PJ Helicopters in Red Bluff
By Melissa Mendonca
Photo: Alexis LeClair
THERE’S A DEGREE OF EXHILARATION for any pilot in flight, but there’s a special brand of excitement for someone in a helicopter with nerves of steel and skills precise enough to carry a lineman to an energized utility pole. At PJ Helicopters in Red Bluff, a family business started in 1968 as an agricultural aviation company, this type of activity has come to encompass about 65% of the business.
“We’ve got a special niche with the power-line stuff,” says Mark Gunsauls, pilot and director of operations, as well as part of a second-generation team that includes his brothers, Mike and David. “We started in 2001 and developed 14 different work procedures with different power companies. We can actually work on a power line with a guy hanging from the helicopter and never have him touch the ground. And we just move them from tower to tower.”
“It’s the highest level of technical/utility work,” adds Seth Gunsauls, director of business development and a member of the third-generation team expanding the company. “It literally could be life or death. We’re performing maintenance on the towers while they’re energized.”
The work, says Seth, is “everything from installation of brand new power lines, to upkeep of existing infrastructures, hydroelectric infrastructure, in some cases nuclear infrastructure, as well as gas.”
The services of PJ Helicopters save time and money for energy companies, as they complete more from the air than they would hauling people and equipment to remote areas on the ground. “We can patrol in the summer over 7,000 miles of transmission,” says Seth, noting that the company was able to support a new construction project in only 10 months which would have traditionally taken three years from the ground.
Now that we are in the throes of fire season, PJ pilots are out in full force doing fire detection and suppression. “Forestry is growing more and more with the drought,” says Seth, “even though we had a wet winter.” From June through November, the company has pilots in four California regions spotting fires daily. “In the five hours they’re getting pretty good coverage,” says Seth. All smoke and active flames are reported to fire agencies.
PJ Helicopters employs a fleet of 26 helicopters and four fixed wing planes, all of which are maintained to rigorous standards by a team of 17 maintenance employees. Most helicopters are commonly referred to as Black Hawks, and have been acquired through U.S. government surplus auction.
All have been in combat and are decommissioned through a highly detailed process. “We were the world’s first civilian commercial operator of the UH-60A (original Black Hawk),” says Seth, noting that PJ refurbishes Black Hawks (both UH-60A and the newer S70) not only for their own use, but for sale to others. One was recently shipped to Australia for forestry use.
“We’re basically repairing it like a classic car,” he says. “We lighten them up as much as possible.” All ballistics, ammunition and high-dollar surveillance equipment are removed before the machine is received. “Once you buy the airframe you have to pass a Department of Defense background check,” he explains. The refurbished machine then must pass inspection by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It’s an absolutely amazing helicopter,” says Seth. “It was built to be as intuitive as possible, as well as redundant and safe as possible. And they perform faster, stronger and will outperform any civilian helicopter that’s out there.
The level of expertise needed to fly and maintain the PJ fleet has brought in employees from across the country, as well as Australia and New Zealand. “Our peak staffing last year was 82 people,” says Seth. The company’s sole female pilot hails from Utah and gets to return to her home state each summer on a fire contract. During the off season, pilots participate in training maneuvers and the mechanics perform deeper maintenance.
Casey Tingley left his job as a golf professional in Palm Springs to relocate to Red Bluff to work for the company as a project specialist. He jokes that he grew tired of the golf gig, but adds that the challenges of PJ have been rewarding. Recently, he says, “In the span of an hour and a half, I had a pilot in San Francisco taking a recently released hospital patient to Colorado.”
The company is constructing its second helicopter hangar and is pleased with the steady growth it has achieved. As Seth Gunsauls puts it, “A large part of our work is to help keep you safe and help keep the lights on.”