Most helicopter pilots fly some complex and challenging missions. They have to be at the top of their game when, for example, they’re navigating through smoke and thermal currents while carrying a full load of water slung below their aircraft or maneuvering a news helicopter through low altitudes thick with traffic.
Nowhere in the job descriptions for these pilots, however, is there any mention of the biggest challenge heli-ski pilots face daily: avalanches.
High up in the Alps or Canada’s Pacific Range, some skilled helicopter pilots are flying heli-skiers straight into what could be troublesome flight conditions, if not handled correctly.
The very nature of heli-ski flying – operating at high altitudes in weather conditions that will produce plenty of fresh-powder snow – means these missions are no place for an inexperienced pilot. Conditions can change quickly on top of a mountain, and what worked yesterday for a landing zone might be ground zero for today’s avalanche.
To make sure that everyone comes back in one piece from a heli-ski mission, there are three important people involved in making the go or no-go decisions. Of course, pilots are the final authority on flight safety, so the ultimate decisions are always their call, but a professional guide trained in forecasting high-altitude weather conditions, along with the heli-ski operator, are also continuously involved before a flight ever departs the heliport. While business models in British Columbia or the Swiss Alps regarding how flights are conducted differ, strict adherence to safety is universal.
“In other parts of the world,” says Danielle Stynes, founder and CEO of SwisSkiSafari in Anzere, Switzerland, “heli-skiing is done from a lodge.
“But it is very different here. We have 48 drop zones all over Switzerland, and most of them are concentrated in the Valais region between the Jungfrau and Zermatt. We use different helicopters that are positioned closest to the areas where the customer wants to heli-ski. But long before any flight departs, the pilots, the guides, and myself have spent a lot of time talking, making decisions based on safety because every day, weather and snow conditions are constantly changing.”
The mountain guides are an integral part of the decision-making process says Roland Brunner, a Swiss pilot who mostly flies an Airbus AS350 B3 for SwisSkiSafari and other operators. Brunner, who Stynes calls one of the most experienced heli-ski pilots in the Alps, says that while the guides are responsible for the safety and avalanche conditions, the responsibility for making the decision to fly falls squarely on the pilot’s shoulders.
“The pilot is responsible for flying,” Brunner says, “and only the pilot will make a final call to fly, based on the flying conditions. It is the guide’s job to assess the snow conditions and possibility of avalanches, and the pilot the flying conditions.”
With the short distances between the base and drop zones, Brunner prefers to stick his head out the window. If he can see, he can fly.
“Nothing will be as precise as when you look out the window, because we are flying in proximity to terrain all the time,” Brunner says. “We start the flights in the bottom of the valley and fly up to the drop zones, usually around 14,000 feet mean sea level on top of the mountains. In the Alps, the weather has many little microclimates, so it can be snowing on one side of the valley and sunny on the other.
“The dangers are flat light, blowing of powder snow, and loss of reference and visual cues to fly the helicopter,” Brunner says. “You always need to have a Plan B and Plan C. Not seeing anything to use as visual reference is like gambling, and because we’re not on a rescue mission, we do not take chances for heli-skiing. The sport of heli-skiing is meant to be fun, it’s not life and death.”
Now, about those avalanches. These rapid flows of snow down a slope are caused by faults in the snowpack and can occur naturally. They can also be triggered by outside stresses on that snowpack, such as skiers, snowmobilers, or a helicopter landing. However, researchers have dismissed the idea that sounds — such as a shout or even the compression wave coming off of a helicopter rotor — are strong enough to trigger an avalanche.
Everyone in the heli-ski business has monumental respect for this dangerous condition. “Avalanche forecasting is a very important part of heli-skiing,” says Steve Gray, an AS350, AS355, and Bell 407 pilot and base manager for Blackcomb Aviation at the Whistler Municipal Heliport in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. With more than 10,000 hours in rotorcraft during a 25-year career, including many spent flying heli-ski missions, Gray knows all about the importance of avalanche forecasting.
“During a morning meeting and prior to any air operations,” Gray explains, “guides will decide which zones or specific runs are safe or not safe to ski that day, based on available avalanche forecast information,” coupled with their knowledge of the local slopes, snow quality, weather patterns, and so forth.
Part of the commitment to safety means that conditions are reviewed daily. “Weather forecasts are reviewed by pilots and guides to determine if it will be a workable day. Conditions such as icing, heavy falling snow, or very poor visibility could mean that, for safety reasons, the day ends before it begins,” Gray says.
“One of the biggest concerns for the pilot is avoiding avalanche paths at pickup locations at the bottom of runs. This is where our avalanche training comes into play,” he says. “This training, along with daily avalanche briefings from the guides, gives the pilot a good foundation on which we can make decisions on where to land, and where not to land.
“If a heli-ski pilot feels a landing location that was perfectly fine the previous day is no longer safe due to daytime heating, wind, or new snow, then the pilot can suggest an alternative to the guide and have them ski to a different location for a pickup, or choose a different run altogether.”
Gray is quick to point out one common misconception about heli-ski flying. “People think the runs are extreme and the flying is dangerous,” he says. “In reality, most of the runs can be skied by any intermediate skier, and the avalanche danger on these runs is relatively low due to the constant evaluation of conditions by the guides. The flying may appear to be dangerous to a nonmountain pilot, but they are in fact just mountain landings performed on a continuous basis throughout the day.
“The safety culture of heli-skiing has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Guides, pilots and company management are now far more interested in everyone coming home safe at the end of the day than being concerned over getting that one last run in ahead of an approaching snowstorm,” says Gray.
The safety culture of helicopter operations in quickly changing conditions always has a strong education component for the passengers, because most of the runs start as “hot drops,” meaning the engine — and the rotors — are running during the drop-off procedure. Both Brunner and Gray say intensive briefing of their skier passengers is a big part of every flight.
“Our heli-ski briefing involves a presentation by both the ski guide and the pilot,” explains Gray. “Once the guests have completed avalanche transceiver training, they will be briefed on the actual aircraft they are flying in. This will include location and use of emergency exits, fire extinguishers, seat belts, survival gear, main and tail rotor hazards, with an emphasis on rising terrain around the aircraft in the mountains.
“As the majority of operations are hot, emphasis is also placed on keeping gear such as hats, helmets, and gloves secure during the arrival or departure of the helicopter. A very important element is that they are told to stay in one predetermined location near the front of the aircraft, visible to the pilot at all times,” says Gray.
In the Alps, Brunner points out danger areas around the helicopter during the loading and unloading of passengers. “We discuss how loading and unloading of skis and poles takes place, and how the airbags need to have the handle disengaged. I emphasize no walking to the back of the helicopter at any time and go over operation of the doors, which are delicate. We tell the passengers about the emergency exits and proper seat belt operation. The briefing is normally done by the guides.”
Stynes does not disagree that helicopters seem like an expensive way to get to the top of a ski run. She says, though, that this type of skiing means the skier has reached the next level. “This is the level where it’s not important what you look like on skis but what is important is that you can get to the end of the descent comfortably and in safety,” she says. “It’s true that when you involve a helicopter, trips inevitably become expensive. These are not budget trips,but it’s money well spent. Generally when people sign up for these trips, it’s not about the money. It’s personal, they are signing up for an experience.”
Indeed, it can be quite an experience, whether it’s in the Alps, Canada, or anywhere else where high peaks are covered in virgin powder. “There is a difference between the skiing in the Alps and in North America,” explains Stynes.
“You’ll need to be more cautious in the Alps because the skiing is more technical, usually with more crevasses, and snow conditions and the setting constantly changing,” she says. “But it is all worth it, because along with getting to ski isolated first-track runs just minutes from your ski hut or hotel, you get a spectacular and scenic helicopter ride in one of the most beautiful parts of the Alps…. The helicopters help us find descents of more than 2,000 meters of vertical drop, runs that can take anywhere from two to three hours to descend by ski or snowboard, and are not accessible by lift.”
Blackcomb’s Gray was involved in a wide variety of helicopter operations, including firefighting, mountain operations, long lining, animal survey and capture, tourism, search and rescue, and exploration support, before beginning to fly heli-ski missions. His advice to pilots wanting to fly heli-ski missions is to first approach the sector with several thousand hours of experience in the logbook.
“I think the most important previous experience to have when starting heli-ski flying is a thorough mountain course and actual winter mountain flying experience, preferably in the area you are going to fly the missions,” he says. “It is also essential to be very familiar with the type of aircraft you are going to work in. This is not the type of operation you should fly as you get comfortable with a new aircraft type.”
As with many flight jobs in the helicopter industry, professional pilots need to be trained in more than one area, says Brunner. “Pilots here in Switzerland do everything, which means construction work, transport of material, heavy lift with cables, and emergency operations. Heli-skiing is only a small part of the job of a pilot here, and in many ways, it is the most enjoyable and easiest.”
Gray flies a variety of missions in addition to delivering skiers from his Whistler base to surrounding mountain runs. “We do a significant amount of search and rescue (SAR) and medevac flying,” he says. “We operate as SAR aircraft on behalf of the provincial government and work alongside local volunteer SAR organizations such as Whistler Search and Rescue to complete the missions.
“We train with the local SAR groups in rescue techniques such as HETS [human external transport system], hover entry/exit, and mountain operations. HETS is basically a long-line rescue during which we use lines of 100 to 150 feet to insert rescuers into steep terrain, tall trees, or any remote area that cannot be accessed, and extract injured persons to safer areas,” says Gray.
Stynes sums up the work of heli-ski pilots by saying they are extremely knowledgeable in various disciplines in the mountains. When she arrived in Switzerland from her native Australia, she found that many in the ski industry rarely worked together. She saw the talent these pilots and guides demonstrated and has worked to bring them together to better serve the customers.
“I saw that by putting this combined knowledge together, it would create magic, with pilots and guides having the ability to find the best snow, land in all the right places at the right time, and do so in complete safety. The Swiss Alps are still a wild and fascinating playground if you have the courage to get a little bit away from the big resorts. And that’s where the helicopter pilots really shine, they know the terrain and the guides know the weather. The teamwork of everyone involved is wonderful.”
From the massive summit of the 13,642-foot Jungfrau looking down on some of Europe’s most spectacular and dramatic scenery, to the 432,000 acres of classic, big-mountain terrain surrounding Whistler in Western Canada, heli-skiing is made possible by pilots who know how to fly in demanding conditions and remain safe at all times.