JANESVILLE — The bird that helped launch Jim Freeman's company has returned.
After logging thousands of miles and transporting critically injured or ill patients for the past 10 years, one of the helicopters from Waukesha-based Flight for Life is getting a makeover.
The racks of medical equipment have been removed and thousands of feet of wiring are being replaced. A cracked window is being repaired, and a new paint job is in order.
When the Eurocopter BK117 first came to Freeman's company, Helicopter Specialties, it was converted from a standard helicopter to a state-of-the-art air ambulance in a 3,000-square-foot hangar on the south side of the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.
By the time the upgrades are completed later this year, the helicopter will depart from a 28,125-square-foot hangar. The $1.6 million Helicopter Specialities facility is the fourth hangar in the 10-year-old company's history and is twice the size of the existing hangar.
Freeman said the medical helicopter industry has gone from 300 helicopters nationwide in 2000 to 900 this year. Helicopter Specialities has grown along with it.
"We started with nothing," said Freeman, whose first desk was a countertop stacked on two filing cabinets. "We've been hard-working and lucky, and have done OK."
About 75 percent of the company's work is with medical helicopters. Freeman's team of mechanics and technicians are adept at transforming a $5.5 million helicopter into a $7 million lifesaving machine. The company does work for helicopters that serve Milwaukee, Eau Claire and Marshfield in Wisconsin, and as far away as Pennsylvania, Virginia and Colorado.
Some hospitals own their fleets; others contract with vendors. UW Hospital, for example, contracts with Air Methods, a Colorado company that provides pilots, aircraft and support, said spokeswoman Toni Morrissey. However, Helicopter Specialties occasionally provides additional maintenance support for UW's two Med Flight helicopters, Freeman said.
It also does helicopter work for police and fire departments, the FBI, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, corporations and individuals, some of whom use their aircraft for weekend getaways to northern Wisconsin.
The company's existing hangar includes a machine shop, where lightweight but strong aluminum honeycomb is transformed into customized cases and racks for medical equipment; a parts department; a maintenance and avionics facility; and a paint booth large enough for virtually any kind of helicopter.
The new facility will include room for up to 20 helicopters and a skylight that runs the length of the work area and bathes the hangar in natural light. It features larger areas for each department, as well as more office space and storage.
"It's going to be awesome," said Josh Personett, hired last year after graduating from the aviation program at Blackhawk Technical College, which has a hangar and training facility nearby. "We have a lot of aircraft in here."
Freeman's father was a carpenter, and his mother worked part time at a veterinary clinic near their home just west of Beloit. Family trips to Janesville that took Freeman past the airport sparked his interest in flying. After graduating from Beloit Turner High School, Freeman went to Blackhawk Tech to study aviation and was hired as an avionics technician in 1984 by Omniflight Helicopters, founded in Janesville in the early 1960s.
"We'd go back and forth between Beloit and Janesville and (the helicopters) would be out there," Freeman said. "For me, it's a very complicated piece of machinery and as long as you're careful, it's a very versatile piece of equipment that gives you freedom."
Omniflight's air medical services division furnishes equipment, crews and mechanics to hospitals, but in 1992 it moved its technical services division and its 50 jobs from Janesville to its corporate headquarters in Addison, Texas.
Freeman, an avid muskie fisherman, declined the move and began doing contract fill-in work wherever he could find it. In 1995, he began taking courses through the UW-Madison Small Business Development Center and, in 2000, he was asked by Flight for Life to convert a chopper it had just purchased into a medical helicopter.
"He opened at the right time," said Matt Anderson, 39, a helicopter mechanic who works on helicopters stationed at St. Anthony's Hospital in Rockford. "There was a need for it and he marketed himself and then word of mouth helped him succeed, too. He has a quality product at a pretty good price."
Freeman charges $82 an hour plus parts, but unlike the typical car repair, projects by Helicopter Specialities can take four to six months. A single blade on some helicopters, according to Freeman, can cost $400,000. In 2009, the company performed 150 work orders totaling about 50,000 hours.
In 2008, the company was named the Aviation Business of the Year by the Wisconsin Trade Association and in 2007 it was named the Emerging Small Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration of Wisconsin.
Safety modifications to medical helicopters have brought business as operators add ground-warning systems and night-vision equipment.
"Because of what we do, our customers are large fleet operators and we've had to help them with all the additional modifications," Freeman said.
He bought the existing hangar in 2003 after the price went down, and he is taking advantage of lower interest rates and material costs to build the new facility.
Freeman accumulated the funds for the project by using equity, cash, a $100,000 loan from the state Department of Commerce, a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and tax incremental financing.
"We tried to save as much money as we could by chasing down some cheaper money," Freeman said. "Now is the time to buy anything. It's just perfect timing."