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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Heliskiing in the Wasatch

A mission that challenges both man and machine, heliskiing nevertheless benefits operators who would otherwise have helicopters sitting idle over the winter. For Wasatch Powderbird Guides, as with most other heliskiing operations, the workload comprises rescue work and avalanche control, as well.

By David Jensen


A Wasatch Powerbird Guides (WPG) Eurocopter AS350B3 comes in for a landing following a ski drop.

For some individuals, downhill skiing on a plotted slope just doesn’t make the adrenaline rush. They seek a greater thrill, above the chair-lifted skiing crowds, to mountain tops on which they can carve their S turns in virgin powder, snow on which no man has tread. To reach such a skier’s nirvana, they turn to helicopters. Heliskiing has become the sport for “powder heads.” It also offers rotorcraft operators commercial use of their aircraft during the winter months, when their helicopters otherwise would probably sit idle in hangars.

At the Snowbird Ski and Mountain Resort in the Little Cottonwood Canyon (about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City), Wasatch Powderbird Guides (WPG) has been transporting heliskiers up the slopes in northern Utah since 1973. It has two Eurocopter AS350 B3 AStars at the Snowbird resort, and another AS350 B3 at Canyon Resort in nearby Park City. WPG is part of a relatively modest-size U.S. helicopter market. Bob Engelbrecht, American Eurocopter’s regional manager for the Northwest United States, Alaska and Hawaii, has attempted to quantify the market and come up with approximately 15 heliskiing operations. “It’s a niche market,” he says, “but it works because operators can put their aircraft to work during the off season.”

The U.S. market is large enough to support a dedicated association. Heliski US began informally in the early 1980s and gained tax-exempt, not-for-profit status in early 2000. It has eight members and two potential members. Upon following the association’s safety and operational guidelines for two years and then being successfully audited, the potential operators will achieve full membership. Heliski US also audits the operations of existing members on a rotating basis every four years, according to Joe Royer, association president and owner of Ruby Mountain Helicopters, in Nevada. By ensuring a safer and more professional operation, the audit process can benefit heliski service providers when they seek insurance.Heliski US members meet at least once a year in the spring to discuss the previous ski season. Issues include safety, business practices, promotional activities and interaction with government agencies. Much of the heliskiing activity takes place on public land. Powderbird Guides, for example, holds a U.S. Forest Service special-use permit to operate within about 100,000 acres in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

But the U.S. heliskiing industry—as well as the industries in other countries—takes a back seat to the one in Canada, which is estimated to garner 90 percent of the global market. Operations in that country generally are larger and employ bigger aircraft. One operator in British Columbia is larger than the entire U.S. heliskiing market. Canadian Mountain Holidays employs more than 20 helicopters, including 13 medium-lift Bell 212s. Canada’s helicopter skiing association, HeliCat, has more than twice the membership of Heliski US.

An AS350B2 ascends after dropping off a heli-skier into some fresh powder.
Lg Trawinski Photo

One reason Canada has the largest heliskiing market may rest in the fact that the sport was pioneered there. The Austrian immigrant, Hans Gmoser, is credited for being the father of heliskiing. He founded Canadian Mountain Holidays and launched a heliskiing operation in British Columbia’s Bugaboo Mountains in 1965. Royer describes the U.S. market as “more intimate” than Canada’s. U.S. operations generally use smaller aircraft—primarily AS350 B2/3s and Bell 407s, both deemed ideal for heliskiing on a small scale. With a 4,000-pound takeoff weight, the 407 can hover out of ground effect (HOGE) at greater than 17,500 feet. The AS350 B3 holds the distinction of landing atop Mount Everest—twice—and has been used to rescue climbers on the 29,000-foot Nepalese peak.

Despite its high-altitude capability, WPG pilots remain weight conscious and mindful of outside temperatures and load size when fueling up their helicopters. “Generally, we fly with about a half tank,” says WPG pilot John Roberts.

Greg Smith, who moved to Utah from Aspen, Colo., launched WPG in 1973. Today, the firm is joined with Powderbird International under the umbrella company, Powderbird Enterprises, which is owned by a group of shareholders. Four of the shareholders manage the operations in Utah. Rusty Dassing (WPG president), Mike Olson, and Kevin O’Rourke are all experienced guides, with more than 70 years of combined experience. The fourth manager, Scott Bedford, is a former ski patrolman and is taking on the arduous task of becoming a lead guide.

Achieving lead guide status is no small task and requires at least five years of experience and training, according to Dassing. A lead guide must assume complete responsibility for a skiing group’s safety and care. In addition to being an expert skier, he must have medical training, experience around helicopters and a keen understanding of weather and snow conditions. Some countries require guides to be certified, but not the U.S. WPG has contracted three AStar B3s. It once operated with a Bell 407, which is “a great aircraft,” according to Olson. “But we chose to standardize our fleet with the rotors going the same direction and the basket [holding the skis externally] on the same [left] side of the aircraft.”

Mountain Air Helicopters of Los Lunas, N.M. furnishes one of WPG’s AStars at the Snowbird resort and the one in Park City. Classic Helicopters Ltd., based in nearby Woods Cross, Utah, supplies the second Snowbird AStar. WPG has had a long-term relationship with Classic. 2010/11 is MAHI’s second season with Wasatch Powderbird Guides. WPG has per-flight-hour contracts with the helicopter operators. Regarding total aircraft use, Olson says, “We shoot for 100 to 150 flight hours per season on each helicopter.” Historically, he adds, “we have about 50 to 70 days of operation per season … and accommodate some 1,500 skiers.”

Why contract with two operators? The answer involves WPG’s quest for a particular aggregate of pilot experience and specified aircraft. “We’re particular about the pilots and aircraft we use,” Dassing explains. “We’ve worked with some of our pilots for many years. They have to be aware of what we do in these mountain operations.” To accommodate Snowbird’s discretion, for example, MAHI hired John Roberts, a former Classic Helicopters pilot who has years of heliskiing experience, five of them with WPG. “Once we establish a relationship with a helicopter operator, we try to stay with them,” adds Olson.

Accompanying each aircraft is a fuel trailer towed by a truck filled with consumable parts. A mechanic based in Park City inspects the Snowbird-based aircraft every other day and is on call for emergency needs.

The two MAHI AStars have skis on their skids, while the Classic helicopter has bear paws, which are pads placed toward the rear of the skids. “Both are good,” says Spencer Wheatley, WPG’s chief guide and operations manager. Skis offer the advantage of keeping the helicopter atop fluffier snow, but bear paws are often preferred on icier snow (more common in Alaska) because they allow the front of the skids to dig in.

Mountain Flying

Helicopters can take skiing enthusiasts to the tops of mountain peaks unreachable by other methods.  Lg Trawinski Photo

Piloting experience is critical for a mission that involves numerous takeoffs and landings, at high altitudes, over rugged terrain and in ever-changing weather conditions. Add the responsibility of safely transporting customers in such conditions, and you describe a distinctive use of rotorcraft.

WPG excursions regularly take the AStars up to elevations exceeding 11,000 feet. A single aircraft can routinely serve three groups of skiers a day. Each group comprises up to eight skiers and two guides. For each run, the aircraft takes up half the group (a guide and four skiers), then returns to transport the other half. Each full group may make seven or eight runs a day. All told, a helicopter may make well over 100 takeoffs and landing a day.

Of course, some days the aircraft remain grounded. If falling snow limits visibility beyond 5,000 feet (or 2,500 feet providing flight is no longer than 15 minutes), the AStars remain on the ground, a precaution against an engine ingesting snow. Since snow and cold obviously prevail in a ski environment, the WPG AStars fly “about 65 percent of the time,” according to Roberts.

When the helicopters do operate, WPG pilots face three hazardous conditions, Roberts adds. All involve limited visibility. Most prominent is “flat light,” when cloud cover creates a blank white landscape that attenuates ground references, making it difficult for the pilot to determine the aircraft’s height above ground, even whether it is moving laterally. “You can roll the aircraft over because you may moving sideways and not know it,” Roberts explains.

Equally threatening is “bright out,” which usually occurs in the spring, when the sun is more directly overhead, eliminating shadows that might give pilots ground reference. The hazard is the same as with flat light. The third hazard is blowing snow from the rotor downwash that temporarily obstructs the pilots’ view. With all three threats, the pilot may look for a dark object, such as a rocky outcropping, or a planted stake with an attached flag for reference. WPG has marked many landing sites with flags. When picking up a ski group that has finished its run, the pilot looks for the guide, who secures a safe landing spot. To capture the pilot’s attention, the guide may place fluorescent orange carpenters chalk on the snow. “Our job is to make sure every landing is safe and level,” says Olson.

The guide kneels in a position to identify exactly where the helicopter should land. He therefore provides a ground reference that the pilot can view out the windscreen while lowering the aircraft to the ground. Meanwhile, the skiers are huddled near the guide so as to wind up next to the helicopter’s ski basket, a location considered safer than at the outer diameter of the main rotor.Skier familiarization of helicopters is critical, and WPG has its customers go through no fewer than three safety orientation sessions prior to a day of skiing. First, in the morning, the skiers learn how to use an avalanche transceiver, sometimes called an “avalanche beacon.” This strap-on transceiver sends out a pulse from which rescuers can pinpoint the location of a skier buried in an avalanche or in need of medical assistance.

The second session takes place at the helipad, where the skiers learn about loading and unloading and “what they can and cannot touch” in the helicopter, notes Olson. Finally, at the top of the run, the skiers are briefed on what to expect while shooshing down the mountain. The guide is responsible for securing the aircraft before takeoff. He gives the pilot an “all clear,” indicating the passengers and equipment are strapped in place. He then assists the pilot as an extra pair of eyes, looking for traffic and impending weather.

On the ground, a guide maintains communication with the pilot and with other guides using a portable UHF handset, which can link through two repeater towers strategically located on nearby peaks. The guide can tell the pilot where he wants his group to be picked up and communicate weather and avalanche conditions.

Guides and pilots form a unique and critical partnership. For a week prior to each skiing season, WPG staff goes over procedures and equipment to ensure optimum coordination. For example, one procedure is flight following, in which WPG crew report every 30 to 60 minutes to the operations base at Snowbird resort. Failure to report draws a transmitted inquiry from the base. The partnership also is critical for the occasional missions other than heliskiing. The Utah Department of Transportation and other nearby ski resorts have contracted WPG to provide avalanche control. This rather perilous mission has a helicopter crew dropping explosives strategically to trigger an avalanche under safe, controlled conditions.

“This place is famous for its avalanches,” Olson states. “We’ve done as much helicopter-assisted avalanche control as anyone in the world.” The mission has the pilot and one guide serving as the “controller” seated in front. Two other guides, one serving as “bombardier” and the other as “observer,” are in the back. The controller determines the position and sequence of explosive charges. Behind the pilot, the observer makes sure the explosives are safe and contained while in the aircraft. Upon the controller’s command, the observer hands an explosive to the bombardier who, tethered to a hard point on the helicopter’s floor, ignites the fuse, leans out the cabin and drops the explosive clear of the aircraft.

Five or six charges may be dropped in one area, called a “circuit.” The helicopter often is flown no more than a few hundred feet above the ground to assure the explosive are dispersed with pinpoint accuracy. The fuse has a 90-second burn time, allowing an adequate duration for the pilot to position the helicopter in a hover at least a half-mile from the drop site. There the crewmen can assess the results. The Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department also contracts WPG for emergency rescue work. The guides are trained to provide intermediary care, and each helicopter is equipped with collapsible sled (so the guide can tow a injured person down the mountain to a suitable landing site), a folding aluminum backboard, an automatic external defibrillator (AED) and a trauma pack filled with dressings and other medical supplies.

Because about a half-dozen EMS helicopters are located in northern Utah, rescue work represents a small share of WPG’s workload. “We may be able to get to a rescue quicker,” says Wheatley, accounting for the average one or two rescues performed annually. “But then we often transfer the person to a medical helicopter.”

But while Powderbird Guides must occasionally shoulder the somber tasks of mountain rescues and avalanche control, the operation’s main aim is to provide pure pleasure and excitement. Dassing professes with confidence that heliskiing “is the pinnacle of people having fun with helicopters.”

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