Helicopters Magazine

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Tom Brooks

February 23, 2009  By James Careless

Tom Brooks has won the highly prestigious HAI Pilot of the Year award for 2009!
So who is Tom Brooks? In the strictest terms, he is Canadian Helicopters Ltd. base manager in Smithers, B.C. Smithers is a booming town located in the Coastal Mountains halfway between Prince Rupert and Prince George.

Tom Brooks has won the highly prestigious HAI Pilot of the Year award for 2009!

So who is Tom Brooks? In the strictest terms, he is Canadian Helicopters Ltd. base manager in Smithers, B.C. Smithers is a booming town located in the Coastal Mountains halfway between Prince Rupert and Prince George.

Tom Brooks was presented with the HAI 20,000 Hours Accident Free flying award at the December 2006 base managers meeting in Edmonton. (L to R): Don Wall, senior executive vice president, CHL; Brooks, pilot/base manager, Smithers; Jean Pierre Blais, president, CHL.


As responsible as such a position is, being a base manager alone is not enough to justify being chosen as HAI’s Pilot of the Year. So why did Brooks’ colleagues at Canadian Helicopters recommend him for the honour?


 “Tom is a very successful helicopter pilot; he’s flown over 23,500 hours,” says Mark Olson, Canadian Helicopters’ VP of Canadian operations. “A few years ago, he received a HAI award for clocking 20,000 hours accident-free. Given how challenging mountain flying can be, that says something about Tom’s ability as a helicopter pilot.”

 “Besides his safety record, Tom Brooks is extremely good with young pilots; he’s a great mentor,” says Dave McCutcheon, Canadian Helicopters’ chief pilot. “He’s the kind of guy who does his job without having problems or making problems. Tom is also focused on safety, which is important to me as chief pilot. And he is good at coming up with innovative ideas as to how helicopters can be used, providing us with new services that we can offer. Finally, Tom is a really, really good pilot.”

“Don’t forget how nice Tom is, and how he’s a solid member of the Smithers community,” concludes Olson. “He’s raised his family in Smithers and stayed there a good long time. Canadian Helicopters is lucky to have a man of his calibre there.”

As for Brooks’ own take on this honour? “I was kind of surprised to get it,” he says. “I don’t know of any reason in particular; I guess it is based on my body of work over the years.”

Brooks originally trained as a helicopter pilot in 1975 at Calgary’s Springbank Airport. Getting his licence a year later, “I went to work for Agro Copters – now defunct – flying Hiller 12Es high in the barrens. I also did work on Bell 47s and Hughes 300s. I put in about 1,500 hours on pistons before I finally got in turbines, starting with the MD500.”

By 1979, Brooks was doing some flight instruction in Smithers allowing him to get to know this wilderness playground firsthand. “A year later, some drilling company owners decided to form their own flying company called Highland Helicopters, and I was offered a job here in Smithers,” he says. “So my wife and I decided to move here for five years, to try it out. We never left.”

Amoung Brooks’ specialties are “cone collecting” (gathering seeds for the lumber industry’s reforesting efforts), igniting lumber debris within a specified cut zone from the air, and animal capture.


Brooks flew for Highland Helicopters from 1980 to 1985, doing oil exploration and transportation work, mineral surveying, firefighting and wildlife tracking/management, among others. “In the mid-80s Highland was suffering due to a recession, while Okanagan Helicopters was looking at moving into this region,” Brooks says. “Since I didn’t want to relocate with Highland to Slave Lake, Alberta, I joined Okanagan [now Canadian Helicopters] in 1985. I’ve been with them ever since.”

As Canadian Helicopters’ Smithers base manager, Brooks works out of a small hangar “just south of the old Smithers landfill site.” When he took the job, “we had just me, a base engineer and a JetRanger. Now we have four aircraft – two JetRangers, a LongRanger and a Eurocopter B2 AStar – and the personnel to fly and maintain them.” For the record, Brooks’ other pilots are Ryan Buchanan, Ryan Hinds and Robert Henderson. Tracy Torunski and Howard Robertson are his engineers.

Operationally, “we fly many kinds of missions, but the bulk of our work is in mineral exploration,” he says. “We spend our time servicing remote exploration camps and slinging in camp gear and diamond drills. We also fight fires and do forestry work.”
 It is only when you ask Brooks about the specific missions he flies that you get a sense of how experienced and knowledgeable a pilot he is. A case in point is ‘cone collecting,’ gathering seeds for the lumber industry’s reforesting efforts.

The cones come from the top parts of Douglas fir trees typically located in very remote locations with no road access. This is where Brooks and his helicopter come in. “We sling a conical fibreglass cone under our helicopter,” he explains. It’s about 4’ high, 5-6’ across at the bottom, and 3’ at the top. Our job is to fly this cone into place over top of a Douglas fir, then use a power rack or shears to lop the top off inside the cone. Once this is done, we fly it to ground.”

A second specialty is igniting lumber debris within a specified cut zone from the air. Here’s the scenario: After the loggers have cut down a predefined area – say a 100 hectare square – Brooks flies in carrying a tank of either straight jet or diesel fuel, connected to a pump with a 12-14’ long drip torch. The torch is mounted underneath the helicopter, on a downward angle. Brooks’ job is to flow the fuel past the torch so that he rains down a stream of burning fuel, in such a way that nicely stays within the burn zone – and goes nowhere else. 

“The idea is to lay down the burning fuel such that you create a ‘convective zone’” he says. “In this way, you try to get the fire going in all four corners, such that the fire burns toward the middle until the entire area is done without any flames escaping. It is very precise work especially from the air in the mountain thermals.”

Brooks’ third specialty is animal capture. While he flies, a trained wildlife officer uses a netgun or a tranquilizer rifle to bring down mountain goats, wolves, bears, caribou and moose. “Netgunning can be very tricky, because you have to be very nimble and manoeuvrable to get ahead of the animal for a good shot,” he says. “Once you bag a wolf – moose are too big to net – you have a limited amount of time to land and tag them before they chew their way to freedom. The last thing you want to face is an angry, scared wolf that has just bitten through a net, and has you in his sights!”

Despite his many adventures throughout Western Canada, Brooks is a devoted Smithers resident. It’s where he and his family have put down roots, and where he has managed to raise a family without suffering the usual disruptions of a pilot’s life.

“This is a great place to live, and Canadian Helicopters is a top-flight company to work for,” Brooks says. “Being base manager has allowed me to have a stable life while still getting to do some really great flying. That’s what my life is all about. Being recognized as Pilot of the Year is just icing on the cake, grateful as I am to be honoured this way.”


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