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Pacific Western Helicopters: Doing it all Through Innovation

Although Prince George is only half way between the Canada-U.S. and B.C.-Yukon borders, it is considered “B.C.’s Northern Capital.” Northern B.C. is an immense area, approximately half a million square kilometres, more than twice the size of Great Britain. The headquarters and main base of Pacific Western Helicopters (PWH) are in Prince George, which was established as a fur trading post by Simon Fraser in 1807 and named in honour of King George III.


August 5, 2008
By Blair Watson

Topics

Although Prince George is only half way between the Canada-U.S. and B.C.-Yukon borders, it is considered “B.C.’s Northern Capital.” Northern B.C. is an immense area, approximately half a million square kilometres, more than twice the size of Great Britain. The headquarters and main base of Pacific Western Helicopters (PWH) are in Prince George, which was established as a fur trading post by Simon Fraser in 1807 and named in honour of King George III.

PWH’s facilities in Prince George are not at the city’s airport, but 6 km to the west on the far side of the Fraser River. The company has two other bases in B.C. (Mackenzie and Dease Lake) and one in Alberta (Grande Cache). Pacific Western Helicopters is a family-owned business that began in 1991 in Fort St. James (110 km northwest of Prince George) with a single Bell 206 JetRanger. Business growth during the first five years was so strong that PWH’s fleet grew to 14 JetRangers. Today, the company operates 13 aircraft: six Bell 206B JetRanger IIIs, four Eurocopter AS350-B2s, and one AS350-Ba, Bell 205 and Bell 212.

pacific1
Today, PWH operates 13 aircraft: six Bell 206B JetRanger
IIIs, four Eurocopter AS350-B2s, and one each of the AS350-Ba, Bell 205
and Bell 212.
pacific2
A piece of
firefighting equipment that PWH is flight testing for Calgary-based
Absolute Fire Solutions (AFS) is the FAST Bucket.
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PWH has done
well by taking advantage of business opportunities related to natural
resources, namely metals and minerals (exploration and mining), oil and
gas, and forestry and wildlife.
pacific4
Ray Curry is president of Pacific Western Helicopters.

PWH staff consists of 17 pilots, 11 licensed AMEs and three apprentices, and 10 management and administrative employees. Five of the pilots are from New Zealand, a country with terrain similar to B.C.’s. As other commercial aircraft operators have experienced during the past few years, PWH was unable to fill all of its aircrew vacancies due to a pilot shortage. To remedy the situation, management approached the federal government to obtain 3-year work visas for foreign pilots with suitable experience.

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Adaptation and innovation are key reasons why PWH has been successful during the past 17 years. Despite the fluctuating performance of the economies of B.C. and Alberta since the early 1990s, PWH has done well by taking advantage of business opportunities related to natural resources, namely metals and minerals (exploration and mining), oil and gas, and forestry and wildlife.

PWH provides support to mining companies by transporting geologists and other personnel to/from sites and core samples and drills, which weigh as much as 1,600 kg when assembled. The company’s AS350-B2s are used to carry drill pieces weighing up to 770 kg each and PWH pilots fly back and forth with drill pieces as part of the disassembly and reassembly process.

Forestry in B.C. is a $4-billion industry that has provided PWH with a market for its airlift services. Operations include transporting forestry crews and their equipment (e.g., all-terrain vehicles), flying surveys – known as “air calls” – of harvested areas, cone-clipping and more. Cone-clipping involves lowering a hydraulic shearer suspended beneath a helicopter over a coniferous tree and cutting off the top to collect cones, which are used to grow seedlings for reforestation.

Forestry work takes place during the winter in northern B.C. because the ground is frozen and logging trucks, which weigh several tons when loaded, can get around more easily than during warmer months. Despite the more favourable conditions for ground vehicles in the winter—temperatures go down to minus 35 degrees C. – PWH’s helicopters are used by forestry companies during the coldest part of the year for special missions.

Another type of winter flying done by PWH crews is heli-skiing; people from around the globe come to northwestern B.C. to take advantage of the terrain covered with deep winter ‘powder.’ PWH uses a Bell 205 and an AStar to fly skiers staying at a lodge 360 km northwest of Smithers, and at Ripley Creek near Stewart, which is just 2 km east of the B.C.-Alaska border.

When winter is over and spring is under way, the City of Prince George hires PWH to fly ‘anti-mosquito’ missions. An aerial ‘seeder’ – a large hopper tank containing an environmentally-friendly chemical that is nevertheless lethal to mosquito larvae – is slung underneath a company helicopter. The pilot sprays a chemical swath over standing water where mosquito eggs have been laid.

Another wildlife-related operation done by PWH is telemetry, which involves tracking fish and caribou tagged with radio beacons. A boom with an antenna on each end beneath a helicopter picks up the signal emitted by the animal’s radio tag, allowing researchers to determine its location and migration route. PWH also flies research personnel responding to a “mortality-mode” situation, i.e., there is no signal received from a radio collar for at least 24 hours meaning that the collar has either been knocked off or the animal is dead.

Since 2004, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has hired PWH to fly research personnel who do salmon counts in August. Overharvesting, logging too close to rivers and streams used by salmon, and global warming have resulted in reduced salmon populations in B.C., requiring that they be closely monitored.

Another creature that receives the attention of PWH pilots is the beaver. Dams constructed by the semi-aquatic rodent have blocked the flow of harvested logs in rivers and resulted in the flooding of a CN rail line last year. PWH employs a grapple – a hydraulically-actuated claw slung underneath a helicopter on a 30-metre line – to remove beaver dams.

Beavers are not the only animals that impact forestry in Western Canada. During the past decade, approximately 13 million hectares – about four times the size of Vancouver Island – of mature pine forests in B.C. have been destroyed by mountain pine beetles. The infestation has spread to Alberta and in both provinces PWH flies forestry experts to survey affected areas.

Other forestry-related flying is done by PWH from the base in Grande Cache, 435 km west of Edmonton. Forestry crews are flown to/from sites in as little as 20 minutes; by truck the trip would take four hours. PWH also provides an airlift service to Alberta companies with remote oil and gas well sites that require periodic checks and maintenance.

Aerial ignition is yet another operation conducted by PWH, which contracted a company to build a drip torch that includes a tank holding jellied gasoline. The torch is slung underneath an aircraft and controlled by the pilot, who flies over vegetation and releases the flammable mixture, which is ignited as it falls from the tank. The drip torch is used to fight forest fires (by creating fire breaks) and back burning.

Two other aerial services offered by PWH are ‘bird’ towing and infrared scanning. The former is used in mining exploration (of metal deposits) and involves a suspended magnetometer that is flown in a grid pattern. The latter involves a hand-held infrared scanner that detects hotspots after a controlled or uncontrolled burn.

A piece of firefighting equipment that PWH is flight testing for Calgary-based Absolute Fire Solutions (AFS) is the FAST Bucket, “a helicopter-borne self-contained retardant delivery system that permits cockpit-selectable fill volume, multiple (split) drops from a single load, and variable water release rates,” according to information from AFS.

The PWH website states, “Pacific Western Helicopters continues to invest to stay up-to-date and current in today’s market.” The company has purchased an aircraft tracking and satellite communication system, which has been installed in every helicopter. If an aircraft needs to return to base or be diverted, the pilot is contacted via the onboard phone.

PWH has also invested in the Aero-Dyne helicopter performance monitoring system, which watches pressure altitude, outside air
temperature, engine temperatures and torques, and more. The system provides pilots with an aural warning as an operating limit is approached and AMEs with data to aid in aircraft maintenance, which helps to reduce operating costs.

With the price of light crude oil in excess of US$130 per barrel, minimizing fuel costs is a major concern for aircraft operators. PWH has fuel tanks at all its bases as well as a tanker truck. PWH buys fuel in bulk to keep the cost as low as possible for its customers.

What does the future hold for Pacific Western Helicopters? Company president Ray Curry says it’s a continuation of the basics that have resulted in the company’s success since 1991: safe flight operations, excellent customer service, satisfied employees and business development through astute investments.


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