The behind the scenes aspect of CMH Heliskiing is as fascinating as the ski terrain surrounding it. Maximizing helicopter efficiency is a big part of heliskiing and ski guides are always considering how to get the most skiing with the least amount of flying. To this end, one of the CMH heliski program's most valuable, and least visible, assets is the remote fuel caches that allow efficient heliskiing far from the base lodges.
For some insights into the logistics of the remote fuel caches I tracked down heliski logistics mastermind Rob Whelan, the Assistant Manager of CMH Kootenay.
TD: How do the caches get filled?
RW: Most of the caches are filled in the summer. We take a tanker truck with an escort and drive up logging roads to the site. We regularly have to perform road maintenance and bridge repairs prior to deliveries. We have a core team of experienced drivers who are comfortable on the steep and narrow roads. They really look forward to our deliveries and a change of scenery from the regular highway jobs.
My favourite quote from this summer came from Dougie – an experienced trucker, but on his first trip to a CMH Fuel cache in the Cariboos. Dougie is from Newfoundland, and has been working in the oil patch in Alberta for a few years. When we finally arrived at the Blackstone fuel cache, 47 kilometres up a rugged forest service road, Dougie announced in his classic Newfie accent, "By T'underin' Jaysus bayz, D'ya call dat a friggin'road?"
We also have a few sites that are inaccessible by road. At these locations, we sling the fuel into the site by helicopter using special transfer barrels, and pump the fuel from the transfer barrel into the storage tank.
TD: How much fuel does each cache hold?
RW: The biggest locations, one in Kootenay and one in the Cariboos, have two 50,000 litre tanks for a total of 100,000 litres (20,000 gallons). Our smaller tanks are about 10,000 litres.
TD: Can a pilot fuel up at a remote cache alone or do they need help?
RW: Pilots can and do re-fuel themselves quickly at the fuel cache. If there is any concern about the cache being snowed in or not ready, the snow safety guide in the support helicopter will arrive in advance of the 212 to get the pump started and re-fuel the machine when it arrives.
TD: How does using the remote caches reduce fuel consumption compared to running a heli-ski operation without them?
RW: There is no question that remote fuel caches are essential for efficient flying and to reduce wait times. I would not hesitate to say that without the remote fuel, many of the operations would cease to be viable.
The benefits of remote fuel are huge:
- Reduced flying times = reduced cost ( both $$ and carbon cost)
- Reduced flights over wildlife habitat
- Reduced waiting times for skiers
- Access to dramatically more terrain
- Increased safety margins - pilot can operate with reduced fuel weight because he knows that fuel is nearby.
TD: How do you monitor the amount of fuel remaining in the remote caches?
RW: CMH has a satellite telemetry system that sends tank level data daily via the internet.
- The telemetry system can issue a warning in the event of unexpected level change in a tank.
- Sensors in the pump house can detect unauthorized access and pump activity.
TD: How do you prevent spillage at the remote caches?
- Every tank is double walled enviro-tank.
- All tanks have Anti-Siphon valves with top draw so the only way to get the fuel out of the tank is with a pump and there is no possibility of a broken hose or pipe resulting in a big spill.
- On many of our sites, we go over and beyond the government requirements for such installations by adding extra precautions. These include adding special liners below the tanks which contain and send any spills through fuel/water separators, instead of into the environment.
- Standard operating procedures and regular maintenance are a key part as well.
Remote fuel installations are common in British Columbia in supporting a variety of industries besides heliskiing. All operators must obtain government approval before building and must follow a wide range of provincial and federal laws to operate such an installation.
Photos by Rob Whelan, CMH Kootenay.