Helicopter whisks bar pilots to ships at 160 mph

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) — In recent weeks, you might have noticed a small yellow object ripping across the horizon at more than 150 miles per hour. It's not your imagination, and it's not a colorful missile.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots have acquired an Italian AgustaWestland Grand New helicopter, only the fourth of its kind in the United States.

The high-powered, $7 million aircraft is being broken in by Brim Aviation, the Ashland-based company signed to whisk bar pilots to and from the Columbia River bar, where they board or disembark from incoming and outgoing vessels.

Brim Maintenance Manager Kyle Fortune and his team of six pilots and five crew members - including himself - are learning the advanced avionics, handling and equipment of the helicopter, hoping to soon restart daylight hoists for the bar pilots.

"The helicopters have a perfect safety record," said Fortune about the pilots' acceptance of transferring from the air. "We've never even scratched a fingernail."

Bar pilot Gary Lewin, with the service for nearly 30 years, said that through more than 25,000 hoists since the bar pilots started using helicopters, there hasn't been a single accident during a transfer from the air. "We do 70 percent of ships by helicopter."

The Grand New, flown cross country from the manufacturing plant in Philadelphia, replaces the "Seahawk," an older Agusta model used by the bar pilots when they contracted with Arctic Air of Santa Maria, Calif. for the previous 10 years.

"When the contract ended, we wanted to use an Oregon company and keep all the business in the state," said Lewin.

He said the bar pilots started testing helicopters in 1998, at the time using an American McDonnell Douglas MD-900. They settled on the Italian company Agusta, looking at a range of criteria including performance, durability, costs, support and other factors. They used an Agusta A109K2, followed by an Agusta A109 Power.

Most of the pilots and hoist operators transferred from Arctic Air to Brim to stay with the bar pilots.

"It's not something where you can clear house and get new guys," said Fortune, adding that pilots and hoist operators can go through up to two years of training before they're fully certified to operate at night and in bad weather.

Most of Brim's crew members are ex-military, including two pilots from the U.S. Army, one from the U.S. Navy, one from the U.S. Coast Guard and two civilians. Three of its five hoist operators are ex-Coast Guard. Many of the crew live on the North Coast.

The Grand New packs dual Pratt & Whitney engines, each capable of 875 horsepower. Possibly the greatest feature of the helicopter, is that one of these engines - if the other fails - can keep the craft flying.

Roy Wilkowski, a pilot from Brim training on the Grand New, said there used to be a joke that "the backup engine would take you to the scene of the crash. This engine will take you home."

Lewin and others from Brim Aviation flew the helicopter from AgustaWestland's manufacturing plant in Philadelphia, over a period of four days, stopping every four hours to refuel. The Grand New can stay in the air about 90 minutes.

"For us, we're not a long-range operation," said Lewin about the short flight time. "We don't look at range as anything that matters to us."

Speed, however, does. The Grand New is capable of travelling 180 miles per hour, but usually won't top 160. Lewin and Fortune both said they could potentially drop off and pick up pilots from six ships in a single trip. The helicopter will carry one or two pilots, a hoist operator and up to three bar pilots.

The Grand New comes with a navigational system that can control the roll, pitch, yaw and altitude the helicopter while in transit to the Columbia River buoy, taking a load off its operators.

In the nose, along with the battery, is a radar unit capable of scanning 25 to 30 nautical miles out, although Fortune said its used mostly in close range to find ships.

When flying in the bad weather, the pilots can use a flight detector that provides a topographic layout of the surroundings and alerts them when an object is at the same altitude.

"What we do here is pretty special," said Wilkowski about the bar pilot transfers, often in winds above 60 miles per hour. "You're out there in the dark, there's no visible horizon, you have to find a ship. You would think a 700-foot ship would be stable ... it's not."

Fortune, Wilkowski and others are quick to note that when it comes to transferring bar pilots, it's still done manually.

The helicopter approaches a ship, which calls the bar pilots when it's nine to 15 miles out from the Columbia River mouth. The helicopter will sometimes hover as low as 30 feet above a ship, depending on where the pilot is being dropped.

"It's all about timing," said Russ Scheel, a rescue swimmer in the U.S. Coast Guard for 21 years and with Brim as a hoist operator for two. "It's a pretty seamless operation."

On the Grand New, Scheel will operate a hoist rated for 600 pounds that includes 290 feet of cable, although he said that lowering someone from more than 60 feet above a vessel is often too difficult in often foul weather.

The helicopter keeps a steady hover above the vessel while Scheel hoists the bar pilot down above the bobbing deck. He waits for the window of opportunity when the ship is riding up a wave to lower the pilot onto the deck. The pilot then unhooks a clip on their upper back.

An average hoist operation takes about 25 minutes, compared to a boat transfer taking hours.

"It's a whole lot cooler standing on the ground watching someone else do it," said Wilkowski, standing next to an aircraft manual of more than 600 pages - only one of the three manuals he must read.

Fortune said the bar pilots average about 10 transfers a day and more than 2,000 a year. Lewin said that the crew should restart daytime transfers within two weeks.

By August, Agusta will send a special hoist seat that swivels and slides back and forth in the helicopter. Jim Minogue, a pilot with AgustaWestland who travelled to Astoria to help familiarize Brim's team with the aircraft, said his company will also send floats to put on the helicopter.

"The real purpose of the floats are to delay the sinking ... to give you and the passengers time to get out of the vessel."

He said the Grand New fills a role for emergency medical personnel, with others being used in the Rocky Mountains region. The new model is popular with corporate travel, being able to travel between Washington, D.C. and New York City in 45 minutes.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.