Professional helicopter pilots thrive on diversity. One day they can be flying executives to a downtown helipad, the next day they can be carrying skids of building supplies to a remote construction site.
But in the first half of this summer, one project dominated all the rest: fighting forest fires.
In early July, while Muskoka was being deluged and water levels were rising to spring-like levels, Northern Ontario was facing the opposite problem: an extremely hot and dry spell had led to a record-setting spate of wildfires across the north.
“One of our pilots has been up here for weeks,” said Jay McMackin, chief pilot and operations manager of Blade Aviation. “He got to the point where he wasn’t allowed to fly any more without taking a few days’ rest, so I came here to relieve him.”
Jay was speaking from a firefighting camp some 400 km northwest of Thunder Bay. At the time, he was one of five helicopter pilots in the camp, and one of dozens of private pilots deployed across the north.
Helicopters play a couple of key roles in fighting forest fires, Jay explains. One is to fly ground-based firefighters – called Initial Attack Crews – toward the fire. “You carry a team of four Ministry employees and all their hoses and gear, and when you get the call, you have three minutes to get airborne and get them to the scene,” he says. “You drop them off, come back, reload with another IA crew and take them out.”
The other role is to observe and report on the fire – its size, direction, speed, and so on – and help to guide the ground crews and keep them safe.
It’s vital work, and it takes specialized training. A large fire – and many fires in Ontario this year topped 30,000 hectares each – can generate its own wind, flinging embers and even burning logs through the air and whipping up winds that are up to ten times higher than the ambient wind outside the fire zone. Then there are the thick clouds of smoke. “Visibility is a big issue,” says Jay. “Even in camp there are days when you can barely see the helicopters.”
Much of this work goes unseen and unreported. “When I tell people I’m fighting fires, they just assume I’m in BC,” says Jay. “But there are fires burning across the country. We’ve been going at this since May. And everyone is crying out for helicopters and pilots.”
Business and pleasure
But Blade Aviation’s work isn’t just about fighting fires. Far from it.
While some of the pilots and helicopters are carrying firefighters, others are carrying people on a range of different kinds of flights. There are commuters going to and from the cottage, buyers looking to study investment properties, biologists surveying wildlife, and sightseers out to explore the stunning world around Muskoka.
That array of uses is one of the reasons Blade Aviation has several different helicopters: it lets them assign the ideal aircraft to each assignment. Carrying building materials to an island construction site can be done quickly and efficiently with a heavy-lifting helicopter like the Airbus AStar. The Robinson Raven, on the other hand, is faster and lighter – great for commuting or taking two or three people on a sightseeing flight. The Bell 407 is tough and versatile, and able to carry six passengers at once – or four firefighters with all their gear.
Sightseeing flights are one of Blade’s most popular features. Any destination is possible, of course, but some of the most popular include a tour around the Muskoka lakes or around Algonquin Park.
Blade offers fly and dine trips – including a fish and chips trip that takes you to an island restaurant on Georgian Bay – and fly-in golfing.
Naturally, these excursions aren’t restricted to Muskoka: a Niagara wineries tour is an enormously popular option.
Wherever you need to go
For all their versatility, there are times when a helicopter just isn’t the right vehicle for the job. That’s why Blade Aviation also offers luxury ground transportation. A fleet of Mercedes and Cadillac SUVs is available to drive clients anywhere they need to go – whether it’s in Muskoka or elsewhere.
The cars can be combined with a helicopter excursion – flying to a golf course, for example, and then being driven home after you play a round and enjoy a meal. Or they can be used as a stand-alone transportation option.
“Having a car and driver available lets you enjoy a dinner out without worrying about who is driving home,” Jay says. “Or we may be asked to pick up guests from the city and bring them to the cottage. Anything you like, really.”
Ultimately, he says, it’s all about offering versatile solutions to a wide range of needs. “No matter where you want to go, if a car or a helicopter can get there, we can make it happen.”
TEXT CHRIS OCCHIUZZI | PHOTOS ANDREW FEARMAN & MIKE REYNO