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Making it Work the Kokanee Way: BC’s Kokanee Helicopters Fits the Bill

The apple trees have been cut down to make way for a vineyard; grapes have become the crop of choice in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.


May 27, 2008
By Blair Watson

Topics
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Kokanee Helicopters is
located in the hills on the east side of Okanagan Lake about 25 minutes
from downtown Kelowna. (Photo by Janeen Langlois)

The apple trees have been cut down to make way for a vineyard; grapes have become the crop of choice in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. The location I visited for this article is in the hills on the east side of Okanagan Lake about 25 minutes by car from downtown Kelowna. The picturesque expanse is home to Kokanee Helicopters, a small charter operator with a successful 13-year history. “Kokanee” is a native word meaning “red fish,” a type of sockeye salmon that has provided First Nations peoples on the west coast with an important food source for millennia.

Large brass letters on the stone walls at the front of the property informed me that I had arrived at Culos Farms, which was established by Mike Culos in 1999. Culos, a real estate developer who has done projects in the Okanagan for more than two decades, has been involved in aviation since he was a teenager. In 1995 he founded Kokanee Helicopters using a Bell JetRanger.

The following year a second helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350B AStar, was bought and a new base in Nelson was started, conducting business as Kokanee Helicopter Charters. A third aircraft, a Eurocopter AS350 BA, was acquired in June 2002 and operations at a full-time company base in Revelstoke commenced to take advantage of opportunities in the heli-skiing/tourism industry. In May 2003, the company purchased a Eurocopter AS350 and opened a summer base in Salmon Arm for firefighting operations.

On the Culos acreage is a large estate home, a secondary house, a ‘barn’ with a bright orange windsock on top, and other buildings. Parked between the barn, where helicopter maintenance is done, and the house was Kokanee Helicopters’ current fleet: a Eurocopter AS350 B2 and a Bell LongRanger III. The former was on the grass; the latter on the concrete helipad. Many of the properties in the area have vineyards; wineries in the Okanagan Valley have received awards in Canada and abroad for their products.

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Outside the barn, which has a roll-up door, I met Bill Richardson, Kokanee Helicopters’ chief pilot/operations manager since the spring of 2007. He is the company’s third CP/OM in the past 13 years. A 16,500-hour pilot, he began flying helicopters in 1974 and has worked in many parts of Canada flying for power-line construction, maintenance, and patrols; forest fire suppression and ferrying fire crews; mountain operations and high-altitude rescues; avalanche control and heli-skiing; wildlife inventories and animal captures; photography and filming; heli-tours and heli-weddings; and more.

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AME Paul Runolfson works on Bell 206 LongRanger III while Chief Pilot Bill Richardson looks on. (Photo by Blair Watson)


Kokanee Helicopters’ personnel are a close-knit team. Paul Runolfson is the other pilot and doubles as an AME. Vance Garbowski, who has his own overhaul business, also does maintenance work on the company’s aircraft. Gord Marshall is the PRM (Person Responsible for Maintenance) and Janeen Langlois is the executive assistant.

Richardson would like to hire a contract pilot to do summer flying, but the demand for helicopter pilots continues to be strong, so he has not found one yet. As other operators have experienced, the minimum requirements established by insurance companies for pilots precludes hiring those with too few hours doing the types of specialized flying such as long-line work performed by various operators. One of many pilots of the baby-boomer generation approaching retirement age, he remarked that there are not enough younger helicopter pilots with adequate experience to fill the vacancies.

About one-third of Kokanee Helicopters’ business is related to the electricity industry (BC Hydro is a major customer), the second third is forest fire suppression, and the final third comes mostly from government organizations such as the Ministry of the Environment, Parks Canada, RCMP, etc.

The work for BC Hydro includes power line patrols, setting poles (suspended beneath the helicopter on a 30-metre line), and electrical line installation and repair work. Poles and towers are damaged or destroyed by lightning strikes, falling trees, rock slides, forest fires, and other causes. Excessive bird dung on insulators also necessitates the temporary detachment of power lines. A considerable portion of BC’s electrical infrastructure is not accessible by road, so Kokanee Helicopters is one of a number of operators hired to fly inspection and maintenance personnel to affected areas and assist with repairs.

From mid-December to mid-April, Kokanee’s AStar is based in Revelstoke for some of Canada’s finest deep powder skiing. The AS350 B2 is operated by another company in Revelstoke, Arrow Helicopters, which supplies a pilot. Kokanee Helicopters used to own the Revelstoke base, but sold it two years ago.

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On the Culos acreage
is a large estate home, a secondary house, a ‘barn’ with a bright
orange windsock on top (where the helicopter
maintenance is done), and other buildings. (Photo by Blair Watson)


Richardson has done a substantial amount of winter helicopter flying, including heli-skiing. He explained that potential avalanche areas are checked by helicopter with an avalanche technician prior to transporting skiers up the slopes. After landing, the technician digs a hole in the snow 2+ metres deep and climbs in to examine the layers in order to determine the avalanche threat. If it is deemed high enough, explosive charges are set off to trigger an avalanche. Bill mentioned that the sound of a helicopter passing overhead has set off avalanches, and some years ago, one was triggered above him and his “bird,” which was on the ground!

Whether in winter or another season, Kokanee Helicopters’ pilots have had many opportunities over the years to enjoy some of the most impressive geography on earth. In August 2003, however, the natural beauty of many parts of BC was eradicated by forest fires. Conditions were particularly dry that summer and lightning set off many wildfires. On August 16 a fire was started by a lightning strike near Rattlesnake Island in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park. Whipped up by a constant wind, the flames became a firestorm within a few days. The fire spread north and eastward, eventually forcing the evacuation of 45,000 residents and consuming 239 homes. The final size of the conflagration was more than 250 square kilometres.

Sixty fire departments, more than 2,000 Canadian Forces troops and 1,000 firefighters battled the firestorm. Kokanee Helicopters was one of several aircraft operators working long hours each day in fire suppression operations. Helicopters from 408 Squadron of CF 4 Wing airlifted soldiers who had received basic firefighting training from BC’s Forest Service. The soldiers helped to stabilize the situation, allowing front-line firefighters to concentrate on emerging or unstable fires.

Not all the fire operations that Kokanee Helicopters has been involved in have been started by nature; aerial ignition is one of the company’s areas of expertise. Controlled and back burns are done to clear vegetation or create a fire break as part of fire attack operations. Equipment that can be attached to the company’s aircraft includes an aerial ignition device (AID), which contains spheres the size of ping-pong balls filled with potassium permanganate. Just before the AID ejects a sphere, a needle injects a small amount of glycol, which begins to chemically react with the KMnO4. After the sphere hits the ground, flame erupts and drier vegetation in contact starts to burn.

A second type of AID used by Kokanee Helicopters is a 170-litre napalm dispenser, which creates a large fire, fast. Before the jellied gasoline leaves the nozzle, it is ignited by a spark. Because napalm burns until it has been consumed – up to 10 minutes – green vegetation cannot withstand the intense heat. When the weather has been relatively cool and damp, trees and other plants will not burn if the small spheres are used, so the napalm AID is employed.

Kokanee Helicopters’ other charter services include filming for production companies, aerial photography for insurance firms, transporting researchers conducting wildlife inventories, and forestry administration (e.g., airborne inspections of new growth areas, ferrying tree planters to rugged areas, post-forest fire surveys).

For a small company, Kokanee Helicopters has been involved in a significant variety of operations during the past 13 years. As Kelowna and the rest of the Okanagan Valley continue to grow in population, the future looks good for the businesses, rotary-wing and otherwise, of entrepreneur Mike Culos.



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