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Heli-logging’s High-end Niche

Harvesting top quality timber in BC

217-forestClimbing huge trees with a chain saw in hand may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but for Bridger Schmidt, 23, and Jason Kemmler, 24, it is all part of a day’s work in British Columbia’s helicopter logging business, and as Schmidt puts it, “to us it’s like a sport.”

The pair, along with Kemmler’s dad Sig, are partners in Crofton, BC-based Alternative Forest Operations Ltd. The company, which was formed in December 2004, works with major forest products companies called licensees, which have the right to harvest timber under licence from the BC government. They also work with large contract logging companies that work for the licensees. The licensees and logging contractors hire helicopter logging specialists to extract the timber from remote areas or extremely steep hillsides. The role of Alternative Forest Operations is to prepare the trees for the helicopter crews.

Single stem harvesting is the official name for what Alternative Forest Operations does on a day-to-day basis. In this relatively new form of heli-logging, the quality of the logs is considered more important than quantity, and it is aesthetically pleasing when compared to other forms of logging as the visual landscape remains virtually unchanged. In conventional heli-logging, areas known as ‘blocks’ are clear cut and the cut trees are either lifted individually or in small groups, or they are bunched together on the ground for the helicopter, which lifts the logs and flies them to a landing. Once the logs are delivered to the landing, they are loaded onto a truck for shipment to the mill or a sort facility. In single stem harvesting, the helicopter pilots extract only one stem at a time, leaving most of the hillside intact. This can be an effective form of logging on slopes that may suffer from soil erosion problems if they are clear cut, or for sites that are too steep for clear cutting.

“Because the trees are selectively logged with single stem harvesting, you can’t even tell the block has been logged at the end of the process,” explains Schmidt, pointing to an area where a Helifor Industries Ltd. Chinook helicopter and crew were making the last few turns on a block that was being harvested for the Woss Division of Canadian Forest Products Ltd. on northern Vancouver Island. “This was a perfect scenario for single stem harvesting. They could not clear cut this block due to environmental concerns, but the BC Ministry of Forests allowed them to harvest a percentage of the block. You can’t even tell we were here and in a few years, they can come back and harvest more stems from this same block.”

Single stem harvesting entails four main steps: engineering, climbing, jigging, and flying the wood. Engineering involves the selection process, where each tree that will be harvested is given a number, marked with a coloured ribbon, measured for DBH (diameter at breast height), and highlighted on a map to aid the climbers and jiggers. An engineer determines the height for topping and the weight of the tree, and this information along with the map will be provided to the helicopter pilots. “Everything is on the map and it has to be crystal clear,” explains Schmidt.

During the climbing phase, typically a crew of four or five climbers works with a ground man who provides support. The climbers complete all of the preparation work. They start at the bottom of the tree, cutting off the limbs with a specialized chain saw as they ascend the tree using tree spurs, a harness and a wire core rope that goes around the tree with both ends attached to the climber. When the climber reaches a specified height, they top the tree before rappelling to the ground with the help of 200 feet of climbing safety line.

Jigging is the actual cutting of the tree and is done by a certified professional faller or a faller trainee under the supervision of a certified faller. A jigging table is used to calculate how much of the tree has to be left to keep the tree standing, but still allow the helicopter to easily break off the tree from the stump. “We need to know how much wood to leave,” says Schmidt. “This works on a diameter-to-height ratio and is an area that FERIC (Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada) has done extensive research into. Typically, we cut each side to 1.5 centimetres, leaving the sap wood and boring out the centre of the tree, and this is enough to keep the tree standing until the helicopter breaks it off.”

In the flying phase, a specialized helicopter and a crew of two (pilot and co-pilot) use the map to find the trees, which are now called stems. They use a grapple that is on the end of a cable to securely grip the tree and then break it off before flying it to a specified landing, which is determined by the end use and destination of the log. The pilots start from the lowest elevation in the block and work up, taking the lighter trees at the beginning of the cycle while they are carrying more weight in fuel, and then taking the heavier trees as their fuel level decreases. Each cycle lasts approximately one to one and a half hours with the helicopter touching down at a service landing for approximately 15 minutes between each cycle for fuel and a safety check of the equipment.

Single stem harvesting accounts for only a small percentage of BC’s helicopter logging business, but as Gary McDermid, president of Vancouver-based Helifor ,notes, it is generally reserved for higher-value timber. “Single stem harvesting is a little more expensive than conventional heli-logging because of the preparation work, so you tend to see it used where you can recover extra value. This would be in areas where the value of the logs is worth the extra cost, or where you have highvalue logs that would get damaged with conventional heli-logging methods.”

John Smith, marketing manager for Delta, BC-based Canadian Air- Crane, agrees. “There is no point in flying low-value wood out of the bush,” he says. “When we clear cut and bunch the wood, we have a choice as to what we put under the helicopter. With single stem harvesting, we don’t have that choice. If we put high-quality, big wood under the helicopter, it can be cost effective. If it is smaller wood, it tends not to be cost effective. For single stem work, we find the bigger the trees, the cheaper the process is per cubic metre.”

Another major player in BC’s heli-logging industry is Hayes Forest Services Ltd. in Duncan, on Vancouver Island. Hayes, which is involved in most aspects of BC’s coastal forest industry from harvesting to forest management systems, owns and operates a fleet of three Sikorsky S-61N “Shortsky” and several Bell 206 helicopters for heli-logging, firefighting and construction. Although company president Donald Hayes says they can do single stem harvesting, economics dictate conventional heli-logging for most of the company’s helicopter work. “We are always looking for opportunities to do single stem heli-logging, but they don’t come up very often for us right now,” he explains, adding that both conventional and single stem work are very competitive. “Any form of helicopter logging is an appealing option for highvalue, hard-to-access timber. World markets are extremely competitive at present and there just has not been as much demand for this specialized product. We’re hoping that things will recover, but meanwhile we are putting a huge focus on cost reduction through innovation in our heli-logging operations.”

To help drive down the cost of heli-logging, Hayes has instituted several internal programs including its “iperform” program, which is a continuous improvement program that closely monitors heli-logging productivity. “We can measure our productivity down to the second,” notes Hayes. “We are now beginning to see some very exciting results from our work and we are moving closer to our goal of making heli-logging more attractive in the marketplace by actually reducing costs incrementally.”

With the industry being so competitive, the equipment choice a company makes can be crucial to the bottom line. Helifor, which was recently acquired by a Canadian affiliate of Columbia Helicopters, has five heavy-lift machines including Boeing Vertol 107 and Boeing Chinook 234 models. The Chinook has a lift capacity of 28,000 pounds and a practical working load of 25,000 pounds (one hour of fuel) while the smaller Vertol has a lift capacity of 10,500 pounds and a practical working load of 9,000 pounds (one hour of fuel). Helifor factors in weight, distance, fuel consumption and the number of turns required for the block when selecting the most costeffective aircraft to use for a job.

Canadian Air-Crane runs four Sikorsky S-64 Aircranes. The S-64E model can handle loads of up to 20,000 pounds, while the S-64F model can move up to 25,000 lpounds That is eight to 14 cubic metres of wood respectively per turn, depending on the species and how much moisture is in the logs. At Canadian Air-Crane each aircrane is treated as a separate business unit with each aircraft having four pilots and six or seven engineers who look after the field maintenance and refueling. For major service work, Canadian Air-Crane and Helifor work with their US affiliates – Erickson Aircrane for Canadian Air-Crane and Columbia for Helifor, while Hayes does all of its own servicing and completes contract service work for other helicopter companies at its Duncan location.

Finding qualified pilots for heli-logging can be a challenge due to the amount of experience required for the job. Canadian Air-Crane’s chief pilot, Bob Hawthorne, says they won’t take anyone with less than 5,000 hours of experience. “Anyone flying for us has to hold an airline transport rating and have at least 5,000 hours and the majority of those hours have to be with external load operations,” he explains. “We need pilots with this experience because it is a complicated helicopter to operate and because of the challenges of heli-logging. It is vertical reference flying so our pilots have to have good situational awareness and good peripheral and visual clues. Good health is also important as it is a physically demanding job that is hard on the body, particularly the back, neck and eyes. Our pilots must have excellent hand-to-eye coordination, and they have to learn to anticipate load movement and the helicopter’s reaction to that movement.”

Because of the amount of concentration and physical stress to the body, Hawthorne says Canadian Air-Crane’s pilots switch between the left and right seat of the aircraft every 60 minutes. “It takes a lot of energy to work in this field and you have to be thinking ahead all the time. When our pilots pick up their first load, they are already looking for their second target so that when they return from dropping the first load at the landing, they know where they are going next. They are always reading ahead and they have to have a game plan.”

At Helifor, McDermid says they prefer to hire pilots with 1,000 to 1,500 hours of flight time and then train them for the company’s aircraft. “We hire, assess and then train our pilots. We like them to have some experience when they come to us and then they will fly with us as a co-pilot for 2,500 to 3,000 hours before we start training them as a logging pilot.”

In terms of the future of helicopter logging, McDermid contends it will always be part of BC’s logging industry. As for single stem harvesting, such as what Alternative Forest Operations is doing, he says there is definitely a place for it. “I don’t think single stem harvesting will be the mainstay of our industry, but I think it will always have a place, and for us, it is another tool in the toolbox that we can turn to when we need it.”

Canadian Air-Crane’s Smith says that as lower elevation and easy-to-access timber on BC’s coast is consumed, the amount of heli-logging required will increase. “As we get into rougher and steeper terrain, the need for helicopters will continue to grow as you can’t build roads into many areas due to environmental concerns and geographic limitations, so helicopter logging in one form or another is the way to access this timber.”

Canadian Air-Crane is betting on this continued need for heli-logging and Smith hints that the company is close to introducing new equipment that will help change how they do business. Although right now 1,500 metres is the accepted limit for flying logs due to economic considerations, new methods such as Canadian Air- Crane is working on will allow the helicopters to fly further and still remain competitive. “We are working on new technology that will allow us to be in the forefront of our business by providing us with competitive solutions even though the timber is getting harder to access,” he says.