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Minnesota National Guard
Helicopter Used in Deer and Wolf Study

High above the Jack Pine forested area in the northwest portion of the 53,000 acre Camp Ripley Military Reservation last month, John Olson piloting a Hughes 500 helicopter spotted several whitetail deer running through the woods  Olson swooped down, which felt like rolling down the first hill aboard a roller coaster, to tree level and began to attempt to flush the deer from the woods into a clearing  At the same time, his assistant, Roger Small, seated next to him in the co-pilot's seat, leaned outside the open-air chopper waiting with his right foot on the chopper's skid

Small was waiting to get close enough to shoot a blank from a 308-caliber Mauser action hand-held gun which would deploy a 10 by 10 foot net with four, half-pound weights on each corner over the deer  The chase was on  The deer darted back and forth and bounded toward the woods  Olson had but one chance to nab the deer as Jack Pine trees began to loom in the cockpit glass below his feet

Bang, Small shot and the net fell over the deer, immediately slowing him down  "The trees were looming large," is all a lanky Olson said as he trudged into the waist-high snow en route to helping Small with carrying the deer back to the helicopter  Once the net landed on the deer, Olson landed the helicopter  Small jumped from the chopper before the skids hit the snow and chased after the deer  Once he caught the deer, he removed the net and tied the deer's legs with a special strap

Once Olson and Small reached the helicopter, the deer with its head covered to keep sunlight and debris out of its eyes was tethered to the helicopter and flown back to a research crew on the ground  This was all in a days work for Olson, vice-president of Helicopters by OZ of Marysvale, Utah  This also was Olson's first season as the chief pilot  He was replacing his partner and chief pilot who suffered a broken back in an earlier helicopter accident  

In two days at Camp Ripley, Olson captured two timber wolves, including the 100-pound Alpha Male, and 19 deer, including a buck  The buck was outfitted with an expandable Global Positioning System (GPS) collar which the Brainerd Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Chapter helped fund  This collar will allow the buck's neck to grow normally during mating season or rut  The deer also had their girth measured, and an incisor tooth removed to determine its ages and its blood sampled

While all this research was being completed, Olson was already busy in search of more deer despite the teeth-chattering and toe-numbing wind chills in the cockpit  He noted the reason he does this type of helicopter work is because, "It's exciting"  "The low level work is the funnest part," he said  "It's probably one of the riskiest things you can do in a helicopter"

This 48-year old who has flown helicopters since 1983 definitely knows about risk  For eight years he flew over bodies of water in Central America, South America and the South Pacific in search of tuna for tuna fisherman  This meant flying three to four feet above the ocean and not seeing land for two to three months  He said his mission was to fly out and find the fish all the while making sure he didn't run out of fuel

In aerial net gunning of animals, his risks include flying into trees, wires and fences while attempting to capture an animal  Other mishaps that could happen include nets landing in the chopper's main rotor or skid, or nets connected to the animal and the aircraft at the same time

Olson did have an unusual accident  One of the net's weights separated and hit the main rotor while he was eight to ten feet in the air  He said the helicopter started swinging like a pendulum  He did manage to straighten it out and hover for another 100 yards  "It wasn't exactly on auto but I wasn't able to keep it in the air either," he said  He noted just as he and his crew landed the helicopter and exited it, the blades literally "beat the helicopter to death", and in the process completely destroyed it "Kind of like being shot down," he added

Olson has definitely not been "shot down" so far this season as far as work goes  He captured wolves and Bison in Yellowstone, elk near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and elk and Bighorn Sheep in Colorado  The Bison have been the biggest animal his team has netted  He said it took four handlers to subdue the Bison

"I stay in the helicopter," Olson said with a laugh  "I think I'll draw the line at the Bison"  Olson, originally from California began his career piloting fixed-wing aircraft 26 years ago  He said a friend of his who was a crop duster pilot taught him how to fly  "I've always liked low-level flying as well," he said  "I just don't find it very fun being high in the air going somewhere  I'd rather be right down on the deck and seeing what there is"

Olson also tries to "stay on the deck" year round  The aerial gunning opportunities last from September until March, Olson added that he is going "full bore" in November and December  After March, he and his crew will staff seismic fires and undertake external load work  "Just about anything you can do with a helicopter we try to do it," he said  He also has the only approved ski-mounted gun on his helicopter in the lower 48 states, which is pilot controlled

By Sgt Clinton Wood

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