Yukon helicopter pilot and wildlife crew have close call, then another

It's specialized work flying a helicopter at a low altitude in order to shoot a net over a moving caribou — and it's also potentially dangerous.

Yukon wildlife officials learned that earlier this year in a couple of close-call incidents. Both involved a weighted net that, when shot from a net gun, hit the helicopter's rotor blades in mid-air.

The wildlife technicians were out doing caribou research in March. From a helicopter with its side doors open, crews would act quickly to safely fire a net gun and immobilize the animals.

The crew would then land nearby, attach a radio collar to the caribou, take measurements and samples, then release the animal to rejoin the herd. It's part of Yukon government's wildlife management and monitoring programs.

But in early March, there seemed to be a malfunction with the net gun. The weighted net inadvertently contacted the main rotor of the helicopter.

It happened again a couple of weeks later. That time, the pilot felt a vibration from the main rotor.

Trans North Helicopters

"In both incidences, all staff and contractors on the flight were able to land safely and were not injured," said Diana Dryburgh-Moraal of Environment Yukon.

She says the first incident occurred west of Kusawa Lake, as researchers studied the Southern Lakes herd, and the second one east of Coldfoot, Alaska, when Yukon Environment staff were working with their Alaskan counterparts to monitor the Porcupine herd.

Dryburgh-Moraal says it had never happened before.

"The government of Yukon has been safely conducting thousands of aerial net-gun captures, starting from 1980 — and all of those have been without incident," she said.

James Rose of Trans North Helicopters, the company hired to fly the government workers this year, says the aircraft had a "vibration" in the second incident, but there were no issues with landing.  

"The pilot was lucky in a sense, he had a very manageable situation on his hands. When it comes to shooting the main rotor blade with a big chunk of lead, all bets are off," he said.

Trans North Helicopters

In both cases, the pilot had to immediately land the aircraft, inspect it, and then fly in a new main rotor blade.

Rose says the total damage could run as high as a quarter million dollars.

Yukon Environment says it's still in discussions with Trans North Helicopters about covering the cost of the damage, but nothing's been decided yet.

The government also says it is doing an independent investigation of what happened, and reviewing its wildlife research procedures.