Helicopter or boat – for bar pilots it’s all about safe transfersApr 28, 2014 12:43 PM
Columbia River Bar Pilot Capt. Larry Duerr, right, and hoist operator Mike Bruhn are passengers in an Italian-built Agusta helicopter that just took off from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf.
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“It is a system,” said Capt. Robert Johnson of the Columbia River Bar Pilots, explaining the relation between their helicopter and pilot boat. The first experimental use of the helicopter by the bar pilots was in 1997. Once the helicopter had proved itself, the first fast-run pilot boat was added to the system in 2000. It is now established routine for the bar pilots to use a helicopter in tandem with their high-speed pilot boats for putting pilots onto inbound ships and taking them off outbound ships. Boarding and disembarking from ships once in the river where the river pilots have responsibility is accomplished just off Astoria, Ore., with the pilot boat Connor Foss.
As an organization, the 13 Columbia River Bar Pilots see themselves as more than ship jockeys. “The Columbia River is a major export center with many of our ships arriving empty and leaving with loads of grain, potash or logs,” Johnson said. “There is an imaginary line somewhere in the Midwest where a decision is made to barge corn or soy by inexpensive barge down the Mississippi and on to Asia through the Panama Canal or to ship it by rail to the Columbia and then by ship directly to Asia.”
From left, Duerr and Bruhn are back at the Astoria airport base with pilot Gene Hill.
In the shippers’ calculations the Mississippi barge is less expensive than rail to the Columbia, but the longer sea voyage and canal tolls are greater than ship costs from the Pacific Coast. The Columbia River Bar Pilots know that they are a line item in the shippers’ budget calculations. “We have two guiding principles,” maintains Johnson. “Number one is safety for the pilot, the ship and the environment. Number two is efficiency for the ship.”
A containership, working on a tight schedule, would rather not take off speed and turn to make a lee for a pilot to board from a boat. With the helicopter, the bar pilots routinely go an extra 10 miles or more off the sea buoy to board a containership that is still traveling at sea speed. Such a boarding meets both criteria of safety and efficiency.
The speed with which a helicopter can complete the transfer of a pilot onto or off a ship is remarkable. In late February this year, the 418-foot by 54-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf had just crossed the bar outbound after completing some repairs upriver. Bar Pilot Capt. Larry Duerr had boarded at Astoria and brought the ship over the Columbia Bar to the sea buoy and was ready to get off. The ship was sailing into one of those spectacular Pacific Coast sunsets and Duerr was standing on the ship’s helicopter deck.
Helicopter pilot Gene Hill and hoist operator Mike Bruhn had lifted off from the Astoria airport just before 1800. At 1803 they had crossed over the coast and headed out to sea. At 1807 they were following the ship’s wake up to the stern. They had previously agreed that there was no need to land on the ship. At 1808 they were hovering over the helicopter deck and Bruhn was lowering the winch wire, with a harness clip and small weight on the end, about 35 feet down to the bar pilot. By 1809 Bruhn was helping Duerr strap himself into the helicopter seat. At 1814 they passed back over the coast and by 1820 they were settling on to the apron at the airport.
Bruhn begins to lower the wire to Duerr while the bar pilot was still on Bertholf’s flight deck.
On the flight back to the airport their Italian-built Agusta 109SP helicopter had passed over the U.S.-flagged tanker Empire State. A few minutes after landing, having checked their aircraft, Hill and Bruhn were back in the air on the way to pick up one more pilot. It was a task that they would repeat numerous times before the night was done. Bruhn, who started his career as a helicopter mechanic on the Gulf Coast and has been working out of Astoria for nearly 10 years, said, “I counted my lifts until I got up to 3,000 and then I just stopped keeping track, it must be somewhere around 6,000 by now.”
Not all helicopter transfers are as simple as that from Bertholf. There are the dark and stormy nights when it is nice to know that the twin-engine helicopter can hover on only one engine if necessary. In heavy weather the ship will be turned to minimize the roll and put the wind either ahead or astern — not to form a lee, as it would for a pilot boat, but to steady the ship’s deck for the pilot to be retrieved or set down. The helicopter has a 35.5-foot rotor span. Helicopter pilot Roy Wilkowski explained that when the ship makes the turn it is important to get in and out quickly as the window, before it starts to roll in a heavy sea, can be quite narrow. He explained that when working a ship with cranes down the center line, he has to hover at about 45 feet so that the roll of the ship can bring the cranes in under his rotor span, but he must still leave enough room for the hoist operator to get his line down to the ship’s deck. On rare occasions he has done a lift at 75 feet, but the pendulum effect can be too great. At night the helicopter is flown with two pilots and with a ceiling limit of 700 feet and three miles of visibility compared to the daytime ceiling of 300 feet and one mile of visibility. Despite the challenges, Wilkowski proudly declares that in 22,000 hoists since the original trial, “We have never had even a broken bone let alone had a dunking or death.”