A Gentleman with a Vision
It seems so simple to state that Wes Lematta had a vision and created an industry; that he believed that helicopters could be used for more than moving people, and so the birth of the commercial heavy-lift helicopter industry was born.
However, it took a great deal more than just Wes' foresight to realize his dreams. It also took more than the hard work of him and his family, and his practice of finding exceptional people to support him.
Simply put, it took Wes' personality and character to create his industry and to build his then-tiny company into the world-class organization that it is today.
Wes Lematta, founder and Chairman of the Board of Columbia Helicopters, passed away on December 24, 2009 following a period of illness. A pioneer in the business of helicopter operations, he was 83.
"There is no one I know who better embodied the spirit of a pioneer in helicopter aviation than Wes," said Columbia Helicopters' President, Mike Fahey.
"Wes had a vision that helicopters were capable of so much more than carrying passengers, so he created the heavy-lift helicopter industry through determination, skill and strength of character."
Glenn Wesley Lematta was born on the family farm in North Dakota on April 29, 1926. He and his family moved west while he was still a child, settling within the Finnish community that grew up around Brush Prairie, Washington.
Wes was the third of four boys, preceded by older brothers Bill and Ed and followed by Jim. He also had two sisters, Evelyn and Mabel.
Wes first realized he wanted to fly while sitting in a foxhole in the Philippines during WWII, watching fighter pilots fly overhead. Following the war, he drove a truck and worked as a longshoreman until he heard there was a need for helicopter pilots.
Using his GI Bill educational benefits, he learned to fly from Dean Johnson in McMinville, Oregon.
To say that Columbia Helicopters was a family business is something of an understatement. Ed assisted Wes in the founding of the company and Bill worked there also, both of whom Wes taught to fly.
The youngest of the four Lematta brothers, Jim, also flew extensively with the company, served as Columbia's Vice President of Safety, and remains active on Columbia Helicopters' Board of Directors.
Wes's wife of 47 years, Nancy, also took her turn helping Wes build his company, often cleaning the offices during the early years. Nancy began taking a more active interest in the management of the company well before Wes' health began to fail, and she has assumed the role of Chairman of the Board.
Wes began Columbia Helicopters in 1957 with a single, small helicopter that he purchased with assistance from his brother Ed. The name of his company was always a plural, even when he had just the single helicopter.
The brothers sold rides at county fairs and from street corners on weekends.
A Gentleman and a Visionary
Knowing that success might always be just around the corner, from the earliest days of the company Wes continually promoted the versatility of helicopters. Today, after over 50 years in the helicopter business, Wes' accomplishments and contributions to the industry are still nothing short of amazing.
In September 1957, just six months after starting his company, Wes rescued 15 sailors from a sinking dredge in Coos Bay, Oregon – one of the largest single-handed rescues ever to that point.
In 1959, during an external-load operation while flying a Hiller 12B with dual controls, Wes recognized he that was better able to properly complete the project if he looked down at the load instead of relying on radio contact with the ground. This was the first use of Direct Visual Operational Control (DVOC), which is used through the heavy-lift industry to this day.
Always a gentleman who believed in a professional appearance, Wes would often wear a suit and tie while flying on early construction projects. His family says that he never owned a pair of jeans.
In 1967, Wes was the first person to acquire a large helicopter – a Sikorsky S-61 – solely for use in construction projects, which resulted in the creation of the heavy-lift helicopter industry. Wes had also long believed that helicopters could be used for logging operations, a vision he realized in 1969 using a Sikorsky S-61 on a logging project for Jack Erickson. As a result, both Columbia Helicopters and Erickson Aircrane both lay claim to the title of being the first successful heliloggers.
Soon, others began to follow quite literally in Wes' footsteps, and today other heavy-lift helicopter companies like Erickson Aircrane, HTS, Evergreen Helicopters and Carson Helicopters all have their headquarters or facilities in Oregon.
Also in 1969, Wes acquired the first of his tandem-rotor aircraft, helicopters that would become virtually synonymous with Columbia Helicopters. First purchased from Pan Am and New York Airways, the Boeing and Kawasaki built Vertol 107-IIs became the backbone of the company's fleet.
Eventually, Columbia Helicopters became the world's only commercial operator of the Vertol 107-II and Model 234 Chinook helicopters. The company acquired the Type Certificates for these aircraft in December 2006, and Production Certificates for in the autumn of 2009. These aircraft are now designated as Columbia 107-IIs and Columbia Model 234 Chinooks.
Pilot and Chemist
Over the years, as his company grew, Wes followed the practices of hundreds of others by doing his best to hire the very best people. He then gave them the autonomy to do the work they felt was necessary to help build Columbia Helicopters, and repeatedly made sure his employees got most of the credit for the company's success.
Consequently, the chemistry between Wes and his team of all-stars was strong enough to build his company to where, today, Columbia Helicopters is the world-leader in commercial heavy-lift helicopter operations.
While his company was initially run by him and his brothers, it currently employs over 800 people world-wide. Wes' fleet of heavy-lift helicopters remain active in construction projects, fighting wild fires, government support, disaster relief, forestry and supporting petroleum exploration operations in some of the most remote, rugged parts of the world.
Following his vision, his company remains a leader in helicopter forestry operations, one of the most environmentally sensitive forms of timber harvesting.
"Even though he was a giant in the industry and had incredible vision, Wes always credited his employees for the success of his company," said Fahey. "I know I speak for all of our employees when I say that he was a deeply respected, honorable gentleman. We will miss him."
Over the years, many groups and organizations recognized Wes' achievements, and bestowed upon him honors and recognitions for his contributions to the helicopter industry. These included the Helicopter Association International's (HAI) Honorary Lifetime Achievement award as well as their Lawrence D. Bell Memorial award for Leadership.
He also claimed the HAI Operators Safety Award (multiple times), the Pathfinder Award presented by the Boeing Museum of Flight, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Air Medal, the American Helicopter Society William J. Kossler U.S. Coast Guard Award, and others. Wes and wife Nancy were also locally and regionally recognized for their outstanding philanthropic work, based on their contributions to many educational, civic and charitable organizations, including Oregon State University, Providence Portland Medical Center, Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center, Doernbecher Children's Hospital, the arts and sponsor of two classes for the "I Have A Dream" organization in Vancouver, Washington.
In June of 2009, Wes was honored by the Oregon State Legislature, who voted to rename the Aurora State Airport in his honor. The site of his company's headquarters, the airport now bears the additional name of "Wes Lematta Field".