The Advantages of Aviation
Aerial assets assist resource development projects
In addition to often prohibitive costs, one of the biggest obstacles to natural resource exploration in Alaska is remoteness. There are no roads on which to transport supplies; the nearest body of water might be miles away, making it nearly impossible to barge in equipment. In many cases, planes and helicopters are the only transport options—and even then, there are any number of obstacles standing in the way of a smooth ride in and out of an exploration site.
“If a helicopter company gets a call, it means they can’t use anything else,” says Ely Woods, general manager of ROTAK Helicopter Services, based out of Anchorage. “We can fit into smaller sites and we have vertical takeoff and landing capabilities—airplanes can’t go where helicopters can.”
This season, for example, ROTAK crews are providing air support for Donlin Gold in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region as the company undertakes conceptual drilling for a dam, performs environmental surveys, and expands its mineral exploration. ROTAK’s helicopters carry drills and other equipment, large toolboxes, fuel, water, and crew to Donlin’s sites, as well as transports core samples back to the company’s field offices from the deposit.
“What we carry depends on the scope of the job,” says Woods. “Sometimes they need our help to put a drill into position, which will stay onsite a couple of days until they get to the depth they need before we move it again. It depends on what kind of information they’re trying to gather—for example, whether they’re in pursuit of more minerals, or they’re drilling to a certain depth to determine water tables, or they’re studying soil density.”
Anchorage-based Alpha Aviation is also involved in mineral exploration.
“A lot of what we do includes drill rig movements. Depending on what a company is doing—whether in the exploration phase or actively mining—we’ll sling in all the equipment to build a drill pad on the side of a mountain, including logging timber, fuel, a generator, and the drill rig itself,” says Chad Emswiler, director of operations. “Most of it comes in pieces that we bring in with a 100-foot line.”
“These moves can happen every couple of days, depending on where they’re drilling and how deep,” he adds.
Because companies need water to keep a drill shaft lubricated, helicopters are also tasked with transporting it to the site. “We can sling thousands of feet of water hose on a big line under the helicopter that is used to pump water up from a creek; we basically unreel it like a garden hose, laying it down the side of the mountain,” says Emswiler. “Because of its weight and the terrain, there’s no way to physically drag it up those steep slopes. If we can’t provide the water line, we have to bring in barrels of water, which is a lot less effective.”
In addition to supporting mining activities, ROTAK supports the oil and gas industry, including providing aerial support for a recent Hilcorp Energy Company project.
As might be expected, the equipment needed to drill through solid rock is heavy and unwieldy. And along with tools, crews need to be transported to and from the site, which is why helicopter companies usually have more than one type of “bird” to make these journeys.
ROTAK Helicopters uses a large K-MAX helicopter with the capacity to carry 6,000 pounds—the largest civil helicopter based in the state. ROTAK’s fleet also includes an AS350 (A-Star) and an MD500, which is used for light crew transport. Alpha Aviation has several A-Stars, which can carry up to 2,500 pounds, as well as Robinson R-44 helicopters.
“We chose airframes that were very sturdy and can work in the Bush for a long time with minimal maintenance,” says Emswiler.
With this type of equipment, there is virtually nothing that can’t be transported to a remote site—though it may take more than one trip.
“We carried an 80,000-pound drill last year for Pebble Mine that had to be built in sections,” says Woods. “This year, we’re moving a number of mission-specific drills of varying weights for Nova Minerals, Taiga Mining Company, and other clients.”
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The Best (and Sometimes Only) Option
In many cases, using airplanes and helicopters is the most cost-effective way to move equipment and crews to remote sites. It’s also often the only way to get them there.
“A lot of the jobs that we get involved with weren’t even possible prior to us having a K-MAX here,” says Woods, referring to the massive carrying capacity of the company’s precision heavy-lift helicopter. “It was made for this work; it’s the only machine ever built that is tested and certified for repetitive lifting.
“Companies are also seeing major cost savings—thousands if not millions of dollars—by using us instead of a company from the Lower 48,” adds Woods. “It costs a lot to bring up an aircraft from down south, and that’s even before the cost of transporting materials at the job site.”
For many companies, the price tag and regulations attached to building a remote road are prohibitive.
“It doesn’t make sense when you look at the time and cost of permitting on top of the expense of putting a road in—exploration is designed around finding out if a resource is there for as little money as possible,” says Emswiler. “Once a company knows it’s there, they may push for an overland route to get the material out in the most cost-effective way by connecting to a road or barge system.”
Helicopters can be used to transport heavy equipment with a 100-foot sling. In many cases, the equipment is transported in sections and assembled on site.
Alpha Aviation provides aerial support for gold mining and other mineral exploration.
‘Leapfrogging’ around Alaska
With a helicopter going through eighty-five gallons of fuel each hour, it’s imperative for natural resource exploration companies to make sure everything they need to do the job is as close to the exploration site as possible. To this end, they may hire several companies with different specialties to make transporting crews and equipment more cost-effective.
“Oftentimes, a customer has multiple assets under contract or that they can call on an as-needed basis,” says Woods. “For example, last year, we worked with Lynden Air Cargo to get parts out to the Donlin site.”
Exploration companies may use one air carrier to move people in and out of Anchorage and another to deliver large cargo to a nearby airstrip. Or they might use one company just for fuel and another for other helicopter services.
“They need access to all of these aerial assets, because not one company does it all,” says Woods. “It’s important to have these specialty niche markets, especially with such a short season.”
Depending on where a company is located, it may be able to use public airports or private airstrips to stage some of its equipment. For example, exploration on the North Slope might use the Deadhorse Airport, which is owned and operated by the State of Alaska, or the Kuparuk or Alpine air strips, operated by ConocoPhillips Alaska.
“Because fueling is always the biggest factor, we try to plan in as many small airstrips as we can,” says Woods. “In interior or coastal areas, we may use village or remote airstrips to land and refuel, and we need to make those arrangements ahead of time, including contracting another company to have fuel there for us.
“If we’re only going to be onsite for a week, it’s not worth setting up a full-scale fuel system, so we may try to ship larger fuel bladders out by airplane and then carry them by helicopter closer to the project,” he adds.
According to Emswiler, a helicopter can travel approximately 300 miles on one tank of fuel. “So if we can’t get fuel at villages or barge it in, we create caches at remote locations,” he says. “This way we can leapfrog our way across the state to remote areas.”
Even accounting for fuel, there are always unexpected issues that can hinder a project.
“One of the design factors of the K-MAX is that it has only one seat, so transporting our technicians or internal cargo is not always an option,” explains Woods. “Then you’re looking at using other aerial assets to complement the K-MAX when the project is not on a road system. It can be a logistical challenge.”
Being in Alaska, weather is always a concern, and then there’s the short exploration season. Darkness and frozen ground prevent most exploratory work. As a result, companies have to schedule wisely, often switching between a number of jobs to get as much done as possible.
“Some projects are small, so we just bring in equipment, haul some stuff out, and don’t hear from them until they call us downstream when they need more equipment,” says Woods. “Other projects rely heavily on helicopters because there’s no other way to do the work.
“For example, Donlin needs to put a pipeline in and that requires a lot of helicopter time,” he adds. “But once a site has a power plant built, it doesn’t need helicopters in the same way. Work rolls back as projects become more established.”
“Once a mine has gone into production mode, they don’t use aviation assets the same way,” adds Emswiler. “We may be called on an emergency basis to transport crews or to help with maintenance on a radio repeater on a mountain, but we’re not as crucial for a full-scale operational mine.”
ROTAK works with clients to plan or pre-stage projects based on the aircraft available.
“This helps us avoid complications and ensures that we’ll have coverage for multiple projects,” says Woods. “We need to maximize asset usage; we can’t have helicopters parked or standing by. We try to squeeze as much work as we can in the season, which sometimes means working multiple projects at the same time; there are a lot of logistics involved.”
This is especially tough when, as is often the case, projects don’t have hard start and finish dates. Shorter jobs may last a couple of weeks, though most larger exploration projects run three months or more. If conditions permit, some can even run year-round, though work tends to scale down greatly in winter.
A helicopter delivers equipment for workers to assemble onsite.
Working in such remote and wild areas can be dangerous, meaning safety must be a top priority.
ROTAK, which has one of the highest safety ratings in the state, conducts regular risk assessments in advance of starting projects. “We make sure that we are already familiar with the site through an internal company safety checklist—we study the coordinates, images, and customer requests to know exactly where we’ll be retrieving and placing external loads, including a defined landing area,” Woods says, adding they also take a pre-job walk onsite to identify hazards.
The company also provides advance training to mining crews, including in the hangar to learn about the aircraft and how the hooks and lines operate to protect those working under the helicopter.
“We hire highly experienced pilots and have a very robust safety management system in place,” says Emswiler of Alpha Aviation, which has a perfect safety record with no accidents. “In addition to FAA standards, we also conduct annual trainings and require check rides throughout the year. Safety is built into our company culture.”
While every day is interesting, working in remote sites with companies looking for the next big strike can also be exciting.
“Each type of mineral they’re going after—whether gold, copper, or graphite—requires a whole different set of tools and each brings its own challenges,” says Woods. “And some of these places are really complicated to get into.”