Navigating the Ring of Fire
By Blair Watson
Helicopter operators have come and gone over the past generation in many regions of Canada. One company that has survived national recessions and downturns in Ontario’s economy is Thunder Bay-based Wisk Air. With humble beginnings dating back to 1984, Wisk Air has evolved significantly over the past 26 years and enjoys considerable success because of its employees, its investments in aircraft and specialized equipment, and its commitment to customer service.
By Blair Watson
Helicopter operators have come and gone over the past generation in
many regions of Canada. One company that has survived national
recessions and downturns in Ontario’s economy is Thunder Bay-based Wisk
Air. With humble beginnings dating back to 1984, Wisk Air has evolved
significantly over the past 26 years and enjoys considerable success
because of its employees, its investments in aircraft and specialized
equipment, and its commitment to customer service.
|Wisk Air’s services include forest firefighting, mining
operations, timber harvesting, airborne surveys, airlifting
personnel and cargo, and aerial photographic surveys.
Wisk Air is the brainchild of Mark Wiskemann, entrepreneur, 18,000-hour
helicopter pilot, manager, and more. From 1981 to 1988, Mark was base
manager in Red Lake, Ont., for Midwest Helicopters. Between 1988 and
1996, he was area manager for the company, working out of Thunder Bay.
When Midwest’s shareholders decided to close down the company in 1996,
Mark was given the opportunity to buy the Thunder Bay part of the
business, which he did.
Between 1984 and 1996, Wiskemann was involved in leasing rotary-wing
aircraft with Wisk Air; clients included Frontier and Canadian
Helicopters. Transport Canada issued an operator certificate to Wisk
Air in October 1996 when the company’s workforce consisted of just
Wiskemann and an AME. Today, it comprises 12 pilots, 9 AMEs, and 25
employees in support roles. When Wisk Air first started operations
there was just one helicopter, a Bell 206B. Today, the all-Bell fleet
comprises three 407s, two 206 LongRanger L-Rs, and a LongRanger L-3.
|Thunder Bay’s Wisk Air is the brainchild of 18,000-hour helicopter pilot Mark Wiskemann.
|Nearly two-thirds of Wisk Air’s business comes from
In addition to Wisk Air’s main facility at the Thunder Bay Airport –
the hangar was expanded in the winter of 2008-09 – the company has an
office and hangar in Dryden, Ont. (350 kilometres to the northwest), a
maintenance service office in Brandon, Man., and a branch office in Red
Wisk Air’s success is substantially due to the variety of its
operations, including transportation of people, supplies and equipment
for mining companies, timber harvesting, forest firefighting, airborne
surveys of utilities infrastructure, airlifting personnel and cargo for
power companies and provincial ministries, and aerial photographic
Nearly two-thirds of Wisk Air’s business comes from mining-related
flying. Gold, nickel, copper, silver, palladium, platinum, minerals and
diamonds have all been found in the Canadian Shield of northern
Ontario. In August 2007, Noront Resources made a surprise discovery of
high-grade nickel-copper-platinum mineralization on its Double Eagle
project, which covers 1,100 square kilometres in the James Bay
Lowlands. Noront Resources and other companies are working diligently
to find more “massive nickel” and chromium, which if located, would
make building a $70-million road to the area economically viable. The
total value of the metals and minerals is estimated in excess of $500
The need to find valuable natural resources is a major reason Noront
hired Wisk Air to fly in the “Ring of Fire,” as the area is known in
the mining industry. On its website, Noront describes the region as
“remote” and “infrastructure-poor” – ideal for helicopters. Extracting
core samples involves drills made up of pieces weighing 1,000 kilograms
or more. With no roads to access new drilling sites, Wisk Air’s Bell
407 is used to airlift disassembled drill pieces as well as geologists,
technicians, supplies, and equipment such as ski-doos and all-terrain
vehicles. According to the Bell Helicopter website, the 407 has a
maximum external useful load of nearly 2,650 pounds (1,200 kilograms).
To move a single drill involves a dozen flights or more. Wisk Air
bought the first Bell 407 – a “dream to fly and a pleasure to operate,”
according to Wiskemann – in 2005 specifically to move mining drills,
and has done so across Canada since.
Exploration work in the “Ring of Fire” continues virtually year-round,
although less activity occurs during the transition months of March and
November when the ground is thawing or freezing. One of the resource
company camps serviced by Wisk Air is three hours north of Thunder Bay
by helicopter. A helipad, crew accommodations, and other facilities
were constructed at the site. Wisk Air rotates a pilot and AME to the
camp where the 407 can be stationed for weeks or months at a time,
depending on mining companies’ requirements. If an aircraft part needs
to be rushed in and Wisk Air’s other aircraft are being used for other
flying work, two companies provide floatplane service to a lake near
As for the rest of Wisk Air’s fleet, last summer the second Bell 407
was involved in firefighting operations in British Columbia, where
3,045 wildfires burned 244,379 hectares. In August, the 407 returned to
Ontario to fly a hydro contract and do more mining work. Wisk Air’s
operating certificate is valid for operations across Canada. The 206L-3
was used on a mining contract in northern Quebec to transport people,
equipment and supplies. One of Wisk Air’s LongRangers is also flying
for a local mining company, and the other is based in Thunder Bay to
meet local charter needs. The fleet flies about 2,000 hours annually.
Like mining, forestry is a cyclical industry, and currently in decline
in northern Ontario. However, when times were better a decade ago, Wisk
Air was approached by a forestry company to partner on the development
of a novel aerial photography system, which is still operational. The
system involves a film camera mounted in each end of a long boom that is attached to the belly of a
helicopter. The cameras take stereoscopic (overlapping) photos, which
provide 3-D imagery. GPS data-logging software keeps track of the
latitude and longitude of each picture as well as the helicopter’s
altitude at the instant of exposure. Accuracy of the system is plus or
minus half a metre in three dimensions, a remarkable achievement.
Navigation along photo lines is GPS-based and done via a display in the
cockpit. The camera system, which took two years to develop, has been
used on aerial surveys in Canada and the United States.
Two other pieces of specialized equipment operated by Wisk Air are a
heli-claw and aerial ignition device (a drip torch). The heli-claw is
used to clear beaver dams from waterways where rising water during rain
showers is blocked from flowing downstream and threatens to wash out
roads and rail lines. The powerful device does the work of 10 people
and is also employed in forestry operations. The drip torch is utilized
for backburns, destroying vegetation ahead of a forest fire and robbing
it of fuel.
Pilot training at Wisk Air involves not only the heli-claw and drip
torch, but also water buckets and long-line drill moves. Annual
recurrent training, a Transport Canada requirement, is provided by
company check pilot Jessica White and a training pilot, Randy Bechtel,
formerly of Bell Helicopters. Company pilots typically train during the
first two weeks of March. Other Wisk Air indoctrination covers safety,
malfunctions, emergencies, de-icing and dangerous goods. Operating on
floats is also part of the in-house training.
As far as Wisk Air’s future is concerned, Wiskemann is considering
acquiring a Bell 212S (Single) in the next 12 to 18 months, depending
on the pace of economic recovery. The “Eagle Single” is a Bell 212 with
the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3 Twin-Pac engines replaced by
Honeywell 1,800-shp T53-17B power plants. Useful load is increased to
4500 pounds (2,265 kilograms), which would allow Wisk Air to carry more
drill pieces per flight, or heavier, individual pieces used for deeper
hole exploration work.
As the recession in Canada comes to an end, global demand for metals,
minerals and other natural resources is expected to increase, which
bodes well for mining companies with operations in northern Ontario.
The qualities that contributed to Wisk Air’s success during the past 26
years will no doubt result in more business and a promising future for
the company and its employees.