features Logging Masters: On a heli-logging job with VIH Helicopters

With over three decades of experience in forestry work, and a fleet of four Kamov Ka-32A11BCs that are particularly well suited to hauling heavy loads, VIH Helicopters has become a leading name in helicopter logging.
Avatar for Oliver Johnson By Oliver Johnson | August 30, 2021

Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 2 seconds.

Photos by Heath Moffatt

In a remote logging camp on the edge of the waters of an inlet along the British Columbia coast, a Kamov Ka-32A11BC swoops down over the densely wooded hillside. Carrying a 9,000-pound (4,100-kilogram) cedar log at the end of its 200-foot (60-meter) long line as lightly as if it were a matchstick, the aircraft continues its speedy descent as it reaches the shoreline, and in one swift motion plunges the log into the water, releases the grapple that held it, and turns to head back up the slope to repeat the trick. 

A VIH Helicopters Kamov Ka-32A11BC prepares to lift some fallen timber during a recent heli-logging job in British Columbia.

From a distance, the entire process appears so smooth and effortless that it’s easy to forget the scale of the material being carried; the only giveaway as the logs land in the water is a brief eruption of spray and foam, as if a whale has just breached. As the spray disappears, the log bobs to the surface, joining the dozens of others that have already been collected that morning. And as quickly as it left, the Kamov returns, with another enormous log clutched tightly in its grasp.

The operator of the Kamov is VIH Helicopters — the only company that flies the type in North America. The Russian-manufactured heavyweight was added to the company’s fleet in 1997, specifically with the heli-logging role in mind. It has subsequently proven its worth in a variety of heavy-lift missions — from firefighting to aerial construction — but heli-logging continues to be its primary work, and one in which it has developed an enviable reputation.

The aircraft takes a rest at the end of the day at the base camp for one of the logging operations.

“My job’s getting easier because customers just want VIH and the Kamov,” said Mike Schedel, VIH Helicopters’ director of marketing. “We spent a lot of money on the grapple and the pack, we’ve changed our long lines, and made sure that we’re running the most efficient operation possible. We’re the best out there now for logging.”

VIH pilot Leroy Stewart said the Kamov is particularly well suited to the work. “There’s very little stress on the airframe, the way it’s designed. [We’ve had] very few problems with the machine. VIH has been running them for over 20 years now and they’ve done really well with the Kamov helicopter.”

Indeed, the aircraft are kept busy year-round, averaging about 2,000 hours on each airframe over the last year.

“In wintertime, we’ll go into remote areas, and we’ll log down low by the ocean so we’re not affected by snow,” said Schedel. “We try to keep going 12 months of the year.”

The booming demand for timber, caused by a spike in home renovations during Covid lockdowns, helped lumber prices skyrocket. Cedar was the most coveted species, said Schedel. “It was the highest pricing I’ve ever seen people paying for logs,” he said, with demand outpacing supply.

Preparing for the lift

VIH’s heli-logging work at the inlet is being performed for forestry company A&A Trading. Typically, logging contracts measure the amount of wood required in meters, rather than by weight. Different species of trees have different weights per meter, and different prices. At this location, VIH is harvesting fir, hemlock and cedar trees, and the contract calls for 75,000 meters (246,000 feet) of timber. For VIH, this will be about three months’ work with one Kamov.

VIH crew chief Dave Sparrow and maintenance engineer Neil Ashfield give the all-clear for the Kamov to begin another cycle of logging operations.

At the time of Vertical’s visit to VIH in June, the company was also logging for A&A Trading at another location, a few miles away further inland. That contract was for 25,000 meters (82,000 feet) of cedar and fir — about 30 days of flying.

The job begins with the fallers — the people who cut down (fall) the trees. In selecting the sections of timber to be removed, only marketable wood is chosen to be moved off the hill. VIH aims for minimal impact to the environment, with consideration given for wildlife habitats.

The aircraft uses a 200-foot long line for logging operations.

Once the tree has been cut and delimbed, the fallers will use a bucking card provided by VIH to determine how big to cut each of the logs to allow for the most efficient lift. The Kamov’s maximum lifting load is 11,000 lb. (4,990 kg), but with the grapple at the end of the long line weighing close to 900 lb. (410 kg) on its own, it can take up to 10,000 lb. (4,535 kg) in logs. This can be in the form of one extremely heavy log (such as a six-meter piece of cedar), or several smaller logs hauled together.

“They’re pretty skilled, the fallers and the hill crew,” said Schedel. “They know how much a log weighs just by looking at it.”

If it’s safe to do so, the helicopter will generally come in after about 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) of trees are on the ground.

“Sometimes we wait ’til [the fallers] are done — it all depends on how the hillside is set up, because we don’t like to work around too close to the fallers just for safety reasons,” said Schedel.

VIH has a team working on the logging area to mark the timber with different coloured tags or paint, indicating the size of the logs to the pilot.

“We start at the top of the hill, we go across the top, and then we come down level — you always want to stay level,” said Schedel. “It’s safer, so the guys on the hill are never underneath the wood, they’re always on top of the wood line making their way down.”

After about 5,000 meters of timber is collected in a holding pen, a barge arrives to collect it and transport it for sorting.

The pilots will use the extremely powerful hydraulically powered grapple to aim for the “butt end” of the logs — the thicker, lower part.

“If you grab it at that end, it gives you more leverage to lift it up,” said Schedel. “With the Kamov, it has so much power you can grab the log in the middle, but we try not to do that.”

The logs are then carried to a land or water drop zone. Land is preferable if there are roads nearby, but if the location is remote, water is usually best. 

“We’re getting more and more water drop work,” said Schedel. “It ends up being cheaper because you don’t have to build a road.”

As well as eliminating the cost of building a road, it also reduces the impact of this construction on the environment.

The company has a specialist — Dave Morrison — who focuses on creating these water drop bases and camps. The water needs to be a certain depth, and the drop zone (created using a ring of boom sticks) must be placed where the wood won’t be washed up onto the shore when the tide changes. At the end of each day, the dropped wood is swept into a holding pen. When about 5,000 meters of wood is collected, a barge comes to take it to be sorted.

Working with the Kamov

When logging, VIH’s crews work a pattern of 14 days on, 14 days off. And, to maximize productivity and value for customers, the heli-logging days are long.

“A typical day for heli-logging here in camp is we’re usually up around 5 a.m., and we usually start flying by 6:30 a.m.,” said pilot Stewart. “We’ll put 10 hours’ flying time on the machine every day if we can, and usually shut down around 5/6 p.m.”

Two pilots are in the aircraft throughout the day, working 90-minute logging cycles. At the end of each cycle, the Kamov lands, refuels, and the pilot-in-command and copilot switch roles. During this 10-minute refueling break, the ground crew will perform a quick check around the aircraft.

After eight hours (five cycles), the Kamov will shut down for a 30- to 40-minute maintenance break, involving a more thorough check by the maintenance team. After that, the aircraft returns to complete the day’s final cycles.

“There’s very little stress on the airframe, the way it’s designed. [We’ve had] very few problems with the machine. VIH has been running them for over 20 years now and they’ve done really well with the Kamov helicopter.”

“The Kamov is a great machine, it’s very pilot friendly,” said Stewart. “It’s a joy to log with, it has lots of power, so you never seem to be limited with it.”

Steve McNolty is another Kamov logging pilot, who has been flying with VIH since 2016.

“It’s a super sporty aircraft to fly — it’s a lot more agile than it looks,” he said. “Some of the performance advantages of this aircraft are that we’re able to work in some really hot and high conditions. Today we’re at sea level, but it’s 34 C [93 F], we’re working at over 3,000 feet [915 meters] where we’re picking our loads, and we’re able to lift the maximum 10,000-lb. loads even on a day like today.”

He said the Kamov’s distinctive counter-rotating main rotor blades were one of its major advantages. 

“There’s never any induced torque on the airframe,” said McNolty. “It’s able to work in wind and we’re not suffering with the tail rotor or some of the other structural issues that some of the big aircraft have.”

In terms of getting into this line of work, Schedel said most of VIH’s current pilots started flying shake blocks (small blocks of wood) and building hours on other types. The expertise level is extremely high. “Essentially, they’re looking 200 feet down trying to grab a log with a little pair of tweezers,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy how good they all are.”

Due to the high number of hours flown on the Kamovs, the aircraft are in for scheduled maintenance every few weeks to replace time-limited components. “We don’t do a lot of unscheduled maintenance, it’s usually just scheduled maintenance,” said Schedel.

The majority of parts for the Kamov still come from Russia, and while support is generally good from the OEM, VIH has created a substantial spares inventory to help limit any downtime.

Maintenance engineer Neil Ashfield has worked on both of VIH’s heavy-lift types — the S-61 and the Kamov.

“Working on the Kamov is a little more challenging,” he said. “They’re both great aircraft, but the Kamov has a lot of tight spaces to work in, and being that it’s from Russia, things are a little different from North American aircraft. I find the S-61 a little bit easier, with more room, but they’re both great machines.”

Crew chief Dave Sparrow said the “pioneers” who worked on the Kamov when it first arrived in Canada have made his job a lot easier.

VIH aims for about 10 hours of flying every day while on logging jobs.

“The Kamov is a very unique aircraft; it has a lot of manuals that are translated from Russian to English, and it’s not always the best translation, so that makes our job a challenge trying to decipher it,” he said. “A lot of the guys before me have, thank goodness, been able to figure some of these little tips and tricks out and pass [their knowledge] onto us.”

Due to its coaxial counter rotating main rotor blades, the Kamov has no need for an anti-torque mechanism in its tail, resulting in less stress on the airframe.

Ever in demand, the utility of the Kamovs was demonstrated soon after Vertical’s visit, with both logging contracts interrupted by the wildfires that began raging in Western Canada in June and July. The two aircraft are on government firefighting contracts, and were called away (along with VIH’s other two Kamovs) to help tackle the blazes in British Columbia.  

“The [logging] customers are really good,” said Schedel. “Of course they want their wood, but they totally understand the value of what we do for firefighting.”

Once the fires have been dealt with, the Kamovs will return to pick up where they left off with their logging work. For these hard-working machines, there is little rest. And even with the reputation they’ve developed over the last couple of decades, its capabilities still take new customers aback.

The Kamovs each average about 2,000 flight hours every year.

“Usually the first time someone uses it, they say, ‘I don’t know  why I didn’t use this before,’ ” said Schedel. “It’s that reliable. It’s that impressive.” 

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