Heli-skiing: pristine powder awaits adventurous skiers

 - December 31, 2008, 4:53 AM

For an elite band of thrill-seekers and the pilots who fly them, heli-skiing is the ultimate adrenaline rush.

“We change people’s lives,” said Mike Olson, one of the three owners of Wasatch Powderbirds, a leading heli-skiing tour operator. “Anyone who does this has a sense of adventure that we respect.”

Every year from December 15 to April 15, Powderbirds, based at the Snowbird Resort outside Salt Lake City, takes 1,500 to 2,000 adventurers to places most skiers have never been nor dare contemplate–11,000 feet up the pristine backcountry of Utah’s Cottonwood canyons. Powderbirds’ clients run the gamut from Hollywood glitterati to Denver dishwashers, each of whom are willing to part with $990 for up to six hours of unforgettable adventure. On a typical day a skier will make seven runs with vertical drops of 1,500 to 3,000 feet each. An average run takes about 30 minutes. More well heeled clients also can charter an entire helicopter for $4,500 per hour (two-hour minimum). Most heli-skiers are staying at area resorts but occasionally some fly in for the day in private jets. Repeat customers account for 70 percent of Powderbirds’ business.

Adrenaline Rush for Pilots
The short season does not make it economical for Powderbirds to own aircraft; it is currently partnered with Classic Helicopters to provide aircraft and pilots. Not every helicopter can handle the conditions: heavy loads, high winds and temperatures down to -25 degrees C (-13 degrees F). Classic provides two Eurocopter AStar AS 350B3s, and the ships seem well suited to the mission, according to pilot James Brown. “I can’t speak highly enough about the B3 AStar,” Brown said. “It is an incredible machine for mountain flying; for fighting fires with the Forest Service,
for heli-skiing, it is the most stable aircraft I have ever flown.” Brown, a 15-year helicopter veteran with 5,000 hours, flew for Powderbirds for five years before leaving recently to fly firefighting missions.

Brown says the B3’s chief attribute is its power. “I hate to say it, but it is a lazy man’s helicopter.”

Brown typically sees climb rates of 1,500 to 2,000 fpm through 11,000 feet carrying 500 pounds of fuel (75 gallons of the B3’s 143-gallon capacity), four customers and a ski guide. Tail-rotor authority is good in almost all regimes, Brown said; however, he cautioned that certain rare situations such as light shifting winds, heavy loads and one-way in/ out arrivals/departures, can push the tail rotor to its limits. He says he usually remedies the condition with small input changes to the collective.

Despite the B3’s attributes, risk abounds and there have been a handful of crashes among the five heli-ski operators in the lower 48 U.S. over the last two decades. On ascents, the B3 is typically climbing at 65 knots at 300 to 500 agl, an altitude that leaves almost no room for error in planning autorotations. “You think about it all the time,” says Brown, who has yet to have to perform one on a heli-ski run. 

For heli-skiing pilots, the demands brought on by squirrelly winds, altitude, fast-changing weather and up to 100 takeoffs and landings a day can be the ultimate challenge. Brown honed his heli-skiing flying skills in his native New Zealand before coming to the U.S. Typically, weather in the Wasatch limits Powderbirds to 60 to 70 flying days per season. “You have to make it [money], when you can make it,” said Brown.

But flying days can be intense. The typical duty day begins at 5:30 a.m. with weather checks before “unwrapping” the B3 and beginning pre-flight. During
the season, the B3s live outdoors at Powderbirds’ helipads. Every night they are wrapped in protective covers (which shroud everything but the skids) to shield against snow, cold and gusts up to 120 knots. Then Tanis engine/oil and cockpit heaters are plugged in. The cockpit heaters keep the avionics “nice and toasty,” according to Brown, at about 40 degrees F.

The pilots are usually in the air by first light or 7:30 a.m., depending on the time of year, flying avalanche control and patrol around the ski areas for the Utah Department of Transportation and reconnoitering drop and pick-up zones for the tours later in the day.

Crews carry explosives on board during patrols to displace avalanches. In addition to avalanche duty, the B3s, with Powderbird guides aboard, are also the first responders and search-and-rescue helicopters in the ski resorts for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department. The B3s are outfitted with a special 406-MHz receiver that can pick up signals from buried and stranded backcountry skiers who are wearing personal transponders. (Powderbird provides transponders for all its clients.) The sensitive receiver can pinpoint signals 150 feet either side of the helicopter as it flies 50 to 100 feet agl and can guide the helicopter to within 15 feet of the signal. “I can find five beacons in nine minutes,” said Brown.

Once on a signal, crews drop smoke canisters and webbing to mark the spot for ground rescue teams. However, if an avalanche is involved it is generally preferable to drop a small two-man team and rescue dogs from the helicopter rather than send in “a whole brigade,” due to the risk posed by unstable slopes.

A typical patrol can last 30 minutes and then crews are back on the ground at one of two daily guide meetings and a mandatory heli-skier safety briefing. Skiers receive an extended airline-style briefing that lasts 20 to 25 minutes. “We teach them how to work the doors, the seat belts, how to turn off the fuel, how to activate the ELT and where to stand and not stand in relation to the helicopter,” said Olson.

By 9 a.m. the first load of skiers is in the air. The guide on the first load out has a small shovel and makes a landing pad in the snow about the size of the helicopter’s skis. But even then, Brown said it is not uncommon for the B3 to sink down to its belly even at “full noise.” Power must be maintained at all times. “If you land on a corniche it can crack,” explained Brown. “That makes things interesting.”

The first load waits for the arrival of the second at the drop zone and then one guide leads, followed by eight skiers and the second guide bringing up the rear. Guides synchronize their skiing speed and technique with those of customers; however, most heli-skiers have at least intermediate skills. One helicopter supports six groups, or 24 skiers and six guides, per day. That means pilots must be making either a takeoff or a landing every four minutes along with two quick–on average seven minutes each–refueling stops at the Powderbird helipad over the course of a five- or six-hour day.

Guides communicate with each other and the pilot with handheld radios and a series of hand signals at the drop and pick-up zones. The subtle, almost seamless interplay between pilots and guides is based on shared knowledge and respect, said Olson. “Our pilots are accommodating, but guides have to be smart enough to know not to ask the pilots to go somewhere they shouldn’t. For example, there are certain places you can go only when the helicopter is light on fuel; you don’t ask the pilot to go there right after a refuel.”

Guides also need to know how weather affects flight operations, according to Rusty Dassing, one of Olson’s partners and Powderbird’s president. “When you are a guide you need to know as much as the pilot in terms of wind and weather.”

Pilots tend to stay at Powderbirds for many years. The longest stayed 21 years. “The pilots who work here don’t want to leave. It is a pretty fun place to be
and for pilots it is pretty interesting work,” said Olson.

Pilot Brown agrees, claiming he gets almost as big a rush as some of his skiers. “Downwind takeoffs in the mountains through trees. That does it for me every time.”