Pilots require extensive training to safely move thousands of pounds to remote locations and for new helicopter models such as the K-MAX from the ROTAK fleet. Photo courtesy ROTAK Helicopter Services
Alaskans understand remote construction projects. Only a fraction of Alaska’s 663,268 square miles is accessible by paved or service roads and trails. Contractors have had to get creative when it comes to moving equipment and personnel to remote projects, especially in winter when they can build snow and ice roads over waterways and land that would be undriveable in the summer. However, there are times when ground transportation isn’t possible due to land ownership/jurisdiction, and crews must rely on helicopter services to shuttle people, equipment and supplies to a job site.
“Every job presents different challenges,” said Jordan Summers, senior field manager for STG Inc., which has relied on helicopter services for several jobs over the years. “There are times when the challenge is geographical, equipment is needed on a mountain top or we can’t build roads in the middle of nowhere. That’s when this service becomes important to a project.”
Summers pointed to the GCI TERRA project, where helicopters were needed to deliver modules and towers to remote areas for this high-profile telecommunications effort. He said he has used helicopters on projects to deliver drill rigs and a whole host of supplies, in addition to manpower, to multiple construction sites.
Helicopter companies are not one-size-fits-all outfits. There are several variables that contractors must consider when choosing which helicopter service to use. Each job requires equipment of differing weights and dimensions. Contractors consider what helicopters are available, the external loads they can handle and overall cost. They also consider the experience helicopter companies have hauling similar loads.
“It’s about the safety of the customer without sacrificing details,” said Ely Woods, general manager of ROTAK Helicopter Services. “Success stems from long-term knowledge of operations.”
Woods said that picking the right helicopter mostly comes down to the dimensions and weight of the external loads. He said there can be a lot of deceiving factors when it comes to determining the size and weight of equipment. For instance, a large tower has a steel lattice structure that is much larger in scale than actual weight, whereas concrete blocks, conex trailers and vehicles have simple dimensions but are extremely heavy. Depending on the helicopter, they can handle external loads anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 pounds per trip.
The nature of the location also affects logistics. Picking up something complex or heavy from a town isn’t difficult, but delivering it to a mountainside is a greater challenge than a remote campsite on flatter terrain. The distance between Point A and Point B determines how many additional fueling stops, if any, are needed. Woods said fuel costs makes up a large percentage of the bill.
Helicopter services that haul external loads like this serve a niche market. There are several helicopter companies in Alaska that only focus on tourism or shuttling manpower to remote site and offshore rigs. Using helicopter services in construction requires a different set of piloting skills and, in some cases, a different type of helicopter. Woods said ROTAK’s three K-MAX helicopters have unique features that are different from traditional helicopters used by other companies. He describes the K-MAX helicopter as being different than any other machine because they don’t have tail rotors, which requires pilots to be specially trained to handle the intermeshing main rotor design. Yet, even an outfit like Northern Pioneer Helicopters, whose fleet features a long line of more traditional helicopters, requires extensive training to make sure operators can handle the loads safely.
Experienced ground crews are just as important as the skills of a helicopter pilot. Safety is a top priority for contractors and pilots alike. Photo courtesty STG Inc.
“We require a significant amount of flight time,” said owner Jim Acher. “They must specialize in external load work with precision placement.”
Overall, Acher said helicopter technology hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. For the most part, pilots are handling operations much in the same way as they did 40 years ago. The only thing he identifies as a major improvement is to the GPS systems that allow pilots to more accurately identify remote geographical locations.
When it comes to the construction industry, identifying trends in helicopter use depends on whom you ask. Woods said it is such a specific use that it must provide a certain amount of value to the project. However, Acher said he has seen an increase in work since starting in 1995. He attributed this to remote infrastructure projects like the GCI TERRA project and other utility and building projects.
“Crews have always needed helicopters when you can’t access specific sites by ground transportation,” Acher said. “And since that is a majority of the state, we have needed them more as telecommunication and other infrastructure projects are built in more remote areas of Alaska.”
Though helicopter services are only used for a couple days or weeks at a time, there are frequently brought in for the duration of a project to haul additional equipment and supplies and to extract what isn’t staying at the completion of the project.
For Summers, the use of helicopter services is project-specific. “Any contractor would only bring in a helicopter when necessary. It isn’t cost-effective for the client otherwise,” he said.
Helicopter operators see an increase in opportunities to work with construction projects as businesses expand infrastructure to remote areas. Photo courtesy STG Inc.
Whether or not there is an increasing trend for helicopter use in construction projects, helicopter companies are investing their resources into the Alaska economy. Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport recently announced that ROTAK is building a $2.6 million hangar at the Kulis Business Park. Airport manager Jim Szczesniak said there are many benefits to having ROTAK nearby, such as access to fuel, air traffic control, maintenance and spare parts. Overall, he believes ROTAK’s presence will contribute positively to the aviation mix at the airport.
“This is a real benefit to the Alaskan economy,” Szczesniak said. “Not only by building the hangar but in establishing a permanent facility within our state.”
“We would like to play a part in the success of Alaskan companies,” said Woods of the new hangar slated for completion in November. “We hope to drive forward some new projects in the state by offering contractors more efficient solutions and a solid base of operations.”
Rachael Kvapil is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks.