Ever wonder why there are roughly 35 commercial heli-ski operators in North America but not a single one for mountain biking?
It comes down to a transportation issue: bikes have to be either disassembled and brought into the helicopter, limiting the number of passengers and ramping up the price per person, or slung underneath an empty second machine, an expensive effort that has a tendency to snap brake lines and other crucial components you want intact at the top of a 6,000-foot descent. Turns out the mountains known for ridiculous, steep skiing also offer ridiculous, steep mountain biking, far from crowds.
That’s why we’re excited about the new Aero Design Quick Release Bike Rack. Developed by a Powell River, British Columbia–based aviation company, the device holds up to six bikes: three per side, maximizing the value per seat (five in the back, one in the front, plus pilot—letting the outfitter get more out of each bird and lowering the cost per rider) and profoundly simplifying logistics.
“A lot of heli-ski operators were looking for something to do in the off-season,” says Jason Rekve, president and general manager of Aero Design. Rekve’s company builds most of the cargo, or ski, baskets for helicopters in North America—200 machines currently use Aero basket fittings. The new bike rack can be swapped for a basket in less than a minute, using the same connections.
The rack’s not all that different from any tray-style rig you’d put on your car. “It’s one single-cam lever to take the bikes off,” says Rekve. There’s no lifting required; you just lean and pull. Any adult bike on the market will fit.
A single Aero rack weighs 65 pounds and costs about $4,739 if the helicopter already has the company's fittings, or $8,021 if it does not. Considering that a helicopter costs upwards of $2 million, it’s a small investment to unlock an entire summer of work for an otherwise dormant bird. Currently, the rack works only with Airbus AStar (AS350) models, which account for the majority of recreational machines in British Columbia. But Aero Design is working on a model for the Bell 407, another prolific mountain workhorse.
Other companies offer similar racks, but all use permanent mounts, meaning you can’t swap them for ski baskets in winter. And they aren’t certified in North America or Europe. Aero already has certification from Transport Canada and Europe, and a stamp from the FAA shouldn’t be far behind. American and overseas operators are already placing orders.
“Western Canada is going to be the hub for heli-biking,” Rekve says. The booming winter industry brings in $73 million per year—over the course of a few months—and operators are eager to expand into the other months of the year. Already, five British Columbia heli outfits have ordered the racks.
Blackcomb Helicopters, for its part, has such faith in the new possibilities that it has applied for a recreational land tenure to build its own heli-accessed bike trails. The company eventually envisions a “multi-drop experience for the same day, and even a lodge.” The timeline will depend on if and when tenure is approved, but within the next couple years, there could be a series of new trails tracing obscure, hard-to-reach volcanic peaks into the loamy rainforest down to the pastoral valley bottom, with an average vertical drop of 6,500 feet.
Another six hours east, in Revelstoke, Arrow helicopters will launch its own bike drops this summer, offering a fixed price per person of $200 to $250 to access the similarly blistering descents of Mount Cartier and Joss Peak—lengthy, technical, multiuse trails that have long been popular with a small faction of local hike-a-bikers. There will even be dedicated daily departure times. And thanks to the rack, Revelstoke is getting a brand-new race: the heli-assisted Revelstoke 3-Day, or R3D. The race has yet to announce its trail, but it’ll likely be one of those two, hints race organizer Ted Morton.
“Two years ago, if we were to do this event,” explains Morton, “we’d be looking at long-lining 130 bikes over about three hours.” With two helicopters and four racks, now it’ll take less than half that time and half the money.