• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram
  • Youtube
Helicopter Flight Training Sponsors

PASSING THE BAR - Brim Aviation Transports Columbia River Bar Pilots

Posted 8 years 221 days ago ago by Admin


It’s known as The Graveyard of the Pacific and the infamous name fits.    Since records have been kept, its treacherous waves, winds, fog, and currents have claimed more than 2,000 ships and 700 lives. It is where a river intent on disgorging its contents clashes with a massive ocean determined not to yield to the lesser water. A titanic fight ensues in never-ending combat: The river spews out water and sediments while the ocean lashes back, trying to invade the river with a fury that belies its tranquil name. It’s the Columbia River Bar, and it takes a special breed of not only boat pilots—but also helicopter pilots—to safely navigate through this natural war.


Becoming a Bar Pilot

While the first Columbia River Bar “pilot” was a Chinook tribal chief named Comcomly, who guided sailing ships through the shallows in his canoe as early as 1795, the requirements have become more rigorous since then. Since 1846, all ships engaged in foreign trade must take on a Columbia River Bar Pilot licensed by the State of Oregon to navigate the vessels through the Columbia River Bar.

Obtaining that license requires much more experience than passing the better-known law bar. Each of these special bar pilots holds an unlimited tonnage Master Mariner’s license. This means they must have sailed as master for at least two years on ships of at least 5,000 gross tons. It’s one of the highest licensing standards in the United States, and applicants typically have 15 to 25 years of experience. Then, to obtain a federal bar pilotage endorsement on that master license, along with passing other tests, applicants by memory have to draw the Columbia River entrance and write out a complete list of navigational lights along the stretch. If they pass and are accepted, then the pilots must complete a minimum of 100 crossings with a licensed bar pilot, and pilot independently on many of those crossings.

A Fatal Misstep

A testament to the selectivity of all these requirements is that there are only about 20 Columbia River Bar pilots. By the time a pilot is fully ready and licensed, the mariners are well past the age of most professional athletes. Yet, they must regularly exhibit strenuous athletic agility just to get to their assignment. One of their riskiest endeavors is getting aboard the ships they must pilot.

Traditionally, pilots have been transported to and from the ships they navigate by boat. While at first this might not seem overly risky, actually such transport is fraught with danger. It is common for pilots to climb up and down 50 to 80 foot rope ladders while embarking and debarking. A misstep can be unforgiving, as this excerpt from a few years ago solemnly shows:      

Capt. Kevin Murray’s colleagues and friends officially said goodbye this last week at a memorial service overlooking the Columbia River. It was a sailor’s send off with flowered wreaths cast upon the water and eight bells rung for the symbolic end of a watch.

Capt. Murray was the Columbia River Bar Pilot who was lost January 9 when he failed to make the transfer from the cargo ship Dry Beam to the pilot boat Chinook at night, in 18 foot seas and 40 knot winds. Murray’s body was found two days later when it washed up on Copalis Beach, north of Gray’s Harbor on the Washington Coast.
(From “Graveyard of the Pacific; Gateway to the Northwest” by Russel Sadler on BlueOregon.com)

A Better Way

Brim Aviation of Ashford, Oregon, believes they have a better way than boat transport. Founded in 1992, the company provides many services with their rotorcraft fleet: power line construction, firefighting, surveillance, aerial seeding and fertilization, mineral and seismic exploration, pipeline and utility construction, search and rescue … it’s a continuing and impressive list. Yet, among their offerings is the rather unique one of offshore hoisting of bar pilots from port-to-ship and ship-to-port.

Founder Burl Brim explains, “The reason this operation exists is because the bar has such high seas and winds that it becomes extremely dangerous to do the transfers with a boat. They tested using aircraft nearly 15 years ago and learned it’s safer and more efficient than transferring with boats. The boats will always be a part of the program and they do some transfers when aircraft can’t fly and there’s not enough visibility, but in the high seas and winds the helicopter is a transfer choice. The seas can be as high as 20 feet and winds as high as 50 knots.”

Another advantage of helicopter hoist transport is not only potentially saved lives, but also saved time. “A pilot boat carries a lot of time commitment to go to and from the ship,” says Darren Ellingwood, a Brim Aviation pilot. “By helicopter, we can have them out to the ship in 10 to 15 minutes.”


The pilot-hoisting program is serviced by an AW-109SP. “It’s a very late-model high-tech aircraft with lots of automation,” says Brim. The company has six pilots and six hoist operators/A&P mechanics in its hoisting program. At night the crew consists of two pilots and a hoist operator; in daytime a single pilot and hoist operator fly the mission.

The company conducts flights both to inbound ships out in the ocean that haven’t yet crossed the bar, and to outbound ships that have successfully crossed the bar. Inbound ships are approximately 20 miles offshore when the bar pilot is placed on them. Outbound ships are approximately seven miles offshore when the pilot is retrieved.

An average day for Brim Aviation is seven or eight transfers, with some days having as many as 20. A typical transfer outbound to a ship can be VFR, special VFR, or IFR, depending on weather. “Once we get established outbound pointing offshore, we’ll locate the ship on radar, track to it, talk to the ship, and find out its distance from the Columbia River buoy, get its course and its speed, and fly to it,” says Ellingwood. The flight begins with a cruising speed of 140 knots at a height of 500 to 700 feet, then when the aircraft is approximately five miles from the ship, it slows to about 120 knots, puts the gear down, and descends to about 300 feet, holding that height until it either breaks out or doesn’t find the ship. Within two-and-a-half miles of the ship, speed is reduced back through 90 knots, and within a mile it’s down through 70.  When the ship is spotted, it descends through 200 feet and shoots a fairly shallow approach from the ship to there.  

Once speed is down to 50 knots, the aircraft doors are opened. “We’ll open the door, talk to the pilot and hoist operator about where to put the pilot, and continue typically up to the port side of the ship,” says Ellingwood. “Once the pilot is hooked to the cable and out of his seatbelt and load-checked, the hoist operator directs the flying pilot into position and we do a dynamic hoist. From there, we do an instrument takeoff off the ship and either pick up a GPS approach coming back in, or a special VFR, or occasionally a VFR approach.”

Skills & Challenges

Even flying a “typical” mission is not easy, especially when weather changes on a whim and ships are rolling, pitching, yawing, and heaving on four axes of direction. Flight crew skills must be experienced and honed, even more so since much of the flying is in the dark. “We’re flying offshore at night into a black hole,” says pilot Bruce Jones. Prior to joining Brim Aviation, he spent 31 years in the Coast Guard, and constantly calls on those years of experience. “Skill sets required for this job are primarily a lot of night and instrument flight time and experience. We fly over the water at a low level often at night in very poor weather, as is typical for the Pacific Northwest. You have to be a really good instrument pilot; you have to be comfortable being at a low level and hovering near moving objects,” he says.

Jones describes how those “moving objects” on the water present unique challenges. “You’re trying to maintain position on an object that’s moving quite a bit. One challenge is figuring out what’s the best heading to put the ship on to minimize roll while keeping in mind wind.”  A stiff wind coming over the superstructure of the ship can create vortices going over the top that make it difficult for the pilot to maintain a steady hover.  

Meanwhile the hoist operator is trying to anticipate when the helicopter might start moving around as he attempts to safely transport the boat pilot. Jones says, “They’re using their depth perception, looking straight down to figure out when the bar pilot’s feet are going to hit the deck, and there may only be 4 feet of clearance between the rail and the green hatch, and there may be some other obstacles on the deck. So, for the hoist operator it’s very challenging, and for the helicopter pilot it’s very challenging.”

Another one of those challenges is ship structures. Many ships have large cranes, towers, antennae, and other items. “If a ship’s rolling 10 or 12 degrees, then those cranes that are sticking 60 to 70 feet up in the air are coming towards the helicopter quickly,” says Jones. Furthermore, at night it’s more difficult for the pilots to judge the relative motion of, and the distance to, these structures. “If you’re hovering next to the ship at night and the ship rolls towards you, you’re not really sure whether the ship’s rolling toward you or you’re drifting toward the ship. We have to be very mindful of what’s actually happening out there by just quickly glancing back and forth from the instruments in the aircraft to the ship itself and being aware before we begin the maneuver what the ship’s actually doing,” says Jones.

Then there is dealing with waves, not only their motion but also their timing. “Waves come in series frequently, so the ship may take three heavy rolls and you just have to be patient and wait, knowing that it’s going to settle out, maybe for only 10 seconds,” says Jones. “But in that 10 seconds, you move in over the ship, drop the bar pilot, and get out before it starts rolling again.”

The job sounds so quick, but the proud personnel of Brim Aviation have had years of experience to execute those 10 seconds. Operating in one of the most dangerous and unpredictable environments on the globe has taught them that the only thing that doesn’t change … is the constant challenge to stay safe.    
ColumbiaRiverBar_00_OPENER.jpg  ColumbiaRiverBar_02_HQ.jpg  ColumbiaRiverBar_03_Obstacles.jpg  ColumbiaRiverBar_04_bigboat.jpg  ColumbiaRiverBar_05_approach.jpg  ColumbiaRiverBar_06_Hoist3.jpg  ColumbiaRiverBar_07_Hoist1.jpg