Helicopter joie de vivre:
For the past five years, private helicopter owners have converged at the St Jovite Airport north of Montreal for the annual HeliClub fly-in and training seminars.
Story and photos by Kenneth I. Swartz
This year’s fly-in saw 40 rotorcraft touch down on the grass runway over two hot and sunny days.
The province of Quebec contains Canada’s largest fleet of private helicopters and a growing cadre of owner-pilots in search of new flying adventures and fun.
For the past five years, private helicopter owners have converged at the St Jovite Airport north of Montreal in late spring for the annual HeliClub fly-in and training seminars.
This year’s fly-in on May 27 and 28 saw 40 rotorcraft touch down on the grass runway over two hot and sunny days.
Private helicopter fly-ins are common in the United Kingdom, but dozens of helicopters rarely converge on a single airport in Canada except to take on fuel when fighting a raging wildfire.
Fly-in organizer Jean-Charles Emter of HelicoStore was pleased with this year’s turnout, but was expecting about 50 helicopters until a weather forecast for rain—which never materialized—resulted in some aircraft cancellations.
HeliClub was conceived by HelicoStore, a Robinson Helicopter dealer in Quebec, after it helped 190 private owners acquire new or used helicopters.
“The idea was to make helicopter ownership in Quebec fun by creating an exclusive club where helicopter owners could fly and socialize together and share their knowledge,” said Emter.
The fly-in attracted a diverse group of rotorcraft, including various Airbus, Bell and Robinson models.
“Quebec is a perfect playground for helicopters, with many opportunities to go hunting and fishing, visit chalets and see beautiful scenery. Our club is like a family where owners can connect with each other and have lots of fun as well as have access to a range of professional services from our partner companies.”
For many HeliClub members, the thrill of helicopter ownership began during a 2,500-nautical mile (3,984 kilometre) ferry flight from Torrance, Calif., to Montreal in their new Robinson helicopters that included a scenic stop at the Grand Canyon.
A record of 27 Robinson models were seen at this year’s fly-in, which included 10 R44 IIs, 10 R44s, and seven R66s.
HeliClub membership was initially limited to Robinson owners, but has expanded to include owners of other helicopter models as well as owner-pilot clients of HeliClub partners such as Helicraft, Passport Hélico, Canadian Helicopters Limited, HS Capital Inc. and Avjet, which provide services such as flight training, maintenance, hangarage, financing and fuel.
On almost every weekend of the year, HeliClub members participate in organized tours, which has helped expand the helicopter ownership base and inspired a growing group of Quebec resorts to establish heliports and other facilities cater to helicopter owners.
This year’s HeliClub fly-in attracted one Hughes 500D, one MD520N, four Airbus (350BA, AS350B2, H120 and 130B4), seven Bell (two 206Bs, two 206L-1s, one 407, one 429 and one 505) and a record 27 Robinson models (10 R44s, 10 R44 IIs and seven R66s).
The fly-in is the only aviation event in the world where the new Bell 505 JetRanger X light helicopter has made public flight demonstrations.
Bell’s Mirabel helicopter factory is only 73 kilometres (45 miles) southwest toward Montreal and this year’s Model 505 flight demonstration was a great way to celebrate the news that the new light helicopter will now be assembled in Canada at Mirabel, rather than in Louisiana, as originally planned.
Many HeliClub participants attended workshops at the Fairmont Tremblant Hotel including a Robinson R44 and R66 refresher, survival and mountain flying courses, and a workshop to help helicopter owners plan tours in the United States.
Sponsors such as HelicoStore, Bell and Airbus displayed their latest helicopter models and American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) maker Olaeris shared details of its new AEVA unmanned aircraft.
The fun side of the HeliClub fly-in included a poker tour where pilots had to make two precision landings at the airport, drop three balls from set height into a small basket, photograph a local landmark and fly into a local resort to collect a poker card.
This year’s special guest was Swiss-Canadian pilot Bernd van Doornick who logged 24,000 hours of mountain flying, mostly in the Swiss Alps, over a 40-year career.
After learning to fly helicopters at Caledon Helicopter in Orangeville, Ont., in 1969, van Doornick flew for a few years in the Yukon and British Columbia with Trans North Turbo Air before returning to Switzerland and a distinguished career with Air Zermatt and Air Glaciers that included almost 10,000 hours flying the Aerospatiale SA315B Lama and hundreds of high altitude rescues.
Now retired in La Tuque, Que., van Doornick demonstrated his newly delivered yellow Robinson R44 before an appreciative crowd.
Last year, retired Bell Helicopter test pilot Bruce Laurin was the guest of honor and recalled his helicopter flights to the North and South poles. Two years ago Kurt Robinson, president of Robinson Helicopters was the honoured guest.
St Jovite Airport
It is particularly fitting that the HeliClub fly-in occurred at the historic airport at St Jovite, nestled between the lakes and forests of the Laurentian Mountains, some 128 kilometres (80 miles) north of Montreal.
This is where F.W. “Tom” Wheeler founded an air service with a Curtiss JN-4 Canuck in 1921 to serve the Wheeler family’s Grey Oaks Inn on Lac Ouimet.
Grey Oaks Inn was the first year-round private resort in Canada to establish a floatplane base and airstrip and one of the first to fly hotel guests on its own aircraft to hunting and fishing camps in the north Canada.
In the 1930s, St Jovite became a regular destination for wealthy American and Canadian aviators visiting the hotel and the main base for Wheeler Airlines, which became one of Quebec’s largest charter airlines and aerial spraying companies until sold in the 1960s.
Today, most air traffic bound for the Mount Tremblant recreational area overflies the historic grass airstrip adjacent to Lac Ouimet and uses the 1,800-metre runway at La Macaza Mont Tremblant Airport near Rivere Rouge.