Imagine you are in a tiny compact car, your nose a couple of feet from the glass. Visualize chopping away the dashboard, engine compartment, and the front half of the floor, and extend the glass down in a curve to your feet. Lose the doors.
Now tighten your shoulder harness because a giant has picked up your car by the rear bumper and dropped it over a mile-high cliff.
That’s roughly what it’s like to dive 4,400 ft in a Bell Long Ranger helicopter toward the Salmon River Valley near Idaho’s Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
Morgan Lohman, 31, the president, founder, and chief pilot of Lohman Helicopter, is flying a couple of hundred feet below and east of us in his Bell Long Ranger among the steep, unforgiving ridges and ravines. It doesn’t look like a parakeet could land here. Before we’d taken off earlier that morning, Lohman voiced a friendly warning. “This isn’t a joy ride. The terrain is steep and dangerous. It has what we call a high-pucker factor.”
The purpose of today’s flight is to spray a chemical agent from the 33-ft boom attached to each side of Lohman’s chopper in order to “eradicate as much of the weeds as possible,” says Zach Swearingen, project manager and senior wildlife technician at Idaho Fish and Game. “The growth of yellow star thistle and white top are threatening native plants and the nutrition of local wildlife,” he explains.
Because of the remote and rugged areas, Lohman has judged it more effective to move his entire operation to a 5,200-ft-high mountain meadow called White Horse Corral. Lohman’s looking at a 25-minute turnaround between his drop zone and the base, a treacherous trip where thermals off the high ridges can spin aircraft. The radical changes in topography keep him looking so often between 15 gauges and the ground that after two trips the seasoned pilot develops the kind of nausea some might feel as a passenger in a car experiencing an endless succession of mountain switchbacks while reading a book with very small print. But, the difference is that Lohman is piloting a helicopter at 45 mph barely 30 ft off the ground.
BACK AT HEADQUARTERS
The job starts early that morning with a safety meeting at the Lohman hangar in Clarkson, Washington, a few hundred yards from the Snake River that demarks it from Lewiston, Idaho. It’s pitch dark as the crew preps the two Bells. The hangar also contains a big Huey and a partially disassembled French-built Alouette. Lohman, a tall, solidly built man with short red hair, single-handedly wheels the copter out of the hangar and into the pitch-black morning by hoisting the tail over his shoulder.
Lohman’s father, Doug, a retired dry farmer who is now Lohman’s director of operations, pulls alongside the ship in a 2013 F-350 Lariat Super Duty® Crew Cab. The truck is red, as are the other three heavy-duty Ford trucks in the Lohman fleet, as well as the two Bells and the Huey. The custom paint jobs cost $30,000 apiece to match the copters with Ford’s distinctive Vermilion Red. Lohman even painted the big side mirror cases on his 2013 F-350, because he thought it was a better match.
Lohman climbs into the Bell’s cockpit and starts the rotors turning. Doug is standing by the closed cockpit door. “I don’t think I’ve ever done this in the dark before,” Lohman shouts at his father. Within a few minutes the sound is deafening and the wash from the blades sends the assembled people back several paces. The helicopter slowly rises and hovers about 30 ft off the ground. Lohman carefully moves the control stick and the copter glides slowly until it’s directly over the trailer. With no hesitation, he gently sets the Bell down.
The 36-ft-long, custom-built trailer is only eight ft, six inches wide with an inch or two leeway. Lohman explains that he hired a crane to lower the helicopters onto the trailers’ sweet spots and marked them with paint. “I’ve landed on them hundreds of times. The key is to trust it,” he says later. “Lots of good pilots hesitate and get the landing gear stuck in the trailer and have what we call ‘dynamic rollover.’”
In other words, one wrong move and your million-dollar helicopter is toast.
The caravan climbing out of the deep Snake River canyon in the predawn is an impressive sight. Lohman is in the lead with his 2013 F-350 Lariat Super Duty Crew Cab. It’s a 4×4 with a 6.7-liter Power Stroke® diesel V8 that boasts 400 hp and 800 lb-ft of torque. Next in line is pilot Brad Leger, driving a 2012 F-350 Lariat Super Duty Crew Cab, also a 4×4 with an equal number of bells and whistles that allow him to haul the Bell Jet Ranger and stay right on Lohman’s tail. Next comes a 2012 F-450 Lariat Super Duty Crew Cab and a 2011 F-350 Super Duty Crew Cab, both hauling trailers loaded down with more than 1,200 gallons of water and jet fuel divided among several tanks. The last Lohman vehicle, a semi tanker truck loaded with water, picks up the rear of the Ford fleet, like a tortoise chasing the hares.
“I’ve had Ford trucks since I could drive,” says Lohman as the dawn finally begins to break. “A 1978 Highboy was first and aligned me as a business owner to have the best-built trucks on the planet. They’re tough, have great ground clearance, frame and suspension durability, a solid front axle, and enough creature comforts to make our long, long days just a bit more bearable.”
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
It only takes an hour or so to get three-quarters of the way up Craig Mountain, but another two and a half once the trucks reach the off road and climb the final 2,000 ft to the top. Though the trucks’ speed rarely exceeds 15 miles per hour (neither helicopters nor jet fuel being something anyone wants to tip over the mountain side), the front and rear axles and leaf springs are able to take everything the boulder-strewn, deep-rutted “road” throws at them.
The White Horse Corral area at the top of Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area is completely socked in by low clouds when the caravan arrives. Snow flurries, intermittent drizzle, and temperatures hovering just above 30 degrees Fahrenheit cause everyone to retreat to their vehicles after the choppers have been readied and positioned for the operation.
As we wait for the weather to clear, Lohman relates how he became fascinated with helicopters at age 12 and immediately set about saving for his first one. “I built fences for four dollars an hour and sold hogs at the county fair. When I was 18, I became a journeyman electrician and worked eight months of the year in Alaska,” he says. “I lived in a 10×12 room and allowed myself $40 a week for groceries. I made tuna sandwiches on my bathroom counter and lived on them during the week.”
In 2006, he bought his first helicopter, a used French Alouette, for $260,000. He’d already lined up his first job… though his lightning-fast timetable had not allowed for much time to get his pilot’s license. Knowing the job could make or break the company, he went through training in record time by persuading the owner of the flight school to let him rent the helicopter and fly on the weekends when no one was around. “He’d leave the key to the helicopter on the office’s bathroom drainpipe,” says Lohman.
That first job was drying cherries. As Lohman explains it, when rain gets on the cherries, they tend to split, which can drop the value of an acre of cherries from $75,000 to $5,000. It is well worth it to the farmers to pay $2,000 an hour for Lohman to position his helicopter over the trees and dry the cherries with the wash from his rotors. Though agriculture work still forms a big part of his year-round, sometimes seven-days-a-week operation, he has also branched out to work for various government agencies, reseeding burnt forest lands and doing other jobs in range rehabilitation.
The ambitious pilot is not enjoying his enforced downtime on the top of Craig Mountain as noon approaches. Fish and Game’s Swearingen arrives to good-naturedly rub it in. “C’mon, Morgan, 200 ft below us, it’s clear and warm.”
Finally, the clouds break, and moments later the crew is in position. Lohman is behind the controls of his Long Ranger. His father and the truck’s primary operator fill the underside batch tank while he rechecks his controls and reflects for a moment. “I don’t want to toot my own horn, but some people say I have a feel for this,” he admits a little reluctantly. “But every time I go up I get that same feeling I had when I went up the first time. It’s what it feels like to be a bird. I am really blessed.”
With that, Lohman rises above the tree line, turns north and flies away.
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