Mitigating High-Risk Operations: Helicopter Avalanche Control

Jen Boyer HAI at Work

Photo: iStock/THEPALMER

Mar. 8, 2021

At HAI@Work webinar, operator shares how his company helps minimize danger by dropping explosives.

The beautiful Wasatch Range in Utah offers some of the best snow skiing in the western United States. Popular resorts in the area host thousands of visitors annually, and for those who prefer quieter venues, heli-ski operators can take skiers to slopes beyond the crowds.

But snow on steep terrain can cause avalanches, endangering people, structures, and roads. To protect its roads, the Utah Department of Transportation began contracting with Powderbird more than 30 years ago as one component of the agency’s avalanche-mitigation efforts. The Alta, Utah–based heli-ski operator creates controlled avalanches by dropping explosives on the mountains. During the Mar. 4 HAI@Work, Powderbird VP of Operations Kevin O’Rourke explained how his company performs this delicate work.

Powderbird began in 1973 after winning the area’s first heli-skiing permit just two years after Utah’s iconic Snowbird ski resort opened. It has operated continuously since, providing heli-skiing services and the occasional additional operation as needed—including avalanche control using explosives. The Utah highway department, local ski resorts, and Powderbird itself quickly learned that the helicopter was an indispensable tool in helping perform avalanche mitigation quickly and efficiently.

“We work right at the edge, on the top of cornices, where those types of targets are hard to hit with canons,” says O’Rourke. “The helicopter is also really helpful when the weather breaks. We can quickly survey after a storm.”

O’Rourke shared how his teams plan for and execute avalanche-control missions, identify and mitigate risks, and ensure the safety of all on the ground. He also discussed other risks in his operations, from weather and altitude to the challenge of finding, marking, and maintaining a safe snow-landing site. To top it off, he shared with webinar attendees several awe-inspiring videos of his teams in action.

To learn more about Powderbird’s mountain flying adventures and get an up-close look at avalanche blasting from a helicopter, watch the video of the webinar in its entirety.

Please join us on Mar.11, at 4 pm eastern (UTC-5), for our next HAI@Work webinar, “3 Old Guys Share Their Wisdom.” In advance of the event, HAI invites attendees to ask questions of three longtime helicopter professionals to answer during the webinar. Send questions to dan.sweet@rotor.org.

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