The Liberty Gazette
January 1, 2013Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: It was the late 1940’s in Louisiana and Jack Lee’s problem was common amongst his fellow oilmen: traversing rugged country to potential drilling sites proved challenging for seismology crews. When Texas and Louisiana began developing oil rich coastal lands following WWII, the 4-wheel drive jeeps, trucks, and swamp buggies the crews used often got stuck in the marshes and mud, making for difficult and dangerous travel. Lee, president of a seismology company, wanted a solution to this dismal situation. He approached Robert L. Suggs and M.M. Bayon with an idea: use helicopters to carry crews and equipment to job sites. Three Bell 47D helicopters and a workforce of eight kicked off Petroleum Bell Helicopters, Inc. Today’s Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. is known simply as PHI.
Before long, a wide spectrum of companies in the Gulf Coast oil business lined up for services from the small start-up, each with its own unique needs. By 1952, the then three-year-old company had spread beyond the Continental U.S., supporting drilling operations in Bolivia, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Greenland. Acquiring larger helicopters that could lift more and fly further, PHI was the first helicopter company able to support rapidly expanding offshore oil drilling, which they still do today. There are people here in Liberty who have flown to an oil rig on one of many PHI helicopters.
PHI flourished under the leadership of Robert Suggs. After his passing in 1989 his widow, Carroll, assumed leadership of the company and it has thrived even in poor economic times through sound business decisions and adherence to a strong diversification plan. Carroll made customer service and a commitment to safety the company’s priorities. The helicopters are painted a distinctive yellow as much for safety as for brand recognition. Lots of businesses claim “safety is number one,” but PHI has achieved an enviable record earning them many recognitions, perhaps most notably the FAA’s High Flyer Award.
PHI’s inventory of choppers has grown and shrunk with the demand for service over the years. At one point in the 1980’s 417 PHI helicopters were in operation, the largest non-military fleet of helicopters in the world. That would mean somewhere around 2,000 rotor blades spinning around in the air, working to support energy, mining, and other industries. And all those rotor blades require frequent inspection and preventive maintenance. Today, with tens of millions of hours flown, a widely diversified fleet provides services to oil fields around the world and in the aeromedical industry as well. It takes a huge maintenance facility and highly skilled mechanics to keep those rotors blades running millions more hours, and PHI, now based in Lafayette, Louisiana, offers their outstanding maintenance service to other helicopter companies.
Linda: Though now we have more roads allowing better access to drilling sites, the Gulf Coast still presents challenges. As a team, Lee, Suggs, and Bayon created an industry which is now populated with competition, but PHI is the grand-daddy of them all in both longevity and size. When next you see a large yellow helicopter overhead, think of Jack Lee who saw a need and found a way to fill it, and of Carroll Suggs, whose entrepreneurial skill carried the company through rough times to find solutions.
Happy New Year from Team Ely. May 2013 be your year to fill a need, find a solution, achieve success.