Aerial forestry work can be challenging, not only by its very nature but its financial limitations as well. This can be compounded when contract work in forestry is with a helicopter.
As a rule, the helicopter is more expensive to operate than fixed-wing aircraft, increasing application costs. Let the price of fertilizer rise and a down turn in the lumber business occur and a helicopter forestry company can find itself in a dilemma.
Not too many years ago, Provine Helicopter Service found itself in this very situation. Provine Helicopter Service has been based in Greenwood, Mississippi for 28 years. It was founded by Greenwood native, Bob Provine in 1985 when he bought his first helicopter, a piston-powered Bell 47 G3B1. Since then, Provine Helicopter Service has treated over 7.5 million acres of forest, plus right-of-ways, row crops and other aerial work not measured in acres.
In 2002, Provine Helicopters built a specially designed facility at the Greenwood-Leflore Airport. There are offices for administration, as well as crew quarters that allow for sleeping and eating. The facility helps manage more than 30 employees during the peak operating season that has evolved to almost 12 months out of the year.
Part of Provine Helicopters’ business model includes recurrent and safety training, along with pesticide recertification of its pilots at the Greenwood offices. This training has been ongoing since 1990. The Greenwood offices are aptly set up to provide training with its classrooms. Training programs consist of a wide range of topics, including three days of recurrent pilot training seminars for helicopter accident prevention, safe chemical handling and application, as well as having speakers from EPA and various chemical companies.
“A few years ago, I saw the ‘cheese running out’,” is Bob’s way of explaining his realization that Provine Helicopters needed to reinvent itself. The glory days of helicopter work in forestry were changing. Then, with eleven helicopters, the company needed a stronger business plan. Bob saw a gradual decline in forestry work and decided the company needed to start doing business differently.
Even earlier, Provine Helicopters was feeling the trickle down effect of the turmoil of the early 2000s and the aftermath of September 11. “I realized we needed to diversify, while remaining focused on an industry (ag) where we have expertise. We had pilots and helicopters – which had originally been built for people carrying – so we started a Part 135 charter service certified to run an unlimited number of aircraft and pilots,” describes Bob.
“At Provine, we do anything helicopter. We are a helicopter spraying business, whether it be for forestry, right-a-ways, or row crops. We also conduct aerial surveying, charter flights and external load work,” says Bob. “We had to find more ways to use our ships. Now, we can be found working in 12 states or more.
We created a speciality, if the fixed-wing aircraft couldn’t do it, that’s where we focused.”Provine Helicopters can be found treating rangeland in New Mexico and Texas, or aquatic spraying to eradicate salt cedar in Nebraska. The company also contracts for gypsy moth applications in the Northeast, that have included applications around the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
Provine Helicopters has been working the “corn run” before there was one, more than eight years ago spraying corn fields fixed-wing aircraft could not treat. Expanding the scope of the business was not all Provine Helicopters did to reinvent itself. “We found that by using two nurse trucks per helicopter our efficiency went up by 50%,” explains Bob.
“We can now do the work of one and a half helicopters, with twelve nurse trucks for six helicopters compared to when we had eleven nurse trucks and eleven helicopters.”
All Provine Helicopters are Bell Jet Rangers. This simplifies logistics with a commonality of parts and ease of pilots transitioning from one helicopter to another. Each of the helicopters are set up for multipurpose-use and operate under FAA Part 135, Part 137, or Part 133 (external load). Maintenance is outsourced to B&M Aircraft that is located on the ramp at Provine Helicopters’ home base in Greenwood.
Bob Provine says his aviation career started while still in high school. “I grew up watching crop dusters and learned to fly while in my teens.” He graduated high school and attended Mississippi State. However, his interests were more about flying than college.
A flight instructor of his, Gilmore Sims, ran into Bob’s father one day and pointed this out. With his father’s blessings, Bob started spending time with Gilmore flying all over the country in single and multi-engine, fixed-wing aircraft. In 1969, Bob took a job with Kyle-Walker Flying service, a small crop dusting outfit in the Delta, flying a Piper 235 Pawnee in Phillip, Mississippi.
The following year an opportunity presented itself and Bob signed on with Leflore Flying Service to spray and dust with a 450 hp Stearman.In 1973, Bob started a flying service with a Cessna C-188 Ag-Wagon. He was one of the first operators to use the Ag-Wagon.
Nine years later, with an expanding flying service that was now operating two AT-301s, Bob got the urge to fly helicopters. He saw a Hughes 269B advertised for sale and bought it before he knew how to fly it. He had it shipped on a trailer from Arizona to Tupelo, Mississippi, where he took helicopter flying lessons and ultimately flew it back to Greenwood. For three years, Bob built up his helicopter flight time while still spraying with fixed-wing aircraft. “I found local events in the area — air shows, fairs, festivals and such — and contacted them to ask if I could attend the event and offer helicopter rides.
I would give the event a part of my take. I’ve always been a people person and enjoyed getting to meet all kinds of folks at these events. Many of them had never flown and it was a privilege to give them their first flying experience.” In the fall of 1984, Bob was contacted by a business associate who had recently bought into a chemical distribution company. This businessman had been meeting with various firms about doing chemical spraying, but needed a good applicator capable of making very precise applications of non-selective herbicides. “I bought a Bell helicopter in January 1985, outfitted it for spraying and that’s how I got started in the helicopter spraying business.
Over the years, Bob has been active within Mississippi’s ag-aviation serving as a member and chairman of the state’s agricultural aviation board (now abolished). In the 1970s, he served as a pilot director and officer of the Mississippi AAA. Four years ago he served as vice-president for two consecutive years and for the past two years, president of the Association. In 46 years, he has only missed two of the Association’s annual conventions to be a pallbearer.
Bob also serves his community. He has been a past director of the Boys Club of Leflore County. He has led book readings at the Delta Correctional Prison. He is a member and past president of the Greenwood Investment Club that was founded in 1955. Equally important to Bob is his membership in the Church of Nativity (Episcopal) having served on the vestry, Capital Campaign co-chairman and Stewardship Chairman. “The Lord has blessed me with faith, love and hope. It is my duty to spread the “Word” as much as I can,” professes Bob.
Bob recently bought for his wife, Paula (so he can fly it for her) a pristine, one owner, 2002 Schweizer 300C helicopter with less than 250 hours total time. At the end of 2013, Bob will turn the reins of Provine Helicopter Service over to its president, Michael McCool, who has been with the company for 15 years. Bob will stay on as a director and enjoy retirement on his farm beside the muddy Tallahatchie River. “I have lived a blessed life in many ways. Heck, I have already formed a small company for my 300C. I got wild hogs to kill, recon work, pictures to take, aerial photography, you name it,” smiles Bob Provine about the next stage in his life.