A few weeks ago I caught up with Mike Lequesne, the pilot of 'The Big Ship' (aka the Bell 212 helicopter) at CMH Heli-Skiing's Revelstoke operation. It was interesting to get the inside scoop on one of the central figures in a successful day of heliskiing and learn more about the external factors that influence his flying that in turn, influence your ski experience.
JC: Mike, why a helicopter pilot for a heliski company in Revelstoke?
ML: All my life I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. My mom was a flight attendant when I was a kid so I was always curious about aviation and although I'd considered becoming a fixed-wing pilot, helicopters always held a certain facination for me. Basically, you can do cooler things in a helicopter like forestry work, fire-fighting, survey work and, of course, heli-skiing and heli-hiking!
JC: What specific challenges do you face flying in winter?
ML: There are a number of factors that influence how and where I can fly or land with a group of heliskiers.Light: In flat light conditions it’s pretty tuff to be landing on the glacier or high alpine. Flags do help to get to the landings but it is also important to have visual clues on the approach as well (hence many flags on an approach). They help us to determine the speed of approach so we don’t stop short or overshoot the landing. Lack of visual clues may also cause a vertigo sensation… I may try an approach to one or two flags but if they start “floating” in my window then it’s definitely time to go somewhere else. On the flat light days… I’d rather be down near the trees.
Wind: Flying in the wind can be very tricky… not every landing/pickup has to be into wind but you have to account for it. Mechanical influences such as slope, rock, trees… can change the winds and make them unpredictable. Knowing an area helps us to become familiar with the landings and helps us to make better judgements on making certain landings. If I’m not sure I will try an approach when I am empty to get a feel with what is going on. If it’s not working on certain landings then we got to the ones which are more favourable.
Weight: The helicopter has limits. These limits change with temperature and altitude. As the helicopter goes higher it has to work harder because the air gets thinner. Now add an increase in temperature and for the same elevation the air gets thinner yet. The guides and I work hard at making a program work efficiently so we have to balance the landings alt/temp with the group weights and fuel on board. Pickups may influence fuel carried as well. We might take less fuel if there is a down flowing wind, the trees are a little too tall or the pickup is a little small.
Weather: A huge factor day to day! It affects all of the above.
JC: Any tips or suggestions for our Revelstoke Heliskiing guests when in or around the helicopter?
ML: A Few!
- Wear your seat belt (properly!) and don't undo it until the guide is out of the machine. If at the last minute we decide we can't make the landing we may be up in the air again before you have a chance to put it back on.
- To bang the snow off your boots, climb into the machine and sit down on the floor and hang your feet outside of the helicopter. Bang your feet together to shake off the snow instead of kicking the skids or side of the helicopter.
- Stay close to the helicopter when you disembark. Don't wander off to check out the view over the edge! There's plenty of time for that after I've taken off and your guide has given you the lay of the land. I'm much more comfortable when I'm able to see all members of the group before I lift-off.
- Let the pilot know if somethign is amiss. If the seatbelt isn't retracting all the way or your uncomfortable closing and locking the door, just ask. We can fix these things pretty quickly.
- Slow down around the machine. Yes, it's big and loud and sometimes that causes your blood to rush a little and your adreniline to start pumping, but there's no need to rush getting in or out of the machine. Take your time.
- And any pilot will tell you not to stamp your feet while the helicopter is in flight. Loud banging noises are generally cause for alarm!
ML: The town is really fun. The skiing is really great in Revelstoke but there are also advantages of being in town....Revelstoke is a real ski town with a great ski hill for guests that arrive in town a few days early or for those rare down days. There are great cafes like The Modern, some fun shops, a movie theatre and a variety of bars and nightlife. Plus, there's epic snowfall so the skiing is sick!
JC: What makes a great heli-ski guide, from a pilot's perspective?
ML: One that communicates a lot. It's great to have a lead guide that is in constant communication about group speed, weather changes, lighting changes and the morale of the group. Also, it's critical to have mutual respect. If I'm not comfortable taking a landing, I've got good reason for that judgement and having a guide second-guess that would make for a bad vibe. And vice versa.
JC: What makes your job rewarding?
ML: Big smiles on guests' faces and seeing everyone go home safe at the end of the week! In a perfect world it would snow all night and be sunny all day, but it's not a perfect world so most days are more challenging than easy. Overcoming those challenges and providing a great guest experience is what makes it all worthwhile.
Come fly with Mike! If you haven't been heliskiing in Revelstoke, it's an experience not to be missed. Contact CMH Reservations for more info or check out our YouTube page for some great ski movies from the Revelstoke heliskiing guides!