Helicopter Harvest

POLK COUNTY -- Kyle Gunsauls pokes his head out through the open pilot-side door of his helicopter, trying to spot Jose Carrillo's orange jacket and stocking cap in a sea of Noble firs.



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A crew including helicopter pilot Kyle Gunsauls harvest Christmas trees from a Holiday Tree Farms fieldd off Red Prairie Road northwest of Dallas in Polk County.

POLK COUNTY -- Kyle Gunsauls pokes his head out through the open pilot-side door of his helicopter, trying to spot Jose Carrillo's orange jacket and stocking cap in a sea of Noble firs.

It's perhaps 20 degrees in the foothills northwest of Dallas on this day -- and even colder when you're sitting directly below what is essentially a giant fan, Gunsauls said.

Gunsauls whips above a vast field of trees owned by Holiday Tree Farms off Red Prairie Road at 60 mph, then slows to a hover 20 feet above Carrillo.

Carrillo quickly attaches a bundle of perhaps 15 trees to a hook dangling below the aircraft.

The helicopter lurches up and east. Gunsauls banks a turn, lets the load swing like a pendulum, and at its height, releases the hook. The cargo falls squarely into a container on a transport truck bound for the farm's processing area.

"You got to be moving all the time," said Teo Gutierrez, a foreman watching from the warmth of a pickup truck. "And you got to be moving fast."

As Gutierrez talks, Gunsauls zips back to Carrillo a quarter of a mile away, and repeats the process -- all in about 20 seconds.

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Oregon's Christmas tree harvest typically takes place during four or five weeks in November and December, during which the whup-whup-whup of rotor blades becomes commonplace in the Willamette Valley.

Helicopters play a critical role for middle-size to large tree growers trying to ship as much product as possible in the best possible condition.

For the pilots, meanwhile, it means long days of ferrying 1,000 to 2,000 freshly cut trees from the field every hour.

"Whenever there's sunlight, farmers like to have the blades turning and trees moving," said Gunsauls of Northern California-based PJ Helicopters, which contracts with Holiday Tree Farms every winter.

Slinging Christmas trees -- a type of helicopter longline work -- involves coordination between air and ground crews, and an electronically-controlled hook dangling 20 feet or more from the aircraft.

Trees are cut in the field and wrapped in bundles of 10 to 20. The pilot maneuvers above the rope-sling and the "hooker" attaches the pile to the line. The cargo is then flown and dropped directly onto trucks, and taken for processing and shipping.

"It's repetitive," Gunsauls said, noting he makes several hundred pick-ups and drop-offs a day. "But you have to be on your toes ... it's fast paced, you're flying close to the ground, and a lot can go wrong."

Gene Carson, general manager of Holiday Tree Farms' Red Prairie Division, said the old harvest method -- tossing trees onto a trailer as it's pulled through a field -- destroys farm roads and muddies trees.

Logistically, that doesn't make sense for a company such as his that harvests 1 million trees on 10,000 acres a year, Carson said.

"One helicopter can fly 180,000 to 200,000 trees for us in a season," he said. "So they're absolutely integral."

Helicopters became part of the country's Christmas tree harvest in the mid-1970s -- very possibly in Polk County.

Bob Schaefer, general manager of West Salem-based Noble Mountain Tree Farm, said he isn't aware of any tree supplier flying trees out of fields before his company experimented with helicopters in 1976.

Noble Mountain officials had then sought to harvest 200,000 trees, though their land lacked a solid road system.

"One of our owners said, `I have a friend with a helicopter company in Corvallis,'" Schaefer said. "They said it sounded like a possibility.

"We came back with a prototype sling, we tried it and it worked really well," he continued. "We went from harvesting and shipping 8,000 trees, pre-helicopter, to 180,000 the next year."

It's not cheap, Carson said, guessing at an industry standard between $500 and $1,000 an hour to rent a pilot.

But besides reducing the length of the harvest season -- which means fresher trees -- it spares farmers from having to buy transport equipment, hire more manpower and from constructing roads, Schaefer said.

And the latter "means you can utilize more land," he added.

Denton Honbeck of Pioneer Helicopters Inc. in Independence started doing tree harvest contract work three years ago.

While it's rewarding, it's not something pilots typically seek out because of the stress on an aircraft and the concentration it takes flying at 60 to 75 mph while only 50 to 100 feet off the ground all day, Honbeck said.

"It's kind of an offseason thing for me," he said.

Gunsauls, 24, has flown for Holiday Tree Farms since 2006, and said he's one of the few pilots in his company who actually volunteers for the harvest.

"It's cold, the days are long and you're away from home," he said. "And throughout the day, it's just Power Bars, a bag of beef jerky and water."

Still, it's a tradition for Gunsauls, who accompanied his dad to Polk County for many years to watch him fly trees.

"To be fast and efficient at this is an art form," he said. "I look forward to it."



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