Text and Pictures – Grant Duncan Smith

Helicopters have been very successfully used in a massive environmental preservation operation in the Western Cape.

 The ‘Helihack’ alien vegetation clearing operation was conducted in October on Table Mountain.

The challenges facing those who seek to rid the Cape of alien vegetation were formidable. Helicopters have proven excellent to transport chain saws and people to the steep and slippery mountain cliffs.

It’s an environment where helicopters come into their’ element, using their specialist skills to play a major role in tackling invasive alien trees in the inaccessible mountainous areas of the Western Cape.

The highly skilled pair of Aleck and Chris McKirdy organize and manage the operation. They have assembled and trained an enthusiastic team of volunteers, working under tough and often hazardous conditions.

The volunteers’ day jobs range from being: pilots, tree fellers and landscapers, photographers, student and surgeons. On a recreational level their interests include rock climbing, paragliding, and generally being in nature and the mountains.

This year’s Helihack was the first to be conducted on Table Mountain, operating from the Newlands Forest Helipad, where the fire-fighting helicopters were based in summer fire season. The focus of this operation was the upper slopes of the mountain that ground crews can’t access. The alien trees use a lot of water, taking a substantial amount of run-off water from the catchments areas, and this fuels wildfires.

Various helicopters have been used in past Helihacks, from the UH-1H Huey to the Airbus H125. MCC Aviation’s Bell 407 was used for this Helihack.

A 407 is expensive to run and maintain, with a typical weekend operational cost estimated at U$22,000.  The pilot, Le Roux Malan, has extensive experience in flying very demanding and skills-intensive fire-fighting and electricity long-line operations. A spotter in the helicopter assists Le Roux with the positioning of the crew in the mountains.

The challenges are formidable and include variable and heavy mountain winds, birds, uneven light with the helicopter being in the sun but the crew being positioned in the shade, and all work on unstable and slippery slopes.

It may be a short time from lift-off to the crew being placed on the mountain, but there’s always the risk of engine failure. With the crew being short-hauled underneath the helicopter, being quick and efficient without hurrying, was key.

For the first three days the helicopter was grounded because of low cloud and high winds. A 15 km/h wind is the maximum permissible. Le Roux was frustrated by the weather delays, as was the team, but he swiftly made the correct call not to fly. He knows from experience and training the risk to the helicopter and team of pushing the limits.

On the final day the conditions were ideal. It started with the crew briefing and planning, gear checks, and a quick recce flight to assess the wind on the slopes and final target areas.

The area of operation was closed off to the public for safety reasons. Teams were dropped off and equipped with VHF and Airband radios for communication with the helicopter and other teams. Chain saws were secured to each person, typically hanging underneath them during the short haul helicopter flight. Teams of two or three were attached by their harnesses to the strop beneath the helicopter (as Human External Cargo), then transported to various areas by the pilot and positioned at each location using the Vertical Reference Long Line technique.

Some crews remained on a specific mountain section the whole day because of the number of trees, whereas on the steeper, more technical areas, the crew were moved a number of times during the day.

Other helihack areas of operation include Greyton, Milner Peak, Tsitsikamma, Hex River and Limietberg since 2017.

The result? 2000 invasive pine trees were felled over two days.

I have personally joined the helihack teams over the past few years on various operations and it’s hugely rewarding to see what a professional and effective team they have evolved into.

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