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Precision Flying at Kootenay Valley

Nestled in the mountains of southeastern B.C., the Kootenay Valley is both ruggedly beautiful and, from a flying perspective, highly challenging. The combination of high altitude flying, harsh winters and hot summers brings out the best in a helicopter pilot, at least those who are the best at the job.


March 23, 2009
By James Careless

Topics
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Maki, who flies for Canadian Air-crane on a contract basis for the summer months, regularly picks up and moves massive logs in the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane.


 

Nestled in the mountains of southeastern B.C., the Kootenay Valley is both ruggedly beautiful and, from a flying perspective, highly challenging. The combination of high altitude flying, harsh winters and hot summers brings out the best in a helicopter pilot, at least those who are the best at the job.

Here, in the Kootenay Valley town of Creston (population 5,201), you will find Kootenay Valley Helicopters (KVH). “The flying conditions in our area are typical Canadian mountain weather – sun, rain, snow, wind and calm – and that is just in the morning!” says KVH owner and chief pilot Wendell Maki. “You never really know what you will get in the afternoon.” Founded in 1999, KVH offers flight training and charter helicopter services (both commercial and tourism). “Our flight training services include private, commercial, and instructor ratings as well as vertical reference and mountain courses,” Maki says. “We also provide air taxi and aerial work services using the Bell JetRanger and Robinson R44.”

KVH started its flight school using a Robinson R22, but it was soon sold: “Although the R22 is a very capable helicopter, we soon found that a more powerful helicopter was required to take full advantage of the mountainous terrain in the Creston area, so the R22 was replaced with a Schweizer 300C,” Maki says. “We then upgraded from the Schweizer to the Robinson R44 as a primary flight trainer: The capabilities of the R44 enable me to start the students flying in the mountains very early in their training, essentially turning the entire course into a mountain course. Once the students have a handle on basic flying, we start flying in the mountains. With our hangar located at the base of a 7,000' mountain the R44 was a logical progression.”

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Maki with his daughters Ashtyn and Kylan in front of the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane.  
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Maki started flying 20 years ago and has  more than 15,000 hours under his belt.  
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Having a strong operational focus, KVH’s commercial course uses the R44 and Bell 206, which enable Maki to start students flying in the mountains early in their training.


 

“Kootenay Valley’s commercial course has always had a strong operational aspect,” he adds. “The R44 and the Bell 206 enable the course to be tailored to each of the students’ abilities. This way each student has the opportunity to develop the skills that are in demand in the industry today. We have equipped our R44 with bubble crew windows similar to the ones on the Skycrane, so the student and I don't have to deal with the wind and cold during vertical reference training.”

With more than 15,000 hours under his belt, Maki is truly a ‘pilot’s pilot.’ He started flying 20 years ago during the summer months, to cover the cost of his chiropractic tuition. “I got my helicopter pilot’s licence and did some contract flying in Western Canada,” he says. “I did manage to pay for school, but after a year of flying I quit to do it full-time. It was just so much more fun.”

Over the years, Maki has gained many specialized helicopter flying skills, but the one that inspires the most awe (at least in this writer) is aerial logging. Flying Canadian Air-crane’s Sikorsky S-64 ‘Skycrane’ – so named because this twin-engine heavy-lift helicopter is basically a flying chassis with the ability to move large payloads by air – Maki, who flies for Canadian Air-crane on a contract basis for the summer months, regularly picks up and moves massive logs on Vancouver Island and B.C.'s north coast.

Here’s the drill: Loggers are brought into remote mountain areas where road access to the cutting area simply doesn’t exist, at least not when it comes to picking up the huge timbers they cut. This is where Maki comes in: using the enormous hefting power of the Skycrane – payload 20,000 lbs. – he picks up the timbers using a long line and steel grapple, then takes them down to staging areas where they can be loaded onto tractor trailers to shipment to mills.

The optimum loads, which average about 15,000 lbs., are assembled using a 10-foot-wide hydraulically operated steel grapple manipulated by the pilot in command. Sometimes Maki finds himself flying one 60', three- to four-foot diameter log down the mountainside. Other times it’s a bundle of smaller logs.

The essence of aerial logging is speed combined with efficiency and safety. Maki’s job is to clear the mountainside as quickly as possible, without putting his aircraft, himself or the loggers at risk. As a result, there’s a lot of strategy involved in deciding which logs to move and when, so that the ratio of fuel used to lumber moved is optimized.

For the ground crew, the challenge is to ensure that the pilots don't simply take the big easy-to-grab logs. They walk the cut block behind the helicopter painting pink dots on any missed trees, ensuring that all merchantable timber is flown to the log landing. If the pilot ‘creams’ the hill (takes only the large, easy trees), he will subsequently have his work cut out for him trying to make up a 15,000-lb. load with only small logs.

For Maki, it’s all about getting up and down as fast as reasonably possible. “It’s like a drag race from approach to approach,” he says. “I get to the top of the hill as fast as I can, I put the grapple on a log, pick up the log, then place it beside another log, pick it up and repeat the process until I have about 15,000 lbs. and then get back down to the bottom as smoothly as I can.”

One of the major challenges in landing the heavy loads quickly and smoothly is to balance the thrust of the helicopter with the momentum of the logs. To add to the challenge, the logs are at the end of a 200/250-foot long line, making them prone to a pendulum-style swinging motion. Get it wrong, and the helicopter will require some very expensive and time-consuming sheet metal repairs. “I try to fly as calmly and gently as I can,” he says. “When I reach the bottom of the mountain, I flare at the landing to reduce speed in an almost autorotative style of approach. It’s all about smoothness and control.”

These precision skills help Maki when flying KVH’s Bell 206 and R44, both for charter work and student training. Education is something that he takes very, very seriously. “At any given time, we only have three students being trained by myself, ” he says. “I like to think of flight training as akin to teaching baseball. You start simply using a t-ball and bat, then progress to slow pitch and then to hardball. The key is to let the students learn the skills they need by doing, but at a rate that allows them to succeed without stagnating.”

This said, KVH’s flight school doesn’t just produce pilots, but rather self-directed aviators who know what to do on the ground and in the shop. “The helicopter operators that hire my students have the expectation that the students know more about the business than just how to fly,” Maki explains. “They expect that the students have learned not to stand around with their hands in their pockets; that they know how to work on their own. They also expect my students to have common sense, which is a lot harder to teach than how to hover. This is what I find to be the biggest challenge in commercial flight instruction – getting students to think.”

With almost 20 years in business, Kootenay Valley Helicopters is an established, respected player in the Western Canadian helicopter market. And with his love of flying undimmed, Maki plans to spend many more years guiding his company, and perhaps bringing his family into the firm down the road. “Flying is my life, even after all these years,” he says. “It sure beats being a chiropractor!”


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