May/June, 2002





Harvesting from Overhead

Heli-harvester inventor delivers an economical alternative to heli-logging in extreme conditions.

by Tony Kryzanowski

The heli-harvester's delimbing device delimbs standing timber from top to bottom.

The feller/buncher, the stroke delimber, the harvester/processor -these were all inventions that changed the direction of the world's forest industry. Now meet the next big invention for use particularly in steep slope logging, the 'heli-harvester'. It is now possible to economically delimb, fell, grapple and transport small- to medium-size standing timber -typically harvested using the traditional, labor intensive, heli-logging method-using a single tool called the heli-harvester. 

The entire process of flying a helicopter and operating a heli-harvester tool dangling below requires only one person: the helicopter pilot. And Timber/West is the first media outlet given full access to its research and development. Well-known Utah and Colorado heli-logger, Bob Chalifoux, invented this device that may change steep slope logging forever. 

He sold the world's first commercial heliharvester to helilogging company Canadian Air Crane in British Columbia, Canada for potential use in certain select harvesting applications in Weyerhaeuser's coastal BC timber stands. Both Canadian Air Crane and Weyerhaeuser were impressed with the heli-harvester's performance after witnessing a recent demonstration hosted by Chalifoux. 

He has been using his invention successfully for the past three years in his own business, developing and improving the product along the way, to the point where he's developed a light-, medium- and heavy-duty model. However, he recently decided it was time to launch the heli-harvester into the commercial market before someone else did, and created a company called Heli-Harvester, Inc.

Bob Chalifoux, inventor of the heli-harvester, watches the unit harvest standing timber through an observation bubble installed on his helicopter.

"It wasn't for sale until we talked about it and decided to start marketing it because if we didn't, someone else would copy it for sure," says Chalifoux. "We've received a patent for our heli-harvester in both the United States and Canada." He owns six medium-lift helicopters in his heli-logging and heli-portable seismic company and has worked for most forestry companies in parts of the U.S. and B.C. over the past seven years. 

The heli-portable seismic branch of his business serves the oil and gas industry, moving portable drilling rigs from one location to another. A number of forestry companies active in the Rocky Mountain States and American Northwest have traditionally used heli-logging as the only means of economically harvesting valuable timber situated on steep slopes and treacherous terrain. This type of logging usually requires a considerable labor force such as chainsaw operators, hookers, riggers and chokers to deliver timber to the landing. 

Essentially, the helicopter's role in this operation is simply to wait until forestry workers at ground level attach logs to cable tethers hanging from the helicopter, and then deliver them to the landing below. It's an expensive way to log, but often the only alternative given ground conditions. 

The heli-harvester begins to delimb a tree in the mountainous terrain of British Columbia.

Chalifoux does not foresee the heli-harvester displacing workers, because in many cases, forestry companies have already abandoned certain sites that can only be harvested using the traditional heli-logging method because of the expense. The heli-harvester will actually create a certain amount of employment, he says. 

Timber stands will still need to be investigated for harvesting potential, trees will still need to be marked to avoid harvesting inferior wood and chain saw operators will still be needed at the landing to ensure that a thorough delimbing job has been done. Furthermore, bigger timber will still offer a steady income for chainsaw operators, an environment in which they prefer to work anyway because it generates more income. 

The heli-harvester is available in a number of configurations - as a combination felling, delimbing and grapple unit or as individual felling or grappling units. Here is how it works. Once a target has been identified, the pilot maneuvers the helicopter so that the heli-harvester is positioned above the tree. Chalifoux's helicopters have been equipped with a special viewing bubble so that the pilot can lean over and observe the entire process as it happens. 

Using a control stick, the pilot operates the heli-harvester as it grabs the tree at the top, then delimbs it from top to bottom. Part of the heli-harvester's design includes a metal ring that encircles the top of the tree trunk, stopping the tree from falling during the delimbing and felling process. The tree is then grappled at the stump, while a saw performs the felling. 

The helicopter then lifts off and transports it to the landing. During the product's testing phase, Chalifoux noticed a number of huge advantages using the heli-harvester as opposed to conventional heli-logging, simply because the trees are harvested from a standing position versus lying on the ground. "You get great recovery using the heli-harvester for the simple reason that, normally when you fall the wood, you lose about 30 percent of the fiber due to shatter and breakage," he says. "Usually, the wood is falling in steep slopes, rock outcrops and things like that. Breakage even occurs on flat ground. 

With the heli-harvester, you can let the tree down gently and you recover about 30 percent more volume from that tree." He adds that this method also results in less wear and tear on the helicopter. "You are not dead lifting the tree from a slash pile and trying to rip it free from other trees," he says. "It's already in clean air because it is in a vertical position." Furthermore, this method also saves time, resulting in huge savings for forestry companies because of the expense inherent in the operation of a helicopter. 

With heli-logging, it is all about pounds harvested per hour. "A lot of your time in heli-logging is spent picking up the tree and trying to get it vertical," says Chalifoux. "With this method, you just drop your machine on the tree, cut it and, because you are already standing in clean air, you are gone." He is realistic about the product's worldwide potential, predicting that there is probably a market for about 100 heliharvesters worldwide. However, as it becomes more prevalent, forestry companies may find other economical uses for this device. For now, this technology represents a more cost-effective method of harvesting trees in specific circumstances. 

Among these are situations where the helicopter can fly less than a kilometer between the harvest zone and the landing. It also works well in steep slopes where it is too dangerous for chainsaw operators to work and where conventional falling could result in 50 percent breakage. Additionally, this method makes it possible for forestry companies to select harvest small- to medium-size timber in environmentally sensitive areas, as it has virtually no environmental impact because roads are required and the highest- grade trees be targeted. 

Finally, because heli-harvester logging targets standing timber, forestry companies are not hampered by ground conditions such as deep snow. Weather permitting, the heliharvester can operate productively year round, as opposed to the current heli-logging season, which is virtually shut down during the winter months. That, in fact, is what spurred Chalifoux to ponder the invention of a heli-harvester in the first place. He and his staff had plenty of time to ponder constructive alternatives to traditional heli-logging during the typically slow winter months. 

Initially, they developed a grapple device that would allow them to pick up trees knocked down by chainsaw operators below. "It was pretty efficient and worked quite well," says Chalifoux, "but in the winter time, there was always a problem with snow. You lose the wood under the snow, so you have to wait till next summer to fly the logs out. We thought that our next step would be to try to build a machine that actually delimbs and cuts the tree standing." After experimenting with sharpened pieces of pipe as a delimbing device, Chalifoux settled on chipper knives welded to the bottom of a ring because they consist of very sharp and rugged steel. With that problem solved, the next challenge was drafting a feasible saw design. 

"I came up with a fairly light saw, using a Hultdins sawblade," says Chalifoux. "Then I had to figure out how to supply horsepower at 30 gallons per minute and 3,000 psi to make it work. I had to find a power plant that was light enough and ended up using a snowmobile engine." It was ideal, he says, because a snowmobile engine produces 100 horsepower quite easily and is the lightest alternative when considering power-to-weight ratio. 

It runs both the saw and the hydraulics. A number of safety features are built into the heli-harvester's system, including an engine kill switch in case of a heli-harvester engine malfunction or a blown hydraulic hose. In a worst case scenario, the entire heli-harvester can be jettisoned from the helicopter. Chalifoux says the cost of a heli-harvester is comparable to conventional felling heads. 

Installation is the customer's responsibility, and staff at Chalifoux's heli-logging company can provide operator training. At present, the heli-harvester is at the critical stage of achieving market acceptance. Chalifoux is convinced of its production capabilities. Now it is a matter of convincing other high profile heli-logging companies and forestry companies of its potential.

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