Happy Birthday to Columbia Helicopters! Oregon-Based Company Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

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The company wasn’t much to look at in 1957.

A single, small helicopter flown by an owner who sold rides on the weekend while continuing to drive trucks or work as a longshoreman during the week. The owner’s “staff” included his wife and brothers, who would help out with various tasks. Not surprisingly, it was the support of his family that made the most difference in the success of his fledgling company.

In the infancy of the civilian helicopter industry, the story isn’t much different from many other single owner/operator businesses that sprang up around the world. However, Wes Lematta saw that the helicopter, almost a novelty at the time, could become so much more than a means of transporting people from one point to another.

Wes dreamed, and he dreamed BIG.

Wes’ young company was Columbia Helicopters always plural even when he owned only one helicopter and his vision has made his company into what is today, the world leader in commercial heavy-lift helicopter operations. Columbia Helicopters boasts the largest private fleet of heavy-lift helicopters in the world, and the company operates around the world.

Whether by Wes’ extraordinary vision of what helicopters were capable of doing, or perhaps through a little “luck of the Finns”, Columbia Helicopters can look back at several momentous points in company history where the company’s path became more clearly defined. These remarkable achievements are being chronicled in a book, “The Flying Finns”, that Columbia Helicopters will release on April 24th, the actual date of the company’s 50th Anniversary. Until then, what follows are some of the highpoints of the company’s history:

  • In 1957, Wes Lematta completes helicopter flight training using the GI Bill, and with the assistance of his brother Ed, buys the company’s first helicopter, a Hiller 12B.
  • With the assistance of his family and operating from his backyard, Wes sells rides on the weekends while continuing to drive a truck during the week.
  • He also seeks publicity by carrying reporters and photographers, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and several trapeze acts.
  • His greatest publicity came when he heroically rescued 15 sailors from a sinking dredge off Coos Bay on September 10, 1957. He is awarded the Army Air Medal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
  • In one of the first instances of line-pulling, he used his Hiller 12B to deliver a tow line between a beached barge and an off-shore tugboat. This was also the first of many instances over the decades where one of Wes’ helicopters would assist in pulling a vessel off a Pacific beach.
  • In 1959, Wes buys a much stronger helicopter, a Hiller 12E, with 345 horsepower. Despite flying his earlier helicopters from the center seat, Wes had dual controls installed in the 12E. Shortly thereafter, Wes takes a job installing power poles and towing line to a new dam in the Columbia River Gorge. Realizing that it’s easier to lean out and watch the load as he does this, Wes develops the Direct Visual Observational Control system (DVOC), now the industry standard of flying loads with long lines.
  • In 1962, Columbia Helicopters moves to Swan Island, near downtown Portland, Oregon. This was the nation’s first heliport located within the limits of a major city.
  • During the 1960’s, Wes and his brother Jim develop what may be the first use of a fire-fighting water bucket slung beneath a helicopter. The bucket is converted from hauling concrete and carries 200-gallons of water.
  • During a tower project in the Colorado Rockies, Jim Lematta is flying the company’s Sikorsky S-61 and leaning out the side of the aircraft to watch his loads. He gets so cold that he is forced to land. From that situation, the pilot’s bubble window is born, also now an industry standard.
  • In 1969, Wes buys three Boeing Vertol 107-II helicopters from Pan Am, setting the stage for Columbia to eventually become the world’s only commercial operator of these tandem-rotored helicopters. Forever after, Wes calls these aircraft the backbone of his fleet.
  • In 1971, Wes and Jack Erickson perform the first financially successful test of helicopter logging involving large timber. Columbia Helicopters provides the helicopter and Erickson Lumber Company provides the timber thus allowing both companies the right to proclaim that each was the first successful heli-logger.
  • Columbia Helicopters purchases four Vertols from New York Airways in January 1972.
  • In the early 1970s, Columbia sends several of it’s Vertols to remote oil fields to support exploration projects. While these are not the first helicopters to move oil rigs, petroleum companies are soon disassembling their rigs in larger sections to take advantage of the Vertols heavy-lift capacity.
  • In 1976, Columbia Helicopters moves from their Swan Island base to their new, larger facility at the Aurora State Airport. Since that time, the company’s maintenance facility continues to grow in size and scope, to better serve the company’s growing fleet of aircraft.
  • Also in 1976, Columbia purchases four Kawasaki Vertol 107-IIs from the government of Thailand.
  • In 1977, Columbia Helicopters provided fire suppression and search and rescue operations during the Haj, the annual Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca.
  • Perhaps the most famous helicopter photo ever taken was shot when Ted Veal captures a Columbia Helicopters’ Vertol towing a 220-ton hover barge across broken ice near Prudhoe Bay.
  • Columbia Helicopters’ introduction to the Boeing 234 Chinook begins in 1983, when it provides flight crews to Arco-owned aircraft working in the Bering Sea.
  • In 1984, Columbia Helicopters purchases its first two Boeing 234 Chinooks.
  • In 1985, three Vertols were flown to the Sudan to provide assistance with famine relief. In just 100 days, Columbia’s aircraft move over eight-million pounds of food, flying 2,598 hours with 100% aircraft availability and mission completion.
  • In 2006, Columbia Helicopters completes the process to acquire the Type Certificates for the Vertol 107-II and Model 234 Chinook from The Boeing Company.

Today, Columbia Helicopters owns and flies 14 operational Vertols and seven 234 Chinooks. The company’s helicopters operate globally, and are supported by a world-class maintenance department that boasts at a 97% aircraft availability rate.

The company’s selective harvesting procedure is lauded as one of the most environmentally sensitive forms of logging, where only a portion of the timber is removed from a forest. The remaining timber thrives on the additional resources, and the impact is so slight visually that it’s often difficult to see where logging operations have taken place.

Logging and petroleum exploration support continue to make up the largest portion of the company’s business. However, fighting forest fires, a variety of construction projects and the occasional movie also take their place on the company’s long range schedule.

The company’s outstanding maintenance program also continues to grow. Columbia has been developing it’s maintenance marketing services for years, and has recently begun to focus more strongly on acquiring contracts to work on military aircraft and components. Working with the understanding that many of the world’s militaries fly similar aircraft, the company is hoping to parlay the knowledge and capabilities that allow it to fly some of their helicopters over 300 hours in a single month.

Building from a single employee in 1957, Columbia Helicopters now employs over 700 people around the world, including some of the most highly-skilled pilots and maintenance crews in the world.

Columbia Helicopters currently operates their helicopters in the United States, Peru, Ecuador, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Canada.

When one looks at the overall picture, it’s hard not to reflect that Columbia Helicopters hasn’t done too badly for a company that started with a single, small helicopter giving rides at county fairs.

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