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Rotorcraft Pioneers: Wes Lematta - Founder of Columbia Helicopters

Posted 13 years 14 days ago ago by Admin

Rotorcraft Pioneers: Wes Lematta - Founder of Columbia Helicopters

By Brad McNally - In 1957, Columbia Helicopters started with one helicopter flying primarily in Oregon.  That first year the company grossed $20,000.  Forty years later the company grossed $100 million (Bernstein, 2009).  Today Columbia Helicopters employs 700 people and has over 20 helicopters operating around the world.  The story of how Columbia Helicopters grew to be one of the premier heavy lift and heli-logging companies, operating the world’s only commercial tandem rotor helicopter fleet starts with its founder Wes Lematta.

Glenn Wesley “Wes” Lematta was born in Ellendale, ND in 1926.  His grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Finland settling in North Dakota where the family started a farm.  When Lematta was eight years old the economic hardships caused by the Great Depression coupled with the decline in farming associated with the Dust Bowl forced his family to move west.  The Lematta family ended up in a small town called Brush Prairie near Vancouver, Washington.  From an early age Wes Lematta displayed an enterprising spirit and a sense of determination that would later become trademarks for his company.  One of Lematta’s first jobs was picking fruit in local orchards.  By the time Wes was fourteen he had left school, only finishing the eighth grade, and gone into business for himself cutting and selling firewood.  Although there was no way to know it at the time, this venture into harvesting firewood would sow the seeds for a major venture into large scale logging years later.  Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wes worked in a shipyard where he was able to save enough money to buy a truck and expand his wood business by hauling logs to lumber mills.  In 1944, at the age of 18, Lematta joined the United States Army and saw action in the Philippines.  From his foxhole he could see American fighters swooping in to fire at Japanese troops and decided that if he made it back to the United States he would become a pilot (Petersen, Vezmar & Skinner, 2007). 

After two years of military service, Wes Lematta returned home to Washington.  Wes used his GI Bill to take flying lessons at Evergreen Airport.  However, he found it hard to get a job flying due to all of the qualified pilots returning from the war.  After saving up enough money to buy a bigger truck, Lematta began hauling railroad ties and eventually started a fruit hauling run between Portland and Los Angeles.  While on one of these fruit hauling trips with his younger brother Bill in the early 1950s, Wes heard on the radio that there was a need for helicopter pilots.  Flying a helicopter sounded like a lot more fun than hauling fruit so Lematta located a man with a helicopter about 30 miles outside of Portland that was willing to teach him to fly.  Helicopter lessons were expensive and it took Wes several years to get his helicopter license but his determination carried him through.  Wes continued hauling fruit while looking for helicopter jobs which unfortunately were hard to come by.  Lematta’s flight instructor told him about a used Hiller 12-B helicopter that was for sale in New Mexico.  Wes was very interested in buying the helicopter and starting his own business until he learned that the price was $22,500 (Petersen, Vezmar & Skinner, 2007).  Lematta knew that he didn’t have the money to purchase the helicopter and was ready to let the idea go when his older brother Ed stepped in.  Like Wes, Ed Lematta was a World War II veteran having served with the Coast Guard.  Ed and his wife had opened a gas station after the War, but later sold the gas station when Ed decided to go back into the Coast Guard.  Ed offered Wes the proceeds from the sale to help buy the helicopter.  Wes decided to accept the offer and the brothers pooled most of their savings to purchase the Hiller.  The entire Lematta family got together to choose a name for the new company.  Despite only having one helicopter, they settled on Columbia Helicopters (with a ‘s’) as they were determined to add more helicopters in the future (Petersen, Vezmar & Skinner, 2007).  On April 24, 1957, Wes and Ed Lematta officially formed Columbia Helicopters Incorporated.

Business started out slow for Columbia Helicopters.  Ed Lematta was transferred away by the Coast Guard so Wes’s youngest brother Jim began working part time for Columbia as soon as he finished high school.  Jim Lematta would become one of Columbia Helicopters’ first pilots and would help make a name for the company flying on many heavy lift helicopter construction projects.  Jim went on to become Columbia’s first director of safety and later served on the Columbia Board of Directors.  Initially Wes was flying the Hiller out of his backyard but later moved operations to Troutdale Airport.  Wes continued driving the fruit truck and occasionally worked with Jim as a longshoreman when helicopter work was slow.  Flying jobs were hard to come by and Wes knew that he had to get the helicopter into the public eye to drum up business.  Lematta took every opportunity that came his way which included flying customers at a local store, delivering the Easter Bunny to an Easter egg hunt and even flying two trapeze artists suspended under the helicopter.  Business slowly picked up and Wes found work flying Army Corps of Engineers personnel to inspect construction and dredging projects.  It was during one of these Corps of Engineers flights that Wes and his helicopter gained significant publicity.  On September 10, 1957, Wes was flying the chief of the Portland District of the Corps of Engineers back from inspecting a project when they learned that the dredge William T. Rossell had been struck by a freighter at the mouth of Coos Bay and was sinking.  Wes flew to the Rossell and rescued 15 crew members by hovering dangerously close to the sinking ship allowing the crew members to grab onto the skids (Petersen, Vezmar & Skinner, 2007).  For his gallant efforts, the U.S. Army awarded Wes the Air Medal.  Although work remained slow, Wes was demonstrating that the helicopter could be used successfully on a myriad of demanding jobs.  One of which was helping recover grounded ships.  Wes used the helicopter to string lines between salvage ships and grounded vessels, which were otherwise inaccessible due to shallow water.  Another operation involved transporting scuba divers and dynamite out past the rough surf of the Oregon shoreline.  The divers were then able to use the dynamite to blast a channel in a coral reef.  The channel was needed for an effluent pipe being run out from a local paper mill.  Wes also tried his hand at crop dusting and gave helicopter rides at the Oregon Centennial Exposition in 1959.

Columbia Helicopters was merely two years old when Wes made good on his earlier intent to have more than one helicopter.  A new Bell 47 G2 was purchased for $40,000 in 1959 (Petersen, Vezmar & Skinner, 2007).  A third aircraft followed shortly thereafter, a Hiller 12-E.  The 12-E was the most powerful of the Columbia fleet with a 345 horsepower engine and it also had dual flight controls for flight training.  The dual flight controls led to one of Wes Lematta’s most innovative ideas and a staple of Columbia Helicopters to this day.  Wes had sometimes struggled flying external loads in Columbia’s original three seat Hiller 12-B, which had flight controls in the center seat.  Flying from the center seat made it hard to see where the external load was.  While on a power line construction job in 1960, Wes decided to try flying the new 12-E using the controls on the left side.  He stuck his head out of the helicopter to establish direct visual contact with the load.  This led to direct visual operating control or DVOC.  DVOC is a technique by which the pilot flies looking down at the load and the ground not out at the horizon.  Today all Columbia helicopter pilots are trained to use DVOC and it is a large part of the reason why Columbia is one of the best in the world at precision external load positioning.  As Wes perfected DVOC, power company work became an increasing large part of Columbia’s business.  This included not only power line construction but also power line maintenance and even measuring mountaintop snow depths to predict future hydroelectric dam power output.  1962 was a great year for Wes Lematta and Columbia Helicopters.  Columbia was named a distributor for the Hughes 269A.  Wes’s brother Bill became the director of sales.  Columbia also moved from the Troutdale Airport to a brand new facility, the Swan Island heliport which was just three miles from downtown Portland.  Also in 1962, Wes was approached by a group of Japanese businessmen about using helicopters to do logging in Alaska.  Ultimately Wes had to concede that his helicopters were not powerful enough to accomplish the task but he would not give up entirely on the idea of heli-logging.  Construction jobs continued to become more and more of a staple of Columbia’s business.  Columbia purchased a Bell 204-B capable of lifting 3,000 pounds and then a Sikorsky S-58 capable of lifting 4,000 pounds.  With these additions to its fleet, lifting heavier and more complex loads became possible.  Under Wes Lematta’s guidance, Columbia quickly put itself at the front of the helicopter construction and heavy lift industry.

The year 1966 was especially bad for forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.  Wes and his brother Jim were discussing how another helicopter operator was using belly pans on the bottom of its helicopters to drop water.  The process was slow due to the fact that the helicopters had to repeatedly land and get water pumped into the pans.  They quickly realized that by using their 200 gallon concrete bucket on an external line they could dunk the bucket in a pond or stream and fill it up quicker than a belly pan.  They rigged the concrete bucket’s clam shells doors to a hydraulic line to allow the pilot to control the doors, connected the bucket to the S-58 and began fighting fires, a job that Columbia still does to this day.  In 1967 Columbia purchased a brand new Sikorsky S-61 at a cost of over $500,000.  Wes Lematta went out on a limb financially with this purchase but he was sure that there would be a market for the lifting capability of this aircraft.  The S-61 was the most powerful helicopter available at the time and had two 1,500 horsepower turbine engines capable of lifting 8,000 pounds at sea level or 4,000 pounds at 12,000 feet.  Jim Lematta quickly put the S-61 to work on construction line jobs high in the Rocky Mountains.  The increased payload of the S-61 allowed Columbia helicopters to develop a 900 gallon fire bucket.  The acquisition of the S-61 was already proving to be a good investment when in 1971 it opened the eyes of an entire industry to the utility of the helicopter.  That year Wes partnered with another future helicopter pioneer named Jack Erickson.  Wes and Columbia Helicopters came to together with Erickson and Erickson Lumber to make history.  The S-61, flown by Jim Lematta, successfully harvested trees from a Northern California forest in what became the first successful commercial helicopter logging operation.  Lematta and Erickson would team up again later that year with a rented Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane to once again prove that heli-logging was commercially viable.  Lematta and Erickson parted ways, with Erickson eventually establishing Erickson Air Crane.  Wes Lematta created an entire forestry department at Columbia Helicopters which has successfully logged all over the United States, Canada and even as far away as Malaysia, Chile and New Zealand.  By 1985, Columbia had been logging for 15 years and in that time Columbia helicopters had harvested nearly two billion board feet.  This would build enough three bedroom houses for a city the size of Dallas, TX or fill enough log trucks to go end to end from Portland, OR to New York City and half way back (Petersen, Vezmar & Skinner, 2007).

In 1969 Wes Lematta would make one of the most important decisions that he ever made for Columbia Helicopters.  Upon hearing that New York Airways was looking to sell its fleet of Boeing Vertol 107s, Wes decided that Columbia would make an offer.  Over the next several years Wes purchased all seven of New York Airways’ helicopters.  With 3,000 horsepower and the ability to lift 10,000 pounds, these aircraft have become the work horse of the Columbia fleet.  107s have successfully logged, fought fires and moved oil rigs in remote locations around the world.  In addition to these jobs the 107s have performed many one of a kind operations made possible not only by the aircraft’s unique capabilities but also by the many dedicated pilots and maintenance personnel who have become experts on these airframes.  Some of these operations include towing a hover barge over broken ice off shore in Alaska, providing famine relief in Sudan and testing an experimental skyscraper rescue device which used a 1000 foot long line (Petersen, Vezmar & Skinner, 2007).  Eventually more 107s were purchased from various entities including the Governments of Thailand, Sweden and Canada.  The increase in aircraft and the maintenance needed to support these aircraft led Columbia helicopters to move off of Swan Island in 1976.  A new facility was built at the Aurora State Airport, in Aurora, OR about 25 miles outside of Portland.  In 1984 Columbia purchased two Boeing Chinook Model 234s from British Airways Helicopters.  These helicopters can be likened to the big brother of the 107.  Capable of lifting 28,000 pounds, the Model 234 is ideally suited for performing the most demanding logging and heavy lift jobs on the planet.  Several more Model 234 Chinooks were later purchased from British International Helicopters and Trump Air.  Columbia Helicopters went so far as to develop its own in house maintenance program to support the 234s and 107s.  Not only can Columbia do complete tear down and rebuilds on its own aircraft but it also does contract maintenance work for several major aircraft manufactures and the United States Army.  Columbia Helicopters now holds Type and Production certificates for the 234 and 107 airframes allowing them to continue to support these out of production aircraft while modify and improving components and converting other airframes.  Today the active Columbia helicopter fleet stands at seven Columbia Model 234 Chinooks and fourteen Columbia Vertol 107s.  Complimenting the helicopters are two King Air airplanes which are used to transport personnel and parts, including rotor blades which can be carried in a special exterior compartment.  There are roughly 700 pilots, maintainers and support personnel that keep Columbia helicopters flying around the clock and around the world.   

Wes Lematta stepped down as the president of Columbia Helicopters in 1992 but continued to be very involved with the company, the Portland community and the helicopter community.  Lematta served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors until he passed away in late 2009.  After his passing, Wes’s wife Nancy succeeded him as the Chairman of the Board.  Wes’s brother Jim Lematta still serves on the Columbia Helicopters Board of Directors and several of his children work for Columbia.  Wes Lematta has been widely recognized in the helicopter community for the great vision and perseverance that he first showed as a teenager hauling wood to make ends meet.  In 1990, Wes was awarded the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) Lawrence D. Bell Award for helicopter management leadership.  The citation noted Lematta’s “vision, professionalism and unbending dedication to safety in all operations” and how he “not only demonstrated the many uses of the helicopter, but also eased the way for other industry entrepreneurs (Jensen, 2003).”  Other awards include the Pathfinder Award from the Boeing Museum of Flight and HAI’s Honorary Lifetime Membership Award.  Wes and his wife have also been widely recognized as great philanthropists in both the helicopter and local Portland communities. Wes and Nancy made a major contribution to help start the Helicopter Foundation International in 1983 along with donations to several Portland area hospitals.  The Lematta’s also donated three million dollars to a Portland area cancer center and one million dollars to the Oregon State University College of Forestry to endow the Lematta Professor of Forest Engineering (Brown, 2009).  In 2009, Oregon State Lawmakers voted to designate Columbia Helicopters home airfield Wes Lematta Field at Aurora State Airport.

If you had asked Wes Lematta what made Columbia Helicopters so successful he would have told you it was the people.  Lematta credited his brother Ed (who lent him the money for the first helicopter) as the real founder of the company.  Wes also made sure to note that the many dedicated pilots, maintenance personnel and support staff were the reason that Columbia was able to seamlessly complete many very complex and demanding jobs.  If you ask the employees of Columbia Helicopters what made the company so successful they will tell you it was Wes Lematta.  There seems to be unanimous agreement among the Columbia employees that Wes Lematta’s leadership was the key.  Undoubtedly Lematta’s determination and integrity have purveyed the company allowing it to operate a unique fleet in some of the most remote areas that helicopters go.  Today Columbia Helicopters is one of the premier helicopter operators in the world thanks to its founder, Wes Lematta, a true Rotorcraft Pioneer.  

Bernstein, M. (2009, December 24). Founder of Columbia Helicopters dies. Retrieved
September 13, 2010 from http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/ founder_of_columbia_aviation_d.html

Brown, C. (2009, December 24). Former Philanthropist of the Year Lematta dies. The
Columbian.  Retrieved October 1, 2010 from http://www.columbian.com/news
2009/dec/24/former-first citizen-dies/

Jensen, F. (2003, Fall). HFI Interview with Wes Lematta. Rotor Magazine. pp. 50-53.
Petersen, J., Vezmar, J. & Skinner, D. (2007). Flying Finns: Columbia Helicopters the
First Fifty Years. Portland, OR: Columbia Helicopters and the Evergreen