Montana company purchases first civilian-owned CH-47D Chinooks

Billings Flying Service Chinook
Billings Flying Service Chinook, February 18 near Huntsville, Alabama before departing for Montana. Photo by Billings Flying Service.

Billings Flying Service just became the first non-military owner of CH-47D Chinook helicopters. Gary Blain, a co-owner of the company, told Fire Aviation that the process was much like purchasing a used government-owned vehicle. He submitted a $6.5 million bid for two of them and it was accepted.

Columbia Helicopters has BV-234 Chinooks, but this is the first time the higher performance CH-47D models have migrated into the civilian world.

On Wednesday and Thursday Mr. Blain and another pilot flew the two Chinooks from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to the company’s facilities south of Billings, Montana near the Yellowstone River.

Anything you do with aircraft is expensive. Mr. Blain said they spent $32,000 for fuel during their two-day trip, with an overnight stopover in Norfolk, Nebraska.

In about four months they expect to have one of them outfitted for wildland firefighting, with the other coming on line next year. He said with an external bucket the ships could deliver 2,500 gallons of water. They have been consulting with the manufacturer, Boeing, and are considering installing an internal water tank with a snorkel and water pump for refilling the tank. The Chinook has an unusually high capacity for electrical accessories, so they are looking at either an electrical or a hydraulic pump. The water would exit the tank either from the rear ramp or through a hole cut in the belly. We asked if the tank would be similar to the RADS tank pioneered by Aero Union, and Mr. Blain said that if they choose the internal tank option they would probably work with Boeing to engineer something new.

Billings Flying Service Chinook
Billings Flying Service Chinook, February 18 near Huntsville, Alabama before departing for Montana. Photo by Billings Flying Service.

When operated by the military the Chinooks have a three-person crew, two pilots and an engineer-type who monitors gauges and interfaces with passengers. Billings Flying Service will not haul passengers, so they will reconfigure the cockpit making it possible for two pilots to handle everything. They will also install a bubble window to improve the visibility when flying external loads.

The company expects to hire at least 15 new employees to complete the work on the two helicopters. They will also construct a hanger for the ships, either at their headquarters or at the Billings airport.

Billings Flying Service is a second generation helicopter company and currently has one Bell 212 on an exclusive use firefighting contract and three Sikorsky S-61s and two Bell UH-1Hs on call when needed contracts. In addition to aerial firefighting, they are experienced in aerial construction, power transmission line construction, equipment transportation, geo-seismic exploration and passenger air charter.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Dick and Steve.

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16 thoughts on “Montana company purchases first civilian-owned CH-47D Chinooks”

  1. I’ve been under a 234 with a 150 long line and it was quite windy. Wouldn’t rotor wash be an issue with a tank system? Just thinking out loud…….

    1. Good point. Test where conducted with the external tank suspended under a CH 47 (Guard Stockton) forty feet below the aircraft. The (Guard calls them airplanes for some reason??) Tank height above terrain about 60 feet forward airspeed of 50 m.p.h. Depending on surface winds and the amount of solar (fire) heated terrain (hot raising air “gases”) there wasn’t a significant notice of wind speed change or direction on the ground. Still under study; what percentage of rotor-wash dissipation occurs when you inject (drop) about 250 gallons of water (foam) per second traveling at the same airspeed as the helicopter? Probably the best short answer, Don, Air Crane.

  2. You gotta have some kind of courage to make an investment like this! From Uh-1’s and 61’s to Ch-47’s, wow. The maintenance entourage alone is going to be larger for one ship than it is for his entire current business combined. It doesn’t say what sort of a spares kit came with them. At less than 1/10 the price of a Crane, it would appear the acquisition cost reasonable for the potential return. Plus there should be no shortage of ex-military pilots.

    1. I saw those also. I figured some small developing nation would be all over that. Glad to see they stayed at home!

  3. Still three more CH-47’s, four CH-46’s and two P-3B’s on the GSA auction web site.


  4. Wow! What a huge leap of faith. Best wishes for success to all the boys and girls at Billings Flying Service. Can’t wait to see the paint jobs…

  5. I used to fly the CH-47D. After reading this article, I was thinking that Boeing should retrofit the side “door gun” positions with firefighting nozzles for a more accurate delivery of water to fight fires. This application would work great for fighting fires in tall buildings and for hard to reach places in the forest. Just a thought. Great to see the Chinook in action again. Not to mention that they can also be used to drop smoke jumpers as well. A Chinook can also rescue fire fighters as well. Such a great platform for this kind of risky business.

  6. Good to involve Boeing engineers……..

    After all, it is their airframe and I would think they would have SOME kind of idea of what kind of tanking system that meets FAA STC standards without having to reengineer fixed wing tanking into aircraft specific needs and requirements…

  7. My son and I saw these two choppers fly over our farm. We live 30 minutes SE of Norfolk, and I am also a pilot. They were way cool!!! It is unusual to see these around here. The Governor tours only in a Blackhawk….GOOD LUCK you guys. They really sounded good from the ground!

  8. A few years ago WildfireToday presented an article showing an internal tank for the CH 47. The project was called Cooperative Spirit with Cal Fire as the lead agency, Ca. National Guard Chinook Company in Stockton and a private manufacturing firm in central California. Two proto-type tanks where built, one external with redundant slings the other a 2640 gallon fully self contained-motorized internal tank that drops 2000 gallons in less than eight seconds (center hook hole). Two 1100 gallon G.P.M. snorkel pumps with five inch hoses extend out the back ramp of the “47” for filling. The external tank was sold to a private company, the internal tank is waiting “in line” with others for an Army decision? On the web “internal fire tank for the Chinook”, this is the article written by Wildfire Today.

  9. As a long time Chinook Maintenance Officer, Maintenance Test Pilot (20+ and still a Hooker) I certainly hope that this works. However, I know that even the Army does not understand how expensive these things are to maintain. The special tools alone (torque multipliers, track and balance systems, etc) are very expensive to maintain. It is without a doubt, the most capable helicopter on the planet, but there is a certain critical mass of a maintenance footprint that needs to be purchased and maintained. I think the utility and OGP worlds will be watching this closely!

    1. to all of you who doubt, Columbia Helicopters is a private company running 8 Boeing 243’s (now Columbia 243’s) and over 10 Vertol 107-II (now Columbia 107’s). It is possible, may not be easy but it is possible.

  10. I was a CH 47D crew chief and have over 1000 hrs of flight time in it .I am looking for a job working on CH 47D .If you need a crew chief or a repairer I will be happy to work.

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