Your primary area of operation working for Blackcomb is British Columbia – what are the unique challenges of conducting helicopter operations in western Canada compared with other parts of the world?
It’s a tough place to work at times. The weather here is always changing and the area around Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton is named the ‘sea-to-sky’ for good reason. We can climb from sea level in Squamish up to local peaks like Tantalus or Garibaldi, which sit between 8,000-9,000ft (2.4-2.7km) only a few miles from base. We often encounter strong winds funneled by the Coast Mountains, and low cloud, heavy rain, icing conditions and turbulence can be found even on nice days around here. Careful planning and good decision making is really important, as even an emergency landing site can be hard to come by in a lot of the areas we fly in, if something was to go wrong.
You operate out of Blackcomb Helicopters’ Squamish base. How many aircraft do they have there and what types?
Blackcomb Helicopters as an organization operates around 22 aircraft. We don’t typically have ‘base’ aircraft that stay in one location for long, and our fleet is highly mobile depending on operational needs. We typically have at least one intermediate aircraft, either a Eurocopter AS350 or a Bell B407 in Squamish, and our Eurocopter EC135 lives in Squamish most of the time as well. On a busy day we could have seven or eight aircraft here though, and in addition to the aircraft listed above, you’ll regularly see B206s, B212s, AS355s and even occasionally our EC130 passes through! Never a dull moment!
In your role as a hoist operator, what memorable missions have you been on in the past year, and what made these ones stand out for you?
Squamish is an amazing place, the scenery is incredible. It’s so hard to choose just one because every task we go on is memorable for its own reasons. From an operational perspective, one that stands out on the search and rescue (SAR) side is a rescue we did on one of our most prominent rock features here in Squamish, known as The Chief. A climber had injured themselves in a very technical location and we utilized a member of our local SAR team who was trained in the use of the ‘lezard’ – a device made by Petzl to facilitate safe insertion and extraction of personnel to locations that require attachment to an anchor system. It was the first time we’d used the tool ‘in anger’, and it went really well. I was super proud of the team after that one.
We’ve also been involved in some challenging and rewarding infrastructure projects with our powerline clients this year. Hoisting personnel near energized power lines provides a unique challenge, and I’ve really enjoyed scaling up our capability in the last year. Being able to fly into a remote ocean inlet to clear fallen trees off power lines and hang a lineman on the hoist as he assesses and makes repairs – so that a community can get their lights back on – is very rewarding work. From my work with SR3 Rescue Concepts, it’s been a privilege to be able to provide hoist training to agencies all over the US like the Virginia State Police, the Spokane County Sherriff’s Department, and many others. I’d have to say that hoisting out of a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol 107-II was an experience I won’t forget!
As an instructor for SR3 Rescue Concepts, what are the most fundamental things you try to teach your new students?
There’s a couple of things. We always try to look at a hoist operation as a team sport. A pilot, hoist operator or rescue specialist that perhaps lacks proficiency in their role can cause problems for the whole team. A pilot that struggles with aircraft control can rarely be overcome by even the best hoist operator. A hoist operator that cannot communicate effectively cannot be propped up by the most talented pilot. And a rescue specialist that isn’t totally comfortable with their role in the operation and the equipment they use can make everyone’s life very challenging.
We always work to improve a pilot’s aircraft control and communications; the biggest focus when training a new hoist operator is learning to maintain clear and concise communication while simultaneously performing other tasks, like preparing personnel for deployment and physically operating the hoist. For the rescue specialists on the cable, learning how rotor wash can affect their stability, and teaching good body position when being hoisted is important, as well as building confidence in the equipment and techniques is key to ensuring the operation isn’t slowed down unnecessarily.
What is the best way of mentally preparing yourself in the event of an emergency operation?
Practice, preparation, and pre-planning. When an actual operation feels just like the hundreds of training evolutions you’ve done previously it’s much less stressful. Being comfortable with how your equipment works, the sequence of events required to perform an actual rescue and being confident in your team of pilots and rescue specialists goes a long way. I’m a huge fan of training under controlled conditions for operations right up to the same level of complexity you’d be expected to carry out in the real world. I never want to show up to an incident scene and be expected to perform something for the first time. When you arrive, and have past experiences to draw on, it makes the operation much less stressful.
How do you manage your two roles without them conflicting? Are you ever called to a rescue while instructing?
It’s a juggle, for sure. Here at Blackcomb, we have a number of hoist operators that we utilize, and we always try to maintain a full coverage when conducting in-house training. We always try to avoid putting ourselves in a position where a training flight must be interrupted due to an actual call and ensure that we have backup resources available to respond during training.
I’m very fortunate that Blackcomb sees huge benefit in the experience I gain by visiting various other agencies around the world and providing training to them. Although I’m there to teach, I’m also always learning things myself, and have picked up some great information from other agencies that I’ve been able to integrate back into Blackcomb’s hoist program upon my return. As mentioned earlier, Blackcomb has a number of hoist operators available, and we always maintain coverage for local operations when I’m travelling for the instructional work I do with SR3. Likewise, from an SR3 perspective, I think that the experience I gain by maintaining an operational status makes me a better instructor as I’m always up to date on currency and proficiency. The knowledge and experience gained from operational tasks is such an asset to being a good instructor; I think those that are 100 per cent dedicated to only providing instruction, regardless of the field of work, often miss out on a different perspective that operational missions bring.
You’ve talked to us before about how to choose the right kit for the job – but have there ever been any times when your kit has let you down on the job? In such a situation, do you work with the provider/manufacturer to improve a product?
Yes, absolutely! One example that’s exciting right now is not so much a time that gear has let us down but actually being able to improve on a product we use every day, in this case, the new, ‘First Responder’ navy blue flight suit we’ve helped Massif develop. Massif is already a market leader in producing a great range of practical and comfortable flame-resistant products, and their vision for the First Responder Collection has taken their existing suit, which was largely military focused, to a whole new level for the rescue, air medical and law enforcement corner of the industry. It’s been incredible to provide input on the design of the new suit with features specific to the user’s needs, help with product testing in the field, and also assisting with creating some really cool marketing material for the product launch that we’re super excited to share with everyone very soon! I’ve had a chance to try the suit out already and it’s incredible – I can’t wait to put it to work. The Massif team has done a phenomenal job!
My work with SR3 has also been a game changer in this regard. We get the opportunity to visit so many different operations and we’re always learning as we travel around. We’re always open to the idea that the equipment we’ve recommended to clients in the past may no longer be the best, or even the industry standard. It’s a constantly shifting and evolving target for the perfect products. We don’t manufacture any of our own gear, and we only recommend the best product for the unique needs of our individual customers.
The industry is evolving so fast and for a very long time I feel like the speed of product development had been quite slow in its progress. In the last 10 years that evolution has gained momentum significantly. New gear is constantly being produced and techniques are ever-changing, so much so that the regulators often can’t keep up! Every vendor we work with has been incredibly receptive to the feedback we have, and we have seen great changes made to products based on this, which is great. CMC Rescue, Lifesaving Systems Corp, Massif and Petzl are four great examples of equipment manufacturers that SR3 have worked with that are very customer focused. We’ve received prototype/pre-production sample products from all of them and have been asked to provide feedback. Certainly, there has been equipment that has let us down on the job. It’s taken us a long time at Blackcomb to find what we consider the perfect tagline for stretcher hoisting operations. Finding the perfect balance of low-stretch, lightweight, but still with enough diameter to not cause rope burn for attendants on the ground is a challenge. We’ve probably tried about three or four rope types so far and haven’t found the ideal product – yet.
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected how you operate in either of your roles at all?
Absolutely! Here in Canada, we’ve been lucky enough to be able to continue doing all the same tasks as we were pre-pandemic, but it’s also increased the complexities and precautions that we need to take. Unfortunately, we’ve seen severely limited in-person training both on the flight operations side, as well as reduced interaction with our local SAR teams, so we’ve had to work hard and get creative to ensure proficiency is maintained.
A lot of the work we do is very tactile and it’s hard to get the same benefit over video calls and while maintaining social distancing. Being an essential service both on the SAR and the power line utility side of the business allows us to largely continue working. But masks and distancing have been a part of daily life, which presents challenges for sure.
Down in the US, a lot of public-use agencies like police, fire and emergency medical service (EMS) units saw budgets put on hold due to the uncertainty of the whole situation, which delayed a lot of training classes.
We had to maintain significant flexibility when scheduling training as agencies were affected by Covid-positive exposures and ever-changing regulations. We were fortunate to have great cooperation from the agencies we did visit and were lucky to be able to deliver all our scheduled classes safely and successfully by taking the necessary precautions despite the hurdles.
You’ve had a few different careers before you ended up in your current roles – including snow sports instructor and forest firefighter. How did you end up becoming a hoist operator and instructor, and how have these past roles informed what you do now?
It’s been a different pathway to most, but I truly believe that every job I’ve had has contributed to getting me to where I am at today. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left high school. Flying in helicopters wasn’t even on the radar, but I loved the outdoors, and leadership was always an interest of mine. I wanted to be a full-time firefighter but the age of entry was 21. I decided to take a two-year outdoor education diploma as I thought it would be an asset to my firefighter application. The university campus was based on a ski hill, and rather than taking a summer break, ours was in the winter and students were encouraged to find work on the hill to add value to the outdoor education experience. That’s how I got into snow sports instruction. The instructional aspect was really interesting to me, and I found it very rewarding to take what I’d learned during my diploma and apply it in the real world.
To offset my winter work I needed a summer job, and a fellow student and snowboard instructor recommended I apply as a seasonal forest firefighter. I did, got the job, and loved it! It wasn’t until my first season fighting fire before I realised that being involved in helicopters was a viable option. I was 21 at the time. I applied as a rappel crewmember in Victoria, Australia, the next season, and was lucky enough to be successful in my application. My first ever flight in a helicopter was coincidentally also the first time I rappelled out of one, which is a crazy thought! That position allowed me to meet several Canadians who suggested I try a northern hemisphere fire season. I again applied for a position on a wildfire rappel crew in Alberta, Canada, and was successful.
In 2008 I moved to Calgary, Alberta, to continue a span of what would be six back-to-back summer seasons in Canada and Australia fighting wildfires. The experience I gained in both countries was incredible and I learned so much about incident management, leadership, and general helicopter operations purely because of the amount of exposure I had to them – we were flying around 100 hours per season and rappelling into as many as 30 active wildfires a year.
I returned to Australia in 2011, and took an introductory crewman course with what was then Careflight, now Lifeflight, in Queensland. This course was two weeks long, and covered basic aircrew skills such as Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET), aircraft safety, and hoisting operations. Combined with previous qualifications from my rappel firefighting position in Victoria some years earlier, I took the plunge and started looking for work. I was very lucky again to be in the right place at the right time and was offered a dual-role aircrew/rescue crew officer position in Rockhampton, Queensland. During that time, I was exposed to some phenomenal SAR and EMS missions including offshore hoisting, flood rescues, motor vehicle accidents, scene calls, night vision goggles (NVG) operations, instrument flight rules (IFR) flying and everything in between. This position lasted nearly two years before I decided to move back to Canada full time, to live with my girlfriend at the time – who is now wife – and returned to the Alberta Wildfire Service.
One day, while sitting in a field on standby with our Bell 205 waiting for a fire call, our pilot mentioned to me that the company he worked for had won a contract to perform Marine Pilot Transfer (MPT) hoisting in northern British Columbia, right up by the Alaska border, and he had remembered I had done some hoisting before and recommended I apply. Only a couple of short months later I was hoisting marine pilots to ships in what would ultimately be the first commercial MPT helicopter hoist operation in Canada – a proud moment for our team! When that contract unfortunately came to an end two years later, I approached Blackcomb Helicopters and asked if they’d be interested in some assistance in building their hoist program. The feedback and positive response I got from the Blackcomb team was astounding and they were keen to get me involved. They had a strong vision for the program and I’m still very thankful to this day that they chose me to be involved in executing that vision. It’s a great organization to be a part of!
My role with SR3 really is another dream come true. During my career up until the time I got started with SR3 I had received formal helicopter training from five different organizations, in two countries, and flown on a dozen or more helicopter types for many different types of work, from SAR, EMS and on law enforcement operations, through to wildfire management, MPT and even powerline maintenance. I think this huge diversity in training courses (and instructors), work genres and aircraft I was exposed to has given me an incredible understanding and exposure to the many facets of the helicopter industry and, combined with my education background, I’ve naturally found myself gravitating towards instruction. I was able to observe the good and the bad from all those experiences and blend them together, which helps form the instructional style and techniques I use today.
When I was down at a Heli-Expo conference a couple of years ago I was introduced by one of the instructors who provided me training for the MPT work I had done to two Las Vegas metro police officers, Dave and Jason, who explained their vision for what is now SR3 Rescue Concepts. We immediately realized that there was a good fit there, and I’ve been an active member of the SR3 team for almost three years now. That position has taken me all over the US, providing training to law enforcement, fire, EMS and civilian personnel and organizations for all types of work and we’re getting busier all the time. We’re very excited for the future.
As someone who has already clearly achieved a lot in his life, where do you see your career progressing in future?
I’m a huge advocate for being open to new ideas, and I believe very strongly that there’s always a better way to do things. I’m constantly learning and want to continue to travel, network, and grow my experience through interactions with other members of the helicopter hoisting community. I’m stoked with where I’ve landed here in Squamish, British Columbia. I’m motivated to continue building the program we have here at Blackcomb and hopefully progress into new and exciting types of work that we’ve only just scratched the surface of here in Canada so far. I’d love to see more dedicated, appropriately funded, and capable resources for SAR available here locally in BC and I’m working hard to try and make some of those things a reality. I love the work I do with SR3 Rescue Concepts and hope to continue to build that organisation into what I know it has the potential to become, and we’re well on the way! The company is doing great work, for all the right reasons – making the helicopter rescue industry safer, and I’m excited to continue to be a part of that!