By Silvia Rueda, Photography by Cortland Alloway and Silvia Rueda
Ken, Gunner, and Ana Thrasher are the owners of Heli-Tech Inc., a certified repair facility for MD500 and Sikorsky-S300 helicopters with a dedicated team of engineers and mechanics. Situated in an unassuming warehouse in Panama City, Heli-Tech has been in business for almost 28 years.
The company caters to a niche market by specializing on only two helicopter models. The team handles everything from inspections to entire reconstructions. Heli-Tech’s primary customers are law enforcement agencies and power line companies, but some are also private owners who use helicopters recreationally. “They are small to light industrial helicopters. They like them because of their size and their speed,” Ken says.
Between the MD500 and Sikorsky S300, there are less than 10,000 in the entire world, but the Thrashers stay busy.
“We always seem to be backed up,” Ken says. Component overhaul, parts sales and fuselage repair are on the daily timetable.
Ken and his family are originally from the Tampa area. Ken and Gunner’s father, Jim, became a certified aircraft mechanic as an A&P technician, and Ken followed by becoming one as well on his 18th birthday. The family then moved across the country to start working on helicopters. “We started in San Diego a little over 30 years ago overhauling helicopters for tuna boats,” Ken remembers. Ken and Gunner later became certified single-engine helicopter pilots as well. The Thrashers could have gone anywhere with their business, but decided to put down roots in Panama City. “It’s truly a world-wide market for us. From Turkey to Guam, New Zealand, and everywhere. Every part of the world is touched by these aircraft because of their capabilities,” says Ken. He remarks that Panama City’s surrounding Air Force bases provide an excellent source for finding aircraft technicians. “It was also an economic move that brought us here.
It’s a nice place for that, it’s quiet and we’ve got beautiful beaches,” Ken says.
The MD500 and the Sikorsky S300 were both originally manufactured by Hughes Helicopters. Over the years, the license to manufacture the aircraft has changed hands several times but it is still the original design. “When it comes to aircraft, age really is just a number,” says Ken Thrasher. We have the ability to completely tear down an aircraft and make it as good as new. A new aircraft like this would be about $1.5 million dollars, a used and refurbished aircraft that does the exact same job costs $750,000 to $850,000.”
Ana, Ken’s wife of 32 years, handles organizational tasks and financial aspects. “I wear a lot of hats,” she laughs. Ken and
Gunner are usually hard at work in the warehouse rebuilding aircrafts or working on parts. “My brother and I are true hands-on workers. I never sit in the office.” Ken says. The family’s dedication and passion for their business is undeniable.
Several helicopters in various stages of repair and rebuild are occupying the large warehouse. Several helicopter chassis sit ready to be used for parts. There is a paint booth, several clean rooms, and working areas where parts and engines are reconstructed. Important parts and even pieces as seemingly trivial as a screw are carefully sorted in carts so that workers always know what belongs to each aircraft. Ana can’t think of a single time when a part has been lost or misplaced.
“Aircraft On the Ground” calls don’t happen every day, but when they do, it’s urgent. When a customer calls to announce AOG Heli-Tech often has to deliver a part immediately. Sometimes Heli-Tech can ship the part overnight, but other times Ken has gone to more extreme measures to meet client demands. “I’ve jumped in my own airplane and flown to them or driven my own truck. I also put parts on motorcycles and we’ve had personal friends help when a customer screams AOG. If he or she is close enough, we just start looking for avenues,” Ken says.
In addition to repairs and supplying parts, Heli-Tech does yearly inspections on helicopters as required by the FAA. Heli-Tech also handles pre-purchase inspections. “I am hired to go out and preview the aircraft much like a home inspection is done,” says Ken.
Despite working on only two specific models, through the years frequent changes in manufacturers for the MD500 and Sikorsky S300 have kept the Thrashers learning and doing new things. Ana says, “As the helicopter evolves, in a sense, I’ve just enjoyed doing different things all the time. We all have our own little niche and we work well together.”