The staff is about 18 people at Midwest Helicopter Airways Inc. in Willowbrook. But they can lift two-ton loads 500 feet in the air, with the help of their three heavy-duty helicopters,
Sine 1968, the family-owned business has been operating from its offices and hangar on Madison Street, just north of Joliet Road, the former site of the Hinsdale airport.
Their aircraft are used to deliver supplies and materials to disaster areas, such as Haiti in 2010, and to bring water to fight forest fires. But 90 percent of the lifting they do is construction, setting air conditioners, compressors and fans up on buildings where either there is no room or it’s not economical to use a crane, pilot Mike Cannon said.
“We lower it down exactly into position,” he said.
Although expensive, delivery by helicopter sometimes is cheaper than renting a crane, because the helicopter does the work more quickly.
Once the helicopter is at the site, usually it can lift an air-conditioning unit to the roof of a 50-story building, set it down, and return to the ground for the next load within two minutes, where it may take half a day for a crane to set up and lift materials to the top of a structure, Cannon said.
The load is lifted via a 100-foot Kevlar line that attaches to the helicopter and has a hook on the end.
Kevlar is used instead of a steel cable, because it’s as strong as steel, but it weighs less and it reduces the risk of static electricity.
When the helicopter blades are spinning through the air, they generate a lot of static electricity, just like when you rub your feet on carpeting, Cannon said.
If the line was made of steel, when the worker on the ground grabbed it, the electrical shock could knock him off his feet, Cannon said.
“What we do is called precision long line work in the industry, when you are setting something in a very specific spot,” Cannon said. “We always have a radio person on the roof giving directions. These things fit in within a half-inch of tolerance. So the radio man will be telling you, ‘6 inches, 4 inches, 2 inches, OK, you’re down.’”
The pilot also uses his own field of vision.
“A hundred feet up, you can see the whole job site. We may see people coming close who shouldn’t be there,” Cannon said.
They can see how the wind is affecting the swing of the cable, too. At times, the pilot is hanging out the helicopter looking down.
“Imagine you’re driving a car with your head out the window looking down at the pavement and the yellow stripe. It’s easy to get disoriented,” Cannon said.
Sometimes the pilot has to lower a unit through a hole in the roof.
“You’re hovering above a 50-story building and you have to lower it down two or three floors, with only 1 foot of clearance around the hole.”
In that case, the radio person is inside the building giving directions.
“You have to trust him,” Cannon said. “There might be two or three guys down there that the pilot can’t see.”
The work is more precarious when the helicopters deliver sections of towers as they are being erected.
Workers may be assembling a 600- or 700-foot radio tower in 50-foot sections. They are on the tower, as the helicopter delivers the next section. The workers have to bolt the piece to the section already erected, detach the piece from the helicopter cable, then climb farther up while the helicopter goes down to pick up the next piece. Midwest’s radio signalman is on the tower, too, giving directions to the pilot.
There are three or four people on the tower whose lives are on the line, Cannon said.
If the helicopter comes in too low or too fast, it could be tragic.
Midwest Helicopters owns three Vietnam-era helicopters. They were built in 1958 and retrofitted with turbine engines in the mid-1970s.
There’s not a whole lot of helicopters that can lift what they do, Cannon said.
“They’re old, but they are simple and heavy duty,” he said. “It’s a workhorse, like a tractor.”