Valemount-based Yellowhead Helicopters involved in crash

Photo courtesy of Mike Wiegele Heliski's Facebook
Photo courtesy of Mike Wiegele Heliski’s Facebook

by EVAN MATTHEWS

A local ski guide is recovering at home after a helicopter roll over at a popular ski resort.

The accident happened over the holidays, as the guide — employed by Mike Wiegele Heliskiing Resort based out of Blue River — was injured while the pilot of the aircraft attempted to land the machine.

However, the pilot is employed by Valemount-based Yellowhead Helicopters, which is subcontracted by the resort for its helicopters and pilots.

“The helicopter came in to land on this big, open plateau on the mountain — there was a lot of very light, champagne powder on that day — he was going to land on this little hump,” says Bob Sayer, guiding operations manager for Mike Wiegele Heliskiing.

The powder rose up into the air creating a dust cloud, according to Sayer, and the pilot lost reference to the ground. The pilot was conscious of a nearby mountain peak, and Sayer says because the pilot couldn’t see it, he decided to put the machine on the ground, but by that point he had drifted a few feet off the hump.

“When he put it down, one skid landed on the hump and the other skid was still in the air, so that one came down another couple of feet and essentially rolled over the machine, which ended up on it’s roof,” he says.

There were two guides and three skiers present at the time of the accident. The three guests and the other guide, who were uninjured, were able to open the pilot side door and crawl out of the helicopter.

“It wasn’t buried, so it wasn’t a difficult escape,” says Sayer.

Typically on days with low-density powder, pilots land aircrafts near what Sayer calls “landing stakes,” which are put out on the mountains as reference points.

“On a day when you’re expecting big powder clouds you’d just land at the landing stakes because (they stay visible),” he says.

On the day of the accident, the group of five had landed at two landing stakes on the same ridge, Sayer says, and they didn’t expect much in the way of powder clouds as a result.

“They weren’t expecting it on that spot,” says Sayer. “It’s just one of those moments where things go wrong, and the helicopter ended up on its side.”

A helicopter carrying a doctor was within a kilometer at the time, and managed to get to the accident site quick enough to aid the injured guide.

“We always have a doctor on our staff, up in the mountains, every single day we’re open,” says Sayer.

“We have a crew of twelve doctors, and they each take a week every couple months. They’re also trained guides, and they volunteer for a week at a time,” he says.

Helicopter rollovers are a well-known phenomena in heli-skiing due to loss of reference usually due to light, fluffy snow, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).

“They weren’t expecting it on that spot. It’s just one of those moments where things go wrong, and the helicopter ended up on its side,” – Bob Sayer, guiding operations manager for Mike Wiegele Heliskiing

While rollovers aren’t common, they aren’t unusual, either, according to the TSB, as if a person flying an aircraft doesn’t realize they are drifting sideways, they can’t correct for it — which is what happened in this instance.

“Human’s get complacent when risk isn’t apparent,” said a TSB spokesperson, referring to the group’s landings earlier in the day.
The TSB is an independent agency advancing transportation safety in Canada by investigating marine, pipeline, rail, and aviation occurrences, and communicating risks in the transportation system, according to its website.

The TSB will not be investigating the incident at Mike Wiegele Heliskiing any further, a spokesperson said.

The TSB does not assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability, and its findings cannot be used in legal or disciplinary proceedings, according to the organization, as their mandate is to find the cause of accidents.

Coroners and medical examiners, however, may use TSB findings in their investigations, the website reads.

Mike Wiegele Heliskiing has reviewed its policy since the incident occurred, according to Sayer.

Now on days with low-density snow, pilots “must land at landing stakes or have positive reference inside the rotor arch,” Sayer says, which is what pilots are doing in most circumstance anyway, but now they have to.

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