Between the Delaware River and River Road in Croydon sits a nondescript building surrounded by a carpet of grass and bordered by a strip of woodland.
The building is unlikely to catch a motorist’s eye, with no sign indicating its purpose.
It’s a different story when you look at it from the rear. Wide open garage-type doors reveal a 25,000-square-foot hangar filled with about a dozen stripped-down helicopters of all sizes and colors, all undergoing maintenance or repair.
The site belongs to Sterling Helicopter, a company that has kept its clients flying high for the past 30 years. The Bristol Township location was established about seven years ago and caters to customers ranging from corporate executives to law enforcement agencies, said Mike Anzelone, Sterling’s executive consultant.
Sterling employees work on everything from bubble-front small copters to massive search and rescue “birds,” all sitting on steel pallets designed to put every part within easy reach of workers.
There’s no copter worth less than $1 million in the hangar, and a few are worth upward of $20 million, Anzelone said. Maintenance bills can run into the seven figures.
“For a helicopter that costs $15 million, paying $1 million is a drop (in the bucket),” Anzelone said as he ducked around a tan copter being overhauled for a corporate client. “An engine overhaul alone can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, that takes the ‘odometer’ reading back to zero.”
Sterling also continues to operate from its original location at Pier 36 at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. That’s a fixed-base operation, meaning that pilots can fly in to refuel, park their helicopters, or store them in the hangar. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s MedEvac and NBC 10’s new SKYFORCE are parked there, for example. The Croydon site is private and strictly for repair and maintenance.
Sterling’s Croydon plant employs 22 FAA-certified aviation technicians. The law also requires service centers like Sterling to have an FAA inspector as part of its workforce.
“Maintaining safety is a matter of checks and balances. If we’ve worked on a helicopter, our inspector checks it out before it leaves,” Anzelone said.
Anzelone showed a visitor the range of aircraft being worked on. The largest was a shiny red AW 139 whose interior will be fitted out as a flying emergency room. Ordered by the government of Canada, the helicopter will be used for rescue and trauma cases in the vast remote areas of that country.
Next on Sterling’s to-do list is to make more room for its Croydon service center. Plans include construction of an additional 15,000-square-foot workshop.
“Whether you are someone whose time is valuable and needs to make it from Philadelphia to Manhattan in 25 minutes, or struggling to meet that 15-minute window of life for a trauma patient, helicopters are reliable and safe ways to do so,” said Anzelone, a pilot who learned his skills from Ernie Buehl, who ran a small airfield in Middletown.