Nigel Gee is amongst a group of experienced heli-ski pilots in New Zealand. Becoming a pilot almost 30 years ago he has been flying clients and guides safely through the Southern Alps for over a decade. In our interview, Nigel talks about how he became a heli-ski pilot and what he believes are the characteristics a really good pilot needs.
Q. How did you get into flying helicopters for heli-skiing operations?
A. I was working as a helicopter pilot for a company in Malaysia when I saw the job opening at The Helicopter Line. My main focus at that point was to get more flying time in the Twin Engine Squirrels which were the helicopters that The Helicopter Line were using at the time so I applied and got the job which also brought me back to my home country New Zealand. 2002 was my first season as a pilot for Harris Mountains Heli-Ski. Flying helicopters is mainly a one-man show, especially when working on overseas contracts that’s why I enjoyed the camaraderie and team spirit within HMH. Even though it is seasonal employment I’ve managed to come back every year since organising my other jobs around it. In the past 29 years, I worked on overseas contracts, firefighting in Greece and Australia, logging support in Malaysia, oil and gas in Papua New Guinea, working seasonally in Antarctica and as a heli-skiing pilot in the Himalayas. In 2016 I decided to return to full-time flying with The Helicopter Line where I now fly scenic flights in Mount Cook in summer and heli-skiing in Wanaka in winter.
Q. What makes heli-skiing especially enjoyable for the pilots?
A. It’s definitely more of a challenge! Scenic flights for example, are very structured with fixed routes and places to land. Heli-skiing is different, we are flying to unprepared sites which always involves a certain amount of risk. It is essential to be aware of your own comfort level and always give yourself a good escape route when on final approach to landing. When I started mountain flying and snow landings there were a few things that I had to learn. Blowing snow was one of them, this can give the pilot the illusion that the ground is moving another is flying in flat light. While these things can occur during scenic flights as well, heli-skiing always has more added factors like the total gross weight of the helicopter combined with the high altitude of heli-ski terrain. I think being a heli-skiing pilot takes you back to aviation basics. Applying all the things I have learned in flying school is the best method to keep guests, guides and myself safe.
Q. What makes a good heli-skiing pilot?
A. In my opinion, a good heli-skiing pilot is someone who makes good decisions and can stand up to pressure from outside sources like employers, clients and guides. Everyone has their own priorities and mine is to keep everyone safe in the helicopter. Sometimes I have to make unpopular decisions relative to weather where I may have to cancel the days flying. Zero ego is also something a good pilot needs to be mindful of, it should never be about yourself but always about the conditions and what natures allows us to do on that particular day.
Q. What does your typical day look like?
A. My day starts the night before by looking at the weather forecast. I also like to have a chat with the guides to see how many guests are on and what their plan for the day looks like. When we are flying I always like to get up early, around 6 am with my first destination of the day being the ops room, here the guides are preparing for the day ahead and I can get a feel for their vibe, get information on the snow conditions and exchange opinions on how the day is going to play out. By 8.30am I'm driving out to the staging area, I get the helicopter ready by doing a pre-flight inspection which includes lifting all the engine and gearbox cowlings for better exposure, checking the oil levels, cables and electrical connections and looking for anything unusual like oil leaks or birds nesting in the helicopter which sometimes happens. When the clients arrive I use load sheets to put their details into the weight and balance program on my computer, this software makes sure that we are flying the helicopter within the legal criteria. I then take out the first group which is always led by the lead guide of the day, depending on how many loads I have in my machine on that day I fly back and forth to get everyone into the mountains. With the last group, I also get fuel and then it is basically dropping off and picking up groups for the next few hours. At the end of the day the slower groups go out first and when there is only one group left, I become the second pair of eyes for the last guide until they fly out as well. It can be quite a long day by the time you head home.
Q. What do you like most about your job?
A. It is a very exciting form of flying and I enjoy the team spirit with the guides but I guess most of all I enjoy being able to work in this breathtaking environment. The Southern Alps are a unique area and even though I have been flying there over so many years, it’s beauty is still overwhelming.
Winter 2018 has been a blast so far, for our guests as well as our guides and pilots, so beat the chair and book your next snow adventure today!