending an untold sum of money on attorneys, they parted ways in 2009. Following the messy split, it happened that he had a student who was interested in investing in half the helicopters.
This prospect put Taylor at a crossroads: he could either hang up the flight suit and call it quits or double down and dig in! With true cowboy grit, Mark decided to tough it out. The two new partners decided to keep the dream alive and RMR was born.
By 2011, Taylor had written his own Part 135 certificate, which was approved by the FAA. He was a full-fledged helicopter pilot business owner, while moonlighting as a concrete pump operator at a local plant. Still, Taylor and his new business partner were just making ends meet. The partner went through a divorce and needed out of the business. “Those five years (2006-2011) were really tough, but I learned a lot of hard lessons along the way that made me a better business person,” Taylor recalls.
Full Count Hit
After two painful past strikes, it seemed that stepping up to the plate with a third partnership was the least likely way for Taylor and his struggling business to make a hit. However, in 2011, James “Ty” Lee came into the ballgame and, like Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, became the teammate that would help RMR rally and win. Ty Lee brought three things to the plate: a lifetime of aviation experience, a turbine helicopter, and financial stability.
Lee was a retired airline captain. (Lee’s wife was also a retired airline pilot.) In his life before the airlines, he was a helicopter pilot for the Governor of South Carolina. Additionally, he owned a Bell 206 JetRanger. Lee says, “What impressed me most about Mark (Taylor), was his charisma and the fact that he was a really good helicopter pilot. He also had real grit and determination to make this business work. He was willing to do whatever it took, including working a couple jobs.”
Lee’s entrance into the business was perfect timing. In addition to bringing needed funds, Lee also brought his Bell 206, which was the type of aircraft that RMR needed, as it operates efficiently at higher altitudes. In the past, the power limits and limited payload of RMR’s R44 had been a barrier to new business and growth. The introduction of the Bell 206 fixed that, with its turbine engine and larger payload capacity, it would exponentially open up more opportunity for new work.
Once the B206 was put into service, it began to scratch the surface of the potential work available to RMR. It did not take long to realize that investing in more capable aircraft would mean more business, so in 2013, RMR added a Bell 407GX to its fleet.
Another fortunate stroke came in the form of a local real estate development that RMR really had nothing to do with, but drummed up new business. Investment firms and developers showered hundreds of millions of dollars on beautiful high-country land, creating the Yellowstone Club,. The “YC” is a 15,200 acre private residential community where the likes of celebrities and execs from from Fortune 500 companies reside.
Naturally, when Daddy (or Momma) Warbucks’ Gulfstream jet touches down at the Bozeman airport, the last thing he or she wants to do is ride in a car for two hours up to his or her ritzy weekend retreat. Solution? The Bell 429.
In another right-turning twist, a group purchased a B429 and leased it back to RMR extending the company’s capability yet again. “The Bell 407GX is a reliable, powerful, fast helicopter, but many of the high-net-worth individuals we fly prefer to be transported through the mountains in a twin-engine helicopter, and the B429 is perfect for the job with its smoothness, power, and luxurious interior,” said Taylor.
Recently, RMR was looking to add another single-engine turbine helicopter to the fleet in order to supplement, and add new performance capabilities to its B206 in operation. Under consideration was the Robinson R66 and the new Bell 505 JetRanger X. When it came to decision time, Lee, didn’t take long to favor the OEM he knows best. He said, “I’m a Bell guy. I’ve loved Bell helicopters ever since I first started flying the B206 in 1974. So we went with the 505.”
Keeping the Rotors Turning
With a fleet of six helicopters and seven employees to get the work done, there’s very little that RMR won’t do with a helicopter. They operate under FAR parts 91, 133, and 135, which pretty much allows them to fly any mission within aircraft capability. For example, a scheduled meeting between Taylor and me was interrupted by a local elk bowhunter who had shot an elk at dusk., The downed game rolled into a ravine that could not be accessed by foot. The hunter needed a helicopter to perform an aerial survey to see if his elk could be accessed and harvested.
Flying a helicopter high in the Rockies is no easy task for man or machine. Everything about the flying environment is unforgiving and the margins of error are slim compared to flatland, sea-level flying. The altitude itself not only requires more power, but a pilot’s control, touch, and technique—or lack thereof—has sent many a pilot to their doom, or at least dented helicopters and egos. Taylor said, “The weather patterns in the mountains can be very unpredictable and change in a heartbeat, and the winds on the mountain tops can catch pilots off-guard if they do not remain situationally aware. With such a deep bench of helicopters, each with its own capabilities, every one of our helicopters has its place in the operation.”
Taylor went on to indicate that the Robinsons are perfect for flight training and some charters. “They are super reliable aircraft and all you basically have to do is put in gas and oil, perform 100-hour inspections, and fly,” he says. However, when more passengers need to be transported, or more horsepower is required for high-altitude work or increased payload power is needed at the end of a longline, then RMR’s fleet of Bell helicopters fly into action.
Taylor is impressed with the high-altitude performance of the new 505 JetRanger X. “Just last week, I was slinging 800-pound bales of hay between 8,000 and 10,000 feet with the 505 and it was a beast,” he said. From the light, single-turbine-engine Bell 505 to its twin-engine, IFR-capable Bell 429, and the 407GX in between, there’s very little the company cannot do.
Because there was no good helicopter maintenance in the area, RMR decided to start their own maintenance program. The bulk of the maintenance on the RMR fleet falls to Director of Maintenance Troy Torgrimson and his team of two mechanics. Turning wrenches on their own diverse fleet of aircraft is not all RMR is capable of. The company spent two years writing their maintenance manual and now operates under a FAR Part 145 maintenance and repair certificate as an additional business center for the company. According to Lee, who is also an A&P, “I am particularly proud of our maintenance team as we were recently awarded a new designation by Bell Helicopter: Authorized Maintenance Center (AMC). We were the first to receive this award in the U.S. and it was presented to us at Heli-Expo 2018.”
I asked both Taylor and Lee what are their keys to success. Both indicate that their success revolves around people and hard work. “Our people work their tails off during the season, which goes from May to October. It’s long days, followed by short nights, followed by more long days. We do all this with a fairly small staff and a handful of reliable contractors all doing whatever it takes to get the job done as safely as possible,” said Lee. Taylor added to that sentiment, “With such a small staff, everyone has to be willing to wear multiple hats; it’s not uncommon to be a pilot, a mechanic, and a toilet scrubber in a day’s work.”
Listening to Taylor’s story, if it were not for a fortuitous mix of determination, guts, right-place-right-time, and pure luck, he probably should have gone out of business years ago. This leads me to believe that it was probably meant that Taylor and Lee meet to build a successful helicopter business in a place that needed one.
When it comes to RMR’s business philosophy that has got them to this point, Lee said, “I remember hearing (Robinson Helicopter Company founder) Frank Robinson once say, ‘hit ‘em where they’re not.’ Most of the things we are doing up here, no one was doing, so that philosophy fits RMR quite well.”
Rocky Mountain Rotors is on a hitting streak that two Frank Robinsons would appreciate: the rotorcraft entrepreneur and the baseball hall of famer.