EACH DAY, AN ELITE GROUP OF MEN AND WOMEN crisscross the skies in helicopters with tons of cargo dangling far beneath their helicopters on long cables. Some are taking massive buckets of water to a fire, while others are carrying a clutch of logs to the mill. They fly in almost everything that a hook can be attached to. The specialty is long-line flying.
Some estimates put the number of long-line pilots at 1 percent of the roughly 50,000 licensed helicopter pilots in the United States. But with salaries ranging from $70,000 to $200,000 a year, there has to be something special about what they’re doing.
To learn more about long-line operations, I talked to some of the industry’s most experienced pilots in that specialty. But first, I wanted to give it a try. Where better to go on the East Coast than to Bloomfield, Conn. to Kaman Aerospace, home of the K-Max — a helicopter built specifically for external lifting — and its long-line trainer, the H-43 Huskie?
Upon my arrival at Kaman’s campus, I was introduced to George Haliscak, the company’s director of operational test engineering and chief test pilot.
A former colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, Haliscak earned his wings in 1980 and came to Kaman in 1990. He flight tests aircraft and trains pilots to operate the single-seat K-Max, which he calls "the aircraft designed around the cargo hook."
Haliscak described long-line flying as carrying an external load beneath the helicopter by way of a non-twisting cable or length of composite material. Not to be confused with hoisting, in which a cable is deployed and retracted on a motorized reel, the long line’s length is fixed, usually between 25 and 350 ft, depending on the obstacles surrounding the load at the point of pick-up and drop-off.
I’d never flown with anything dangling beneath my helicopter (at least not intentionally), so I asked Haliscak to show me how it’s done. For that, he took me out to Kaman’s long-line trainer, a robust little H-43 Huskie.
Haliscak explained that he considers a pilot with more than 500 hr of actual long-line time "experienced," but admitted the ones with thousands of hours are usually the most talented. The vast majority of pilots without any experience that he sees pick up the basics rather quickly, frequently because they received some training while in the military.
In the way of instruction, Haliscak explained where I would have to be looking.
"We’re all taught to reference the position of the aircraft by the horizon," he explained. "Long-line pilots, however, must look down, and use the ground directly below the aircraft as their frame of reference — a vertical reference," which is a method of long-line flying. (Using a second person in the aircraft as a spotter to guide the pilot is another method, but it is less efficient than a single pilot flying by vertical reference.)
After I flew the Huskie long enough to become somewhat familiar with its characteristics, a ground crewmember — called a "choker" in long-line speak — hooked one end of a 200-ft cable to the aircraft’s belly hook and the other end to a pair of automobile tires, which is one of several loads used for practice. After an exchange of thumbs ups with the choker, my instructor raised the aircraft straight up until the load was airborne, then gave me the controls.
It took quite a bit of effort to lean far enough out the open door to see the two radials swinging under us, let alone try to minimize the aircraft’s movement to keep them from swaying excessively. But I was slowly learning how to counteract any unwanted swaying before it could become dangerous.
"Now, think about how hard it is to maintain that position while trying to maneuver the aircraft," said Haliscak. "If the load starts to swing, the pilot needs to stop it. It takes a lot of skill, which is one of the reasons why long-line pilots are paid so well."
"We can put loads up to 6,000 lb on," he said. "By then, the load has a big vote on where the helicopter is going to go," he chuckled, referring to the adverse effect a heavy load can have on aircraft control. "You have to keep it under control at all times."
Haliscak said owners hire pilots to lift an almost endless variety of loads, including rooftop air conditioners, broadcast towers, and firefighting gear. Kaman’s training center, like most other long-line schools, has a variety of loads to train with, including logs, which are the most common loads in the industry. Long-line logging "is good work, but it’s very nomadic," Haliscak said. "You’re up in the forest for weeks at a time, and have to make many lifts each day to stay profitable. It’s a tough way to make a living."
After several attempts to make my load of tires go where I wanted, we decided to call it quits for the day. I went off to find a few more pilots to talk to about long-line flying.
Kerry Allen is the assistant chief pilot for Columbia Helicopters in Aurora, Ore, just south of Portland. "Instinct is the best talent to bring," he said. "You have to have the ability and the instinct to do whatever you have to do with the helicopter. There isn’t much time to think."
Ed Montgomery has 10,000 hr of long-line time, which is a lot by any standard. He works for Erickson Air-Crane, based in Central Point in southwest Oregon.
"I’ve made all kinds of lifts — high-mountain, ski lifts, towers, logging, you name it," he said. "I really like the opportunity to get the name of a client, go to that client, and get the job done."
Lee Benson just retired from the Los Angeles County Fire Dept., where his long-line work included countless water drops into remote areas.
"Water is a pretty good load," he declared. "You can dump some water out of the bucket if it’s too heavy. Construction workers get surprised all the time by loads that are heavier than they were told, and can’t do much about it."
All of the pilots I talked to agreed that the critical aspect of breaking into the lucrative, high-paying realm of vertical-reference flying is the training. Operators are reluctant to spend $15,000 – 20,000 to send a pilot to a school. That leaves the military and one’s own wallet to fund the schooling.
Employers prefer to hire pilots with 5,000 hr total flight time and 3,000 hr long-line time, but in a market where experienced pilots are hard to find, compromises can be made. It just takes some looking.
Most commercial schools in the United States tend be west of the Mississippi, where most of the work is, and there is a lot of it.
Logging and firefighting pilots can expect to make 15 – 25 round trips with loads (called "turns") an hour. Construction workers usually do a lot fewer turns.
For now, there are plenty of openings for long-line aviators. There just aren’t enough pilots to fill them.