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Durango couple launches Highland Helicopters to fill flying niche

Company offers training, search and rescue services and private flights

When TriState Careflight closed, helicopter pilot Brandon Laird and his wife, flight paramedic Dayle Morningstar Laird, decided to open their own business last year.

“We decided to dig in and make Durango our home,” she said.

Colorado Highland Helicopters, based at Animas Air Park, trains high-altitude mountain pilots, offers search and rescue services and provides flights for photographers, wildlife and forestry surveyors, and those who need to do pest control, among other tasks.

To provide search and rescue services, the company is working with San Juan, Ouray, San Miguel, Dolores and La Plata counties’ search and rescue teams. The company is training a few people from each of the teams to be part of a specialized helicopter team.

While Highland Helicopters can provide some basic lifesaving services, it does not plan to compete with Flight For Life as an air ambulance. Rather, it will focus on search and rescue services.

“We are trying to fill a gap that’s really needed,” Morningstar Laird said.

Some searches can go on for three or four days, and the company can help shorten that time dramatically in some cases, she said.

While working for Careflight, the couple could spend only an hour working on search and rescue missions for free, and oftentimes would have to turn around after only a few minutes because it took time to reach the search area, Morningstar Laird said.

“It was a big letdown for the search and rescue teams and a really big letdown for us,” she said,

Highland Helicopters formed a nonprofit so it can accept grants and donations to offset the cost of search and rescue operations.

For those are rescued through traditional air ambulance services, the bill starts in the $30,000 range; the couple expects to provide services for much less. In a few years, they want to offer rescue services free to those who are lost or need help.

As a flight school, the company has an international market and has had some recent interest from pilots living in South Africa and Ireland.

Their work with Careflight revealed the need to offer a place for pilots to practice mountain flying. The Federal Aviation Administration does not require people to have mountain flying experience before applying for jobs in the mountains, so while Careflight would ask for that experience, they would not get applicants, she said.

“We ended up flying with people who were a little scary and really inexperienced,” she said.

Students can get their private and commercial licenses through Highland Helicopters, and additional training in carrying loads and other skills, she said.

Helicopter pilots can find work giving tours, working for air ambulance companies, fighting fires, placing equipment, and working for oil and gas companies, among other alternatives, Laird said.

“The options for an experienced helicopter pilot are very, very broad,” he said.

Laird has 10 years of flight experience and works with students one on one.

In the future, the company wants to work with Fort Lewis College to develop a program to allow students to get an aviation degree while obtaining their license through Highland Helicopters, she said.

Since purchasing a helicopter in May, building the company has been slow, as the couple expected, Morningstar Laird said. While the business grows, she works as a paramedic in Pagosa Springs, she said. The two have been encouraged recently because the FAA has been helpful and positive about their goals, they said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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