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Highland Helicopters: Success Based on Safety

Quiet” isn’t something that normally comes to mind when we think about the helicopter industry. The incessant metronome-like pulsing of a main rotor can distract even the most highly focused among us from a great distance, to say nothing of the effect up close. But Highland Helicopters Ltd., which is approaching 50 years of operations, has been, in many ways, just that – quiet. Highland has been slowly and quietly doing its own thing for a long time. Started in Prince George in 1959, there hasn’t been much in the way of high visibility for the highly successful company.


March 31, 2008
By Matthew Lang

Topics
march-april-2008
One of the challenging operations Highland takes on is reforestation
projects, or silviculture. With the need to replant large areas and
ensure they return as a healthy forest, a number of flight operations
are involved. (Photo by Douglas Noblet)

Quiet” isn’t something that normally comes to mind when we think about the helicopter industry. The incessant metronome-like pulsing of a main rotor can distract even the most highly focused among us from a great distance, to say nothing of the effect up close. But Highland Helicopters Ltd., which is approaching 50 years of operations, has been, in many ways, just that – quiet. Highland has been slowly and quietly doing its own thing for a long time. Started in Prince George in 1959, there hasn’t been much in the way of high visibility for the highly successful company.

Gerry Corley-Smith, operations manager, and Dan Kolshuk, director of maintenance, see the lack of publicity as a plus. “To  hear nothing about a company is a compliment,” says Kolshuk, an industry veteran of 30 years who has been with Highland for the past 10. It’s a small industry, and people are always with each other talking about what’s going on, he says, noting that a great deal of media attention toward the industry is negative. “If you’re not in the headlines, you must be doing something right,” says Corley-Smith, who’s been in the industry for 26 years and with Highland for 16.

The helicopter industry is similar to life in a small town, says April O’Brien, a Highland director, “where everyone knows what everyone is doing” and a certain amount of distance and respect are required to get through the day. O’Brien, who has been with Highland for 18 years, started her career at the bottom. One of the few founding family members who work at Highland, she recalls how it wasn’t always a good thing to be one of the family when she first started working there. Laughing, she explains that her job was “any job that someone else didn’t want,” and that it may have been, in fact, more difficult because she was part of the family. But therein is at least part of the reason Highland has been so successful for so many years.

From its beginning, Highland has had a reputation built by people who worked hard and embraced the notion that “no job was too small, you did what needed to be done,” explains O’Brien as she speaks warmly about the philosophy of the founders of the company. And for nearly 50 years, Highland has built a reputation following that path; hard work, safety, and standing behind the job it does.

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Started as a charter service, Highland today has 21 bases throughout Western Canada, with 11 in British Columbia, nine
in Alberta and one in Inuvik, N.W.T. It operates 42 aircraft.

Corley-Smith says: “Like all other helicopter companies, we are searching for qualified pilots who are not easy to find.” Corley-Smith and Kolshuk say the industry is at the top of its (approximately) seven-year cycle right now, with jobs and employment opportunities at a high, but Corley-Smith says the system isn’t generating the pilots they need. Companies must have experienced pilots to meet their needs or park their aircraft,” he says. And unlike most other problems encountered doing business, this is one without an easy answer. “In the aviation industry, if you have a small number of pilots, you can’t fix that, it’s beyond your control.”

While most of the positions for pilots at Highland require 1,500 hours of experience, it does offer one or two positions each season for a lower-time pilots looking for a break into the industry.

highland2
Above: Currently, Highland operates 42 aircraft.
Below: Started as a charter service, Highland today has 21 bases
throughout Western Canada, with 11 in British Columbia, nine in Alberta
and one in Inuvik, N.W.T.


highland3

One of the challenging operations Highland takes on is reforestation projects, or silviculture. With the need to replant large areas and ensure they return as a healthy forest, a number of flight operations are involved, including aerial applications of herbicides which give the trees a chance to grow up before grass can overrun a replanted area, killing the seedlings. The challenge comes when companies face large fines for overspraying or spraying in unauthorized areas due to drift. Highland’s solution has been an expensive but very efficient high-tech Sat-loc system that very accurately programs the flight path for spray applications, which prevents overspray and missed areas, and minimizes drift to non-spray areas. The result is a printed chart with sprayed areas indicated, which are then used by forest companies or government agencies to verify the accuracy of the spray.

The Sat-loc system, which is installed on four of Highland’s aircraft and costs about $15,000 each, is both an environmental and conservation tool, as well as a means of providing more efficient deployment of aircraft and resources.

Another high-tech system Highland has recently started using is satellite tracking of aircraft called Skytrax, which allows real-time monitoring of its 16 AStar helicopters equipped with the $2,000 systems initially installed at the request of one of Highland’s larger customers. It has been used for the past three years in various activities including firefighting. Pilots who fly without the Skytrax system have been asking when “their” helicopters will get upgraded as well. O’Brien says the system has shown itself to be a great safety feature.

Dave Tweedhope of the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Protection Branch, says the satellite tracking system is a great tool. From an operational standpoint, it provides the ability to easily manage forestry assets, shifting units from one location to another as needed by confirming visually on the screen who is closest to any given location. This improves response times and maximizes the use of all the resources, from the aircraft to the personnel fighting a fire on the ground.

The satellite tracking system is also a fantastic safety feature, says Tweedhope. Current forestry requirements are for firefighting aircraft to check in with position reports every half hour, he says. In mountainous terrain, this isn’t always possible. But with the system operating, crew co-ordinators such as Tweedhope can see aircraft positions in real time on their displays at the base. Yellow location markers indicate an aircraft is airborne, and black markers indicate it is on the ground. In the event they lose contact, they can quickly confirm their operational status and see if further action is required, or simply wait a bit until radio contact is re-established.

To maintain its safety record, Highland recently began its own in-house training program for pilots. This is operated and managed by the chief pilot, Ken Birss. Over four months in the winter, all their pilots spend one week doing a ground study program, as well as hands-on flying to learn new skills, upgrade on new equipment, or just relearn good habits. Many of the pilots at Highland have complimented management on the program, saying its one of the best in the industry. Highland invests heavily in maintaining a safety record anyone would be happy to have.

As for future plans at Highland Helicopters: The company plans to continue its conservative growth and adapt to the growing industry and customer needs.

highland4
The Highland team. For nearly 50 years, the people at Highland have
built a reputation of hard work, safety and standing behind the job
they do.  (Photo by Matthew Lang)

Matthew Lang is a freelance writer and photo-grapher in B.C., and his photos can be viewed at www.MatthewLangPhotography.com .


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