Fly day safety.
The most critical concern that can save time, money and stress on a fly day is having control of the work area. Helicopter ski lift construction is becoming more difficult as resorts become year-round destinations and where people are continually on the mountain. If someone is out on their mountain bike, we can’t fly over them with loads of concrete, towers, and other supplies. We have a legal responsibility from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) including rules and guidelines which dictate that we don’t want to fly over people that are non-participating public.
Keeping the area clear by closing trails, utilizing trail guards while we fly back and forth is crucial. Helicopters have a tendency to attract on-lookers, but it can become distracting to the pilot trying to deal with the construction at hand while making sure we’re meeting with legal obligations as well. It may come to a crossroad where we will be taking Google Earth images and say — this is the area that has to be sterile. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet, but there is a level of surprise at some resorts when we request work area closure. They just don’t understand that.. well, it’s dangerous.
How is a plan of action developed?
I have had a lot of experience with many of these teams from the three lift manufacturers. The construction teams and I understand each other, how we operate, and at this point, it can be a simple conversation during the briefing — this is what we’re going to do today, and this is how we are going to do it. That said – there‘s always some new people, and we have a pretty extensive safety briefing because there are a lot of ways things can go wrong and we want to minimize those concerns to the greatest degree possible. If something does go wrong, where are we going to be and what are we going to do?
We have two of the first Kaman K-Max’s we started out with in 2004. These aircraft are built in Connecticut by Kaman Aerospace. We also have a Vietnam veteran Bell UH-1 Iroquois — nicknamed “Huey” and we have four ex-military Black Hawks.
My favorite to fly is whichever one I’m sitting in. Each helicopter has its challenges, and they all have the things you like about them when they’re in action.
Each of the aircraft that are out working in the field has two mechanics that work a two weeks on – two weeks off schedule. There is always a mechanic with the helicopter every day it’s operating. While mostly they are there for preventative maintenance, if something does happen to break, the mechanics are there to fix it immediately so we can get back to work.
We buy the Black Hawks directly from the military. The Black Hawks are still OD green and have “United States Army” painted on them when we fly them home. We tear them completely down to almost nothing, strip the paint, strip all the excess wires out, paint them, and install civilian radios. We have a team of six to eight people here in Sandpoint, ID that are full-time employees and a director of maintenance that oversees the fleet. It is quite a maintenance crew.
Black Hawks before and after the maintenance crew refurbishes.
While on a project — for example, installing a lift in Gatlinburg, TN, one or two of our guys will take off a couple of days ahead of time with our fuel truck and our service trailer that has all our spare parts. Then we fly out with a mechanic to be there at the site with us.
How I got started
My earliest memory is when I got my first ride in a helicopter somewhere around four years old. The ride lasted maybe a minute, and we never got higher than three feet off the ground. I remember thinking — this is fun! I want to do this when I grow up!
I began flying in airplanes because it was affordable and some of the aeronautical experience transfers to helicopter piloting, like learning about airspace and air traffic controls. I got my helicopter pilot license when I was 20 and started off my career as a helicopter flight instructor as most new pilots. It seems odd, but you teach until you have enough hours for insurance to cover you to do other flying work. After that, I went to work for my dad to be able to acquire the first K-Max and start my company. Flying helicopters has been a full-time career since I was 23.
Kaman HH-43 Husky photo credit: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
My dad owned a helicopter company in the timber business for more than twenty-five years as an employer/owner. He owned pre-Vietnam helicopters, like a 1959 Kaman Husky which is similar to a K-Max with the same rotor system but has a much bigger body. His business model for the aircraft focused on timber logging.
Helicopter logging is used in one or two situations or a combination:
1) extremely challenging to access the terrain.
2) environmentally sensitive terrain.
The land may be a steep mountain side or wetland. It may be a combination of both or a unique kind of animal that has its habitat in the area. While there is valuable commercial timber in there, we don’t want to be building a road system. There is a lot of variation, but you fly in and take out maybe 30-60% of the trees, depending on what the management goal is. The goal may be to increase the health of the forest or reduce the risk of wildfire.
The team on the ground will hike through the timber, cut the trees down, cut off all the limbs and the tops, and then cut them into logs. Another crew comes in with cables that they wrap around and hook to the helicopter that will carry the trees from a half to three-quarters of a mile out to an existing road where a truck can access the logs. There, the logs get a final clean-up and get loaded and hauled to a lumber mill.
The crew on the ground will eyeball the size and weight of the logs. A crew member that is good at this can be within 300 pounds of his estimate. Mounted on the aircraft is an electronic strain gauge, so I know the helicopter isn’t lifting more than it’s capabilities.
In this type of work, we are hired by a lumber mill that has bought a timber sale from the U.S. Forest Service. More prevalent in recent years, we work directly for the Forest Service to achieve a land management goal. Right now we are in the second winter of a multi-winter project in Ashland, Oregon where we are working in conjunction with the City of Ashland, the Forest Service and a non-profit to log the city’s watershed. The Forest Service and the city are concerned that if they have a catastrophic wildfire, the fire will destroy the watershed. We’ve taken about 40% of the timber stand out of the woods to cut down on fire fuel and create more space between the trees.
After logging for almost a year, I was looking for fly work that is more challenging, learn a new skill set, and diversify the business. The ski lift community is small and relatively hard to break into for work. The crews on the ground make this installation construction my favorite kind of flying. They are excited and happy to be there. It’s fun to work on that team because there’s nothing there but a bare mountain in the morning and if it’s an average size ski lift, by the afternoon, we’re looking back up the hill, and there’s a brand new ski lift. Some pilots have a knack for this kind of construction work – some pilots don’t. I wish I could identify what the success factor is. We also manage ski run clearing so we can then do the entire project. We come in, cut the trees, fly the trees, deal with the trees and provide a complete solution.
My wife Ammy and I have two kids, ages seven and nine. My family calls Sandpoint, ID home, but we also homeschool the kids so they can travel with us. We just came back from Australia where THI was hired to fight fires.
Brian and Ammy Jorgenson with their MD-530 Helicopter
How’s the weather up there?
Everybody always wants to know what is too much wind. It’s difficult to put a hard number on that because some days when the wind is blowing 10 miles per hour, you can’t find a way to work with it. Other days when it’s blowing 30 mph, you’ve never had a better day. It’s variable — what direction is it blowing from, what kind of terrain is there, what aircraft are we flying today. Whether it’s a Blackhawk, K-Max, or a Huey, all of them handle differently and have particular requirements, so there are not hard and fast limitations in such a dynamic environment.
My very first season I have learned to have much respect for the Colorado Rockies. My first week out, I got caught by one of the afternoon thunderstorms. I watched this storm build up and move towards us and was unprepared for it. I told the guys, I’m going to take one more bucket of concrete up – that was going to finish the hole, and everybody was happy as they were worried we weren’t going to get the job completed. So I took the last bucket up and had just landed –I hadn’t even shut down the helicopter, and a lightning strike occurred less than a hundred yards away. That got my attention, and I always determined that I was not going to let one of those storms sneak up on me again.
Timberline Helicopters, Inc.
1926 Industrial Dr.
Sandpoint, ID 83864