In 1961 James B. Burr was pursuing a master's degree in business administration at Brigham Young University. His thesis paper identified the need for helicopter service in the Intermountain Area.
Burr's professor was unimpressed with the paper. He gave Burr a C minus and said he thought the figures used to support the proposal were fudged.Today Burr is president and founder of Rocky Mountain Helicopters Inc., which has revenues in excess of $70 million per year and operates, among other enterprises, the largest fleet of air ambulances in the world. The figures weren't fudged.
In addition to its hospital-based aeromedical service, the Provo-based company is engaged in energy exploration, logging, construction, wildlife forestry and topography surveying. Rocky Mountain Helicopters helped repair a burst water pipe in Provo Canyon, install ski lifts at Sundance and Park City and install telephone transmission microwave stations throughout the state.
In its more unusual jobs, "We've moved sheep and bear from one side of a canyon to another," said Don Andrews, vice president.
Rocky Mountain Helicopters has a fleet of 113 aircraft around the globe and 600 employees in the United States - 200 employees in Provo.
But Rocky Mountain's aeromedical program is the heart of the company.
"When the oil market fell apart in the early '80s, we had a foothold in the Emergency Medical Services industry and were able to capitalize on that," Andrews said.
Helicopters Unlimited began operating the first "airborne emergency room" in the country at St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver in 1972. It took six years for the concept to catch on in the rest of the industry. In 1974 Helicopters Unlimited was purchased by Rocky Mountain Helicopters.
But growth in the aeromedical field since then has been "exponential."
The company provides medical helicopters, trained pilots and aircraft maintenance service on a contractual basis to 42 hospitals in 31 states. Helicopters - straight from the German Messerchmitt-Bolkow Blohm factory outlet in Pennsylvania with nothing but primary paint and a temporary radio - are reconfigured at the RMH Completion Center at the Provo Municipal Airport to meet hospital specifications.
"Every hospital is a little bit different," Andrews said. "The interiors are configured to the hospital's mission, be it trauma, cardiac care, whatever."
The Completion Center houses avionics, upholstery, fabrication, engineering, drafting, painting, metal working, equipment testing and research and development facilities.
"We don't want to job out anything we can do ourselves," Andrews said. Controlling all aspects of configuring the aircraft allows Rocky Mountain to control time and quality requirements as well.
Helicopters are outfitted with requested communication and navigation systems, special floors that prevent body fluids from leaking through the aircraft, stretchers, oxygen tanks, special seats, etc. The craft are also painted in the hospital's colors.
"We're doing the rest of the job that would have been done at the factory."
Reconfiguration of the helicopters takes 90 days; finished helicopters are worth between $700,000 and $2.8 million. Each helicopter comes back to Provo and goes through an intensive maintenance inspection after 1,200 hours of flight time.
"Safety is very important to us," Andrews said. "Our reputation depends on how safe we are and how well we work."
Rocky Mountain Helicopters has four major competitors in the aeromedical field.
"We are by far the leader in the number of contracts and, I like to think, in the quality of service (we provide) as well," Andrews said.
Jim Burr's corporate philosophy states Rocky Mountain Helicopter's mission succinctly: To provide the best aviation support services in the world.
So far, Burr is getting an A.