HAI International Spotlight: Switchback Helicopters, Canada

Jen Boyer Top Story

Aug. 25, 2020

A look at an international HAI member up close and personal.

Switchback Helicopters is the brainchild of three highly experienced helicopter professionals with a passion for providing uncompromising customer satisfaction.

Operations Manager Brian MacPherson, Maintenance Manager Mike Freidin, and Chief Pilot Jeff Groom formed the company in 2019 with a single AS350 B3. With each man having built significant remote, utility, and mountain operations experience with Great Slave Helicopters in Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the three envisioned Switchback as an opportunity to serve the market with a personalized approach.

Based at Springbank Airport (CYBW), west of Calgary, Alberta, and a stone’s throw from the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, Switchback began by serving the Calgary market but soon discovered its services were needed throughout Canada.

“We started out specializing in forestry and utility with the intention of providing this local service to Calgary and beyond,” Freidin says. “However, it quickly expanded as we were contacted to respond to jobs from [British Columbia] to Ontario.”

Local work in the foothills isn’t for the faint of heart. With the infamous Chinook winds racing off the Rockies, it’s not uncommon to encounter 100 mph winds that can appear anytime between November and May.

“The Front Ranges [mountains] create by far the most challenging flying we do,” says Groom. “We have a great deal of knowledge about and experience in these conditions and knew we’d be able to provide a reliable, safe service [there].”

One with Nature
Switchback’s tasks vary depending on the job. Forestry work is the company’s bread and butter, with the operator having flown game-counting missions, prescribed burns, and forest assessments.

Another large piece of Switchback’s business is wildland fire suppression. Its aircraft are equipped with specialized fire-suppression gear, and its pilots are experts in water bucket operation, drip torch application, and longline precision placement of equipment. Switchback even added integrated infrared technology this year to enhance its ability to react to and map fire perimeters more accurately.

Outside of forestry, Switchback provides charter and sightseeing services when requested. The company has also been instrumental in supporting design approval representatives (DARs) in the design and testing of equipment for use on helicopters. Most recently, Switchback helped US-based enhanced-vision systems company Astronics Max-Viz secure federal approvals for its latest infrared camera, which syncs to a computer tablet for display.

Despite a slow fire season so far this year and reduced demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Switchback has stayed busy.

“Like everyone else this year, we’re keeping costs low and looking forward to our options to expand when we can,” says Freidin. “All in all, we feel fortunate to still be here two years in and going strong.”

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