When it comes to pumping iron in the skies, B.C. helicopter companies lead Canada with pick-up power.
Heavy-lift helicopters are clustered in B.C. and companies have picked up and delivered concrete, rooftop air conditioner units, construction machinery, bunkhouses, hydro towers, ski towers and even a gravel truck to remote construction sites where no road or easy access exist.
"I think we have used them (helicopters) more because of our rugged terrain in B.C.," said Chris Carswell, who handles heavy loads for Helifor, a firm that maintains it has the largest lift capacity in Canada.
B.C.'s rugged mountain terrain lends itself to aerial transport of materials, equipment, and crews into remote areas.
The art of getting the payload there has been honed by decades of firefighting and heli-logging as companies 'long-line' loads below the aircraft.
The technique of transporting large loads at the end of long-line started in the U.S.
In 1960, Wes Lematta, the founder of Columbia Helicopters Inc. (CHI) based in Portland, was asked by a Portland construction firm to transport large poles to a worksite. He needed to see the load suspended below his aircraft.
Lematta found that by leaning out the left side of the helicopter and using a longer attachment line for additional visibility under the aircraft, he could see and direct the load. It became known as Direct Visual Operational Control or DVOC.
The method revolutionized the helicopter industry, giving birth to long-lining and making helicopters heavy packers.
CHI brought the first heavy-lift helicopters into B.C. to heli-log in 1971 near Campbell River using DVOC, but local companies soon took over.
Helifor was one of them and arrived in 1978. Heli-logging and firefighting were the mainstays of the industry with heavy hauling for construction work filling the gaps. Helifor today operates three large helicopters. The largest is the Chinook, capable of lifting a maximum of 27,000 pounds or 13.5 tons (that's the weight equal to two full-grown African elephants.)
"A dump truck was our heaviest lift," said Carswell.
As well, its VERTOL 107 II, a tandem rotary machine, can lift up to 10,000 pounds. The VERTOL has lifted a pick-up out of a lake, moved a lake filtration system to the Gulf Islands, and worked construction projects. Both machines are made by Boeing. Helifor used the aircraft for site services to the Galore Creek mine development in northern B.C.
"We moved everything including bunkhouses into the area," he said.
Carswell said they also currently utilize one of Canadian Air-Crane's two Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes, a dual engine helicopter manufactured by American firm Erickson Air-Crane.
The heavy-lift aircraft, which draws its dragon-fly-like shape from the original Russian design, can lift between 20,000 to 25,000 pounds, depending on the model. The S-64s have been used in Canada for general construction, concrete pouring, roof top installations, pipeline construction and hydro installations.
Coulson Aircrane Ltd., based in Port Alberni, runs five Sikorsky S-61 helicopters, which are used both in B.C. and internationally and have a lift capacity of 10,000.
"We all do basically the same thing – long-lining heavy lifts," said Wayne Coulson.
The transport of construction materials, equipment and hydro equipment typical jobs for his firm, he said.
"If we have bragging rights, it is that we are the only company to work in Australia for the oil industry," he said.
Coulson said his company has been recognized for its expertise in swapping off tips of the flares, where the spent gases are flared off from off-shore ocean oil platforms.
"The tip is worth $1.5 million and if it is damaged, it impacts an operation that is earning $200,000 a day," he said.
VIH Helicopters, based out of Victoria and Canada's oldest helicopter firm, is part of the VIH Aviation Group.
It has a fleet of 50 helicopters across Canada and internationally.
Originally founded in 1955 by Ted Hensen and Bill Boeing Jr., son of the founder of Boeing Aircraft, the company brought in the Kamov KA32A11BC heavy-lift helicopter from Russia for successful use in heli-logging.
Stationed in B.C., the aircraft can lift 11,000 pounds and has moved towers for B.C. Hydro, construction materials and worked for oil companies. Firms in B.C.'s Interior also run heavy lift helicopters.
"We are not quite your Helifor or Canadian Air-Crane. We have the Bell 214s," said Salmon Arm's East West Helicopters president Keith Watson.
The smaller Bell machine was built to lift, work in hot conditions, at higher altitudes and can muscle up 6,000 pounds.
"We have done construction work moving chair lifts and towers," he said, adding that they're also lifted vehicles and mini-excavator.
The company has performed flare tip work on a 400-foot flare-tip stack in Edmonton as the pilots hovered over the stack.
The Helicopter Association of Canada's 20th anniversary trade show is being held this year in Vancouver Nov. 13-15 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Canada has the second largest fleet of civil helicopters in the world and 120 exhibitors are expected to participate at the HAC show.