Wes Lematta: Gentleman and Visionary
Wes Lematta was a man with a vision. Shortly after he learned to fly helicopters, he recognized that the helicopter was capable of more than just moving people. Based on this idea, Wes created the heavy-lift helicopter industry and many of the methods and tools used by the industry today.
After serving in the US Army infantry in WWII, Wes developed an urge to learn to fly and, using GI Bill funding, took helicopter lessons in 1954. Three years later, with the financial help of his brother Ed and sister-in-law Vivian, Wes purchased his first helicopter, a used Hiller 12B. Always looking forward, Wes registered his new company in 1957 as a plural – Columbia Helicopters. He never expected to own just one helicopter.
Working initially from his backyard, Wes began his company by selling rides from street corners and at county fairs. In the fall of 1957, Wes gained national recognition when he effected the dramatic rescue of 15 seamen from a sinking US Army Corp of Engineers dredge in Coos Bay, Oregon, using his Hiller 12B. Wes plucked the sailors off the dredge one by one, often clinging to the skids of the helicopter. The local notoriety Wes earned in that incident helped establish the business and it soon began to flourish.
In 1959, Wilson Construction Company of Portland hired Columbia to transport and place wood poles for a power transmission line in the Columbia Gorge near Umatilla. This project afforded Wes the opportunity to try out a new method of external load placement. By leaning out the left side of the helicopter and using a longer attachment line for additional visibility under the aircraft, Wes was able to look directly at the load and the placement site. Wes called this technique, which proved successful, Direct Visual Operational Control or DVOC method and literally revolutionized the helicopter industry. Every helicopter company worldwide that is engaged in helicopter logging, construction, firefighting and onshore oil exploration support has adopted this technique for the safe, precision placement of external loads.
In 1962, Columbia moved from Troutdale to the new downtown Portland Heliport at Swan Island and added a flight school shortly thereafter. Continued growth and success enabled the company to acquire a larger Sikorsky S-58 and also its first heavy lift aircraft, a Sikorsky S-61. The acquisition of the S-61 was the first time anyone had ever purchased a large commercial helicopter with no intention of carrying passengers, and an industry was born. The company used the S-61 primarily for construction, and began helicopter firefighting operations in the late 1960s after developing an improvised bucket for that helicopter.
To close out the decade, a new era in the growth of Columbia occurred in 1969 with the purchase of three tandem rotor Boeing Vertol 107-II helicopters from Pan American Airways. This acquisition was followed in the 1972 with the purchase of four additional Vertol 107s from New York Airways. The company’s motto became “The Powerful Difference” and began the continuing era of tandem rotor helicopter operations for Columbia.
Like most fledgling helicopter companies, Columbia wasn’t able to afford to have other companies conduct their aircraft maintenance. As a result, Wes’ employees began developing and expanding Columbia’s internal maintenance support capabilities. Internal maintenance shops were created that would eventually make the company primarily independent of OEM support.
The 1970s were stellar years for Wes’ company, full of growth and innovations. Early work with the Boeing fleet included projects on Alaska’s North Slope, in the development of the Prudhoe Bay oil facilities and in ski lift and powerline construction.
For Columbia’s first big overseas project in 1971, two BV-107s were airlifted to Papua New Guinea for oil rig move and support work, first for Texaco and then for Australasian Petroleum Company. Additional major projects included two 107s working in the Peruvian Amazon for various customers in 1975 and 1976.
In 1971, Columbia participated with Erickson Logging Company in the first helicopter logging project – Wes Lematta supplied the helicopter and Jack Erickson provided the timber. Later that year, Columbia proved the long-term economic feasibility of helilogging using the newly acquired Sikorsky S-61. Starting in 1972 and throughout the 1970s, the company experienced substantial growth by employing the Vertol 107s in helilogging. The DVOC method was ideally suited to enable the high level of productivity needed to make helilogging economically viable. During the 1970s and 1980s Columbia came to dominate the US and Canadian helilogging industry, producing more timber volume than all other helilogging companies combined.
Throughout the 1970s, Columbia acquired more Vertol 107s, and finally outgrew the Swan Island facility. The company moved to the lightly used Aurora Airport in 1976, where Columbia Helicopters owns and uses approximately 30 acres to this day. The company’s maintenance program also expanded to support the growing fleet, growing to include specialized shops for individual components and systems on the aircraft.
Helifor and Columbia Helicopters have had a relationship that began in the 1970s, well preceding the company’s acquisition of Helifor. Once the aviation arm of International Forest Products (Interfor) in Canada, Helifor leased aircraft from Columbia Helicopters to conduct logging and external lift operations across the country. Columbia Helicopters provided maintenance support throughout the year, with Helifor’s pilots and mechanics conducting the day-to-day operations.
The company dramatically enhanced and expanded the Columbia fleet of tandem rotor aircraft with the purchase of their first Boeing 234 Chinook in 1985. The company acquired that Chinook and subsequent aircraft from British International Airways, which had used them for offshore oil exploration operations. Columbia also acquired a Model 234 Chinook directly from Boeing.
Petroleum exploration support projects had slowed during the 70s, and didn’t pick back up until Columbia went to Sudan for a four-year project for Chevron from 1981–1984. The company also resumed operations in PNG in 1982. Since then, oil support has grown to become one of the most significant contributors to overall Columbia success.
In 1985, Columbia won a competitive contract with the Department of States’ USAID. The project called for helicopters to provide famine relief operations in Sudan. Columbia rapidly deployed three 107s via USAF C-5 to Khartoum, where the aircraft were re-assembled and flown to Nyala in Darfur Province. During 100 days of operations, the aircraft flew over 2,600 hours and delivered over 8 million pounds of food and medical supplied to the people of that region. The entire company took justifiable pride in this massive effort to provide humanitarian relief to the famine-stricken people of Sudan.
Growth in the company’s fleet and global operations again resulted in the expansion of Columbia’s maintenance facility. In addition to the larger helicopters, the company owned and operated a number of smaller helicopters, used for passenger work or logging support/training. Partly as result, the company opened a Bell service center, creating the foundation for growth in external customer maintenance support.
The 1990s saw growth continue across the various industries supported by Columbia Helicopters. While there were few new innovations, the company did build up its fleet, obtaining Model 234 Chinooks from Helikopter Services of Norway and Trump Airways, and Vertol 107-IIs from Sweden. The acquisitions made Columbia Helicopters the world’s only operator of these tandem rotor aircraft.
In the early 1990s, to support the growing fleet of Vertol 107-II helicopters, the company recognized the need to conduct more of its own maintenance on the General Electric CT-558, the engines that powered these helicopters. After acquiring the necessary tools and equipment, Columbia underwent certification and became a GE Service Center. The company is still a service center today, and is one of the top maintenance facilities in the world for this engine and related accessories.
Columbia Helicopters became synonymous with operating tandem rotor aircraft, so it was something of a surprise when the company acquired six Sikorsky CH-54A “Tarhes” in May 1993. Of the six, Columbia refurbished and donated to the Nevada Army National Guard as a monument and only one ever flew on any operations for the company. The aircraft, parts and tools were eventually sold to Erickson Aircrane.
Columbia Helicopters also continued to offer maintenance services to external customers, including service on light helicopters and airplanes. For customers with larger helicopters, certain shops within the company provided repair or overhaul services for engines and other components.
In October 2003, Columbia’s MRO station achieved AS9100 Certification, an aviation quality management system. The company has continued to expand and strengthen these certifications, confirming that Columbia’s maintenance employees were working to the highest standards.
In late 2006, Columbia acquired the type certificates for the 107 and the 234 from the Boeing Company. This meant that the company assumed ownership of the engineering data used to build, maintain and upgrade these helicopters. This affords the engineering department the ability and authority to make major modifications and improvements to their aircraft to meet the current and future requirements of their customers. It also gives them the ability to reconfigure lower time airframes to the type design of the aircraft and thereby expand their fleet. The subsequent development of the Production Certificate allowed the production of all parts for both aircraft. In the future, Columbia could develop the Production Certificate for the actual manufacturing of the aircraft itself.
In May 2009, the Oregon State Legislature passed a resolution identifying the airport as Wes Lematta Field at Aurora State Airport. Later that year, Wes passed away, leaving an amazing company and a significant aviation legacy. The Lematta family continues to own Wes’ company to this day.
When logging work went into a steep decline late in the 2000s, company management made the decision to pursue military support work with the US Department of Defense. Four Vertol 107-II and one Model 234 Chinook helicopters were converted and certified for passenger and cargo capabilities, and the company underwent the Cargo Airlift Review Board (CARB) certification process. Upon the successful completion of this process, Columbia bid on, and received, contracts from the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) to support military operations in Afghanistan. Beginning in July 2011, Columbia field managers and crews have distinguished themselves in providing safe, professional helicopter services to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan at an operating tempo that exceeds historic expectations. Missions are non-tactical in nature and include personnel transport, mail and both internal and external cargo loads. The US military is so pleased by Columbia pilot expertise with DVOC and external load management that they have dubbed it “L2P2”, (long line precision placement).
Early in the 2010s, Columbia Helicopters began working on components and small repair projects for the Australian Defense Force (ADF). In 2012, the company began conducting full-ship maintenance for the ADF, including sending Columbia’s maintenance teams to Germany and Afghanistan in 2012, and to Afghanistan and Australia in 2013. In June 2014, the ADF certified Columbia Helicopters as an Approved Maintenance Organization (AMO).
While the company had maintained the engines for the Model 234 Chinook helicopters for many years, Columbia made the commitment to open a Honeywell Service Center. The company received certification for the 712 series turbine engine in 2012, and for the 714 series engine in 2013.
In 2014, Columbia Helicopters once again saw a way to expand their fleet of heavy-lift helicopters. Throughout 2014-2015, the company acquired eleven Boeing CH-47D Chinook helicopters through a purchase of surplus government property. Columbia has begun operating two these aircraft, with plans to fly more of them in the future.
Since the 1960s, Columbia Helicopters has been actively involved in fighting wildland fires. Through these four decades, the company successfully fought fires using a variety of buckets suspended below the helicopters. In 2015, Columbia decided to expand their firefighting capabilities, using the newly acquired CH-47D Chinook helicopters. Working with Simplex Aerospace, the company developed a 2,800-gallon internal tank for the Chinook, which will allow the aircraft to fight fire surrounding urban areas. The system, which also includes a separate short-term retardant tank, can fill in under 90 seconds and drop the full load of water in just a few seconds. Depending on the requirements of the Incident Commander on a fire, Columbia’s crews can quickly switch between the tank and a bucket. This makes the Columbia CH-47D one of the most versatile aircraft on the fire lines.
Throughout the 2010s, Columbia’s MRO program has expanded to include significantly more maintenance for militaries around the world. The company’s knowledge and experience in flying and maintaining Chinook helicopters proved to be a significant factor for military operators of the same aircraft. Columbia opened a secure military maintenance facility at the company’s headquarters in Aurora, capable of depot level maintenance. The company has also deployed crews to Afghanistan, Australia and Morocco to conduct or complete maintenance projects.
Enhancing the Type Certificates and Production Certificates and Columbia’s internal and outside maintenance capabilities is the company’s quality control system. In 2010, Columbia added even higher quality standards with the AS9110 Certification and in 2012 the AS9100/9110C Certification. These certificates form the backbone of their quality-control system and signify the unwavering commitment of Columbia to safety and quality