[Editor's note: Jobs are hard to find these days. But that doesn't mean your dream job in the ski industry isn't still out there waiting for you. In this interview series, we talk to folks in the ski industry who have seemingly glamorous gigs, filled with big adventures, powder skiing, and more. Read on for advice on how they got there and how you can find your way in, too.]
When pros such as Seth Morrison and Kye Petersen head into the backcountry to film, they often trust heli-ski pilots to help them find the right line. The tough terrain and unpredictable weather conditions demand peak performance from the athletes on the snow and the heli-pilots in the air. Chief heli-ski pilot for West Coast Helicopters in Bella Coola, British Columbia, Richard Lapointe is widely considered to be one of the ski industry's top film pilots. His list of passengers includes Seth Morrison, the late Shane McConkey and Warren Miller. Lapointe learned to fly in the Canadian military in 1974 and his career has included search-and-rescue operations, aerobatic teams and working with the United Nations in Somalia and Rwanda. We caught up with Lapointe to check out how he got this cool job.
Tell us about your experience in Rwanda and Somalia.
In Rwanda, they had the genocide, of course. The people were very kind to the U.N. because we brought stability and supplies. We didn't feel threatened. In Somalia, it was different. If you were flying along and had a mechanical problem that caused you to need to land, people may come take your supplies. We had a person in our company get knifed in the arm during such an occurrence. After that we put pressure on the U.N. to keep armed personnel on board with pilots.
How did working with the United Nations lead to heli-ski flying?
I always loved mountain flying and Rwanda is very mountainous. It is super rugged. You need quick response time and comfort with stressful situations. After that, I started working for West Coast and I've been here for 17 years.
What's the scariest situation you've encountered in the cockpit?
I have had a ground accident, but I didn't get hurt. It's one of these things that can happen, but if no one gets hurt, you can carry on.
How did West Coast Helicopters get involved in the ski film industry?
We are lucky to be based in Bella Coola, B.C., because it is a wonderful mountainous area. Around 2000, when heli-sports got really established here, we began working with film companies like Matchstick Productions. We were mostly self-taught as film pilots. I had considerable experience flying in mountains, but the filming element adds new challenges. My company has developed new techniques over the years and now we train others to heli-ski pilot.
The nice thing about professional skiers is that you do not have to put the helicopter fully on the ground when dropping them off.
”-- Richard Lapointe, heli-ski pilot
You've also flown for skiers such as Shane McConkey and Seth Morrison. When you're flying for a skier of that caliber, is there terrain you'll take them to that you wouldn't take your average skier to?
Yes, definitely. They want more difficult terrain. While they're still in the same areas most of the time, these advanced clients go down runs that you cannot exit without dropping cliffs and facing other such elements that regular clients cannot ski.
Are there any other differences when piloting with a film crew?
You will usually fly in better weather because overcast days are not suitable for filming. Again, you are facing more difficult landings in the more difficult terrain. However, the nice thing about professional skiers is that you do not have to put the helicopter fully on the ground when dropping them off. As always, the heli-ski pilot does not determine what is safe to ski today; I just get them there.
As a man who's seen big mountain skiing live and in films, are there any misconceptions you'd like to clear up?
Yes, the lack of trees throws the scale off, so sometimes the viewer cannot see how difficult and steep the terrain really is. I have a poster of Seth Morrison in my office on a jump that I watched him jump. In one of the ski magazines, they wrote that his jump was around 85 feet, but when I flew it and measured it with my altimeter, it was 195 feet. It was so big. Aaron McGovern and JT Holmes also jumped it, but Seth did a rodeo 720. I think often the public thinks camera angles make this type of skiing looks more spectacular, but in fact, it is quite the opposite.