Where there is smoke there is fire－and when there’s a forest fire you can count on Columbia Helicopters being there, too. As owners and operators of the world’s largest privately-held fleet of heavy-lift helicopters, the company has routinely worked on government contracts throughout its history, including fighting wildfires throughout the summer.
Columbia Helicopters is a leader in aerial firefighting and has provided this service globally since 1967. They are proud of their heavy-lift fleet, with each aircraft suited for a variety of missions in support of fire suppression across North America.
The company also maintains success in other areas of operations within the oil and gas segment and governmental operations. The typical makeup of the company remains evenly diverse across the three main sectors from which it derives revenue, but is fluid with the market. Jim Rankin, CEO, states that, “Diversity is strength, the industry is dynamic and keeps moving, and Columbia Helicopters is there and moving with it.”
Necessity ̶ the Mother of Invention
Columbia Helicopters’ inception came from the vision of Wes Lematta, while sitting in a foxhole in the Philippines during WWII watching fighter pilots fly overhead. Wes knew those pilots were headed back to a hot shower and hot food, and thought, “Wow...they really got this figured out!” Following the war, he drove a truck and worked as a longshoreman until he heard there was a need for helicopter pilots. Using his GI Bill educational benefits, he learned to fly from Dean Johnson in McMinnville, Oregon. Wes then started Columbia Helicopters in 1957 with one helicopter and a plan to promote the versatility of helicopters.
“And he did just that,” states Steve Bandy, Sr. Vice President of Operations. He goes on to say, “While flying personnel to a dredge off the coast of Oregon, Wes spotted another dredge (William T. Rossell) that was sinking. The damaged dredge had been struck by a freighter at the mouth of Coos Bay and there were people on it needing to be rescued. Wes single-handedly saved 15 crew members’ lives that day by hovering close to the sinking ship, allowing the crew members to grab onto the skids, and returning them safely to shore”. This incident changed Wes Lematta’s vision of what helicopters were capable of doing.
Earlier on, Wes was an innovator who was not afraid to test ideas that would not only improve operational efficiencies, but also permeate the company’s culture for generations. For example, during an external-load operation in 1959, while flying a Hiller 12B with dual controls, Wes felt he could do a better job if he were able to see what he was doing. He recognized that he could complete the project more efficiently and safely if he looked down at the load instead of relying on radio commands from the ground. He moved from the center seat to the left seat and stuck his head out of the helicopter to establish direct visual contact with the load.
Combine this head-out-the-door technique with the use of bubble windows on both the pilot and copilot’s side, and the Direct Visual Operational Control (DVOC) method of flying loads was born. Bubble windows facilitate quicker pickup, and provide a full view of the drop area to ensure obstacle clearance and enhance safe load delivery. This was the first use of DVOC, which is used throughout the heavy-lift industry to this day.
Columbia Vertols, a Twist of Fate
Columbia Helicopters’ fleet began humbly when its first helicopter, a used Hiller 12-B was purchased in New Mexico. After only two years in business, Wes made good on his earlier intent to have more than one helicopter by purchasing a new Bell 47 G2 for $40,000 in 1959, and a Hiller 12-E shortly thereafter. Several years later, the demand for more lifting capacity surfaced, which caused the company to add more capable workhorses to the fleet like the venerable Sikorsky S58 and S61.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the company’s history, which would forever change Columbia Helicopters’ trajectory, came with the introduction of Vertol tandem-rotor helicopters to the fleet. This pivotal moment however, was less about planning and more about an amazing opportunity that was born out of one part chance and one part tragedy.
A brief look back on history reminds us that from December 1965 to February 1968, New York Airways (NYA) operated Boeing Vertol 107-II (BV-107) tandem-rotor helicopters from the Pan Am rooftop helipad to Pan Am's terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Unfortunately for NYA, one of the helicopters crashed on the Pan Am building, which was the impetus for the company going out of business.
Shortly thereafter, several of the NYA BV-107s were put up for sale. Fortunately for Wes, and the future of Columbia Helicopters, a very persuasive Sikorsky salesman convinced Wes that the BV-107 would be perfect for his business. Subsequently, a deal was struck to purchase three of the helicopters that would become the backbone of Columbia’s fleet and propel it to become a global leader in heavy-lift operations.
The Vertol Advantage
Columbia’s firefighting and heavy-lift fleet consists of approximately 34 helicopters which includes the Columbia Vertol 107-II, Columbia 234 Chinook, and Boeing CH-47D helicopters. The Chinook 234 provides the largest gross weight allowance for any helicopter in its class, at 51,000 pounds (23,133 kilograms). According to Steve Bandy, “The Vertol’s real advantage is due to tandem rotors. You don’t have to worry about anti-torque as virtually all the power goes right into lift. With no tail-rotors to worry about, they are less susceptible to wind, and are extremely maneuverable in tight operational environments. The large rear loading doors also provide a huge advantage, no matter the mission.”
The Boeing Vertol 107-IIs and Boeing 234 commercial Chinooks became so important to the company’s operations over the years, that in December 2006 Columbia bought the Type and Production Certificates for the 234 Chinook from Boeing. The company also owns the Type Certificate for the Vertol 107-IIs. To date, Columbia Helicopters currently owns all of the Chinooks and most of the Vertol aircraft worldwide.
Putting the Wet Stuff on the Red Stuff
Helicopters were first used on wild land fires in 1947. Fire managers recognized the value of the helicopter's ability to rapidly transport personnel and cargo to a fire area, especially in remote locations. In 1967, Wes Lematta came onto the firefighting scene and the name “Columbia Helicopters” became synonymous with helicopters and firefighting ever since.
Helicopters are extremely versatile fire management tools in that they can precisely deliver specific amounts of water and fire retardant to the fire line. Like many firefighting helicopters, the weapons in the Columbia firefighting arsenal come in the form of buckets and tanks, but not just any buckets or tanks. Think big buckets and big tanks!
Using this type of helicopter for firefighting operations requires a certain amount of innovation in order to adapt the aircraft to the many situations that can occur during firefighting missions. Over the decades, Columbia Helicopters has been on the leading edge of innovation by not only developing products and standards, but also being early adopters of new technology. Several examples of this include:
Participating in design changes going from Griffith buckets to Bambi Buckets.
Using the SEI Torrentula Bambi Buckets equipped with the Powerfill System. Each bucket carries four high-speed pumps that can fill it in less than 90 seconds from water sources as shallow as 18 inches. The development of this innovative aerial firefighting product was born out of the valuable feedback received from helicopter operators, as well as from Canadian and American forest and land management agencies.
Developing and deploying the first CH-47D internal Fire Attack System (FAS) water tank with Simplex, providing an efficient and safe tool for firefighting at the urban interface.
The CH-47D internal Fire Attack System (FAS) water tanks are very unique in that they are capable of holding 2800 gallons (10,600 Liters) of water. The pilot can drop the load of water using multiple water-drop settings from the cockpit. Once the aircraft is over a fire, Columbia pilots are able to drop suppressants and retardants in a variety of ways that best meet the needs of the ground firefighters. They can hit a long fire line by partially opening the FAS tank while in forward flight. Alternatively, they can open and close the gate to dispense a series of spot drops, or they can hit those stubborn hotspots with a precise, massive spot drop.
According to Bandy, “Since urban areas are right up against forested areas, the FAS tank system allows us to deliver larger quantities of water with more speed and precision. These large tanks can literally be filled in a minute or so and emptied in seconds.” The net result equates to quicker turn-arounds, which equals more wet stuff on the red stuff.
Generally speaking, the firefighting side of the business has been expanding over the last few years, due to forest health burning hotter and longer and more frequent. “We have seen longer fire seasons in recent years,” says Bandy. Columbia typically has aircraft on contracts with ODF (Oregon Department of Forestry), CDF (California Department of Forestry), and the US Forest Service.
In the Field
When Columbia Helicopters deploys a crew for a particular firefighting contract, a fairly large team is required. At a minimum, a crew would consist of: two pilots with the aircraft at any time for a 12-hour on/12-hour off shift, three to five mechanics, a fuel truck driver, an equipment driver, a fuel tanker, a service van for parts, a utility trailer for ground support equipment, and a staff vehicle.
When asked about the makeup of the pilots, I was surprised to learn that most are civilian-trained. It’s also standard practice for all new hire pilots with Columbia Helicopters to start off as co-pilots and be trained in-house. The pilot pool fluctuates between 60 and 80 pilots, but that only represents approximately ten-percent of the entire Columbia team. It takes an expert team of 800 personnel to support Columbia’s global operations across all sectors.
Future and Challenges
During the discussion with Steve Bandy regarding the future of firefighting, the conversation turned quickly to the use of night vision systems (mainly night vision goggles ̶ NVG) and firefighting. Steve explained that Columbia Helicopters is NVG certified and can meet that challenge, but is venturing carefully into that market. According to Bandy, “Currently, the advantage of not flying at night is that we effectively use that time for maintenance and crew rest.”
Columbia Helicopters is monitoring the future as contracts are starting to request NVG capability. The consensus of Columbia Helicopters’ management is that making a commitment to round-the-clock operations will require a cautious change management approach, as the ramifications will impact everything from training to personnel, from maintenance to safety. Mr. Bandy states, “The NVG / firefighting movement has started, but for us, safety still has to be number one. When dropping 2800 gallons of water to the ground, especially in the dark, people are at risk and we have to be safe.” In other words, just because you can fly at night and drop water from a helicopter, doesn’t mean that you should, without going through a strict and methodical change management process that’s hyper-focused on personnel safety.
Another challenge that many of the veteran firefighting companies are facing revolves around the recent influx of restricted-category military-surplus aircraft being sold into the civilian market. This phenomena is a double-edged sword. For the experienced operators, it’s a good way to add aircraft to the fleet and be put into operation. On the other hand, it can create a low-cost avenue for operators with little or no experience to enter the firefighting market and compete for contracts. Competition in itself is not bad, but limited experience, combined with low-cost entry can decrease safety for everyone and potentially reduce profitability for the seasoned operators.
The latest “hot button” issue in the firefighting sector revolves around the potential threat to civil operators from the federal government itself. According to the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (ASHAFA), of which Columbia Helicopters is a member, there is concern about recent moves by the federal government to operate former US Coast Guard C-130 fixed-wing firefighting aircraft, which compete with civil operators. According to George Hill of AHSAFA, “Private operators have made large investments in order to respond to the government’s need for firefighting assets. Now, the creation of competition between the government and civil operators will likely damage government-industry relations.” He goes on to say, “No data suggesting that lower costs will result from this new competitive landscape.” Editor’s note: (See AHSAFA story in this issue of Rotorcraft Pro for more info.)
Legacy and Culture
This company was the vision of one man, Wes Lematta, and his passion for helicopters. With his wife and brothers by his side, he always knew that success just might be around the corner. And for Wes Lematta and its many employees, Columbia Helicopters has definitely been successful.
That said, Santiago Crespo, VP, Business Development and Marketing, pointed to something even more important as it relates to the company’s success when he said, “Wes’ legacy lives on in the culture and how the current management values the strong culture of Columbia’s people and considers it to be a differentiator and a competitive advantage.” He went on to say, “Anybody can operate heavy-lift helicopters, but not everyone can operate them at an extremely high-level like Columbia does every day, in any condition, in any part of the world.”