The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Helicopters unlock mineral exploration

A history of these strange aircraft details the fervent desire through the ages, and the possibilities unlocked for Mankind North of 60 Mining News – September 1, 2023

With a world now connected by commercial aircraft, defended by sound-breaking jets, and explored by the bizarre rotors of a helicopter, aviation is a concept now often taken for granted but still nonetheless a gift that should be admired as it has allowed an evolution no less impactful than today's internet.

While many may think the advent of aviation came solely from the wild imaginings of the Wright Brothers at the turn of the 20th century, the dream of flight has been speckled throughout recorded history.

From the allegorical story of Icarus flying too close to the sun to the apocryphal of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite that sparked the discovery of electricity, flight has been a romance and fascination for millennia.

Yet it was not so long ago that Man was earthbound.

With combustion engines taking humans away from the power of a horse we had shared for thousands of years, so too did flight give access to the entirety of the planet.

No longer were we limited to sailing for months or weeks, uncertain of arrival or even survival. Today, in less than a day, a person can travel from New York City to Singapore, considered the longest flight available commercially, at over 9,500 miles.

"In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue," a trip that spanned two months and nine days from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, and landing somewhere in the Bahamas – a distance of some 3,100 nautical miles or nearly 3,600 standard miles.

Comparatively, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic did so in 207 hours (nearly the same as Columbus, just minus two months) in 1819.

So, while leaps and bounds in transportation technology have enabled freedom, the likes of which have never been seen before, its accessibility has blunted the memory of the logistics and risks journeying used to take before, and reflection in small doses can be grounding (pun intended).

Quick history of flight

Although modern flight can be attributed to the Wright Brothers, the truth is that soaring through the sky dates back nearly 3,000 years in the lands of the Middle Kingdom.

According to the Library of Congress, flight began with the invention of the kite in China, estimated around the year 1,000 BC.

Less than 200 years later, mankind's arguably first pilot would be short-lived, with the English King Bladud allegedly dying in 852 BC through an attempt to fly.

Taking a more sophisticated and albeit safer approach, a Greek philosopher named Archytas of Tarentum reportedly made a steam-propelled pigeon around 400 BC, whereas an English cleric named Roger Bacon would write about mechanical flight almost 2,000 years later.

History would then arrive at the works of Leonardo da Vinci, which is still thought of as one of the earliest portrayals of modern flight with his designs of flying machines and even the parachute.

Deeper into the Renaissance Period, in 1670, a mathematician named Francesco de Lana Terzi would publish his concept for the first lighter-than-air ship. Ironically, backpedaling a bit, only 10 years later would another Italian mathematician conclude that human muscle is inadequate for flight – perhaps a story lost to time happened in those years, as King Bladud discovered that first hand.

Into the 18th century, a Portuguese priest would design a model glider, but the first truly marvelous breakthrough in aviation would not happen until close to the end of the century in 1783 as French scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier would launch history's first hot air balloon called the "Aérostat Réveillon."

Furthermore, it carried its first passengers: a sheep, a duck, and a chicken.

That same year, another recorded history first would be made as de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes, Marquis of Arlanders, would make the first free aerial voyage in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon, a 28-minute flight.

Interestingly, the Mongolfier hot-air balloon was developed by two brothers, also considered aviation pioneers, much like the Wright's – Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier.

Now that the floodgates had opened the possibilities of human flight, two years after the first confirmed flight, the first journey by air occurred across the English Channel-a two-and-a-half-hour journey that ended with both pilots nearly naked as the balloon was too heavy.

However, where there is a first for everything, sometimes the firsts aren't so positive. As the inventor of the first hot air balloon and one of the first to fly – Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, along with colleague Pierre Romain, would claim first fatalities by flight as well.

Seeing as flying was now something dangerous, 10 years later, another Frenchman would make the first human descent by parachute.

With the novelty and growing accessibility to flight, in 1809, the first treatise on aviation would be penned by Sir George Cayley, who is generally credited with the invention of the airplane and is often called the world's first aeronautical engineer.

Halfway through the 19th century, steam power was introduced and shorter still was the concept attached to flight, with designs for the first aerial steam carriage. That same year, Cayley would publish his designs for the first biplane.

Entering into the territory of a more modern understanding of flight and aerodynamics with the Wright Brothers, rockets, Amelia Earhart, and jets, then breaking through the atmosphere of Earth into the Final Frontier. The technology of flight accelerated until arriving into today.

Pilots flying nearly Mach 7 (the NASA/USAF X-15 fighter jet, Mach 6.72 – 5,156 miles per hour), astronauts living within the vacuum of space aboard the International Space Station, recreational aircraft, drones, vertical landing, the progress has only continued to accelerate.

Yet one flying invention stands apart from the others and, through its capabilities, has allowed access to remote locations with an ease that is unmatched by anything else today – the helicopter.

Helix – pteron

Deriving from the Greek words for spiral and wing, the modern word "hélicoptère" was coined by Gustave de Ponton d'Amécourt, a French inventor who demonstrated a small steam-powered model in 1861. While the model was celebrated as a novel use of a new metal, the recently discovered aluminum, the model never achieved lift.

However, d'Amécourt's linguistic contribution would survive to eventually describe the vertical flight he had envisioned.

Doing as English does, helicopter easily became the common term to describe these bizarre contraptions-even informally changing to copters, despite it being more semantically accurate to break the word into helico and pteron.

Somehow, helicos doesn't hit as nicely as copters.

Harkening back once again to the Middle Kingdom, recorded in a book by scholar Ge Hong titled "Baopuzi" in the 4th century, it describes some of the earliest ideas inherent to rotary wing aircraft.

However, more famously is the work by da Vinci, whose designs for an "aerial screw" is considered the first that implied plausibility to this interesting method of flight.

Similar to aviation, helicopters also share their own unique timeline. But unlike the buoyant balloon or straight-laced airplane, vertical flight as a concept just seemed altogether more unlikely.

Due to the seemingly impossibility of vertical flight, the most important reason humankind successfully designed and now flies around in helicopters was simply the pervasive human interest in the subject.

Inventors in many countries throughout time took up the challenge over the years, achieving varying degrees of success. Certainly, what helped was much like China's kite, and it was China's bamboo flying toys.

This bamboo-copter was spun by rolling a stick attached to a rotor. This spinning created lift, and the toy then flew when released (many may know of this concept through pull-string dolls with foam wings from 90s America).

In the mid-1700s, it was the Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov who developed the first coaxial rotor modeled after the Chinese top but was powered by a wound-up spring device. Demonstrating it at the Russian Academy of Sciences, it was ultimately not used for any flight experiments but was rather suggested as a method to lift early meteorological instruments.

Shortly after, the French followed suit and once again pioneered flight with their own coaxial rotor model, consisting of turkey feathers.

Influenced by his childhood fascination with the Chinese flying top, the eminent George Cayley designed his own model, with feathers as well, but powered by rubber bands, in 1784. By the end of the century, Cayley had progressed his design to using sheets of tin for rotor blades and springs for power, and it would be his writings that built the foundation for future aviation pioneers.

Modern mineral exploration

Mining in the North isn't too much different than mining at the turn of the 20th century. Sure, there are newer and more robust methods to discover and narrow down orebodies, and regulations allow conscientious practices that safeguard the environment, but it still requires hiking out into the vast unknown and sticking around until something is hopefully found.

Stories of thousands of stampeders traveling up north for gold often forget the first fact; they did that on foot, horseback, or boat if they could afford it.

Once there, they needed shelter for the long haul. As most of these miners were young men with little to their name and less still between their ears, oftentimes salvaged canvas made up a tent, fastened together with sticks and ropes.

During the colder months, build a log cabin or find a flea-ridden boarding house or hotel if you weren't broke already.

Getting supplies for mining operations was impractical, unwieldy, and expensive if you could call solo placer mining an operation.

The same applies today; however, the gift of aviation has unlocked a means to semi-permanently set up an operation that allows minors and majors alike to construct facilities to make long-term exploration more comfortable, if not more feasible.

Helicopters play a large role in transporting equipment and parts to a mining site, often located in remote or densely wooded areas. They also bring supervisors, inspectors, and crew into the site when necessary to keep exploration or production running smoothly. When machines break down, helicopters pick up the slack.

Investment tours, drill core transportation, resupply-a helicopter can now be considered the only lifeline between exploration or none at all.

Take HighGold Mining Inc., for example, located on the west side of Cook Inlet, about 125 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska. Its Johnson Tract project is a 20,942-acre property, with the main camp located near the base of Mount Illiamna.

Without a helicopter, geologists and drill crew would be required to hike several dozen miles a day to reach any drill pads, that is, if a micro-camp wouldn't be built at a collar site to reduce traveling. The nearest deposit of interest, JT, is roughly three miles from the main camp and airstrip, which doesn't factor in elevation.

Some of HighGold's furthest deposits, like Easy Creek, are at least six miles from the camp, over dozens of peaks.

Once at the imagined micro-camp, supplies would have to be taken during the first trip, either by mule or horseback, possibly ATV, as the rugged terrain would make the journey slow going until ascending into the mountains.

Drill core would have to be factored in for longer pickup time durations. Instead of a helicopter that can do it every hour or so, it may be every few days, and possibly more than one trip – although weight and distance would most likely be taken into account for all the core accumulated (mineral exploration is nothing if not meticulous).

Just play around with the thought of mineral exploration without helicopters, and the negatives begin to stack up; it would be unfeasible for all but the most affluent or foolhardy.

Surveys, travel, supply drops, pickup, up and down valleys and mountains, an already uncomfortable experience, fiscally and living-wise, for most northern exploration would be exponentially increased.

Hence, due to the crazed passions of innovators for thousands of years, can exploration in remote regions benefit from the ease of transportation. So, the next time you hop aboard a plane, train, automobile, or helicopter, think of the convenience and feel grateful we don't have to worry about dysentery much anymore.


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