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ND Aviation Parts Firm Eyes Colombia Expansion

Dakota Air Parts, which occasionally supplies Hollywood with helicopters for dramatic crash scenes, could soon be helping to catch Colombia's drug lords.

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A Fargo aviation parts company that occasionally supplies Hollywood with helicopters for dramatic crash scenes is aiding Colombia with a mission that is all too real: a war on drugs.

Dakota Air Parts specializes in the so-called Huey and other Vietnam-era helicopters, some of which have been employed in Colombia to combat the illegal drug trade. Company president Barbara McConn said Dakota Air Parts takes "red, white and blue" pride in supporting the cause in the South American country.

"We are keeping the helicopters flying there safe," McConn said, adding that the company has been embedded in Colombia for several years.

She's now looking to expand her business there, thanks to the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement that was approved in October. The deal would eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of consumer and industrial products exported to Colombia, which would include aviation parts.

"That can only help us from a competitive standpoint in penetrating the commercial Colombian helicopter market," McConn said.

McConn was one of several Fargo-area business leaders who met with international marketing experts this week to discuss an October trade mission to Colombia. Heather Ranck, the North Dakota director of the U.S. Commercial Service, said a six-month head start is needed to research opportunities and arrange contacts in Colombia.

"You can't just jump on the plane and hope for the best," Ranck said.

While most of the new North Dakota opportunities will be related to agriculture, Commercial Service officer Tanya Cole noted that Colombia is spending money on aviation, including construction of a new airport in Bogota.

"Aviation services and equipment has been one of the significant exports from North Dakota to Colombia," Cole said. "I'm hoping to get North Dakota more connected in terms of commercial opportunities in the aviation sector."

Cole said she recently had a ride over Colombia in one of the Hueys.

"I would equate it to a nice roller coaster ride, when you're enjoying some of the dips and dives," she said, smiling.

Dakota Air Parts sells aircraft, turbine engines and spare aviation parts to buyers in about 30 countries. The company has about 50 employees in three locations, including 35 in Fargo, where it moved its base from Texas in 1994.

The Hueys make for spectacular images on the big screen, especially when they crash and burn. McConn's helicopters have been featured in several movies, including "Munich," a film about the 1972 Summer Olympics produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, and "The A-Team."

One of the Dakota Air Parts choppers went down in the 2008 Batman movie, "The Dark Knight."

"That was a fiery scene," McConn said.

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