Lifting in the French Alps

Samedi 19 juin 2021

Helicopter longline work is demanding and challenging at the best of times but then adding the challenges of high-altitude mountainous terrain takes it a step higher on the ladder of risk and skill. Nicolas Gay specializes in longline work for Savoie Hélicoptères and gave an overview of his work in the French Alps to Théo Vaillant for HeliOps.

Haut-Savoyard industrialist Christophe Bontaz qualified as a private pilot on the Robinson 44 in 2005, and after passing his professional license he became aware of a buoyant market in the French Alps, so in 2015 he turned his passion for helicopters into a dynamic and growing company. He founded Savoie Hélicoptères and obtained the CTA (Air Carrier Certification) and the SPO (Specialized Operations) manual for aerial work. His company is located in the town of Marnaz in the heart of the Alps, and specializes in panoramic flights, tourist and business transfers, aerial work and flight training as an ATO (approved training organization) to PPL(H). The company has one of the largest fleets in the region, with nine very modern machines that include the Guimbal G2 Cabri, Robinson R44, Airbus EC120 and the fleet’s major workhorse, the AS350-B3. Savoie Hélicoptères is experiencing constant growth, a dynamic that is partly based on the company’s diversification of activities. It clocks up approximately 1,500 hours of flight time each year and strives to participate in local development throughout the entire region by working closely with local businesses. With a strong emphasis on safety and reliability, business development manager Sylvain Blanc wisely observed, "Good humor does not prevent seriousness."

The Pilot
Between 2015 and 2019 Savoie Hélicoptères operated four AS350-B3es, covering all kinds of services including lifting a wide variety of loads in the mountains ; everything from equipment for refuges, concrete for an altitude chalet or even delivering a swimming pool to a customer. The company now has ten employees, including three pilots but at the moment, only one pilot, Nicolas ‘Nico’, is dedicated to the transport of external loads. Like many pilots, Nico has been passionate and inspired by the desire to fly since childhood. He spent his youngest years watching helicopters, many of them working in the Alps. His passion drove him to realize his dream to become a pilot, and after trying to train through the French army didn’t work out for him, he turned to the civilian world. Nico has always wanted to make aerial work his specialty and, after an analysis of the EASA license and the Canadian CPL, he quickly made the choice to train in Canada, where less training is required, and greater employment possibilities existed for a young pilot. In March 2007 he went to Canada to train at Helicraft. He trained on the Robinson R22 and then extended his qualifications with ratings on the Hughes 300 and R44. Nico was hired by the large Canadian company Heli-Inter as a goffer as soon as he finished at the flight school, but soon thereafter a pilot was needed on a contract at Cacouna Island and in next to no time Nico was flying a Hughes 300C on floats, transporting mainlanders to the island. He laughs as he recounts, "From Montreal the flight was as long as in the car, about five hours with the wind in the face."

He remained on the contract for three months and amassed around one hundred flight hours. After that contact ended, Heli-Inter’s chief engineer discovered Nico’s interest in mechanics, and offered to hire him as an apprentice mechanic, with a few flying hours for machine maintenance outings. In return, Nico agreed to pass his mechanic’s licenses and in 2012 he obtained both his pilot’s and mechanic’s licenses. After five hundred hours on pistons, he was rated on turbine engines in the AS350 ‘Squirrel’ B2 or BA, and started flying a variety of aerial work missions, including firefighting for SOPFEU, the society for forest fire prevention. His debut in longline transport of external loads then came when he transported drills for a mining exploration operation with geologists at the northern tip of Quebec. After about ten years in Canada, Nico returned to France and passed his EASA license conversion. He then began with a rescue season for SAF Helicopters, and a few lifts for the installation of avalanche triggering systems. Nico now has a total of 2,700hrs, with 350hrs logged on longline external loads.

Working in the mountains
Nico explained that spotting is the most important phase at each individual work site in the mountains, identifying how best to position yourself and identifying dangers such as wild animals, reading the surroundings and allowing for the wind and sun ; all before commencing lifting. In France lifting is done systematically as a team effort with the help of a flight assistant, who takes care of the slinging equipment and logistics, and above all, he is the pilot’s second pair of eyes. When he is on the ground, radio contact with the pilot is very important for accurate positioning of the loads and if a pilot works with the same flight assistant as often as possible, a climate of great trust develops between the two and there is a significant gain of efficiency and precision. The assistant knows how the pilot flies so he can give him the right information quickly for positioning. Nico also prefers to have radio contact with customers on the ground rather than using hand gestures ; it helps to cover the surface of the site as much as possible.

Nico’s Canadian flying gave him experience in hostile environments but not in the mountains, so he had to learn new skills and techniques. SAF required him to pass a mountain flying training course to validate his qualifications for lifting. At the same time, he began freelance lifting with Savoie Hélicoptères until a full-time position eventually became available in August 2019. Nico got off to a very strong start. He was lucky enough to fly on the highest construction site in Europe, delivering personnel and equipment for the rehabilitation of a shelter at 14,300ft on Mont-Blanc. His B3e is capable of lifting around 3000lbs at sea level but at this altitude the performance of the machine is drastically reduced, and it can only lift 992lbs. Mountain flying and lifting techniques and considerations must be combined, as these two activities constantly put the helicopter close to its limits. Nico learns to read and use the wind, a basic of mountain flying to enable lifting loads while being gentle on the controls, especially the anti-torque pedals. In a complex and challenging aviation environment, anticipating a problem is the most important point of vigilance and to add to the difficulty, flights are billed by the minute in France, so there is a constant time-pressure on the pilots. Nico also noted with admiration, “There are the two best French longline pilots in this region - Pascal Brun and Christian Blugeon, who have around 30,000hrs each -, so that also adds stress when clients are used to working with them.”

The wind, a major factor in the mountains, is never the same at the 1,600ft takeoff point as at the 8,200ft destination so extreme care must be taken to avoid any tailwind at either LZ. Nico described how the wind reading begins as soon as he takes off with a load. He checks both indicated speed and ground speed, if the air speed is higher it confirms a headwind and he is therefore well positioned. If the wind is blowing at his back, he knows he will have to adjust his final approach into the wind and slightly to the side to maintain full control and optimal vision. At very low speeds, a small piece of equipment on the helicopter gives a lot of useful information, a simple woolen thread ! When Nico sees the thread straight during his approach he knows that the wind is in his favor, but if his wool falls aside from the vertical, the wind has surely changed while passing a crest. When finishing his approach, he ‘feels’ for the machine and if it starts a fish-like sway at the rear, it means the wind is at its back and he feels the interference in the rotor. All these indicators tell if the helicopter is positioned well, or if it needs to be repositioned.

During load-positioning phases, it is necessary to remain calm and be smooth and stable, avoiding over-controlling. Nico summarized, "When you have an intuition about the direction of the wind, confirm it with your instruments then your woolen thread and in the end the machine will have the last word on your placement." He also noted that the risk of a vortex ring state is always present in aerial work, so it is crucial to pick up speed before asking a lot of power from the helicopter. While mountain flying one often has to gain or lose a lot of altitude over a short distance, while remaining within the aircraft’s limitations. Reading the environment is therefore an essential skill and following the topography, valleys, a glacier, finding currents of ascending winds on the rise or flying low and quickly to descend quickly, while finding and following a route where no houses or villages are below the load. It’s a true learning process to be able to fly this way, to brake your speed quickly, to reach with an high speed off the mountain, to go to 60 knots in reverse, to take 2g and to bring the load in cleanly and safely takes time and experience. Nico takes confidence from a technique that is another basic for all flying, but mountain flying in particular, explaining, "I always have a plan B. When I approach the performance limits of the machine, I know that if at the final approach phase my load sinks or there is a problem, I know where and how to escape. I don’t have to think about it.”

The Machine
Nico considers the B3 to be an extraordinary machine with a lot of power and versatility. He pointed out however that the original doors of the B3e are not very suitable for lifting and said that the Maximum Pilot View door kit from Swiss Rotor Services is a major advance for aerial work, but he is not yet working with it. In France a lot of pilots work using the rearview mirror with short slings, but because he likes to work with 65 to 100ft slings, Nico prefers to use the window. As he built experience, he began to use shorter lengths, because he could then afford to be faster when following the pitch in the mountains. He said that the door jambs, rounded shape of the cell and small size of the floor window sometimes make him lose sight of the load depending on his speed and sling length but aside from this detail, he adores the Squirrel, citing the Starflex rotor system which gives it excellent handling in the mountains, the efficiency of the tail rotor and its abundant power as major strong points.

Another big plus is the B3e’s ‘sling’ button, which displays the load weight indicator and activates a power management assistance system for the pilot, as Nico described, "When lifting, as soon as the system detects a weight, it adds three or four rotor rpm to gain power. At this point you have to be patient, listen to the noise of the rotor while the machine reacts and then the load takes off slowly.” Fuel management must be optimized when lifting and although the helicopter leaves with a full tank, a sort of bladder which does not take up much space in the helicopter. It serves as a site tank once on and after landing, flight assistant Valentin Simon draws off some of the fuel into it for later use. Nico can then lift heavier loads, while still keeping a safety margin. Depending on the weight and the number of planned rotations, with an average load of 1,700lbs and an average altitude of 7,540ft, Simon usually draws off about half of the tank.

In the Bubble
Every flight is different and while some require a lot of endurance and concentration over long periods of time, others might be precision one-shot flights in which the pilot often has no room for error. To prepare for this, a few minutes before takeoff Nico puts himself in his ‘bubble’, concentrating and imagining his route in his head, just like a racing driver who knows every turn of the track and exactly what he needs to do. From that point on he only talks about the essentials with the operator on the ground, so as not to have too much information and no distractions. Stress is unavoidable in any challenging endeavor, but it is not always a bad thing. Although excessive stress can be a major human factors hazard, controlled and limited stress can be just as big a help. "As experience builds, stress becomes performance enhancing ’good stress’ and for me you need a good big breakfast with eggs and ham, because to fly well you have to have a full stomach," Nico concluded. Source

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