Clear for Take Off

With a hangar stuffed with helicopters and spare parts, the sky's the limit for Eric Chase of Mansfield Heliflight Inc. in Milton

by Craig Bailey

Every business has its ups and downs, but when Eric Chase founded Mansfield Heliflight Inc., he was banking on them. In the 15 years since Chase started his helicopter company, aircraft maintenance and sales have overshadowed flight services, his original focus. What hasn't changed is the owner's love of flying and his conviction that, in the face of other career opportunities, aviation is where he belongs.

Mansfield Heliflight has shifted focus over the years from flight services to maintenance and sales. Eric Chase travels the world to purchase helicopters and ships them to his Milton facility for resale.

Chase, 37, seems surprised the business he founded as a 23-year-old college student has grown into what it is today. He says Mansfield Heliflight is one of a handful of "blue chip, viable companies" in this sector of aviation; the firm employs five people and grosses as much as $1.5 million annually. "It's very difficult to make money in aviation," he offers from the front office of his Reynolds Industrial Park facility in Milton. "That's a standing joke: How do you make a small fortune? You start with a large one in aviation.</>

"It's not a very forgiving business. You're talking about high overhead," he says. "You're subject to federal regulations and things are very expensive.

"When I look back on it, it's a fairly large accomplishment," he ponders. "We got there; we made it; we kind of fumbled through it. Now, even though we're still small, we're recognized worldwide."

Chase started in aviation as a 15-year-old taking airplane flight lessons at a grass strip in his hometown of Shelburne. "It was the age-old big scarf, goggles and the romance of flying" that pulled him in, recalls Chase.

"I went to UVM and I was pre-med, like everyone else who's out there," he jokes. "I would have been a fourth generation UVM med student. I went two years and I really wasn't that interested in it."

Switching over to an art major --studio art emphasizing sculpture and three-dimensional work was his concentration -- Chase continued to fly as a hobby throughout his time at the university. The turning point came when he met Jeff Gear, the husband of an employee of Chase's father, Burlington ophthalmologist David S. Chase.

Gear, a commercial helicopter pilot, took Chase for a flight in the mid 1980s and planted the seed that owning a helicopter could be profitable. Without a stitch of research -- "If I did any market research, I wouldn't be here today," he quips -- Chase founded Mansfield Heliflight in 1986, his junior year. A local bank loan helped him purchase his first aircraft: a $30,000 Robinson R-22 he kept behind Gear's Charlotte home.

Chase's helicopter license was still a few years away. Instead of flying, he hired Gear and other pilots to do the work behind the stick, while he focused on marketing the business from his apartment. Conveniently, his college work meshed with his ramp-up: Chase designed letterhead, signs and other promotional items as senior projects at UVM.

A couple of years after his start-up, Chase landed the contract he cites as the one that made Mansfield Heliflight viable. For approximately eight years, starting in the late 1980s, Mansfield flew 3,200 miles a week inspecting AT&T's buried trunk cables throughout New England and in one Midwestern sector. From the air, the cable lines look like paths cut through the forest. "We'd fly those on a daily basis making sure people weren't digging them up," Chase explains. "That was probably 90 percent of the business."

With the AT&T contract, Mansfield was flying many times more than Chase's original projections, with aircraft based in a few New England states and Chicago. When the contract came to an end in the mid '90s -- the victim of more reliable, redundant technology, and dwindling funds following the break-up of AT&T -- the owner took it in stride. "It was a great contract, but it probably held us back," he offers, adding it's difficult to construct a growing business solely on flight service in Vermont. "It's profitable. The problem being, it's not really profitable in Vermont," he says. "You have to have enough volume to make it work."

Practically since his business's inception, Chase had been dabbling in an aspect of aviation that proved more profitable: helicopter maintenance and repair. The economics became obvious the first time Chase paid to have his chopper repaired, within a year after he founded his business. The bill was nearly 10 percent of the craft's cost. "It was really obvious that if you were going to make it," he says, "you had to be have control over what was going on."

The second time he had a repair problem, Chase worked on the machine himself. He acted as an apprentice under Gear, a rated mechanic, until he became certified a couple of years later. "Like every other kid growing up I played with cars. I bought and sold cars; I repaired them. I was familiar with tools and I spent my whole life breaking things," he laughs. "I always had an interest in mechanical stuff, so it came pretty easy."

Furthermore, Chase thinks working on aircraft or race cars, a recent hobby, runs parallel to sculpture: "It's all the same drive. It's a little bit more controlled expression of art," he offers.

The company has outgrown its space in Reynolds Industrial Park, and plans to move to new facilities it will build within a year on Gonyeau Road. Office staff consists of Tina Lindberg (left) and Rae Anne Bushway.

Mansfield Heliflight moved out of Chase's domicile shortly after its genesis. After relocating from one office to another -- including time at the Burlington International Airport -- Chase is happy to be in Milton, the company's home for several years. "We're doing our own thing," he says. The airport, Chase adds, "viewed the small operator as a big airline. They wanted to charge me outlandish amounts of money to operate, which didn't make any sense."

The biggest disadvantage was the loss of visibility when the company moved from the airport. By not being in sight of corporate jet-setters, Chase figures he loses business from clients who might otherwise discover Mansfield Heliflight when they see it on the tarmac. (The number of potential customers likely to spot the Russian Komav KA-26 helicopter, a show piece that sits outside Chase's facility on Gonyeau Road, is small!)

He still flies for AT&T, perhaps once a year. He estimates he might take up 200 to 500 clients annually, each paying $200 to $800 an hour, depending on the size of the craft. Most of his clientele are media organizations looking to photograph news stories. Many find him through the state chamber of commerce, Yellow Pages or the Vermont Film Commission.

Crews from as far away as Japan have hired him while producing stories on Champ, the creature that might or might not inhabit Lake Champlain. Chase does his share of work for film companies as well, such as helping scout locations for this summer's major release "What Lies Beneath."

Unusual jobs have involved requests to fly pets to winter homes in Florida, taking skydivers up, or dropping golf balls for an annual charity event at a local course.

"We've had guys who have called us and they want to go visit their friend," Chase relates, "who just happens to live near a prison." Rather than become unwittingly involved in a jail break --it's happened to other flight services, Chase says -- he always declines.

"Right now we don't fly that much; I haven't been promoting it," Chase offers. "We've been so busy doing the other stuff."

These days most of his business is buying, repairing and reselling helicopters -- the payoff for years of teaching himself the ins and outs of the trade. The work takes Chase out of the country on a regular basis, tracking down helicopters he'd like to buy across the globe. Prices typically run $100,000 to $700,000, but can exceed a million dollars. Including the company's stock of parts, Mansfield Heliflight has $2 million of inventory in its 5,000-square-foot hangar overflowing into several storage containers out back.

"We have a pretty good grasp of the entire world network," he says. "I deal with people in the morning in Europe and Africa, and in the afternoon and evenings in New Zealand and Australia." Contacts with a network of brokers and advertising in trade publications helps Chase market his wares.

"The last big helicopter we sold was Idi Amin's presidential helicopter. I flew it out of Uganda in South Africa," he says. That chopper's been put to use shuttling workers to and from oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Rather than brokering sales, Chase purchases helicopters with the help of bank loans and has them shipped to Milton where he and his crew work on them. Some might stay in inventory up to a year while they're put to use by the company flying clients or teaching Chase's four flight students. He sells others before he takes possession.

Nearly all the maintenance Eric Chase and his two mechanics perform is on machinery the company owns. From left: Rob Straight, Chase and Paul Ravelin.

"The world is full of brokers," Chase says, but "it's always very difficult to sell something that you don't own." Doing it his way, he says, he gets "a better upside, but the cash flow is a big roller coaster. The acquisition costs are very high. When you start to hold a lot of inventory, it gets expensive. ... We just bought seven aircraft out of Indonesia; we're in the middle of buying three out of Mexico."

Chase jokes he always hoped to retire before 30, but says he has plans to expand his business while restructuring it so the company no longer relies so heavily on him.

He believes the business could easily grow to $5 million to $10 million a year. One step in achieving that goal is a move planned within a year to property Chase purchased up the road. He hopes to build a 20,000-square-foot facility on the lot, beef up his sales staff and begin a marketing push for more flight business. One focus will be the state.

"You go to California and every single police department has its own flying wing," he says. Chase would like to see Vermont establish an aerial wing for police work, transporting state officials, and search and rescue. "I would either help support in training or we would do all their maintenance for them.

"You're probably looking at a half a million to $1 million a year to start the program," he says. "A lot of people think it's just a luxury. ... They don't know what they're missing, so they don't do it." Chase has been in contact with state officials over the years about his ideas, but has made little headway. "The problem I have is I'm not really versed in all the politics," he admits.

For now Chase is grateful to be in a position that affords him an occasional adventure. "I've traveled all over the world. I've flown over the continent of Africa. I've been on adventures ... flying along over the Serengeti in my own helicopter with elephants and giraffes below. That's neat stuff."