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From dramatic coastal cliffs to ancient rainforests and glacier-topped mountains, British Columbia’s Sea-to-Sky Corridor, running inland along Highway 99 from West Vancouver to Pemberton, is well worth its reputation for spectacular scenery and outstanding opportunities for recreation activities.
The region attracts visitors from around the world, with many drawn to the renowned mountain resort village of Whistler, which provides world-class skiing in the winter months, and has a growing reputation as a mountain-biking destination over the summer. And, year-round, visitors and residents take advantage of the many challenging hiking routes that traverse the beautiful mountains that are spread throughout the region.
In such an environment, helicopters play a vital role in enabling mountain access for development, work, and play; providing search-and-rescue (SAR) services for those who get into trouble in remote places; and building and servicing the powerlines that connect the region’s settlements. And perhaps the area’s most widely recognized helicopter operator is the one that bears the name of one of the mountains accessible from Whistler village. That company is Blackcomb Helicopters.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Blackcomb was established in 1989 by Steve Flynn as a relatively small company that specialized in mountain-related operations. It provided SAR services, and worked with the local resort, as well as with the construction, forestry and film industries. In 2006, the company was purchased by its current owners, John Morris and The McLean Group, with brothers Jason and Sacha McLean joining Morris as Blackcomb’s directors. At the time, Blackcomb had just four helicopters.
Morris had served as the Whistler Base Manager for Okanagan Helicopters in the early 1980s, and prior to purchasing Blackcomb, had been running his own aviation company — Omega Aviation (which was later rolled into Blackcomb).
The McLean Group was established by David and Brenda McLean in 1975 as a real estate investment and development firm. Over the years, the company has expanded to include businesses in film and television production services (including Vancouver Film Studios), telecommunications, construction, and aviation.
The group’s ties to Morris stemmed from the purchase of an aircraft for Vancouver Film Studios, which Morris helped to procure and then manage. The success of the working relationship meant that it was an obvious decision to join forces when Flynn approached Morris about purchasing Blackcomb.
Under the new name of Blackcomb Aviation, the company quickly expanded over the next few years throughout the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, purchasing Goldwing Helicopters in Sechelt, founding a base and heliport in Squamish, acquiring facilities from Pemberton Helicopters, and establishing a base in Lillooet.
As Blackcomb Aviation, the company also offered private jet charter services, but in 2015, it refocused on rotary-wing services, and rebranded as Blackcomb Helicopters.
As the accountable executive and general manager, Morris oversees the day-to-day operations of the company from a relatively high vantage point.
“We are lucky to have a lot depth of field out there and that makes my job pretty easy,” he said. “I get to spend most of my time fine tuning or tweaking. The folks employed here are empowered to get things done without my thumb on top of them.”
Morris said he was focused on maintaining the culture that had been established at Blackcomb. “We do things safely, we do things right, and we support our employees and our customers,” he said. “Our ownership group believes in investing in the support structure around dedicated safety management and quality assurance personnel and requisite training in all facets of our operations. We stay engaged in our communities and give back — not because we have to, but because we believe in doing so.”
A varied fleet
Today, Blackcomb has a fleet of 22 aircraft, including the Bell 206B, 407, and 212HP; and the Airbus AS350 B2, B3, H125, EC130 B4, AS355N TwinStar, and a hoist-equipped EC135 T2+.
Its headquarters are in Whistler, but it also operates bases throughout southern British Columbia — in Squamish, Sechelt, Pemberton, Lillooet and from a facility on the general aviation side of Vancouver International Airport.
Operations in and around the mountains define most of the company’s work across its bases, but each tends to have its own area of focus. Vancouver is the setting for much of the company’s film work; Squamish provides a lot of mountain access and rescue work; Sechelt typically services the company’s contracts with utility company BC Hydro; Pemberton does a lot of mountain access flying for conservation and forestry; and Lillooet is kept busy servicing Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as well as providing mining access.
The headquarters in Whistler performs a wide range of utility operations, but it’s also the company’s most prominent tourism base, providing flightseeing tours, heli-hiking and heli-skiing.
Andrew Bradley, the company’s operations manager, has been with Blackcomb since 2005.
“The weather changes are the biggest challenge of operating in this environment,” said Bradley. “Our tallest peak is around 9,000 feet [2,750 meters] — so not too big a deal when it comes to altitude — but weather can come in pretty fast, and you have to make sure you don’t get caught out. If you are working in the mountains, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got your valley below you to get back home. But we do a lot of weather checks in the summer and winter.”
Given that the Whistler base is located in an area that contains an internationally renowned ski resort, it’s no great surprise that inclement weather restricts the number of operating days in the winter — with Bradley estimating about 40 percent of working days are lost due to the conditions.
The company has between 26 to 30 pilots, depending on the season — a very consistent requirement that, in turn, allows Blackcomb to offer pilots consistent employment throughout the year.
In the winter, Blackcomb’s workload is boosted by the company’s heli-skiing operations, with four or five aircraft (and sometimes as many as eight) dedicated to flying skiers to various locations in the mountains surrounding the Whistler base.
The 407 is “a great heli-ski machine,” said Bradley, with the ability to carry five skiers and a guide. The 212 HPs also work well as heli-ski aircraft, having been incorporated into the Blackcomb fleet over the last three years. Typically, two 212s and two 407s will be working on heli-ski operations in Whistler on any given day over the winter.
If pilots want to transition to heli-skiing operations, it can be three or four years before they’re ready to join the ranks, due to the complexity of the work.
“I think it’s safe to say that most pilots would say that heli-skiing is probably one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do, but I think that’s why a lot of pilots like it,” said Bradley. “There’s the weather, there’s low density snow, [and] you’re at altitude — so it taps into the skills that you’ve learned over the years, but it’s fun.”
Working in the mountains
Each base has a certain number of pilots assigned to it, who will tackle the variety of operations flown from that facility. Blackcomb also has a number of roaming pilots, particularly in the summer for firefighting work, who will take aircraft into the field for contracts. Wildfires can take the company across the country, with three Blackcomb helicopters fighting fires in Ontario earlier this summer.
In addition to serving operations on the mountain through heli-ski flights, Blackcomb provides aerial construction services, having developed a great deal of expertise using a long line. One of the more challenging recent long line projects was the construction of a backcountry hut along the popular Spearhead Traverse in Garibaldi Provincial Park, which required all workers and equipment to be flown in. This was the third year that Blackcomb has been a part of the construction effort.
“The Spearhead hut has been two summers and falls of construction, pouring concrete on exposed ridges, and precision work,” said Geoff Doran, Blackcomb’s chief pilot. “There’s not a lot of ‘beginner’ long line work here — we’re putting things in challenging places, either construction projects that are on the top of mountains or on high mountain ridges.”
One of Blackcomb’s biggest customers is BC Hydro, which provides year-round work for the operator. With BC Hydro’s requirement for twin-engine aircraft, its contracts with Blackcomb are typically serviced by the operator’s AS355N TwinStars, which perform construction and maintenance of powerlines, perform patrols, deal with emergency outages, troubleshoot, or work on special projects. And, having provided Class D Human External Cargo operations for the utility company for several years, Blackcomb has also now been approved for hoist work using its EC135 — the primary role the operator had in mind for the aircraft when it purchased it. BC Hydro also uses Blackcomb’s 212s for its medium-lift needs for special projects.
In terms of SAR operations, Blackcomb has partnerships with several volunteer mountain rescue organizations in the region, and performs Class D rescues with them. It also offers the EC135 for hoist rescues for its industry customers if their workers get hurt in the field.
Much of the fleet’s maintenance work (and all heavy maintenance) is performed at the company’s base in Pemberton, where it has two large hangars. There are 14 full-time aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs) at Blackcomb, as well as four people serving in maintenance management. The maintenance team is supplemented with contractors when needed.
Terry Irvine, Blackcomb’s director of maintenance, said the year-round busy season is one of the more challenging aspects of his team’s work, as well as the sheer variety of types in the fleet.
“As soon as you finish fires in summer, we have a short maintenance period to get things ready for the heli-ski season, and then the same thing in the spring to get things ready for summer,” he said. “And then trying to have people endorsed on all of the types at any given time, spread out between our operating locations — it’s definitely a challenge.”
In terms of capability, Blackcomb’s AMEs can perform all required running maintenance, but will outsource specialized work or structural repairs.
Focus on tourism
According to Jordy Norris, Blackcomb’s sales and marketing manager, the company has made a conscious effort to grow its tourism business over the last few years — and with a steady supply of tourists from around the globe visiting Whistler village, it has proven a wise move.
“Tourism’s always existed, but it hasn’t been as much of a driving force for us as it is now,” said Norris. “In the summer, the biggest part of our business is wildfire work, but wildfires can be inconsistent as well. There’s just a lot more consistency in tourism. We know what the numbers are in town. We know when the down seasons are going to be. It’s not reliant on independent big contracts. It’s reliant on the marketing work and using the success of the resort.”
An extensive renovation of the company’s headquarters is the most visible result of the renewed focus. Designed with the feel of an alpine cabin, it has a bright and spacious reception area to make guests feel right at home as they await their flights. Tiered seating along one wall allows groups to relax and mingle, another wall contains a large graphic chart displaying the company’s history and achievements, while outside, picnic tables on a new patio allow visitors to enjoy the sun on warmer days. Blackcomb merchandise — including baseball caps, t-shirts and toques — is on display and available for purchase should guests want to take a memento of their time with the company away with them.
Developing and expanding relationships with the major hotels and tourism companies in Whistler has also been key, and the company has partnered with firms to be included as part of customized Whistler vacation packages.
One of the more subtle — but no less impactful — changes is to the company’s website. It was redesigned with the consumer in mind, with a primary focus on Blackcomb’s tourism work. Previously, upon landing on the home page, a visitor would see an image of a helicopter with a long line and a description of the variety of operations performed by the company — a great representation of its work, but not something likely to encourage someone to book a flightseeing tour.
Now, visitors to blackcombhelicopters.com are greeted with a screen-sized mountain vista with the simple words “Take Flight” and a “Book Your Tour” action button. The navigation bar provides access to landing pages for the company’s various other operations, with the assumption being that those interested in such services will still be able to find them.
Blackcomb offers three basic flightseeing packages, ranging from a 12-minute tour through the mountains, to a 30-minute private tour that includes a landing on a 12,000-year-old glacier. It also offers customized packages to elevate the experience, including picnics or mountain-top champagne toasts.
The flightseeing tours are typically flown by the company’s EC130. “With the way the seating is and the windows, it’s built for tourism,” said Norris.
The company can also provide heli-biking on a charter basis, using AeroDesign bike racks on its AS350 (Blackcomb performed the flight-testing on the racks during their development). The company is also consulting with Transport Canada to add dedicated heli-biking to its expansive tenure.
Bradley said he hopes the future will also see an increase in general utility work — whether firefighting or mineral exploration — outside of Blackcomb’s homeland.
“There’s only so much work inside the [Sea to Sky] corridor that so many aircraft can handle,” he said, “so anything else that can go further afield is better for us.”
In terms of the fleet, the 212s are set for a substantial avionics upgrade, with Blackcomb working with Alpine Aerotech to have a glass cockpit certified and installed on the three aircraft. The operator hopes to have the first conversion completed by spring 2020, with the other two done by the fall.
Investing in people
As with most of the industry, Blackcomb is having to find ways to adapt to the shortage of experienced pilots.
“Our pilots need to have the full quiver of skills, and where it becomes challenging is when we need to help them develop some of those skills, and then we really start to narrow down the list of those that can be assigned to specific jobs,” said Bradley. “If pilots are going to be truly utilitarian for our dispatchers to be able to assign them to anything, we need pilots that have got experience doing the full range of things — and doing it in a very challenging environment. We need someone that can go and do rescues with the local search-and-rescue groups at the end of a long day of heli-skiing in poor weather conditions, which can be taxing; or do a rescue, then go do a long line project in the middle of a winter.”
However, the variety of Blackcomb’s operations is allowing it to use certain operations (such as flightseeing) to help less experienced pilots build hours and proficiency, while focusing its experienced pilots on the more challenging work, such as precision long-line operations, or heli-skiing.
As the pad-to-pad tourism flying is quite seasonal, the less experienced pilots who fly those operations take a ground crew role over the winter — both keeping them employed, and building their experience around Blackcomb’s various winter operations.
“We’ve been trying to keep some of these newer pilots within our ranks,” said Doran. “We believe in building people up that we know and trust, and we can then use them to fill out our ranks so we don’t have to hire a bunch of contract pilots in the summer.”
According to Bradley, the attitude a pilot arrives with is the most important thing. “Anybody can fly; we want people to make good decisions when they’re in the cockpit,” he said. “We always say we hire for attitude and we train for skill, so the mindset needs to be there. We want to get it done, but we want to get it done safely.”
Blackcomb’s motto is “Safety, respect, and value” — and Bradley said safety was undoubtedly the foremost focus. “You try and engrain it into everybody, and everything people do on a day-to-day basis. We try to set the mindset that it’s only heli-skiing or it’s only trees for forestry. You can go back there tomorrow when the weather is better. We make sure people know that as management, we’ve got their back — we’ll support them 100 percent.”
That support reaches up into the company’s ownership group. According to Doran, the willingness of Blackcomb’s owners to invest and improve the company is one of the things that sets the company apart.
“They’re truly interested in making it a great organization; they’re truly interested in how they can help make this a better place and not solely focused on how they make it more profitable,” he said.
As an example, Doran said they’ve created a private radio network that covers Blackcomb’s core area of operations, allowing crews to remain in easy contact even when they’re operating in very remote areas. He also pointed to their willingness to invest in the 212s and upgrade them to the most modern standard; and the company’s drive towards a recent announcement that it had become carbon neutral.
“We’re a helicopter company, but a lot of what we do is mountain access, so they looked at how we could be better stewards of these environments where we are taking people,” he said. “We made a financial commitment to become carbon neutral. That’s not being done in other places. The owners are looking at all different sides of our business as to how we can make it a better place for ourselves, for our staff, and for the environment. They’re a fantastic group of people to work for.”