‘Don’t stir the stick’: Canada’s helicopter community mourns pioneer Jan Elbe

Avatar for Lisa GordonBy Lisa Gordon | September 1, 2023

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 26 seconds.

Austrian-Canadian mountaineer Hans Gmoser is widely credited as being the father of heli-skiing, but there’s no doubt that long-time helicopter pilot Jan Elbe helped lay the foundation for the sport’s enduring success.

Elbe, 84, passed away at his home in Calgary on Aug. 24, 2023, after a battle with cancer.

Selwyn House, Jan Elbe and Gerry Nel at Bell Helicopter in 1976. Photo supplied by Gerry Nel

His close friend and fellow helicopter pilot, Gerry Nel, shared the news on Facebook on Aug. 29. Immediately, his post began generating an avalanche of comments and shares from an industry that is mourning one of its pioneers.

Elbe’s aviation career began in 1958, when he flew the Bristol Sycamore helicopter with the German Air Force. After his service, he embarked on a civilian flying career. One day in Africa, he crossed paths with some Canadian pilots who described the burgeoning helicopter industry in the Canadian west, where helicopters were proving their abilities in some of the world’s most challenging terrain. The lure of adventure prompted Elbe and his wife, Renate, to immigrate to the Calgary, Alberta, area in the mid-1960s.

Elbe would go on to log about 21,000 flying hours during a career that spanned more than six decades. Along the way, he worked for several Canadian helicopter companies as a pilot and later as operations manager and chief pilot.

He was the first to fly the Bell 212 in Canada while working for Bow Helicopters, on contract to exploration company Panarctic. Around the same time, he was working on contract for Gmoser’s Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) as a Bell 204 pilot, later flying the Bell 212.

“Jim Davies was flying for Hans Gmoser at the time with a Bell 47 and an Alouette II,” recalled Nel. “Jan came in the late 60s with the Bell 204, a bigger helicopter, and his expertise in the Arctic and in the mountains. He helped make the heli-skiing industry a success.”

Indeed, Elbe’s contributions to heli-skiing were extensive. He was instrumental in developing guidelines and standards that greatly improved the safety of the sport – many of which are still in use today. In addition, he was an aerial firefighting pilot for decades, working across Canada and the United States. He was an early promoter of helicopters as a firefighting platform.

Over the years, Elbe trained too many pilots to count – and that is perhaps where he leaves his greatest professional legacy.

A technical instructor at Bell Helicopter in Dallas in 1976, left, poses with pilots Selwyn House, Jan Elbe and Gerry Nel. The three had just completed the factory course for the first civilian Bell 214B in the world. Photo supplied by Gerry Nel

Nel was one of those pilots. He began flying for CMH in 1974, after meeting Elbe the previous summer while fighting a wildfire in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Seeing his potential, Elbe invited him to come and work for Bow Helicopters after fire season. It was the beginning of a 50-year friendship.

“I was one of the early pilots to fly with Canadian Mountain Holidays in 1974,” said Nel. “I was fortunate to be somewhat of a pioneer, but without Jan that would never have happened. The techniques he brought and the pilots he chose… Jan and I spent two weeks together flying the Bell 212 in 1974, flying skiers into the mountains. He taught me the technical aspects of the helicopter – but afterwards, we’d do maneuvers you’d never do with passengers, so he could show me its limits. He was a close friend and mentor to me and to many others.”

Many commenters on social media have referred to Elbe’s tremendous capacity for mentorship, crediting him with establishing the foundation of their successful careers.

Pilot Rob McKenny met Elbe in 1993.

“That winter, I was called up to do my mountain flying/heli-skiing training and Jan was my instructor,” he wrote in an email to Vertical.  “Jan was knowledgeable and always willing to share if you did your part. There was no free ride; Jan made sure you knew what you were doing before he’d cut you loose. Many times I could ‘hear’ Jan’s voice; to this day, I credit his training for keeping me from rolling a machine up in a ball.”

McKenny, who is now flying for an airline, kept in touch with Elbe over the years.

“Whenever I had a layover in Calgary, Jan would meet me and we’d tell lies about the old days,” he recalled. “Ironically, I called him about two weeks before he passed. I was flying to Frankfurt and he always liked to hear when I was heading to his homeland. I’ll be in Germany on Sept. 2, and I plan to raise a beer in his honor.”

Another pilot, Walter Craig, wrote on Facebook: “I am crushed. Haven’t spoken to him in over six months … I was flying today when I received the message. He was my greatest mentor and I am forever grateful for the many great memories. Revelstoke and heli-skiing – his name is ubiquitous in the industry. What a loss to all of us.”

Jan Elbe in the pilot seat of a Bell 212 in Red Lake, Ontario, ready to go active on a 2012 wildfire. Photo supplied by Gerry Nel

Bill Wadsworth added: “I am deeply saddened by this news. I had the pleasure of working with and being mentored by Jan when he was chief pilot at Nationwide … I saw him do things with mediums that I didn’t think were possible. He was one with his machine. The industry has lost a great mentor and pioneer, not to mention a wonderful person.”

Nel said that when Elbe thought someone was worth the time, “he went full-out.”

“He would fly with you and his main focus was, ‘Don’t stir the stick!’ So, only move the controls if you need to. A lot of pilots keep moving the stick and that is hard on the systems. He also instilled this in me: If you’re evaluating a pilot, you want attitude as well as aptitude. You have to be willing to learn from anybody. That was his philosophy.”

Elbe received several awards during his career. In 1991, Helicopter Association International (HAI) awarded him the Robert E. Trimble Memorial Award for exceptional mountain flying. In 2010, the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) presented Elbe with the Carl Agar/Alf Stringer Award for his outstanding contributions to the Canadian helicopter industry.

“Jan’s ability to identify and develop talented young pilots is his greatest contribution to aviation in Canada,” wrote the HAC in its award summary. “His legacy is the pool of talented and successful pilots that have been matched with the most challenging and rewarding flying in Canada.”

HAC president and CEO, Trevor Mitchell, told Vertical that Elbe will be missed.

From left: Jan Elbe, Eddie Amann (former operations manager at Bow Helicopters), Jim Davies (pioneer who developed Mountain Rescue in Banff), and Gerry Nel after a lunch in Canmore, circa 2016. Photo supplied by Gerry Nel

“It was with great sadness that the Helicopter Association of Canada learned of the loss of one of our industry icons, Jan Elbe,” said Mitchell. “Our sincerest condolences go to Jan’s family, friends and all who knew and worked with him as a valued colleague.”

Many of Elbe’s former students went on to found successful helicopter operations of their own.

“I would think he’d consider that his biggest career achievement, that he had a great influence on so many young pilots,” said Nel.

“He showed pilots how to fly in the mountains. Heli-skiing requires judgment. You are flying the helicopter to its limits in bad weather, with a customer who doesn’t understand those limits, and so they push you. The pressure is unbelievable. The judgment is what makes the difference.”

Nel, who spoke to Elbe hours before he passed away, said he’ll miss his friend and mentor.

“My memories of him, more than flying, is the social contact we had while working jobs together, especially heli-skiing,” he concluded. “We were very competitive. We competed in chess and Scrabble, and we debated a lot. Jan and I could at times be quite noisy during animated discussions. Others would sometimes think we were fighting, but that is just the way we were.”

Elbe is survived by his wife Renate, daughter Jutta, and granddaughter Amanda.

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