A Day in the Life of a Heli-Ski Pilot: Understanding Helicopter Safety

November 24, 2014 Katie Burrell

For a heli-skiing operation to run safely, there is one massive factor that has to be absolutely dialed: flying a helicopter. On top of that, heli-skiing pilots are required to do precision mountain flying in extreme winter conditions, which means that the pilots that fly the machines at our lodges have to be some of the most experienced pilots in the business. Lucky for us, they are. 

A Precision Landing In The Mountains. Photo: Dave Silver
A precision landing in the mountains. Photo: Dave Silver

A day in the life of a heli-ski pilot at Last Frontier is based, first and foremost, on communication. At 6 AM they are up checking the weather, discussing the moving systems and predicting the conditions for the day. At the Guide’s Meeting, the pilots go through a detailed analysis of the weather with the guides so that they are aware of the day’s specific hazards. On the first day of your trip, the pilots will provide an in-depth safety briefing on how to approach the helicopters, how to enter and exit the machine safely and what to do in the case of an emergency. The ski groups are designed based on weight to ensure optimal flying capability when fuel runs are taken into consideration, and the pilots move the groups from zone to zone with clear communication between the guides and the pilot.

Heli Skiing Alpine Landing
Early morning landing at Last Frontier Heliskiing | Photo: Caton Garvie

According to Mike Holcroft at Access Helicopters, “there’s no room for wishy-washy communication out here. It’s all to the point. If a guide needs to know if a zone is a go or not, we will tell them clearly: yes or no.” Same goes between the guides, pilot and guests: if a guest is tired, there are regular return runs to the lodge to allow for guests to finish a day early – which is ultimately safer than pushing yourself. The entire ski program is shut down at least an hour before dark, this allows a window for the pilots to ensure that all of the guests are safely home before there is no visibility.

Helicopter Pilot For Heli Skiing
Pilot Mike Holcroft | Photo by: Caton Garvie

The pilots are all trained in the Last Frontier Heliskiing Emergency Response Plan, which is executed down to the detail during Guides’ Training in the early season. This is a fully simulated emergency response in the field as well as an in-classroom verbal training, allowing for pilots and guides to run through exactly how they would respond in the case of an emergency, such as an avalanche or lost skier. The Last Frontier terrain has a valley system that allows for low-level flying when the weather gets bad. Ultimately, these professionals are dialed and trained in what to do to allow for fast and efficient rescues. 

Heli Skiing Helicopter
At the Last Frontier Heliport | Photo by: Dave Silver

Becoming a heli-skiing pilot is no easy task; years of experience in flying both in mountains and in challenging winter environments are the building blocks of becoming a skilled heli-skiing pilot. Most heli-skiing pilots will start flying private groups to get a feel for It requires the ability to fly in situations of reduced visibility and blowing snow, with an additional human factor that requires precision flying – landing between groups and their guides (very impressive) and on exposed ridges (also impressive), all the while staying cool, calm and collected (the most impressive). This occupation requires sharp decision making skills, excellent reflexes and strong skills to move three groups of people all over and executing up to 100 landings per day. But this challenge is what makes pilots so passionate about their work.