The World of Fast-Paced, High-Stakes Helicopter Flying with Ed ‘Skeeter’ Russell

The World of Fast-Paced, High-Stakes Helicopter Flying with Ed ‘Skeeter’ Russell

Meet Ed ‘Skeeter‘ Russell, an adrenaline-loving helicopter pilot and CEO on a mission to make the aviation industry more adventurous.

After a chance encounter with a helicopter pilot back in 2008, while jumping snowmobiles in the backcountry of Whistler, British Columbia, Russell decided he wanted to become a helicopter pilot as well. ‘‘I’m ready to break my legs on a ramp, and a guy shows up with a helicopter, four girls and a hot chocolate, sitting there with a pair of aviators on and I’m thinking, ‘I’m in the wrong line of work,’ ’’ he remembers.

Today, Russell is the CEO of Hunter Helicopters, a professional aviation business based in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. The company offers a wide range of services, from aerial shade paint applications for greenhouses to unique custom VIP experiences such as flying customers to ice caves or remote hot springs.

Love At First Flight: Aviation School to Hunter Helicopters

Russell began his journey at Hunter Helicopters over a decade ago, shortly after he purchased his first aircraft: an MD-500 helicopter that complements his aggressive flying style. ‘‘It has a fully articulated rotor system. It kind of moves around like a hummingbird compared to some of the other machines (we call them pickup trucks). I chose it because of the rotor head, because I could fly it the way that I wanted to fly,“ he notes.

Back then, Russell was still in aviation school studying to get his pilot's certification. ‘‘When I bought that helicopter, I leased it to the gentleman that started Hunter Helicopters. So, it was a win/win for me because I could lease my machine to a high-time pilot, I could learn from him, and then go to school and kind of start out as a shop floor guy and help out,’’ he recalls. As the years went by, and his time on the machine increased, he began to invest in Hunter Helicopters until eventually, he bought the company entirely.

A self-professed thrill-seeker and adrenaline junkie, Russell was initially drawn to helicopter flying by his passion for stunts. However, he cautions that helicopter flying isn’t necessarily an ideal career path for everyone interested in aviation. “I think if you were to choose a career in fixed-wing or maybe become a pilot for a Boeing 747 or a commercial airline, you would have better benefits, maybe a little less stress in your day to day operations. Financially, you’d make more as an airline pilot, your paychecks are a little more standard, you’re getting more air time, but it’s not keeping you on your toes. For me, that’s why I chose helicopters over fixed-wing. And then, in the helicopter industry, I picked something that’s even more aggressive than flying trips or tours,” he explains.

Flying A Fixed-Wing Aircraft vs Flying A Helicopter

In general, flying a helicopter requires both an appetite and an aptitude for stealth. Russell says this is especially true when applying shade paint to greenhouses. This type of work involves flying fast, among a lot of noise and distractions, plus highly unpredictable conditions. ‘‘I’m going through about 70 gallons of product in three minutes. I’m landing every three minutes for five hours straight, and it’s takeoffs and landings which are another high-stress part of the job. A fixed-wing pilot might pull out of Denver, fly for a couple of hours and then land. They’re building a lot of time, three to four hours in the air, one landing, one takeoff. I’m landing every three minutes. And I’m usually landing in not so perfect parameters. The wind isn’t always exactly on my nose, or I have to land on top of a dolly or a truck to get re-loaded.”

This type of aviation work requires a certain level of focus and coordination. And, there are other things to look out for while on the job (such as wires and power lines) that can pose a serious threat. “Statistically, wires kill a lot of helicopter pilots. It could be a wire across a river you didn’t expect, or power lines you can’t see on your map,” warns Russell. “Say I have three sets of wire around a greenhouse. I have to fly over one set, under the next, over one set, under the next. Then all of a sudden, a mosquito lands on your face and you try to itch it—you’re suddenly three-seconds away from hitting those wires. So it’s a high-stress, high-paced job,” he explains.

The Process: How Hunter Helicopters Applies Shade Paint to a Greenhouse

Using two loaders on the ground, Russell lands every three minutes. The loader runs up and replaces the fuel so that he has enough to stay safe on his turns without starving one side of his fuel tank. Once refueled, Russell takes off for another round of spraying. During this process, he stays in communication with the loaders via radio so that if there’s something he needs to be aware of, such as a bird or a wire, he’s notified right away. ‘‘Any small thing can become catastrophic when you’re five feet off the top of a glass greenhouse,’’ he says.

The client specifies the amount of shade paint to spray on each greenhouse depending on what crops they are growing. And sometimes, ‘‘they’ll even tell me while greenhouse one, two, and three are 60%, greenhouse four, five and half of greenhouse six is 20%. So we’ll put a marker up somewhere on the field, and then I’ll know when I’m flying, that’s where I stop the shade paint,’’ says Russell. Typically, the greenhouses Hunter Helicopters spray contain things like peppers, tomatoes, and flowers, and the job size usually ranges from 5-50 acres.

At the beginning of each summer, Hunter Helicopters applies shade paint to greenhouses, which stays on for the whole season. Then, when the temperatures start dropping and the days start getting shorter, a 100% eco-friendly, biodegradable soap is sprayed on the top of the glass. The soap creates a chemical reaction with the shade paint, so that when it rains or is sprayed with water, the paint washes off completely.

Necessities: In-Air Must-Haves for Flying Safe from Takeoff to Touchdown

When it comes to tools for keeping himself and the team at Hunters Helicopters safe from lift-off to landing, Russell is keen on two vital things: a comfortable and quality noise-canceling headset, and a pair of expertly-crafted Method Seven flight glasses. “Tons of technology has gone into noise-canceling headsets, better headsets, better foams, more comfortable stuff. But it wasn’t until I was introduced to Method Seven that I actually saw people bringing that type of technology into sunglasses: the science of light with notch filtering. It’s just been wonderful to work with,’’ he says.

Two of Russell’s favorite frames are the Ascent Aviators and the Altitude Wrap. He loves them because “the lenses are great, the glasses are comfortable. My temples aren’t getting uncomfortable with the frames. So I’m super happy with them,’’ he emphasizes.

As a pilot who flies under VFR (visual flight rule), Russell’s eyesight is all he has. It’s essential for him to be able to see the ground and any potential obstacles at all times. ‘‘178 seconds is a number that is burned into my brain,” he says. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 178 seconds is the average amount of time that a pilot can expect to live after losing visibility. “It’s not very long. So your eyes are everything when you’re flying. You can’t take sunglasses on and off every time you do a pedal turn,” Russell continues. “You have to rely on your eyewear.’’

For Russell, aviation sunglasses are tools that help him stay focused in the air. He says that being a helicopter pilot is “noisy, you’ve got a turbine engine roaring behind you, noise-canceling headset or not, sound is getting in. And after six to seven hours of doing this, fatigue is a major concern for us.” Cheap sunglasses, Russell insists, can lead to tired eyes. “When you don’t have to worry about your eyes straining for hours,” he says, “it’s priceless.’’

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