For Columbia, the gem is 50 years of rotor motion

 - March 14, 2007, 10:49 AM

Columbia Helicopters is celebrating two anniversaries and is honoring four employees here at Heli-Expo’07.

At Columbia’s booth (No. 4218), which sadly doesn’t include one of the company’s Boeing Vertols or Chinooks, the first few lucky visitors will get to snag a coveted poster of the famous photo taken 25 years ago of a Columbia Boeing Vertol towing a loaded “220-ton barge across 50 miles of broken ice and water in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay,” according to the company.

Columbia has distributed more than 12,000 copies of the photo–taken by former Columbia public relations director Ted Veal–of the Vertol towing the barge, with the helicopter’s blades appearing dangerously close to the ice. “Moving at a steady 10 knots,” current media services manager Dan Sweet explained, “the Vertol towed the hover barge and load at the end of a 600-foot tow cable at up to a 25-degree nose-down angle. When Ted was positioned nearly right in front of the two, he snapped the now-famous image. While the demonstration was successful, the operation has never been repeated.”

The big anniversary that Columbia is celebrating this year is the company’s 50th year in business. From a single Hiller 12B flown by company founder Wes Lematta out of his backyard, Columbia Helicopters has grown into a global heavy-lift operator with 14 Vertols, seven Chinooks, two MD 500s and two  airplanes. On April 24, Columbia will release a book about the company’s fascinating history called The Flying Finns. April 24 is the date on which Lematta launched Columbia Helicopters.

Lematta and his family are credited with a number of significant events in the helicopter industry. In 1957, he used his Hiller to rescue 15 sailors from a sinking dredge in Coos Bay, Ore. During a job installing power poles and towing lines for a dam in the Columbia River Gorge, according to Sweet, “realizing that it’s easier to lean out and watch the load as he does this, Wes develops the direct visual observational control system, now the industry standard of flying loads with long lines.” During the 1960s, Lematta’s brother Jim got so cold leaning outside a Sikorsky S-61 while slinging loads for a tower project in the Colorado Rockies that he had to land to warm up. “From that situation, the pilot’s bubble window was born, also now an industry standard,” Sweet noted.

Columbia Helicopters now employs more than 700 people who work contracts in the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Peru. Last year, Columbia acquired the type certificates for the Vertol 107-II and 234 Chinook from Boeing. Its primary operations are logging and petroleum exploration plus forest firefighting, construction and movie work. The company’s maintenance division is growing into new sources of revenue servicing military aircraft and components.

Here at Heli-Expo, Columbia is proud of four employees who are receiving HAI recognition tomorrow: Ron Gilroy, Papua New Guinea maintenance manager, is HAI Maintenance Technician of the Year; Dale Weir, command pilot, is HAI Pilot of the Year; Richard Wolfgang is HAI Aviation Repair Specialist of the Year; and Jason Bratcher, a new employee, scored second place in the competition for the 2006 Bill Sanderson Aviation Maintenance Technician Scholarship.

Columbia Helicopters invites Heli-Expo attendees to a reception at its booth tomorrow from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., with free refreshments and a drawing, conducted by Wes Lematta, for Columbia Helicopters’ logo clothing. Columbia also brought a limited supply of the famous barge–towing poster, so get them before they disappear.