To Be Precise
By Matt Nicholls
Ontario’s Muskoka District truly is one of the province’s most unique geographical locations and quite worthy of its occasional billing by National Geographic magazine as one of the world’s most desirable spots to visit.
By Matt Nicholls
Covering an area of some 6,475 square kilometres, the region is home to more than 1,600 lakes, countless islands and vast places to explore and unwind, an area dotted with picturesque towns, villages and farming communities. It’s also a popular location for cottagers, as many southern Ontario residents flock out of their concrete southern Ontario lifestyles each summer for a weekly pilgrimage to the tranquility and peace of the near north.
The landscape is thick with water, rock and acres of forests, making it an ecological paradise – one residents and visitors alike not only cherish, but are quick to protect. Generations of families have enjoyed and inhabited this area for years in their lakeside homes and cottages, and they are very protective of their individual pieces of tranquility, especially when new construction projects begin to take shape.
So, when the team at Toronto-based Chartright Air Group was approached by one of its clients this spring to use an AW119 Koala to partake in an aerial construction project on a Muskoka island, it presented a unique opportunity for the company. Chartright is a leading Canadian charter and aircraft management firm for both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. This marked the first time a client had asked Chartright if it could handle an aerial construction project – with a high level of environmental sensitivity to boot.
The project spelled great opportunity. Successful completion could possibly create new opportunities for aerial construction work down the road, and open a new revenue stream for both clients and the firm.
“Aerial work isn’t something Chartright does as part of our core business model, but the thing that is part of our business model is making our clients happy,” says Chartright’s rotary wing chief pilot Sean Carscadden. “If we have a client that is interested in getting into aerial work, we will find a way to do it.”
The project involved long-lining construction materials to a remote island in one of the popular Muskoka locales. However, the job was anything but routine. Several of the established buildings on the island needed to be dismantled and pre-fabricated panels for new dwellings needed to be brought in, including building materials, floor panels and more. Mature trees dotted the island, meaning precision and care were paramount – it was a very skilled operation that would take sensitivity and a delicate touch, not to mention an aircraft that could deliver maneuverability, power and flexibility.
“When I first looked at the project, I conducted an aerial reconnaissance in the AW109 that I fly. I was quite concerned about the confined areas we were going to be working in, especially for bringing in big panels,” Carscadden said. “Due to the delicate nature of the job and the required level of precision, we decided we would hire some outside help.”
The outside help turned out to be Bill Hofstede, a veteran long-lining specialist, who works as a contract helicopter pilot. The former chief pilot at Questral Helicopters has more than 7,500 hours of long-lining experience and more than two decades of flying experience. He was eager to take on the challenge of negotiating the construction materials through the trees and other obstructions on the island.
But before he could jump in and start, Hofstede needed some critical background training and education on the AW119 Koala. He was not familiar with the machine having worked mostly on AStars the majority of his career. After roughly a month of study and flying with Milos Kapetanovic, Chartright’s AW119 training captain, he was ready to go.
“I had to get an endorsement on the Koala to fly it, so flying a new machine in such a precise environment was definitely a challenge for me,” he says. “But as far as long-lining goes, it was somewhat similar to other machines. I was familiar with the fully-articulated rotor head which made it easier, but all the controls were different.”
Hofstede admits he also had real reservations about the job at first, but quickly found he was embracing the precise nature of slinging loads through very tight confines. It certainly put his flying skills to the test and made coming to work a very positive experience.
“I think the most challenging aspect of this job was the precision and the winds, just making sure you negotiated properly in between the trees,” he says. “They were also building a new house beside this spot so they had the framework up. If you are coming in with a 2,000-pound beam, you don’t want to have any swing and knock things out.”
Carscadden says he was very impressed with the way Hofstede picked up the nuances of the AW119 and excelled in all aspects of the task at hand. “Bill did a great job negotiating the trees and dealing with all of the elements,” Carscadden says. “He was able to put those loads carefully through the canopy and work them between the branches over top of each site and get them to the crew on the site efficiently and safely.”
Adapting on The Go
Like many major construction projects, there were adaptations along the way that helped make elements of the job go smoother and safer. For example, when the team initially surveyed the project, the thought process was that a 120-foot line would be enough to get the construction materials to the site. The team soon realized, however, this wouldn’t be sufficient. Extensions to the sling were added, Carscadden explains, so they could make it as long as it needed it to be for each individual load and delivery site.
In addition, some of the sites where buildings needed to be refurbished were inconsistent – there were topographical changes on the island. The scope of the project was basically that all of the buildings on the island were to be demolished and rebuilt, he says. “All told, we had five different delivery sites, but there might have been eight buildings reconstructed. In the end, we moved 128 tonnes of material and with some 255 loads to the island, a considerable amount of flying time. It was all done within 21 working days.”
Reliable and Stable
The workhorse for the job was an AgustaWestland 119 Koala and according to Carscadden, it profiled well for the task at hand. The machine had just the right amount of power, maneuverability and lift to ensure all elements of the project were done to specifications.
“The Koala did a great job,” he notes. “Once Bill was able to get the loads of rocks up above TL, the loads flew great but when he was dealing with the big floor panels, he had to stay at or below TL to ensure the loads didn’t catch too much wind. In that regime of flight, there was quite a bit of vibration in the Koala; however, visibility, the ability to see the load, the aircraft’s ability to manage power – it was all impressive.”
Hofstede agrees, adding that once he got the nuances of the AgustaWestland’s layout and internal structure down, it was more than efficient. “It is quite a bit different than what I am used to,” he says. “It has a lot of speed, and has some vibration at slow speed, but it is a nice machine for hovering. Once you slow it down it is nice and smooth.”
Other features that helped included the bubble window with the cut out – “which provided plenty of visibility,” Hofstede says – and also the cargo hook from Onboard Systems, which provided reliability with the various loads. “I was very happy we had the hook on there. These hooks are reliable and they do not open up for unknown reasons.”
The Chartright team is always putting safety first and this project certainly fit that perspective, Carscadden notes. Whether it was ground operations or the actually long-lining aspects themselves, there was special attention all around.
“Since we were working a single-engine aircraft and heading out to an island, we wanted to ensure that Bill was always within auto-rotative distance from shore. Our biggest spacing was about a quarter of a mile between the islands,” he says. “Certainly from where we flew, he could always auto-rotate to a shoreline, but you are over densely-treed country the whole time – there were few big open areas. So, we had a few places that were identified as emergency landing zones. About half of the route was over land and there was a golf course nearby as Bill was departing with the loads from the Port Carling airport. There was also an open field on some private property next to the island that could be used in an emergency situation.”
When the team started the project, there was ice on the water and an ice road had been built to bring some of the material to the site. There were additional emergency landing spots along the route. But a big concern, Carscadden noted, was once the ice became too soft to land on, how were they going to get to the helicopter if it partially or completely breaks through the ice? Fortunately, the owner and contractor both had airboats and a hovercraft, so one was on standby all the time so the ground team could respond quickly if such an accident was to occur. Once the ice was cleared off, a safety boat was ready if something happened on site.
Other safety concerns on site included the size, shape and rigging of the loads – some as heavy as 2,000 pounds. Kapetanovic was delegated supervisory responsibility of the helicopter operation, and he remained at the pickup site to ensure airworthiness and the rigging of each load – no simple task on some occasions. There was also a trained team of load handlers. “If Bill was placing an 1,800-pound floor panel and someone’s hand got pinched between the load and the foundation – we just had to make sure to be careful. This was the biggest concern, just making sure both the pick up and drop off were well executed and everyone was safe. Nobody was injured, no loads were lost or dropped, and there was no damage to the delivery site. So it is positive to see everything was properly taken into consideration.”
Satisfaction all Around
The ultimate success of a project can be realized when both the client and the employees are not only satisfied with the outcome but with the process in which it was achieved. Such is the case here. Win-win-win is the best way to describe the end result.
“Every time I called him (the client) when I was doing my due diligence, to ensure the story I was getting from Chartright personnel was consistent with that of the customer, they were just raving about it,” Carscadden says. “They were amazed at Bill’s skill in maneuvering the helicopter to bring the load down and stabilizing any rotation in it, easing it up to allow the guys to come in and work with loads, and place it precisely where it was required. Watching Bill fly the helicopter from below, you could definitely see the high level of skill he had.”
For Hofstede, the chance to hone his skills in a new environment on a new machine was an experience he won’t soon forget. “This is one of the most interesting jobs I have ever had,” he said. “It was tense and fun, but very gratifying. I am very glad to have done it.”
By the Numbers
- Days of operation: 24
- Days flown: 21
- Total flight time: 98.4 hours
- Total number of flights: 255
- Load weight transported by air: 128.073 tons