A view from the heli-ski pilot's seat.
Of all the exciting roles in a heli-skiing operation, the helicopter pilot is a hardest for the rest of us to relate to. While guides are leading and skiing, and the guests and lodge staff are whooping and choking on face shots while helicopter snowboarding and skiing, the pilot often seems isolated in the world of their machine. I often wonder: Is the pilot having fun, too?
I recently received a little insight into what it’s like to be in the pilot seat of a heli-ski operation from Matt Conant, a pilot who has been flying (and skiing) in the snow forest of CMH Galena for the last 15 years. He is a second-generation pilot with specialized low-visibility training, and one of the most relaxed helicopter pilots you’ll ever meet. While researching the heli-ski book, Bugaboo Dreams - A Story of Skiers, Helicopters and Mountains, I spent a little time sitting in front of the fire at CMH Galena Lodge with Matt and he gave me an insight that reveals much about how the masters of the heli-ski world view their job.
He said: “It’s more than just flying. For me, heli-ski flying is being part of the whole program, knowing where the groups are and becoming familiar with the runs.”
So I recently contacted Matt for a few more insights. Here’s what he had to say:
TD: What are the most fun flying conditions for you?
MC: The most fun flying conditions for me are when it’s snowing like crazy and the groups are having a blast and I know exactly where I am and where I am going. As a heli-skier myself (20 years of it) I definitely get excited when everyone is having fun.
TD: Regarding heavy snow, I’ve heard a couple of airplane pilots carrying on about how you heli-ski pilots should just mark the GPS coordinates of your pickups and landings so you wouldn’t have to worry about weather. Do you use GPS?
MC: All CMH pilots have GPS navigation available to them on Alpine aircraft. Coordinates of landings can be easily entered. I personally have several key runs entered. Although I seldom use GPS, it can be a valuable tool while heli-skiing. (We don’t use it much because) the heli-ski flight visibility minimum is half a mile – more than enough to navigate at slow speeds. A heli-ski pilot familiar with his area would seldom need any navigational aids to find any landing.
TD: So, with GPS coordinates, could you stick a heli-ski landing with zero visibility?
MC: Absolutely not. Even the best approach systems used at airports still require some visibility. Even in theory, a zero-visibility GPS approach to a heli-ski landing would not be possible.
(Here's a link that shows how even military technology cannot yet land helicopters in zero-visibility.)
TD: Thanks, Matt. Anything else?
MC: I’ve been flying and skiing at CMH Galena for 15 years. It’s the best place I know to do both. Come fly with me.