HAI Convention News

Columbia stays in the family

 - February 22, 2010, 6:34 AM

The threatened pink workstations are a nonstarter, but Nancy Lematta has her hands firmly on the controls of Aurora, Ore.-based Columbia Helicopters. Her late husband, Wes, who founded the company with his brothers, charted a course that she plans to follow.

“Wes set the tone and I don’t plan any changes other than pink,” she said, tongue firmly in cheek, “and we talked a lot up until the last few months. I knew what he wanted for the company, so there won’t be any major changes.”

Lematta is insisting that Columbia’s board of directors become more organized, perhaps with a couple of additional members. “Wes was not a big fan of board meetings,” interjected Columbia’s president and vice chairman Mike Fahey. “We are becoming a lot more structured.”

Although she became more involved in the company when her husband’s 37-mile-drive to work became difficult because of his Parkinson’s disease, Lematta is no stranger to HAI conventions. She attended the first one in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1963, which she recalled drew about 100 attendees.

After the first time or so driving her husband to work, she quickly became tired of shopping and started sitting in on Columbia’s weekly planning meetings for “a crash course. I realized that something could happen and I’d better know what everything was about.” Although the couple’s four children have been involved with the company from time to time, only daughter Marcia remains with the firm as a marketing executive.

Columbia, which is the only commercial operator of the Boeing- and Kawasaki-built Vertol 107-IIs and Boeing Model 234 Chinook helicopters, wants to develop the Vertol 107-II for use in Part 135 operations. Columbia already is upgrading the Model 234 for that use.

The company holds the type and production certificates, and Fahey said that in time, there is a possibility that demand from other countries might result in a joint manufacturing solution. Lematta and Fahey have already has been in informal talks with Honeywell about powerplants.

Wes Lematta, who died December 24 at 83, and his brothers started Columbia Helicopters in 1957 with a single used Hiller UH-12B in which they offered rides at county fairs. The company grew into a global heavy-lift helicopter operator that today employs 600 and operates a fleet of 30 tandem-rotor Vertol 107 IIs, now rechristened Columbia 107 IIs, and Boeing 234 Chinook 234s, now called Columbia 234 IIs.