Mighty Mouse helicopters wear many hats | RecordCourier.com

Mighty Mouse helicopters wear many hats

by Sarah Hauck
Wayne Gilbert of Skydance Helicopters peers out the door of the Lama SA315-B helicopter as he prepares to set it down at the Markleeville Airport Friday.
Brad Coman |

The Sierra Nevada boast an environment fit for gliders and soaring enthusiasts, but the mountains can be hard on other forms of aviation.

Skydance Helicopters of Minden welcomes the challenges, taking several unlikely services to new heights with a Lama SA315-B helicopter.

“Helicopters are an incredible tool, you can basically use them for anything,” Skydance Helicopters owner Jeff Cain said. “The Lama is extremely hard to beat. It is the only helicopter in the world that can lift its own weight.”

A unique French design, the Lama is a machine that is much more lightweight than a typical helicopter, due to a hollow design, that eliminates the fuselage, and carries a much larger engine than its cousins.

The compact, lighter design allows Skydance helicopters to assist in several high-altitude endeavors.

“They are a dying breed. Think old school hot rod; little, old frame and giant engine strapped in it” Skydance manager Greg Altringer said of the Lama. “It still holds the world record for an altitude event. Other helicopters do really well at sea level, but when they travel up, their performance drops off. Our helicopter doesn’t perform as well at sea level, but as we travel up in elevation, we don’t have that performance drop off.”

The Lama’s ability to perform at higher elevations, allows its use in situations, such as wildfire suppression. It has been used as the first short-hauling machine for the U.S. Forest Service, carrying people into dense areas to fight fires and rescue trapped firefighters.

The Lama, and the rest of the Skydance fleet, which includes Astar AS350 B3 and MD 500, are used in wildlife capture and aerial survey for geology companies and construction.

Most recently Skydance helped set powerlines for Liberty Utilities in Alpine County along Highway 89.

“We are back in the powerline game, and are really expanding our company out of Minden,” Cain said. “There is a need in the powerline industry for our experience, and our pilot experience with our short-hauling reputation and our firefighting game.”

Skydance helicopters has been operating out of Minden for the past 30 years, having been doing tours over the Grand Canyon before that.

Cain was attracted to the area for its ideal flying conditions their specialized helicopters require,

“The Sierra are 400 miles long. They are a definitive mountain range and make for a great helicopter range,” Cain said. “They make for very technical, high-density altitude flying. Naturally, you want technically experienced people. I think the Sierra are incredible, as is Nevada. They reminded us of the mountains in Mexico and South America, where we were working. We stopped in Minden, got affiliated with a small business here at the time and have been here ever since.”

Skydance specializes in the energy business, specifically natural gas and oil, the Lama providing low-impact, remote-area energy exploration.

The use of helicopters helps drillers with the exploration and establishment of drill sites.

“We will move these drills onto a site, then drill down and lay a charge to find where the reserve is. We are the ones that actually find it (reserves). We are the forefront of exploration,” Cain said. “Geophysical crews come in behind us and set the charges and drill the reserves.”

Helicopters, like the Lama, are used in the energy industry by creating a different means of transporting the giant drills needed at discovery sites, called heli-portable drilling.

The helicopter’s small size, and ability to fly carrying a load heavier than itself is ideal for seismic drilling, where trucks are traditionally used.

“We leave no footprint. There are no trucks, equipment with big tires involved when we use a helicopter to bring in one of the big drill rigs,” Cain said. “We lay the drill vertically and remove it vertically.”

Skydance has its fingerprints on Lake Tahoe, having helped with the construction of the ski lift tower at Sugar Bowl Resort.

Being the only operators of a Lama helicopter in the U.S, Skydance Helicopters will continue to serve the states with their small, but mighty machines.

“I am 61 and have been in the aviation game since I was a baby boy,” Cain said. “My dad is 83 and is still flying. He brought his experience and technique here from New Zealand where we lived, and all over the world. All of our pilots have a tremendous amount of talent and experience and that’s what makes us Skydance and what keeps us going.”

For more information on Skydance Helicopters visit http://www.skydanceheli.com.

The Lama SA315-B was designed for the Indian Armed Forces for use in the Himalayas.