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Growth Spurt

October 1, 2010  By Matt Nicholls

To fully appreciate the rotary division of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ vaunted aerial services unit – and the importance of its recent purchase of three EC-130 B4 rotary aircraft from Eurocopter Canada’s ECL facility in Fort Erie, Ont. – it’s worth illustrating how critical the ministry’s role is to the economic, social and recreational well-being of Canada’s second largest province.

To fully appreciate the rotary division of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ vaunted aerial services unit – and the importance of its recent purchase of three EC-130 B4 rotary aircraft from Eurocopter Canada’s ECL facility in Fort Erie, Ont. – it’s worth illustrating how critical the ministry’s role is to the economic, social and recreational well-being of Canada’s second largest province.

 The new EC-130 B4s come in handy in a province of more than 1.1 million square kilometres – two-thirds of which is trees.
(Photo by Matt Nicholls)


With a diverse range of climate, geography, plant and animal species, 250,000 lakes and the world’s largest contiguous body of fresh water (the Great Lakes), the ministry is entrusted to promote healthy, sustainable ecosystems and conserve the biodiversity of more than 1.1 million square kilometres, two-thirds of which is forested.

A detailed inspection of the aircraft is an important part of MNR pilot Dan Ireland’s pre-flight routine. (Photo by Matt Nicholls)



And when you consider more than a third of Canada’s population lives in the province; it’s the industrial and commercial heartland of the country; 87 per cent of the province is Crown lands and waters; and Ontario boasts world-class park systems, fishing, hunting and other recreational opportunities, the MNR’s task is indeed a daunting one.

To properly follow through on its mandate – to manage, promote economic opportunities and maintain/enhance outdoor recreation – the ministry relies not only on its key partners, such as environmental organizations, fish and game associations, and private sector organizations, but on its highly dedicated team of biologists, conservation officers, and rotary- and fixed-winged pilots. It’s a big job, as natural resources generate millions of dollars in revenue annually.

The Aerial Approach – Rotary Aircraft Emerge
Since 1924, the Ontario Government has operated a fleet of specialty fixed wing aircraft to support fire, resource management and core government programs, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the MNR owned and operated its own rotary aircraft. Initially, the fleet started with a Bell 206L-1 and a BK-117 before progressing to three AS 350 B2s by 1993/94. A fourth B2 was added to replace the aging BK117, but the first EC-130 B4 didn’t make an appearance until 10 years later. It marked the first time an operator in Canada used the aircraft for utility, fire and resource management missions. Since the inception of its first aircraft, standardizing the fleet has been a long-term goal for a variety of reasons, and now, with the acquisition of three new EC-130 B4s, the ministry finally has a fleet it can grow well into the 21st century.

The ministry’s chief pilot, Don Filliter, has high praise for the EC-130 B4: “It’s the perfect fit for the roles it has to play.” (Photo by Matt Nicholls)


“At certain times, we’ve had as many as four different aircraft,” MNR operations services manager Bob Crowell explained to me in mid-August during an in-depth interview at the Sudbury base. A former chief pilot with the ministry who’s flown countless operations in the emerging fleet, the meticulous Crowell has seen the transformation of the fleet first-hand – and he’s thrilled about the purchase of the new aircraft and the possibilities it brings.

“To bring it down to just one type of aircraft that we operate allows us to be more efficient with training and maintenance, and all the things that go with that including getting spare parts, etc.,” Crowell says. “Buying these aircraft allows us to complete our transition to a one-type fleet.”

With the purchase of the new EC-130 B4s, the MNR’s fleet now sits at seven aircraft – and it’s an impressive team that flies them. The MNR has 12 pilots (two management pilots) flying 3,200 and 4,000 hours annually, traversing the province from bases located from west to east in Dryden, Thunder Bay, Timmins, Sudbury and Muskoka. With a province as vast and diverse as Ontario, it’s not surprising the pilots themselves are as flexible and adaptable into their daily routines as is humanly possible. Operations vary from resource management duties, such as aerial animal surveys, fish stocking, wildlife darting work and worksite evaluations, to delivering forest fire crews to the site of a blaze, aerial firefighting, enforcement work and more (see “A Year in the Life,” page 15).

 “The aerial services unit has played a very important role at the Ministry since 1924,” Crowell said. “Our work is more about a lifestyle choice than a job. Most of the pilots and most of the people we work with are so impassioned by the work we do here at the ministry. We go up to the far north and participate in projects. Our pilots are helping in goose banding, recording – they don’t just sit in the aircraft and read a book. They get to the camps, they’re helping out. We’re all dedicated to delivering the programs that need to be delivered.”

polar bear tagging and tracking . (Photos courtesy of the Ministry of Natural Resources)


Dan Ireland, an MNR pilot for almost 12 years, echoes Crowell’s assessment. It’s the variety, the connection with nature and a challenging job description that makes it all worthwhile. “It’s precisely why a lot of people stay here as long as they do,” says Ireland. “From fire suppression one day to photo flights the next, moose aquatics the same day or the day after. . . coming to work is a pleasure. People ask me what I do and I say I fly helicopters for the MNR. They ask, ‘yeah, so what do you do? I always say, moose, goose and spruce.’ ”

Not a Bad Seat in the House
While it’s virtually impossible to pick the perfect aircraft to handle every MNR operation – “it simply doesn’t exist,” says Thunder Bay-based MNR pilot Greg Boegh – the EC-130 B4 is arguably an excellent compromise. Offering 23 per cent more space than the MNR’s most recent aircraft, the AS-350 B2s, the EC-130 B4s can be equipped with seven or eight seats, with a cabin design that provides an incredible panoramic view from virtually all spots. This is especially important for the MNR, as roughly 60 per cent of operations are geared toward wildlife management – surveys, fish stocking, tracking, remote sensing, etc. Enhanced visibility is also paramount in other important MNR functions including enforcement work, NVG use and forest fire management.

Wildlife management is an important component of the MNR’s mandate. Here, biologists participate in goose banding activities on Akimiski Island, the largest island in James Bay. (Photos courtesy of the Ministry of Natural Resources)


Fire fighting and fire suppression make up another 30 per cent of the ministry’s operational portfolio, and the new EC-130 B4 aircraft are very adept in the MNR’s “Quick Strike” firefighting initiatives, where a three- or four-person crew will be transported to a fire with the necessary equipment to start fighting the blaze while the helicopter returns for subsequent supplies. “Ninety per cent of the fires in Ontario are a hectare or less, so this gets crews there early so they can attack and suppress it,” says Crowell. “The majority of big fires in B.C. started by lightning strikes and just grew and grew. With “Quick Strike,” you get a crew there, drop them off, and come back and reposition.”

Two examples to illustrate the acute visual capacities of the EC-130 B4 occurred on the second day I went up with chief pilot Don Filliter. Just moments after take off on a partly cloudy day, we almost immediately spotted white smoke drifting into the sky from a heavily treed rocky point on a shimmering lake located a few kilometres in front of the aircraft. Upon returning after Filliter and MNR air engineer Mike Frizell successfully doused the fire, Filliter spotted a large adult moose swimming in another shimmering lake below. Obviously, it was not a problem for both Filliter and Frizell to see the moose right away, but it was even easy for me to pick up the bull as it surfaced from the bog and bolted for cover.

A Commitment to Technology
The new EC-130 B4 aircraft has several state-of-the-art technological advancements and many safety features that make it a sound option for its roles with the MNR. It has a quiet Fenestron tail rotor that’s very safe in tight, densely forested terrain; a state-of-the-art FADEC system (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) to reduce pilot workload by adjusting the engine switch to match flight conditions; an all-Kevlar cabin that acts as a protective roll cage, supporting it in the event the aircraft rolls; dual hydraulics (the most critical safety feature on the B4 says Ireland); state-of-the-art Chelton/Cobham EFIS avionics; NVG capability; and attenuating seats.

An average of 850 forest fires strike Ontario each year, and many are “pop-up” fires like this one, covering a fraction of a hectare. (Photo by Matt Nicholls)


“It’s the perfect machine for the roles it has to play,” says Filliter. “We do fire suppression, yes, but the primary role we do is resource management. And resource management tends to be a lot of survey work, so you can’t ask for a better platform. It has huge windows, great visibility, a lot of legroom and is stable. I would call it a trade-off as far as fire fighting goes, but it does all of it equally to the B-2s. And it’s better for our clients. It incorporates the Fenestron tail rotor which is safer in the bush; it has crash worthiness seats; it’s quieter; it’s more fuel efficient. So, all of those things that the new Jar 27 regulations demand for certification.”

Ireland agrees, pointing out that although there are drawbacks, it’s an excellent choice for the various roles it has to play. “I think it’s a delight to fly, personally,” he says. “It’s not perhaps as responsive as a smaller machine, but it’s just a function of its size – it is 35-400 pounds heavier than an A-Star, for example, so it tends to be less responsive. But that’s just getting used to it. And yes, it doesn’t jump off the ground. But it will certainly get you there. . . .it’s also very manoeuvrable; the tail rotor is safe when you’re moving around in the bush because of the Fenestron design, so it’s quite an advanced machine.”

Crowell aggrees. “We started with the B2s and we had a BK-117 and now we’re into what I call the digital aircraft, the B4,” he says. “It’s added so much computer technology that’s made it a great platform for our people. There are three GPSs in that aircraft, it’s got a FADEC system plus another system in case the FADEC fails, it has the new cargo pods on it, it has wire-strike kits in all of our aircraft. . . .so we’re moving towards a safer operation with the latest technology on our aircraft, delivering what our clients need.”

For Crowell, the addition of the EC-130 B4s is the culmination of a process to finally bring the MNR fleet to a state of uniformity – the highest safety and technological standards possible for his pilots and the many biologists, conservation offers and other clients that work so hard to ensure Ontario’s natural resources continue to thrive.

Power Play
Detailed information about the EC-130 B4

  • Maximum weight: 2,427 kg/5,351 lb. (2,800 kg/6,172 lb. with external load)
  • Useful load 1,048 kg/2,311 lb.
  • Capacity: one pilot and six/seven passengers or 1,160 kg/2,557 lb. with sling
  • Power plant: one Turbomeca ARRIEL 2B1 Maximum take-off power: 632 KW/847 shp
  • Fast cruise speed: 235 km/h – 127 kt (at max. weight)
  • Maximum range: 640 km/345 nm (takeoff at max. weight)
  • Maximum endurance (with no reserves): 3:47 hours
  • Length, blade in front: 47.47 ft.

A Year in the Life
Versatility the name of the game at the MNR

growth_6They say variety is the spice of life, and if you’re a pilot with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources it’s part of your daily, monthly and yearly regimen. “You never really know what you’re going to be doing from day-day and that’s part of the enjoyment – there’s no rut here at the MNR,” says Dan Ireland, an MNR pilot for almost 12 years. Except for the moose rut, that is. Here’s what MNR rotary pilots are usually up to in a typical calendar year.

WINTER: Starting in January, the MNR’s new EC-130 B4s are used primarily for resource management and animal inventory work. Moose surveys are done across the province to calculate the moose population, allowing the ministry to assign the proper licensing and moose tag allocations. Deer and elk work is also done, as well as caribou studies. “Last year, we were heavily involved in caribou surveying in the far northern parts of the province to get an idea of what the herd is like up there,” says MNR operations manager Bob Crowell.

SPRING: Training fire crews begins, getting them ready and transitioned to meet the fire season. Fish stocking is also critical, and it’s a very time-sensitive activity. “The waters have to be at just the right temperature and the fish have to come from several fish hatcheries from across the province, so we have to carefully time and co-ordinate the dropping of the fish into several lakes,” says Crowell “The hatchery truck might show up with a wide variety of fish that have to be stocked in a variety of different lakes, so you might have three or four different types of fish to stock in one flight.

LATE SPRING/SUMMER/FALL: The fire season takes precedence. “It really starts up in April,” says Crowell. “We also start to do nest searches for goose, do goose banding in the summer, and that research culminates in July.” Biodiversity work, tele-metry is also done in the summer – putting GPS collars on polar bear, black bear, elk, and caribou – to track their movements. Some of them we track with satellites, some are tracked with antennae on the aircraft.
“Interspersed with all of this, is the moose aquatics,” says Ireland. “We do a fair amount of this, flying to inspect moose feeding grounds, to get an idea of where moose populations are and where they are congregating so forestry can plan their reserves around moose feeding and aquatic areas. We also do stick nest surveys, looking for heron, osprey and eagles. In Muskoka, an extensive duck survey is done each year, and we often fly to the Quebec border when doing our Canada goose work up in Ungava. So it’s quite involved.”


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