With a max gross weight of nearly 29,000 pounds, the Mil Mi-17 is no small helicopter. It is a workhorse that has gained a considerable following in most parts of the world. More than 10,000 Mi-17s and Mi-8s (from which it was derived) have been delivered for both military and civilian roles since the 1960s, including more than 2,400 for export. Some 200 are operating in Central America and the northern countries of South America.
Colombian helicopter operator Vertical Aviation, in operation for more than 20 years, flies 16 Mi-17s, mainly in oil-support operations. It was the first to operate the big 26-passenger Russian turbine twins in the Western Hemisphere and over the last 10 years has put about 75,000 hours on its fleet. Operating costs of the Mi-17 are so low that the company charges only $3,500 per hour, according to Fernando Lopez, president of Vertical Aviation. “If we were operating Eurocopter Super Pumas, which have roughly the same payload, we would have to charge $8,000 to $9,000 per hour,” he told AIN. Vertical’s successful experience with its Mi-17s, including flying troop and goods transport under contract for the Colombian army for about six years, convinced the army to buy its own Mi-17s from Kazan Helicopters. (Kazan in the Republic of Tartarstan has built and marketed Mil helicopters since 1951, including the Mi-17 since 1982. It also developed with Mil the 40-passenger Mi-17MD and 28-passenger Mi-17KF.)
Vertical has an extensive maintenance operation at its base in Bogota, but Mi-17 overhauls had to be done in Russia. The work typically takes nine to 12 months, including transportation time, said Lopez. Not only does this mean the aircraft is out of service for this time, but shipping the aircraft to Russia also incurs high transportation and insurance costs and importation duties, not to mention a considerable degree of uncertainty.
Seeing the present and growing market for Mi-17 overhauls, and with Kazan’s support, Vertical added 60,000 sq ft of hangar space, bought the tools and equipment required and hired 45 Russian Mi-17 technicians. Two years ago the company secured its first large non-domestic contract to overhaul the Mexican navy’s 17 Mi-17s. To bid on the contract, Vertical formed Heli-Taxi in Mexico, a 50-50 joint venture with a group of Mexican partners. Heli-Taxi is now trying to convince the Mexican authorities to allow Heli-Taxi/Vertical Aviation to operate its commercial Mi-17s in the country.
“Our goal is to bring technology to Latin America,” said Lopez. “We can do everything up to engine overhaul, about 90 percent of the aircraft. And we do it in about three months for a cost that’s up to 25 percent less than sending the aircraft to Russia. If it’s urgent, we could do two aircraft in that time, one every 45 days.” He said the company now has a facility in Mexico to support warranty work on the Mi-17s with two Russian technicians stationed there. Heli-Taxi has 10 employees in Mexico, and Heli-Taxi/Vertical has about 300 employees in Colombia, although the Mi-17 overhauls are done only by the Russian technicians.
Vertical also operates a three-axis Mi-17 simulator it bought from the Russian flight academy three years ago. It’s the only Mi-17 simulator outside of Russia. “When we sent our pilots to Russia before, their training was given in Russian through an interpreter. In Colombia we offer the training in Spanish and now we’re training pilots and technicians from Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Venezuela.” The company has also translated some 32,000 pages of Mi-17 overhaul manuals and other technical information from Russian to Spanish. “We’ve made a big investment in the Mi-17 overhaul work and training,” said Lopez, “but we know there’s a big market for both here in Latin America.”