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Mapping the Himalayan foothills by helicopter

By Vertical Mag

Published on: August 10, 2021
Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 14 seconds.

Last year, Indian company Himalayan Heli Services completed a landmark project, as it became the first helicopter operator to complete a lidar survey of the remote Ladakh region.

Photos courtesy of Himalayan Heli Services

After over 20 years working in some of the highest regions in the world, and the most remote parts of India, Himalayan Heli Services has become a specialist in meeting the unique challenges of such an environment.

The aircraft was flown with two pilots, who were using oxygen during flight operations due to the high altitude.

Although its administrative headquarters are in India’s capital, New Delhi, the company has a major presence in the small town of Katra in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the country’s far north. Sitting at the feet of the towering Himalayas, the town is perhaps best known in India as the base camp for pilgrims visiting Vaishno Devi, an important and sacred Hindu temple attended by millions each year.

Shuttling pilgrims to the temple was one of the first operations provided by Himalayan Heli Services when it was established by Harsh Vardhan Sharma and Wangchuk Shamshu in 1998, as well as providing adventurous skiers the opportunity to enjoy the thick powder on offer in the mighty Himalayas.

Since then, the company has broadened its workload to include airborne geophysical surveys, underslung external load operations, helicopter tours, powerline stringing, aerial filming, search-and-rescue, and disaster response.

Himalayan Heli Services has many bases throughout India — some temporary, some permanent. Katra is one of its permanent bases, and is operational year-round. It is also one of two maintenance bases for the operator (the other being Shahpura in Rajasthan).

Himalayan Heli Services began performing airborne geophysical surveys in 2010, and has subsequently flown more than 215,000 miles (350,000 kilometers) at low level performing the operation. Customers have included Geotech, SkyTEM, Hindustan Zinc, Rio Tinto, the Atomic Minerals Directorate ­– Hyderabad, and India’s National Geophysical Research Institute.

Last year, it performed the first aerial lidar (light detection and ranging) survey in Ladakh. Known as “the Land of High Passes,” the remote and sparsely-populated northern Indian region, sandwiched between the Himalayan and Karakoram Mountain ranges, borders Pakistan, China and Tibet. The similarities to the latter — including towering Himalayan peaks, verdant valleys, and ancient Buddhist monasteries — have led to the region also being labelled “Little Tibet.” And helicopter operators working in the region face many of the same challenges encountered by those in Tibet: high altitude, thin air, sub-zero temperatures, and an extremely isolated working environment.

The survey completed by Himalayan Heli Services was commissioned by Geokno India, a lidar technology and solutions company. Lidar is a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to examine, interpret and map the Earth’s surface. According to the operator, lidar surveys by helicopter have recently become extremely popular in India, helping bolster the country’s burgeoning rotary-wing industry.

A New Challenge

Flying on the project began on Aug. 14, 2020, two months after India began relaxing a nationwide Covid lockdown. While the work performed in Ladakh was noteworthy for including a “first,” the project also took Himalayan Heli Services to Himachal Pradesh — the Indian state lying immediately south of Ladakh.

The project was completed using a single Airbus AS350 AStar, which carried the 44-pound (20-kilogram) lidar sensor as well as two pilots (the aircraft was converted into a dual pilot configuration for the flights). The aircraft is one of six AStars in the Himalayan Heli Services fleet (it has three AS350 B3s and three H125s). 

Himalayan Heli Services’ other work includes pilgrim flights, heli-skiing, external load operations, aerial filming, and disaster response.

In Ladakh, the team worked from four different bases: Sindhu Ghat (10,600 feet/3,230 meters above sea level), Rumtse (14,300 feet/4,360 meters above sea level), Pang (14,800 feet/4,510 meters above sea level), and Tsokar (15,800 feet/4,815 meters above sea level).

Due to the lack of facilities in such remote locations, everything needed for a base camp had to be carried out and created for the project, from kitchens to aircraft support and accommodation.

Taking off from a base in Sindhu Ghat. The company has vast experience performing operations from remote locations which helped make its operations in Ladakh a success.

“Ladakh was the first part of the project, which was the most challenging one,” a company spokesperson told Vertical via email. “The survey was being done in high-altitude locations, [so] both our aircraft and our team had to address many challenges. As all the survey locations were above 10,000 feet [3,050 meters], there was a huge risk of acute mountain sickness (AMS) for our crewmembers.”

To lower the risk of AMS, the company sent all crewmembers to the bases three days ahead of the start of operations to give them time to acclimatize to the altitude.

The Ladakh region is known as Little Tibet due to its similarities to the Chinese autonomous region.

Oxygen cylinders were also brought to camps to avoid any breathing difficulties in the thin air. These were used by crewmembers on the ground whenever they felt the need for them, but were always used by the crew on board the aircraft during flight operations. The company also highlighted the importance of proper hydration to its team.

At night, temperatures could drop as low as 14 F (-10 C), and could reach as high as 68 F (20 C) during the day. Quickly changing wind speeds, in addition to the high altitudes and temperature variations, made fuel planning a challenge, the company reported.

“Due to low or even zero connectivity in these remote locations, crew positioning was another challenging task,” the company spokesperson said. “Some of the team members were stationed at different locations during the operation to maintain connectivity between base camp and other locations. Our team remained cut off from the outside world for the most part of the operation in Ladakh.”

The company finished its flying in Ladakh on Sept. 4, after about 60 flight hours. Then work began in Himachal Pradesh on the second half of the project.

The project was completed on Sept. 19, 2020, by which time the team had flown about 110 hours with the lidar.

The company said its extensive experience in working from — and flying within — remote locations helped make the project a success.

Temperatures could range from 14 F at night to 68 F during the day. This variation, along with quickly changing wind speeds, made fuel planning a challenge.

“We operate most of our survey operations from remote locations of India, or small villages/towns [and] we generally set up makeshift temporary bases for these operations,” the company spokesperson said. “Furthermore, [our] sister company — World Expeditions India Pvt Ltd — is an adventure tourism company which caters to a niche foreign clientele, who are looking for adventure trips in India. Therefore, having roots in adventure tourism, working in challenging environments is inbuilt in the DNA of our team — from the most top level to the ground level workers.” 

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