Need to get a Bell 430 from Brazil to Bangladesh or send a Sikorsky S-76 from Canada to Nigeria in a hurry? Dave Urban, CEO of Canada-based Direct Helicopter, knows how to do it. He has been shipping rotorcraft for close to two decades and has arranged transportation of more than 2,000 helicopters over that span.
Urban has attended Heli-Expo since 2001 and he decided last year to exhibit his company at HAI’s annual showcase for the first time. He told AIN that the decision proved fruitful, as he contracted for two deals on the show floor. “I’m not talking about 'Oh, I’ll call you in a week,'" said Urban. “I’m talking about giving someone a bank account number and saying, 'Transfer me the money and we’ll get to work today.'” Direct Helicopters has grown its business largely on word-of-mouth referrals, but Urban at least partially credits a surge in activity last year to his first-time Heli-Expo booth exhibit. With 2019’s show taking place in Atlanta, he recalled discussing his services with many operators from the Southeast and Gulf Coast.
While the company will truck a helicopter from Louisiana to Vancouver, Canada, Urban doesn't consider that a big job. Over the years, Direct Helicopter’s services have expanded to the point where it can now perform turnkey international shipping with a single phone call. “I insure it, take it apart, load it, do all the shipping," he said. "I'm the importer of record into America, and I pay all the harbor taxes, pay the manufacturer processing fee to U.S. Customs, do the actual customs clearance, do the ISF [iimporter security filings]—we’ll even do title change for you." At the end of the trip, the company will reassemble the helicopter and return it to service.
Urban noted that some of his customers specialize in scouring the Earth for deals on Bell 407s, which they will then bring back to America to part out or sell. “A lot of these guys don’t want to worry about any of this stuff,” he explained. “They just say, 'Dave, I found another machine in England, get it to my hangar in America and just take care of everything.'” While the company’s previous high-water mark for such full-service jobs was around 100 in any given year, in 2019 it blew past that, tallying 143 turnkey deliveries spanning the globe, including several from very high-profile clients.
To accomplish that, Urban has a staff of eight technicians on contract. Over the summer, one of them who was eager to take a major swing at his home mortgage spent three months straight on the road, disassembling, loading, unpacking, and reassembling 22 helicopters, traveling from South America and the U.S. to Africa and Europe and back several times. “It was perfect—he wasn’t sitting on his ass for even one day,” said Urban, who spends much of his time painstakingly coordinating jobs and averages $45,000 a month on labor, hotels, and airline tickets for his staff. “He was either on a plane or turning wrenches.”
To accomplish much of the air shipping, Direct Helicopter relies on Germany-based, family-owned cargo operator Senator International, which operates a small fleet of Boeing 747 freighters on dedicated routes between airports. Urban will have customers fly the helicopters to be transported to those designated airports for disassembly and loading. For those jobs outside the routes, Urban contracts with major air freight 747 operators to transport the disassembled rotorcraft. For less-urgent movements, he uses ocean freight.
Another area where the company has seen strong growth is in its spare-parts shipping business. “That’s something we never pursued,” said Urban, adding that it arose organically from operators asking him for follow-up service for helicopters he'd delivered previously. “If you’ve got a set of blades going from Capetown in South Africa to a shop in California, it’s a hell of a lot better to use me than to use FedEx, which will kill you on price for 17-foot-long blades,” said Urban. He also claims to be able to beat the express package delivery companies at their own game by having a truck ready to pick up a part for an overseas AOG customer first thing in the morning, rather than later in the day. “I can catch those afternoon flights and save my AOG clients six, 12, and sometimes 24 hours, and when you’ve got an AOG, six hours is sometimes life and death.”
Urban estimates performing nearly 500 parts deliveries last year, contributing to a year-over-year doubling of revenues for the company and continuing its strong upswing over the past four years.