Christmas Tree Transport

Santa gets a little help from his turbine-powered friends

December 1, 2006

It's no secret that aviation plays a large role during the holidays; every kid knows Santa flies his sleigh around the world on Christmas Eve. But chances are, after Santa gets out of the left seat and works his way down the chimney, the tree he sees also was delivered via the skies.

Of course it probably made the last leg of its journey tied with twine to the top of the family car, but for the first leg of its journey, the tree was likely one of millions slung beneath a helicopter every November before many people have even started their holiday shopping.

Transporting trees

For Brian Reynolds, this other side of Christmas aviation has been a present of sorts for the past 20 years, filling in what historically was a slow time of the year for helicopter operators in the Pacific Northwest. As he buckles himself into his Bell Jet-Ranger, a thick frost coats the grass along the edge of the heliport at Northwest Helicopters in Olympia, Washington. It's a brisk morning in late November and there's less than a month until Christmas. But as the fuel begins to flow and the ticking sound of the igniter brings the turbine engine to life with a whoosh, his contribution to the holiday season is almost over.

Reynolds hover-taxis toward the helipad as the sun is just starting to peak over the Cascade Mountains. "Olympia Tower, Angel One with Alpha request east departure," he says. With daylight in limited supply, and a clear break in the past week of foggy Pacific Northwest fall weather, Reynolds wastes no time getting to work.

Today is a short commute, less than 10 minutes to a farm where workers on the ground have bundles of Christmas trees cut, strapped, and ready for pickup. With only a handful of days left in the harvest season, this is the final big push to get the last of the trees delivered to the trucks so that they can be sent across the country.

Christmas trees are big business in Washington and Oregon. Together they account for about a third of all the trees harvested nationwide, an industry worth more than $175 million. Reynolds figures his company alone has already hauled almost four million trees — in just the past month. That's almost half of all the trees harvested in the two states.

Cresting a ridge, he circles a field looking for his fuel truck and mechanic, Sergio Aries, among the neatly spaced rows of Christmas trees. From the air he can already see some of the bundles that are awaiting pickup amongst the stumps and yet-to-be-harvested trees. Just a few hundred yards from the bundles sits the bailing machine, which wraps the trees into a tight package before they're loaded onto the trucks. It's immediately apparent the trip isn't a long one for the helicopter, and it's across flat ground. The question arises why a helicopter is needed at all. Soon the answer becomes apparent — speed. The dance is about to begin, but first a little background.

The pilot

Brian Reynolds has been flying helicopters for most of his adult life. In fact, it's pretty much the only job he's ever had. As it is with many pilots, the thought of flying started when he was young, but not in the usual kind of dreamy way. Reynolds says a teacher in high school asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and at first his mind was blank. At about the same time, a helicopter flew over so he blurted out, "A helicopter pilot."

It wasn't a serious answer when he said it, but over time he thought about it more and more and eventually decided it would be a pretty good way to go.

Interestingly enough, as a helicopter pilot all his training and flying have been as a civilian. This is especially impressive when you consider he started flying in the early 1980s when there was an abundance of rotary-wing certificated pilots from the Vietnam War. And most of them had more than the 150 hours Reynolds had in his logbook when he went looking for work.

It was a short search and after he couldn't get a job anywhere, he went back to school to learn how to be a flight engineer on a Boeing 727. But one day about halfway through his schooling the phone rang. On the other end was a mechanic in Olympia who said his company needed a pilot because its pilot had broken one of his legs in a hunting accident.

"I dropped out of flight engineer school, went to the interview, and was flying the Hiller [UH-12ET] the next day," Reynolds says of his first job as a pilot. It was one of those right-place, right-time examples, with a bit of luck sprinkled in.

He got the job in 1984 at age 21, and the next year the owner of the one-helicopter business helped him finance a buyout. Today the company, now known as Northwest Helicopters, operates more than a dozen helicopters (including the original Hiller) from a 15-acre facility that includes four hangars totaling more than 50,000 square feet and seven acres of paved landing area.

Besides slinging Christmas trees, Northwest Helicopters supports logging, fights fires, and flies for movies as well as flying with the sheriff on local law-enforcement cases. The company also specializes in the remanufacture of UH-1H Hueys for customers ranging from collectors and museums to foreign governments and law enforcement. The company has rebuilt more than 50 for clients around the world. It operates an AH-1 Cobra and maintains another Cobra for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

The harvest

But back in 1986, just a year after buying the company, Reynolds wanted to expand the business for his helicopters during the normally slow months of fall. "That's when I first started slinging Christmas trees," he says. Today the Christmas tree harvest accounts for about 30 percent of the annual flight hours and, according to Reynolds, "we have helicopters that fly 150 hours in 30 days."

The holiday season for the helicopter pilots actually starts even before the 30-day tree season. As soon as the fire season comes to an end in late September, Northwest Helicopters heads into the higher elevations before the snow arrives. Starting in October, Reynolds and his pilots begin flying loads of trimmed boughs from more than 5,000 feet in some places. It's a business Reynolds developed when he found out that most of the branches used to make wreaths had been cut along the forest and logging roads. After many years of roadside trimming, the cutters were having to go deeper and deeper into the forest, and accessibility was an issue. "One thing led to another, and pretty soon it was big business," Reynolds says of flying out branches for the wreath business. "We did about 15 million pounds last year."

But Christmas trees are still king.

The idea of flying Christmas trees started in the late 1970s with some of the bigger growers in the region. They realized that as the farms grew larger and the limited time to harvest stayed the same, it was becoming difficult to get enough people to get all the trees to the trucks.

"The schedules are tight," Reynolds says, referring to the inflexible date the industry works by. Trees cut early in the month are refrigerated and shipped to Asia and other parts of the world, while most of the trees for the domestic market are cut toward the end of the month. And the tight schedule means the uncontrollable factor — the weather — usually brings the most headaches. "Christmas comes on the same day; it doesn't care what the weather's doing in November," he says of his biggest challenge.

Fog is fairly common in the lowlands of western Washington in November, and Reynolds says he often has to truck the helicopter on a trailer from one field to another because of low visibility. But once on the farm he can use markers in the fields to follow like a trail. "If you can see 100 feet, that's probably what we'll get down to," he says of the worst days.

The pickup

Back on the frosty tree farm, the clouds are plenty high, and as Aries pulls up to the landing zone in the fuel truck, Reynolds touches down nearby. Aries pulls out the hook (which Reynolds designed and produces as yet another of his business ventures) and the 25-foot Kevlar cable and lays them out before attaching them to the helicopter. The hook has a locking mechanism and a large ring that makes it easy for those on the ground to grab it and attach the sling. It's also topped with a bright-orange safety cone, making it easy for everybody to see.

In short order Reynolds is back in the air and scanning the field of well-manicured trees for somebody in brightly colored clothing with an arm in the air waiting for a pickup. Less than 30 seconds after taking off, he's found his first load and is performing some amazing and eloquent flying.

When helicopters fly, especially close to the ground, they have the ability to move so nimbly and carefully, seeming to defy what should be possible. And helicopters can perform some pretty impressive jobs, from hauling cows off mountainsides to flying along a river below the treetops surveying a salmon habitat. But watching Reynolds haul loads of trees is truly an impressive sight. How does he do it?

"It's a continuous-motion system where I can use momentum," he says in a technical manner that belies the dance he performs with his JetRanger. "If you lose that rhythm, it really screws you up."

The tempo is carefully orchestrated with the two or three people on the ground. Before the still morning air is broken with the chop of the main rotor, harvesters already have stacked bundles of 10 to 20 trees and wrapped them with a large sling. As soon as a ground worker arrives at a bundle, he simply waves a hand, and that's where Reynolds heads.

The helicopter never stops moving as it zips back and forth between the bundles of trees and the drop zone where they will be bailed and stacked onto trucks. Ideally, Reynolds says, the drop zone is close by, and most of the time he can make the round trip in roughly 40 seconds. This allows him to complete about 100 cycles per hour, delivering more than 1,000 trees each hour. His technique is a big part of how he can so efficiently deliver his loads so quickly for hours on end.

Dancing in the air

As he approaches somebody on the ground, Reynolds begins to slow the helicopter down, which in turn swings the hook at the end of the 25-foot cable out toward the bundle. At the same time, he's already turning the helicopter around so that by the time the person on the ground has grabbed the hook and attached the sling (about two or three seconds), Reynolds has already changed direction and is heading back to the drop zone. On the ground, those slinging the loads are alternately engulfed with the smells of fresh-cut evergreens and Jet A as they wrestle piles of trees and attach them to the helicopter.

Time after time Reynolds places the hook directly in the hand of the person on the ground, who rarely has to do more than reach an arm's length away. Reynolds says only the hook really matters: "I fly that cone; where it goes matters most." He spends most of his time with his head pressed against the bubble window looking down at the load. "I couldn't care less where the helicopter is."

Of course, after 9,000 rotary-wing hours, Reynolds knows he has to fly the helicopter first and foremost, but he can do that largely by feel and sound. "You have to know your helicopter," he explains. "You have to know the sounds of it so you don't over-torque the engine." He does steal glances at the torque meter on the panel from time to time, and when he picks up a load he'll glance at the electronic scale display next to the bubble, which shows the weight on the hook. As you might guess, the weight of a load is another key factor.

"If a load is too heavy, we leave it," Reynolds says. Ideally the loads are between 850 to 900 pounds for the Jet-Ranger. Within that weight range he can stay in motion the entire time. On another of the fields that Reynolds flew, he paused a few times after the sling was attached. "Those were around 1,000 pounds and they slowed everything down," Reynolds said later. "At $11 a minute, if you take too many minutes, it's not worth it." He explains that heavy loads can cut 30 to 40 percent off the number of loads he can deliver per hour, and it might only add 20 percent more trees. Some operators have experimented with using larger helicopters, but a combination of factors on the ground, combined with the ability to bundle trees in an efficient manner and in the air, means a JetRanger/McDonnell Douglas 500-size aircraft works best.

With the load now off the ground and Reynolds flying directly toward the drop zone, he's already scanning the ground for another bundle for the next trip. A process similar to the pickup is repeated at the drop zone with the slowing of the helicopter and the swinging of the load. By the time the trees are over the pile, Reynolds is pointed back toward the field as he pushes the button, which electronically releases the hook, and the whole process starts over.

As Reynolds is heading to the drop zone, those on the ground slinging loads run from one bundle to another, often having to fight through trees as tall as they are, searching down long rows to find the next load in the standing trees. Other farms aren't as flat and friendly as this one. Many are on hilly terrain where the helicopter's ability to pluck nearly half a ton of trees and deliver them to a truck in seconds really pays for itself.

The first stop of the day has been a relatively short one, and after less than an hour all of the bundles have been picked up and delivered. As Reynolds sets down next to the truck, the bailing process has already begun as workers start their way into the pile of trees that awaits them. With fuel in the JetRanger, Aries and Reynolds discuss the next farm in the morning lineup. It's close by and should be another fairly quick visit. Some of the smaller farms are all that's left in the final few days before the harvest season shuts down for another 11 months. With the hook dangling below, Reynolds pulls the collective and in a few seconds disappears over the ridge, ready to start his dance for one of the last times before settling in for the holidays.

Jason Paur is a pilot and journalist living in Seattle.