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Ski patrollers, dogs get an up-close look at whirlybird

Jeremy Heiman

“This is basically an aerial ATV,” said pilot Doug Sheffer, owner of DBS Helicopters. “It has more utility in the mountains. You can put it down more places than a fixed-wing plane.”

To illustrate, Sheffer set the helicopter down for a few seconds on a point of land atop a rocky cliff. A few square feet of open snow was all the chopper needed, among some low, scruffy shrubs.

“You just can’t do that with an airplane,” he said.

He gunned the engine, lifting the craft off the snow. It tilted and swooped sickeningly off the cliff, leveling off after a moment.

“That’s called swapping altitude for forward speed,” Sheffer said. Gravity helps to accelerate the helicopter to cruising speed more quickly.

Sheffer and the helicopter were on their way to an orientation session with members of the Snowmass Ski Patrol Friday. The session was aimed at familiarizing patrollers with the use of a helicopter for backcountry emergencies. Patrollers also used the opportunity to train two avalanche dogs, golden retriever Chaz and yellow lab Bubba, not to fear the helicopter.

On Snowmass Ski Area, a grooming crew had constructed a level platform of snow near the top of the High Alpine lift, just below the patrol cabin. A large “H” was emblazoned on the snow with some orange fluorescent material, visible from perhaps a quarter-mile away.

Though the slope and the landing zone were groomed, snow swirled as the craft dropped onto the H. Not satisfied with the angle at which the helicopter came to rest, Sheffer lifted off, rotated the copter 90 degrees and settled down again a few feet up the hill.

About a dozen red-and-black-clad patrollers clustered around as the rotors came to a stop and the flying snow settled.

Ski patroller Ted Bennett, avalanche coordinator at Snowmass, said the patrollers need to be familiarized with the helicopter because they could be asked to assist with a rescue nearby. Skiers injured or lost in the backcountry, or caught in an avalanche, might trigger a rescue assisted by helicopter, he said.

No helicopter service is located closer than Sheffer’s, which is based at the Garfield County Airport outside Rifle. Sheffer, himself a former ski patroller, donated his time and the use of the helicopter for the exercise.

“That’s just fantastic for him to do that,” Bennett said. Normal fees are $800 an hour.

Emerging from the aircraft, Sheffer delivered a short lecture on what the helicopter can do and how to behave around it, both to avoid being decapitated and to avoid damaging the fragile aircraft.

The helicopter, a Bell Long Ranger, seats six and weighs 2,600 pounds. It’s made of thin aluminum alloy stretched over a light frame. It’s even important to know how to close the doors.

“This door weighs just a couple of pounds,” Sheffer said, “and it costs $10,000.” The cost of the entire machine is $800,000.

“It’s just basically a tin can,” he said, pressing in on a riveted, sheet-metal body panel.

The Long Ranger isn’t designed for medical evacuations, but the four rear seats can be removed to make room for a patient on a back board, Sheffer said.

With the rotor still, Sheffer, standing uphill from the aircraft, flexed one of the long blades downward. He warned the patrollers to approach the helicopter carefully when the rotors are operating, to avoid the flexible blades.

“These things are built like Hexcel skis,” he said. “And they’re moving at 495 miles per hour at the tip.” The top rotor turns at six revolutions per second.

One of the hats patroller Bennett wears is dog trainer for the rescue dogs. After the patrol orientation lecture Sheffer fired up the engine, and Chaz and Bubba’s trainers took turns escorting their dogs to the aircraft and coaxing them inside.

“We’re trying to orient them to the noise and downdraft of the helicopter,” Bennett said. “We don’t want to have a dog that freaks and runs away from the helicopter.”

Chaz and Bubba didn’t freak and, in fact, performed admirably.

The dogs, Bennett said, could be airlifted to the site of a backcountry avalanche, or perhaps to an avalanche in the Highland Bowl, to help find a buried skier.

Sheffer, as a private operator, can’t use some of the rescue techniques used by military crews, such as hanging a person on a line off the bottom of the aircraft.

“Our insurance company loses sleep over that kind of thing,” he said. He has to assess risks carefully before taking the machine into a dangerous situation.

“If we lose this aircraft, we’ve got a lot of explaining to do with our insurance company,” he said. “We might not operate again.”

As a cloud moved up out of the valley and fogged the top of High Alpine, Sheffer told the patrollers he generally flies by sight rather than using instruments, and he tries to avoid flying in poor visibility.

“I don’t like flying into a cloud,” he said. “There might be something hard in there.”

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