Peak Performance

Alpine Helicopters Stays at the Top
Blair Watson
February 23, 2009
By Blair Watson
There are few commercial aircraft operators in this country that have been in business for generations. With 47 years of flight operations experience, Alpine Helicopters of Kelowna is one of them. The company specializes in heli-skiing, heli-hiking, sightseeing tours, forest firefighting, mountain rescue and parks support.

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With bases in Calgary and Canmore, AB and Golden, BC, heli-skiing comprises roughly half of Alpine’s business.

 
Alpine Helicopters was founded in 1961 by Albertans Jack Nicholson and Ted Jansen; the first base was in Calgary. In 1968, the headquarters were moved to Westbank, B.C., on the west side of Okanagan Lake directly opposite Kelowna. Nicholson passed away in 1986 and Jansen subsequently retired. Investors Pat Aldous, who was president of Okanagan Helicopters, and Dave Whyte, Okanagan’s director of flight operations, became president and vice-president respectively when they bought Alpine Helicopters in 1988.

The company’s headquarters consist of a large office, hangar complex, ramp and field adjacent to Highway 97. Driving past, a line of Bell 212HPs parked on the ramp can sometimes be seen, with their rotor blades aligned fore and aft, like rotary-wing sentinels standing at attention. A visit to the facilities reveals the thought and care that has been invested over many years to make them pleasant and efficient for staff. The offices and hangars are clean and orderly. Carts and special frames are used for components and structures. Secure rooms contain engines, transmissions, rotor heads and other parts. Everything has its place. 

Ten years ago, 45 per cent of Alpine Helicopters was sold to Intrawest, “a world leader in the development and management of experiential destination resorts,” according to the corporate website. Two years later, 9/11 and its aftermath negatively affected Alpine’s adventure tourism business, but it recovered by mid-decade. In 2004, the balance of Alpine Helicopters was acquired by Intrawest, which operates ten major North American ski resorts as well as resort villages, hotels and managed properties.  Heli-skiing comprises roughly half of Alpine’s business. The company has bases in Calgary, Canmore, Alta. and Golden, B.C.

Lynda Murdock, who is HAC chair, became president in July 2007. She started her career working for KPMG as a partner for tax and independent advisory services and later decided that she did not want to do accounting for the rest of her professional life. When the opportunity came to join Alpine, she seized it. 

Alpine’s all-Bell fleet consists of four JetRangers, seven LongRangers (L-3s), seven 407s, and 18 212HPs. The company worked with Bell Helicopter Textron on the 212HP project, which involved modifications to the airframe, main transmission and engine control system. The helicopter is powered by Pratt & Whitney Twin Pac PT6T-3B engines (900 hp each) and has a larger tail rotor than that of the non-enhanced-performance 212.

The light helicopters and 407s – considered ‘intermediate’ aircraft at Alpine – are flown about 500 hours per year and the 212HPs between 600 and 900 hours annually. The JetRangers, L-3s and 407s operate from the Canmore and Calgary bases. Bell 407s are based in Golden and the 212HPs work from the Kelowna facility. Heavy maintenance is done at the Kelowna, Calgary and Canmore bases. 

Alpine’s main operations alternate between two seasons: winter (December to April) for heli-skiing and summer (April to September) for forest firefighting. Crews are on duty for two weeks followed by two weeks off. While the 212HPs and 407s carry thrill-seeking skiers to their lofty destinations, the L3s are used in the winter for support roles, flying out fatigued or injured skiers, bringing in supplies, and performing other transport functions.

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Alpine’s main operations alternate between two seasons: winter (December to April) for heli-skiing and summer (April to September) for forest firefighting.
 
Many skiers who end up on one of Alpine’s 212HPs begin their adventure at Calgary International Airport. From YYC, some are flown to airports closer to the resort and others are transported by bus. Because of the remoteness of some of the ski lodges, customers staying at those locations are flown on 212HPs from a gathering point to the resort where the food, accommodations and service are five-star. Skiing packages are for one week – Saturday to Saturday – and cost up to $10,000 by mid-season (January). 

Alpine Helicopters employs 120 people including 44 pilots, 51 AMEs, and administration and operations support personnel. Jim Barker is chief pilot and Barry Newman is director of maintenance.  Alpine has a reputation as a solid employer that treats its staff well, which is why employee turnover is low. A number of senior personnel have more than 30 years of aviation experience each. For example, AME and shop foreman Al Learmonth has been with Alpine for 34 years. “Alpine really tries to take care of its employees,” Murdock said.

She explained that Alpine Helicopters has employed low-time pilots at its Canmore tourism base. They often start out as ground crew refuelling aircraft, helping customers, and otherwise acquiring important experience. After new pilots complete company training and pass a check-ride, they fly the JetRanger from pad to pad.
As their experience increases, they undergo more training and after demonstrating their proficiency, transition to more challenging flying in the 407s, and later, the 212HPs. At Alpine, pilots must have thousands of flight hours before they are allowed to become 212HP heli-ski pilots (the average flying experience exceeds 9,000 hours).

Alpine Helicopters has been doing heli-skiing flights for 27 years, taking people to the top of mountains covered with deep powder. Such terrain and conditions pose the threat of avalanches at times and to ensure skier safety and a positive guest experience, a heli-ski guide travels on each flight. The Bell 212HPs operated by Alpine accommodate one skiing guide plus 11 skiers and their equipment.

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Alpine’s core businesses, mountain flying and long-line operations, have been the foundation of the company’s success for nearly half a century.
 
Approximately every six months a 212HP is removed from service to undergo heavy maintenance at Alpine’s Kelowna base. All the major and minor components are removed along with wires, cables, hoses, etc. The naked helicopter is put on a wheeled transporter and taken across the street to a facility operated by Alpine Aerotech, a subsidiary company. There, the old paint is removed and the airframe is sandblasted in preparation for aircraft painting, which is done on-site. Back across the road in Alpine’s hangar, the 212HP is reassembled.

Other work done by Alpine Aerotech includes repairing aircraft, structures, components and avionics. The MRO also manufactures utility baskets and vertical reference seats, an invention developed in-house. The seat, which received Transport Canada certification two years ago, inclines to the side as the helicopter pilot leans over to watch the heli-bucket or other object suspended beneath the aircraft during firefighting operations. The special seat reduces back strain and flight fatigue.

Murdock said there are no plans to depart from the core businesses – mountain flying and long-line operations – that have been the foundation of the company’s success for nearly half a century. Alpine will no doubt remain at the peak of its niche in the Canadian helicopter industry for a long time to come.

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